Cotton farms crawling with spiders and frogs as industry cleans up its act

cotton farms crawling with spiders and frogs as industry cleans up its act

Stuart Armitage says there are plenty of spiders on his farm and they are more than welcome. (ABC Rural: Brandon Long)

Stuart Armitage is getting bitten by spiders more and more as the years go on, but he doesn't mind — it's a small price to pay for progress at his Queensland cotton farm.

"Most of us can show a few spider bites after cleaning the picker down at night, but it's always a good sign," he says.

Prior to 1996 Mr Armitage would have had a hard time finding a spider in his paddocks or on many other Australian cotton farms.

That is because farmers would spray insecticides multiple times a season to kill heliothis, or cotton bollworm, which is the crop's major yield-reducing pest.

The pesticide killed other life forms too, but with the invention of insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton – Bt cotton – the plant was able to produce a protein to kill the worm and spraying was significantly reduced.

Now the thousands of white bolls at his farm at Cecil Plains, 80 kilometres west of Toowoomba, are swarming with spiders of many sizes and colours and keeping other damaging insects in check.

'Frogs all over the place'

About 40km south-west of Mr Armitage, Johannes Roellgen is also noticing differences on his Brookstead property.

"We knew how the very dark days of cotton growing looked like, with up to 20 insecticide sprays per season," Mr Roellgen said.

Last year, for the first time, he did not apply any insecticides on his cotton.

"We have green tree frogs all over the place now, around the sheds and houses, which we never, ever used to have in the past, and I firmly believe that that is a secondary impact of having more insects around and having less pesticides in the environment," Mr Roellgen said.

The industry's progress in this area and other others, including water use have been revealed in the latest independent review of the sector's environmental performance.

Industry group Cotton Australia said it commissioned audit firm GHD to conduct reviews every 10 years to "look for any holes in our environmental credentials that we can then work on to plug".

"When I think back to the first one in 1991, there was a list as long as my arm," Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said.

"As the years have gone on I think we can really be proud of the advancements we've made, [but there are] still some areas that we need to tighten up."

Herbicide and water use

The study found there was widespread good practice with pesticides and noted an 18 per cent decrease in use between 2014 and 2019.

Mr Kay said the industry had actually reduced pesticide use by 97 per cent in the past 30 years.

But GHD did find a 20 per cent increase in herbicide for weed control, although the overall environmental toxic load had reduced dramatically.

Mr Kay expects herbicide volumes to drop as more growers adopt robots and cameras to spot spray weeds instead of applying blanket sprays.

The cotton industry is one of Australia's most scrutinised industries mostly due to its high water use on the world's driest inhabited continent.

In 2020-21, the sector used about 1,300 gigalitres to irrigate crops, ABS figures show.

Nationally, the remaining agricultural sectors used a total of 6,500GL, households used 1,800GL and mining used about 1,400GL.

For comparison, Sydney Harbour holds about 500GL.

They are just basic figures, however, and more context is sought in detailed debates.

When looking at water use and management, GHD found that in the main farms were rated as good or above good, and only one poor rating was recorded.

'More crop per drop'

One of the industry's biggest success stories, revealed between the last assessment and the latest one, was that cotton growers had halved the water needed to grow one bale of cotton.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries research showed water productivity increased from 0.6 bales per megalitre in 1997 to 1.2 bales per megalitre in 2021.

In other words, it took about 1,400 litres to grow the fibre for a T-shirt in the mid '90s and today it takes 700L.

Johannes Roellgen and his neighbours are achieving even better numbers due to the adoption of new infrastructure.

He has gone from 1.5 bales per ML to two bales per ML by converting half his irrigation area from siphon irrigation to over-the-top lateral move irrigation, which allows more variable water rather than one big "full irrigation".

Mr Kay said water use was a critical factor and the industry had been working hard to prove its credentials.

"We've got to demonstrate to the general public that we're using that resource as efficiently as possible and I think those numbers really do demonstrate that," he said.

"[We're] definitely getting more crop per drop."

More progress to come

The worst performing area for the industry was storage handling and waste practices, with GHD seeing an increased presence of on-farm tips and burning of plastic drums and other waste material in southern New South Wales.

The assessment said the poor practices were found where external support of waste management was seen as unavailable, cost prohibitive and time consuming.

"Many growers felt that the implementation of storage, handling and waste strategies were cost prohibitive, particularly as they do not directly correlate with productivity or profitability," the review stated.

Mr Kay says Cotton Australia is in discussions with organisations about the "Drummuster" program to ensure drums are recycled.

In total, the sector has delivered on four of the six recommendations made in the last report and has made significant progress on the other two.

The assessment also nominated 16 new recommendations which will be assessed in another decade.

"They really picked a couple of key areas that we can focus on and I'm sure we can address those so that next time the whole of industry environmental audit's done we can demonstrate to people progress in those areas," Mr Kay said.

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