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The challenge

Limited water and nutrients for growing cotton in a variable and changing climate

Lint yields and fibre quality from furrow-irrigated cotton have increased steadily over the past 25 years. High-yielding cotton has a high demand for nutrients, but often production is limited by soil fertility and the crop's ability to accumulate nutrients, as well as limited water availability and extreme weather events. Added to these challenges is the rising cost of production and the need for the Australian industry to maintain its 'license to farm'. A sustainable cotton industry is vital to many regional communities.

Our response

Developing crop management techniques for a healthy cotton industry

Working with key national and international research collaborators across many disciplines CSIRO is doing research into many aspects of cotton crop management. For instance, we have been running long-term experiments to assess the value of rotation crops in cotton cropping systems to improve soil health. This work is identifying which are the quickest and best management practices to build up soil organic matter and sequester carbon. Faba beans and vetch are two of the alternatives we've looked at.

Cotton crop

Other crop management practices – row spacing, use of growth regulators, and harvest preparation – impact yield and quality. CSIRO is evaluating a range of row spacings, novel growth regulators and alternative end of season practices to improve industry's best practice.

With most cotton in Australia grown under irrigation, water use efficiency is critical. Our scientists have developed a range of irrigation scheduling tools and processes, using information such as plant stress and canopy leaf temperature, in conjunction with weather forecasts, to help farmers judge when they need to irrigate – and when they can stretch a crop that little bit further without losing yield. We are also investigating the impacts of drought, heatwaves and waterlogging events, and new ways of cotton production to cope with these weather extremes now, and in future climates that are warmer and have elevated carbon dioxide.

Together with industry, we are developing new technologies and novel ways of delivering these to cotton growers and their crop advisors. To meet the challenges, we are working on new approaches to research that embrace digital agriculture (such as digital agronomy and machine learning), and linking underpinning knowledge in cotton genetics, management, and responses to specific environments.

The results

Building a profitable, environmentally-sustainable cotton industry

We are helping to deliver novel crop management practices that maintain the inherent high-yield and exceptional quality of our CSIRO varieties, while improving crop resource use efficiency.

Our science is put into practice through decision tools delivered by both commercial and industry partners, such as through the cotton industry's Cottoninfo extension program and key industry publications such as NutriPAK, FibrePAK, WaterPAK, and the Australian Cotton Production Manual.

Cotton production has grown into one of Australia's biggest agricultural industries, valued at around $2.5 billion per year. CSIRO cotton crop management research is helping to build that industry, while ensuring its long-term environmental sustainability and social licence to operate.

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