Less water, more cotton, so Volcks hope

Zero water allocation planting strategy looks promising at Emerald

Cotton
Risk and reward: Oliver Volck inspects the growth of the cotton crop at Clearview farm at Emerald. Picture: Sally Gall.

Risk and reward: Oliver Volck inspects the growth of the cotton crop at Clearview farm at Emerald. Picture: Sally Gall.

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An idea borrowed from a fellow agronomist in Moree looks like delivering Emerald's Graham Volck and his son Oliver a productive cotton crop despite a squeeze on water availability.

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An idea borrowed from a fellow agronomist in Moree looks like delivering Emerald's Graham Volck and his son Oliver a productive cotton crop despite a squeeze on water availability.

The Volcks planted 200ha of 748 variety last September despite have a zero water allocation going forward, and are now hoping for a crop that's at least comparable to one they'd grow in a non-drought year.

"Mike Stone has been doing trials like this for a few years - planting it early, just walking away from it and then adding water in January-February," Mr Volck said.

"He's discovered that he can grow similar or better yields using less water.

"The guys over in Theodore have done this before as well, so it's not really a new idea."

Read more: From chickpea to cotton and back again

Going on the offensive in response to a zero water allocation was something he said statistically had a 100 per cent chance of succeeding.

"The plan was, just get it in the ground, establish it and when we got rain and allocation in January-February, which we usually do, we'd start watering it and continue growing it then," Mr Volck said.

After irrigating it once to establish it, the crop sat in the ground for four months with not a drop of rain but plenty of 38 degree days to contend with.

"(It) looked very miserable and the leaves went crisp and looked nearly dead but I never felt we'd done the wrong thing," Mr Volck said.

Describing it instead as a calculated risk, he said that if he'd wanted to fully water a crop with the 170 megalitres carried over, he'd have been able to plant 20ha.

That would have yielded him 200 bales but instead he has the opportunity to grow 2000 bales.

Instead of regarding it as a risk, Mr Volck saw it as a production risk not to do it.

The only risk ahead will be a lot of rain in May-June when they plan to harvest, which on the one hand would be disappointing but would be offset if it helped fill the dam.

If they can achieve a 10 to 11 bale per hectare yield, that will be the real measure of how successful the gamble has been.

Lateral branching

When Mr Volck said he wanted his cotton crop to do it tough early in its growth phase, he wasn't being a sadist.

Once the plants received a 200m drenching in February, they began producing many more lateral branches than would normally be expected, plus more fruiting sites.

"It just has this huge desire to put on more fruit than it normally would," he said. "That seems to be a really positive thing that it does."

Oliver Volck and the 748 variety cotton crop that's recovering from the stress of no water after being established in September.

Oliver Volck and the 748 variety cotton crop that's recovering from the stress of no water after being established in September.

The 27 per cent water allocation that came in the wake of the rain has allowed them to water the crop once so far, with three more planned before the May-June harvest.

The decision to plant when they did has also resulted in less insect pressure.

"When it's cooler their populations don't tend to explode, so I haven't sprayed this at all for insects and wouldn't anticipate having to spray it," Mr Volck said.

Thanks to this year's likely success, plus the likelihood that the water allocation from Fairbairn Dam will once again be minimal, he is planning to repeat the experiment on a bigger scale next year.

They have two other farms in the area, one which lay fallow while the other was planted to cotton in August and harvested in late January the traditional way.

Read more: Top End's silver bullet

Both Mr Volck, who came to the region as a DPI agronomist in 1986, and Oliver, who studied agribusiness at Gatton College before returning home, say the region has been lucky not to be as devastated as others by lack of rain.

"We've still managed to have some kind of crop in the ground and harvest it," Oliver said. "Life isn't straightforward. You just have to face those situations like this and grow and adapt, to lack of allocation, and try something new."

His father described it as a game of football.

"When you've got the momentum with you, you can kick some goals and when you don't, all you're doing is tackling big forwards.

"And you have to just stand up and keep doing that.

"You can survive it and you always seem to come out the other end, in this region, in the game of irrigated crops."

Despite their attitude of adaptation, it will be a relief when Fairbairn Dam's big catchment fills the dam again, giving water users three years of security.

Related: Fairbairn Dam at record low level

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