Towards Climate Resilience Series: Australia Case Study

Fighting Drought with BCI Farmers in Australia

Adobe Stock image: Ploughing dry soil, Australia.

Adobe Stock image: Ploughing dry soil, Australia.

The Climate Challenge

In Australia, intense temperatures of up to 49°C, and less frequent but more intense rainfall, create challenging growing conditions for cotton farmers. In October 2018, parts of New South Wales saw more rain fall in 24 hours than farmers had seen all year, yet the state still faced drought conditions and parched soils. Droughts are putting cotton farmers under increasing pressure, with much of southern Australia in drought for the first decade of the millennium. In addition to more regular droughts and floods, cotton farmers face greater unpredictability as established seasonal weather patterns change, disrupting the traditional growing cycle.

Amid deepening water scarcity and fluctuating water costs, farmers are working co-operatively with the Australian government to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, an ambitious $13 billion programme, to significantly increase the amount of water available to the environment, while reducing access to water for agricultural use.

How BCI Farmers in Australia Are Adapting to Extreme Weather

Cotton farming in Australia is highly mechanised, with farmers tapping into advanced digitalised techniques and efficient machinery. Yet optimising their use of resources, particularly water, is an ongoing challenge.

"Precision irrigation and water-saving techniques are becoming more important as water scarcity concerns rise. The Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Australia are helping farmers raise their yields, improve their resilience to extreme weather and protect the environment."
Rick Kowitz, Cotton Australia, 2019. (BCI’s partner in Australia, which runs the BCI-equivalent standard system myBMP.)

Some farmers in Australia are using precision technology to optimise their use of water. For example, some farmers combine satellite imagery of their cotton crops with digital soil moisture readings and local weather data, in order to predict exactly how much water to apply on a particular day. To further improve water efficiency, they might use high-technology land-levelling equipment to distribute water more evenly, and drop-down sprinklers to irrigate the crops with greater precision. Over the past decade, Australian cotton growers have improved water use efficiency by 40% (according to the Gross Production Water Use Index).

“The ‘Millennium drought’ prompted me to invest in new technology to irrigate my crops more efficiently. In this way, I’ve been able to raise my yields and use less water.”
BCI Farmer Andrew Watson, 2019.

Similarly, some BCI Farmers are using precision technology to apply inputs (like pesticides and fertilisers) in a way that exactly matches their crop’s requirements, therefore reducing the overuse of inputs. For example, BCI Farmer Neek Morawitz recently upgraded his fertiliser application equipment with variable rate technology, allowing him to adjust the rate at which the fertiliser is applied according to the needs of the crop in different parts of the field.

“Variable rate technology is helping us to improve yields while saving fertiliser, improving water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s good for cotton production and the environment.”

BCI Farmer Neek Morawitz, 2019.

BCI Farmer Neek Morawitz, Australia, 2019. © Cotton Australia

BCI Farmer Neek Morawitz, Australia, 2019. © Cotton Australia

Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Cotton Farming

As the effects of climate change unfold, BCI Farmers in Australia are also contributing to the global push to curb carbon emissions. For example, BCI Farmer Andrew Gill in New South Wales has switched from diesel-powered water pumps to an irrigation system powered by 400 solar panels with the capacity to produce 100kW of power. Since 2015, he has saved nearly 165,000 litres of diesel and made a 46% cost saving.

Reducing emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas and contributor to ozone layer depletion, is also an important concern for BCI Farmers. But to do this, they must achieve a difficult balance between the need for nitrogen to produce good cotton yields and the need to suppress the N2O emissions it generates. To address this challenge, BCI Farmers in Australia analyse levels of nitrogen both in the soil and the cotton plants themselves, and calculate the exact level of fertiliser required per hectare. When they rotate the crops grown in a certain field, they prioritise plants (such as legumes) that will help to capture nitrogen from the air and deliver it to the soil.

BCI Farmer Andrew Watson, Australia © Heike Watson

BCI Farmer Andrew Watson, Australia © Heike Watson

What’s Next

To build knowledge of climate change in the cotton sector, the Australian Cotton Research Institute is studying the effects of higher CO2 levels and warmer temperatures on cotton growing. Scientists are also exploring how best to develop new cotton varieties adapted to hotter, drier conditions.

Our field-level partner, Cotton Australia, plans to further support Australian cotton farmers by encouraging practices such as promoting plant growth regulators (which help to delay plant growth during heat waves), in order to avoid the cotton bolls shedding before they are ready for harvesting. Additionally, Cotton Australia will promote a holistic approach to saving water, combining both advanced technology with low-cost methods such as leaving the remains of harvested millet and wheat crops in the fields. This helps to prevent water evaporating from the soil and to harvest rain water more efficiently, retaining vital moisture for cotton crops as the droughts continue.