Cotton growing cycle

  • Cotton is a perennial plant grown commercially as an annual, summer crop. It prefers hot summers with low humidity and a maximum amount of sunshine
  • In general, cotton grows more quickly as the average daytime temperature rises.
  • Generally, the growing season from planting to picking lasts approximately six months, as outlined below. Season start and finish times differ from north to south due to variations in the climate
  • Cotton can be grown either as dryland (reliant on rainfall) or as irrigated cotton (requiring supplemented water supply)

Australian cotton grower’s calendar

August to September: farm and soil preparation

  • Growers select their cotton variety for the season. There are a large number of varieties of cotton that can be selected and grown. Varieties are generally chosen based on yield, quality, disease resistance characteristics and biotechnology traits. But other traits such as determinacy, leaf shape and season length may also be important
  • Fields are levelled and graded
  • Soil prepared for planting, weeds removed, nutrients added if necessary. Most growers now leave their cotton stubble standing in the field and mulch it back into the soil to add valuable nutrients
  • Soil moisture checked, pre-watering if necessary

September to November: planting

  • Soil temperature checked 
  • Cotton seed is planted in the spring as soon as the soil is warm enough to be sure of satisfactory seed germination and crop establishment (when the temperature reaches 14 degrees Celsius at a depth of 10 cm for at least three days in a row)
  • Cotton seeds emerge from the ground within 5 to 10 days of planting - depending on soil temperature and moisture
  • Refuge crops established

November to February: growing season  

  • Squares (flower buds) develop several weeks after the plant starts to grow, then flowers appear a few weeks later. The flowers then drop, leaving a ripening seed pod that produces fruit, known as bolls, after pollination
  • On irrigated cotton farms the initial irrigation (watering) is usually followed by a further four to five irrigations, at two to three week intervals, from mid-December to late-February. This differs depending on the region and on natural rainfall levels
  • Approximately fourth months of growing is needed for the cotton bolls to ripen and split open 
  • Growers protect their crops from pests using Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The use of biotechnology in cotton has made a significant contribution in the dramatic reduction in insecticides applied to Australian cotton crops. Australian cotton growers have reduced their insecticide use by 89% over the last decade, with some crops not sprayed for insects at all
  • Growers conserve natural enemies to pests (known as beneficial insects) and manage their natural resources to help suppress pests, which is at the heart of Integrated Pest Management

March to June: harvesting

  • Crop checked by agronomists to ensure it is ready to harvest
  • Defoliation is carried out to remove the plant’s leaves off and crack bolls open 
  • Growers usually choose to harvest the cotton crop once most bolls have opened and fully matured. It is extremely important that cotton is harvested dry, or discoloration may occur and reduce quality 
  • When mature, the crop is harvested mechanically and placed into large modules. The modules are loaded onto trucks and transported from the farm to a cotton gin (short for en-gin). Cotton gins are factories that separate cottonseed and trash from the lint (raw cotton fibre)
  • The cotton lint is tightly pressed into bales. An Australian cotton bale weighs 227kg (500 pounds)
  • Once the cotton bales are ginned, pressed and containerised, they are loaded on to trucks and trains and sent to port for shipping, mostly to overseas markets

June to August: off-season

  • Cotton classing sorts the fibre into different quality based grades. The better the fibre quality, the higher the grade and the more the grower is paid for the cotton
  • Marketing activities undertaken 
  • Growers rotate crops (such as cotton, maize and wheat) which helps to minimise pests and diseases, reduce pesticide use, retain soil moisture levels, build and maintain healthy soils, and better manage soil nutrients. Some growers will graze livestock over winter
  • Growers make improvements and carry out maintenance on-farm to prepare for next season 

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© Cotton Australia 2016. This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International License (CC BY CC BY-NC 4)