The Germon family embarked on a new farming journey at the beginning of summer, becoming the first cotton growers in the area. They are now looking forward to a bumper crop on “Rockleigh” and assisting other potential croppers to join the cotton fold.
Farmer Robert Germon surveys the sea of white with satisfaction.
What was once a field for dairy cows and rows of corn has been transformed into his first ever cotton crop at “Rockleigh”, Geurie.
Robert, his wife Cathy and sister-in-law Cheryl, run the 250-hectare property in the hills outside Geurie NSW, a small country community nestled between Dubbo and Wellington on the banks of the Macquarie River.
“I started here with 40 hectares, growing corn, commercial hay production, plus dairying,” Robert says.
“We had a dairy here for many years and I actually grew up on a dairy farm, originating not far from Dungog in the Hunter Valley.”
Robert’s family moved to Muswellbrook and then eventually relocated to “Peach Trees”, Geurie.
As a young bloke, Robert learned about pipe-fed irrigation, but these days relies on something a little less labour intensive. “The property here is nearly all irrigation which we started with pipes and finished up with eight centre pivots. “Irrigation is a lot easier than it used to be.”
Being near the river has enabled them to grow summer crops, which are irrigated by the nearby water system. With the dairy industry in disarray after being heavily impacted by deregulation in the early 2000s, the Germon’s decided to focus on cropping.
“We had a stud herd of cattle on the property but we are all cropping now, there is no livestock.”
Corn became Robert’s crop of choice, along with seed corn, soybeans and sorghum.
“We have grown a lot of tonnes of corn. It’s a crop I really like to grow.”
But the ongoing presence of Johnson Grass and Shatter cane forced Robert to make an important decision on the future of his farming practice.
With its genetically-modified resistance to herbicide glyphosate, cotton was the answer.
“We were after a Round-Up ready summer crop,” Robert explains, adding that there was a 12-month period between making the decision and actually sowing the crop. “We thought about it for a year. We did a lot of talking with experienced growers and listening to Auscott who were all willing to give us an opportunity and help. We did a lot of research.”
The Germons visited other farms and communicated with chemical company Monsanto to bring together their ideas coupled with tried and true growing methods.
With their first year as cotton growers now almost behind them, Robert says there were plenty of people whose assistance was invaluable. “Delta’s Brett Cumberland is very good at what he does and along with our agronomist David Strahorn, he provided advice throughout the session. When we said we wanted to grow cotton, all we had to do was give it a go.
David Strahorn says; “we explored the growing of cotton for various reasons, this provided an alterative cropto manage herbicide and weed issues. Whilst they are quite experienced row crop farners and Robert has always showen good attention to detail in his farming practices, and the principles are the same, no one had grown cotton this far east in this Macquarie region. It certainly has shown big yields can be achieved in the area and with a cooler climate.”
It was a huge learning curve for the partnership eventually deciding to buy all their own equipment rather than hiring contractors to plant and pick their crop.
“We haven’t had anything to do with cotton before but we certainly learned some things in the first year. It’s been an interesting time.”
“We used a 40-inch (1m) vacuum planter to put in 160ha of Bollgard 3 (GM) with Round-Up Ready Flex cotton as a refuge. It’s all about managing resistance and we thought, ‘if we are going to do it, we will do it properly.”
Robert’s family also bought their own spraying equipment to combat pests including Mirids and vegie bugs.
“We bought our own Miller sprayer. Slugs did some damage in some areas along with small pointed snails. The areas that they hit we had to replant so next year we will be planting and spreading bait to keep slugs away.”
Robert says they also purchased their own picker after weighing up the benefits.
“We bought a round bale picker to make ourselves self-sufficient for this year and next year, and another couple of years.”
Once the cotton is picked, ground preparation will commence for next year’s crop.The ground will need cultivation to complete pupae busting and to prevent weeds and volunteer cotton from popping up.
“One of the main things I’ve always done is minimal tilling for a long time. Inter-row cultivation will be a must next year.”
This varies from the Germon’s previous experience with corn production which can be grown by planting the crop directly into the stubble, providing a mulch for the plants.
Growing a new crop in a location whose traditions lie in other areas such as corn and hay, requires variation, determination and forward-thinking.
Robert says their neighbours expressed interest in the transition. He was also appreciative of their co-operation and consideration when spraying their respective crops.
“One of the things that was important with the neighbours and I’ve got to thank everyone in their spraying practices was that there was no drift whatsoever. Chemical drift in an area like this could be difficult.
It’s not quite a valley but it’s river country. It’s not flat like in the western areas.”
Robert says that among the neighbouring farms, there had been previous discussion about the prospect of growing cotton but he and his family were the first to take that leap into the unknown.
“I guess we are guinea pigs,” he laughs, although they don’t really see themselves as trailblazers. “Someone had to put their hand up and give it a try. “It was something that I wanted to try and I’ve always done what I think to do, to give it a go. “There are others that are contemplating growing cotton. I don’t see myself as anyone other than the person giving it a go.”
While many of their neighbours are now considering joining Robert, Cathy and Cheryl as cotton growers next year, some were initially a bit surprised by the change. “Most of them wished us well. There are others in the district who will give it a go in the future and I am now looking forward to the 2019/20 season.”
Robert admitted that cotton is an expensive crop to grow.
“It does cost a lot to grow. Where you pay more is a royalty to Monsanto for Bollgard. “You pay more per hectare; then you have the cost of spraying and defoliating. By the time you add in water, fuel, electricity and irrigation for an extra 30 days, the cost do add up.
“At the moment, there is a lot relying on the bale price.”
Robert believes that the outlook for cotton for the next couple of years is promising, as do David and Brett who are encouraging of other farmers looking at diversifying in this way.
But for now, as Robert surveys his bumper bolls and yields averaging 14 to 15 bales to the hectare, he is happy to enjoy the here and now.
“It is all looking favourable at the moment. It’s beautiful. It’s as white as snow.
“The primary interest is showing that we can certainly grow a good crop of cotton.
“The proof is in the pudding.”