COTTON groups are calling for greater restrictions on the use of 2-4,D after December spray drift in the Walgett region that will cost growers tens of millions of dollars.
Up to 6000 hectares on 12 properties around Burren Junction, Rowena and Walgett are now believed to have been affected, about 30 per cent severely.
The type of damage means the culprit is unlikely to be identified – so even if growers wanted to pursue compensation, it would be practically impossible.
Cotton Australia northern NSW manager Paul Sloman said the best course of action now was greater user education and seeking restrictions on the herbicide.
“This event’s happened, and I think it’s unproductive to start a witch hunt – we just want to prevent it from happening again,” he said.
“It’s the second time in three years it’s had a major impact in that region, and growers just can’t keep suffering those losses.”
Walgett Cotton Growers’ Association vice-chairman Bernie Bierhoff said an emergency meeting there on Thursday night had attracted about 50 people.
That figure reportedly included growers, agronomists, consultants and spray operators.
Mr Bierhoff said the meeting was “very calm”, with a focus on the future.
This included recommendations for restrictions such as nighttime spraying, especially during the cotton season.
“This was all sent to Cotton Australian and hopefully they can talk to the right people and see if some things can be put in place.”
Mr Sloman said Cotton Australia would bring the recommendations to other cotton grower groups, and government regulators such as the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) and the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA).
How did this happen?
Mr Bierfhoff said there was “no indication” where the off-target spray had come from.
“It’s definitely an inversion-type spray damage, so it hasn’t come from our immediate neighbours; it’s travelled in a cloud from God knows where,” he said.
“You can tell by how even the damage is over the fields, and we can look along all the fence lines and see there are still weeds there.
“So it’s not physical drift, it’s definitely an inversion-type drift.”
Mr Sloman said such events were not covered by insurance.
“So unless you can find an offender and sort something out that way, there’s nothing that can be done, which makes this so frustrating,” he said.
“[This] is why education and awareness campaigns have to be ramped up and possibly reviewed for effectiveness.”
Mr Sloman said the organisation was “tired of seeing our growers impacted like this”.
“We don’t like pointing fingers at people, the only thing I’d like to say is we all use phenoxy products or Group Is; we use them for a weed management strategy, and we need to start using them more responsibly and applying them under conditions which are conducive to the being the most effective,” he said.
“We just want people to be more responsible with application of these products going forward.
“If we don’t, we may lose products like this: regulators will get fed up with the repetition of issues like this.”
Potential was ‘fantastic’
Growers in the area were headed for a “fantastic” cotton crop before the hugely costly spray drift event, Mr Sloman said.
This great outlook, combined with a dreadful winter cropping season, made the December incident all the more upsetting.
And while some growers would be able to recover, it would not be without cost.
“It’s heavy flowering at the moment, so certainly on schedule for very good-looking crop,” Mr Sloman said.
“The yield potential is fantastic, there’s great warmth, the irrigation cycle is in full swing at the moment – but I’ll tell you what, rain wouldn’t hurt.
“Prices are USD550 per bale, which is awesome pricing and that’s what makes this event out here even more severe.
“In that Walgett region, not many people harvested a winter crop because we just didn’t get the rainfall.
“This just further compounds the income hit for those growers.”
Mr Sloman said that, of the 5500ha-6000ha affected, the damage was severe on about 30 per cent of that, mild on 30 per cent and moderate on the remainder.
“Anyone who sustained the damage that was moderate to severe, there’s going to be yield impacts there, unfortunately,” he said.
“About 100ha of the severely affected crops are going to be walked away from; they just don’t have the water available to carry them through.”
The lucky few with the water available – “and that’s not many” – were lucky that the local growing window was longer than average.
“It stays warmer in that western region through March, which will enable them to maximise their yield as best they can,” he said.
“What it’s going to mean for a lot of growers out there is the season’s going to be extended by two to four weeks.
“This opens the crop up to a difficult picking situation, in that you’ve got varying stages of maturity of the crop; you have late-season insect pressure; and you have exposure of lint to environmental conditions which could downgrade it, like a rainfall event.”
What is an inversion event?
From the NSW Department of Primary Industries website:
The most hazardous condition for herbicide spray drift is an atmospheric inversion, especially when combined with high humidity.
Do not spray under inversion conditions.
An inversion exists when temperature increases with altitude instead of decreasing. An inversion is like a cold blanket of air above the ground, usually less than 50 m thick. Air will not rise above this blanket; and smoke or fine spray droplets and particles of spray deposited within an inversion will float until the inversion breaks down.
Inversions usually occur on clear, calm mornings and nights. Windy or turbulent conditions prevent inversion formation. Blankets of fog, dust or smoke and the tendency for sounds and smells to carry long distances indicate inversion conditions.
Smoke generators or smoky fires can be used to detect inversion conditions. Smoke will not continue to rise but will drift along at a constant height under the inversion ‘blanket’.
- Mark Scott, former NSW Agriculture agricultural chemicals officer.