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Feeling the heat down under with the cotton club

After spending a year Down Under, William Ganley has spoken to the Farming Independent about his experiences on the other side of the world.

William, of Kildare-based firm C&G Engineering, talked about the farming scene in Australia and his description of cotton growing and harvesting was particularly interesting.

Work in Ireland was non-existent for most quantity surveying graduates in 2008. So myself, my brother Philip and three pals, John Mc Donnell, John Behan and Colin Garry, packed our bags and set off for Australia. After a couple of weeks of sampling life in Sydney we set off into the outback in search of work on the farms. Over the course of the next year, we ended up on different farms across Australia.

I worked on eight, travelling through rural Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

We didn't really know what to expect and the scale of the farming operations was a real eye-opener.

The climate also meant that the crops were also different to what we see in Ireland. Wheat was very popular with the odd bit of barley and oats being grown, but in certain areas cotton would be the main crop. Cotton is a crop most Irish people wouldn't be familiar with as it needs a very hot climate and a lot of water to grow.

The cotton cycle starts in July, with preparation of the ground for sowing. Rather than ploughing the land it is cultivated with a rigid tine cultivator to create rows 1m apart and 0.3m deep. Sowing takes place in September, and because the ground is so dry the seeder pumps water into the ground along with the seed in order for it to germinate.

The cotton plant needs constant water and over the next six months the main work on the farm is manual irrigation which is a hard, labour-intensive process.

A typical cotton farm has a network of canals taking water from the nearest river. The fields are laid out in average sizes of 300ac, with a canal at one end. For irrigation, water is individually siphoned into each row by hand. One farm was 35,000 acres in size, so this was a 24-hours-a-day process, seven days a week. This led to a lot of arguments about which shift was harder, 7am-7pm during the day with more than 40C of heat, or the 7pm-7am night shift which was a little cooler but with a plague of insects, mainly thirsty mosquitoes attracted by the lights of the jeep.

The crop also needs spraying during the cycle. This is all done by special plane and the process is called 'crop dusting'.

It is normally a one-seater plane which uses GPS lines to dust the fields efficiently.

In appearance, the cotton plant is similar looking to a rose bush but instead of flowers grows cotton. The buds start blossoming in January, and in March the plant is ready for harvest, or 'pickin'' as it is called by cotton farmers in Australia.

Although similar looking to a combine harvester, a cotton picker has some differences. Most picking machines we came across were John Deere. Instead of taking the full plant into the machine, the four heads on the machine take four rows of cotton and use their spindles to just pick the cotton from the plant. The stem is left sitting in the ground and after harvest gets chopped and taken out of the ground with a root cutter.

Meanwhile, the cotton is blown into the basket at the back of the picker and is unloaded into the cotton trailer by tipping the basket over and 'chaining it' out using a chain and slat conveyor.

The tractor and trailer then transport the cotton to the top of the field where the module builders are located. The module builders compact the cotton into transportable bales and are about the same size as a 40ft container, but with an open top and bottom. The trailer can tip sideways and 'chain' the cotton into the module builder.

The module builder has a hydraulic press which moves up and down the module and squashes the cotton continually until it is full and a hard bale is formed. The module builder is then lifted up using a hydraulic chassis to reveal a 40ft container-sized bale of cotton on the ground. The bale of cotton is then transported by road train to the nearest cotton gin for processing.

It is then sold to textile manufacturers and ends up in clothing all over the world.

During the cotton picking season the farm is very busy with around 10 cotton picker machines working. Each picker has a driver, tractor driver, module builder operator, and two ground workers. So, with five people on average for every picker, there was often up to 50 staff on site during picking season. The hours were long, though. Usually we started at 6am and did not finish until 10pm, when we all trooped back to camp for a well-earned shower, beers and some banter about the day's goings on.

I returned to Ireland for Christmas 2010, and am now managing director at C&G Engineering, who supply cabs to the agricultural, construction and material handling sectors.

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Indo Farming