Following years of research demonstrating the value of on-farm native vegetation as a refuge for species that eat cotton pests, the cotton industry is looking at more cost-effective ways of revegetating large areas.
A research project led by Dr Rhiannon Smith of the University of New England will compare the results of using drone seeders that can plant a hectare in under 20 minutes, developed by UK-Australian company BioCarbon Engineering, against direct-drilling of seed using new degradable seedbed film from new company OneCrop.
Dr Smith said it was currently difficult and expensive to establish new vegetation on heavy clay soils and semi-arid environments, which are the conditions in which most cotton is grown.
"Tubestock planting is expensive and labour-intensive, so we're working with cotton growers and revegetation specialists to investigate methods that make revegetation more viable," she said.
"We're doing the logical thing and treating trees as a crop; this way, we can take the cotton industry's deep knowledge of cropping and apply those principles to revegetation."
The research will be conducted across four cotton growing regions - the Riverina, Macquarie, Namoi and Border Rivers - and involve five five-hectare trial sites in each region.
Across the project, 150 species will be sown and monitored.
"If we can find a more cost-effective method of broadacre revegetation, it could not only help the cotton industry meet its sustainability goals, but transform the work of organisations like Landcare and support strategies like carbon sequestration," Dr Smith said.
Two novel methods will be tested against tubestock planting to assess their potential as revegetation methods.
The most radical is BioCarbon Engineering's drone technology, which has been used in revegetation projects in the United Kingdom and South East Asian mangroves.
The company's two-metre diameter drones have a 15 kilogram payload, and use modified air rifles to fire seed pellets into the ground to sow a hectare in 18 minutes.
Currently the drones can distribute 400 kilograms of seed a day, but BioCarbon is working on drones capable of larger payloads.