COTTON PIONEER: Luke McKay has won a Nuffield Scholarship.
COTTON PIONEER: Luke McKay has won a Nuffield Scholarship. Contributed

Kimberley's cotton crop

COTTON fields may soon be cropping up within the deep north of the Kimberley.

Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI) hope to this year plant its first commercial cotton crop, which will complement the company's existing chia, quinoa, maze, mungbean, sorghum and chickpea crops farmed outside of Kununurra in Western Australia's Ord River Valley.

It's an exciting time for KAI farm manager Luke McKay, but this year he will step away from the farm to complete a Nuffield Scholarship, where he will further explore tropical cotton production abroad.

Mr McKay admitted those living outside of his district might be sceptical of cotton's viability in northern Australia. However, he feels the crop's potential far outweighs any risks.

"The other farmers in the Ord are very supportive because they see the future benefits, not only for their businesses, but for the Valley area as a whole,” he said.

"People outside the Valley might be a little surprised at first but once you explain the reasoning behind it, it makes a lot of sense for us to be looking into it and aiming to solve as many of the challenges as we can to get it going.”

The game-changer that's allowing cotton to move into the tropics is mostly advancements in gene technology.

"The advancement in technology with Bolgard 3 - so the insecticide control gene in cotton - has given us broader control of insects in northern Australia,” he said.

"It's opened up a longer planting window and a wider growing season.

"Normally, you may be limited to a dry-season growing window, so April to November. But we can open that up and start planting in the middle of January.

"This gives the cotton plant a much better set of conditions to do the bulk of its flowering and boll-set work during March and April when there are higher temperatures and longer daylight hours.”

Mr McKay explained a major benefit of cotton was that it wasn't a niche industry.

"The advantage of it is that it's a globally traded commodity that we can plant large areas of,” he said.

The Ord River Irrigation Scheme was given the green light in 1959 with the hopes of transforming the Kimberley's semi-desert country (which was then mostly being used for cattle) into a thriving intensive-agriculture hub.

Today, Mr McKay said horticulture and forestry industries were well established in the area.

The Ord River flows on from Lake Argyle, which is one of the world's largest man-made water bodies.

Despite rich soils and a successful irrigation scheme under way, Mr McKay noted farmers in his region still faced logistical challenges.

"There will always be challenges crops in the north have to face. The logistic constraints, like access to infrastructure - that's not going to go away, it's part and parcel of being here - but in time we will learn to manage those, as we have with other crops, and we will overcome them,” he said.

Mr McKay will set off on his overseas trip this year, first in March for the Nuffield conference in the Netherlands, then later on a global study tour mid-year.

All up, he will be on tour for about six weeks. He described that as a "daunting” amount of time to be off the farm.

Mr McKay is particularly interested in learning from Brazilian farmers in South America, and he will also visit the USA and Canada. His research will focus on issues relevant to tropical cotton-growing systems such as double cropping, rotation crops, irrigation methods, staff requirements, machinery requirements, and resource and environmental management.

"KAI and other Ord farmers are not alone in their ambitions to develop irrigated farming in Northern Australia,” he said.

"Outside the Ord Valley, there are currently operations being undertaken to develop and farm large areas in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments of North Queensland, with cotton in mind to be the base crop.

"We are confident the cotton industry will grow and be profitable in the north, but on my study tour I want to research the best systems to achieve this.” Mr McKay's scholarship has been funded by Cotton Australia and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC).

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