29 November 2016, 12:00AM
Cotton growers forced to look elsewhere for an income after years of stubborn drought and zero water restrictions have been given a new thread of hope by the recent rains.

Central Western cotton grower Tom Quigley says having Burrendong Dam back at full capacity has created an atmosphere of positivity among growers but, he says, the real benefits won’t be felt until next summer.

“Our family has about 50 per cent of its irrigable area in this year even though water allocations stand at 100 per cent,” says Tom.

“The winter was just too wet to do any further ground preparations in order to plant more cotton, but it will carry water on to next summer where there will be substantial planting in the valley.”

Tom understands the Macquarie Valley will plant around 25,000 hectares of cotton this season, with potentially more than double that next season.

He says the dry times were often the catalyst for farmers to investigate ways to improve their efficiency.

For Tom, who farms with his parents Tony and Sally, as well as brothers George and Richie, it meant trying to find a way they could spread their water allocations further, and over a longer time frame, while still producing a good yield.

He was granted a cotton-industry sponsored Nuffield Scholarship that saw him spend four months travelling the world to research how overhead irrigation could be made to work for growing cotton.

His research found cotton growing was possible using sprinkler irrigation, but it meant a significant change in the methods compared to the traditional furrow irrigation system.

“The fantastic yields associated with drier, warmer summers means efficiency has merit,” said Tom.

“Growers have looked for ways to be more efficient because those that had water to grow cotton were making very good margins on their small amounts of water.”

Sprinkler irrigation also gave Quigley Farms the option of irrigating opportunity crops, such as chick peas, that gave them a much better return per Mega-litre of water than they could make with cotton.

Irrigation expert, Craig Chandler from TEAM Irrigation, a Valley master dealership in the region, believes the rains came just in time for some growers.

He says some despondent growers who a few months ago were looking elsewhere for work were now madly harvesting their winter crops so they can get their summer crops in on time.

“The short term pain is hopefully behind us now,” says Craig.

“It will give them a cash flow again and hopefully things will be right for the next couple of years.”

He says some have made the decision to invest in an overhead irrigation system for the first time because they want to have the flexibility of where and when to put the water on next time a dry spell settles in.

“There is plenty of water in the storages and this is the time to start thinking ahead for any new major capital purchases they will need to get the most out of the strong seasons that lie ahead of them.”

He says it is important for growers to keep up maintenance, even in times of drought.

“Some of these irrigators haven’t operated for two or three seasons now and things can deteriorate when they’re just sitting there not being looked at,” he says.

“They should be well underway with all the maintenance jobs by now, such as making sure there are no leaks in their pumps, spraying around the pump sites and getting their machines serviced.”
Image: Tony Quigley with sons George, Richie and Tom