Cotton farming: The dos and don’ts

Do you have what it takes to become a cotton farmer in South Africa? Here are the dos and don’ts from Cotton SA’s technology manager, Dr Annette Bennett

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Harvesting has commenced in many of the cotton production areas in Mzansi, and the CEO of Cotton SA, Hennie Bruwer, says the scene is set for a good ginning season. A lot is also being done to develop smallholder cotton farmers and empower them to again increase their hectares of cotton planted for the coming season.

You might not have realised it, but cotton is a great crop to plant in South Africa, as it is well-adapted for drier climatic conditions. For a country where not everybody has ready access to lots of water, cotton might be a great alternative to other, more water-greedy crops.

Cotton is also a very versatile crop, as it produces opportunities for creating by-products from the stalks, seeds and hulls and can be used to graze cattle on after hand-picking, according to Cotton SA’s technology manager, Dr Annette Bennett.

Dr Annette Bennet
Dr Annette Bennet, Cotton SA’s technology manager. Photo: Supplied

“Cotton was the first biotech crop introduced into South Africa,” says Bennett. “And the technology provides an opportunity to the farmer to make cotton farming more profitable.”

Bennett, an entomologist by training with prior experience in cotton, now uses her position at Cotton SA to provide cotton farmers with information to make farming better and easier for them.

“At Cotton SA I deal with any technical questions, research issues, seed issues, and I investigate new technologies in cotton varieties not yet available in South Africa,” she explains. “In addition, I communicate technical information to the farmers and other role-players in the industry and I am also responsible for being the editor for the Cotton SA magazine.”

Who better to give advice on the dos and don’ts of cotton farming in South Africa? The rest of this article serves as a guide for new cotton farmers, with top tips from Bennett covering everything you need to know before starting a cotton farm.

1. The cotton farmer’s vocabulary

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Before you get into cotton farming, you must realise that there is a whole lingo to learn. When you talk to people in the cotton industry like Bennett, or regularly read the Cotton SA newsletter, you might come across terms such as, “ginnery” (not a place where you make gin), “micronaire”, “Bt-cotton”, and “refuge areas”. Here are some words you need to know:


A cotton gin, according to Britannica, is a machine for cleaning cotton of its seeds. These machines were invented in the United States more than 200 years ago. You will send your cotton yield to a local ginnery to get processed.

Easily separating cotton fiber from the seeds, the cotton gin is a necessary step in the cotton producing process. Photo: Supplied

This is a unique cotton term related to fibre maturity and fineness (diameter). Micronaire is a unit-less value that refers to the measurement of airflow resistance through a 2.34 gram fibre specimen compressed to a specific volume, according to Cotton SA’s June newsletter. This term is often used as an indication of fiber fineness and maturity.


Bt-cotton refers to a cotton crop cultivar.

“In the RSA we plant only Bt-cotton,” explains Bennett. “This provides bollworm resistance and at the same time has the characteristic of being tolerant to glyphosate (herbicide).”

According to Bennett the cotton is called Bollgard 2 with Roundup Ready Flex technology, and farmers need to get trained how to handle the technology.

“Farmers will also sign a license agreement with the patent holder on purchasing the seed,” she says.

Refuge area

Grain SA defines a refuge area as a section of the farm where only non-Bt crops are planted. In these areas insects are never exposed to the Bt-technology, which means that there is less chance of selection pressure driving insects that are immune to the technology.

Fields with Bt-cotton crops are required to provide refuge areas to help control resistance. According to Farm Progress, a refuge is part of an insect resistance management plan when farming with Bt-cotton.

2. What you need to know before starting a cotton farm

“Cotton is an intensive crop,” warns Bennett. “But very well adapted for dryland conditions.”

Of all the field crops, cotton is probably most adapted to grow under rain-fed conditions, according to Bennett. This means that small-scale or new farmers in certain climates can get away with not using an irrigation system while they get set up on their farm.

“Preferably,” Bennett adds, “Cotton must be grown under irrigated conditions.”

Small-scale farmers would need access to at least 20 hectares of land in dryland conditions, whereas under irrigated conditions planting can take place on fewer hectares, Bennett advises. Access to fenced fields and water are the main constraints that new cotton farmers can face.

She also mentions that although input costs are high, the crop gives a good return on investment.

“Limitations for farmers include the cost of seed, fertiliser and a few chemicals that are needed for production,” she says.

In the case of irrigated cotton, maintaining and affording the infrastructure to provide water to the field – whether it is through overhead sprinklers, drip irrigation or pivot – can be challenging, according to Bennett.

She advises new cotton farmers to participate in projects where services are shared, like tractors, rippers, planters, etc. as these will help to alleviate these problems. Most small-scale farmers are involved in co-operatives to manage farming.

cotton harvester
Cotton can be hand-picked or harvested with a harvesting machine. Photo: Supplied

Another unexpected cost comes when it is time to harvest. The cost of hand-picking cotton and transport costs to the nearest gin can be challenging. And according to Bennett the commercial farmers that use machine picking have even more costly harvests.

ALSO READ: Revival of small-scale cotton farming can push back rural poverty

3. Soil, climate and growing period

Cotton is a crop that needs weekly monitoring, so it is not a crop that you can leave just to grow. Bennett says that cotton prefers clayish, sandy-loam soil with a hot climate. This crop also requires a minimum of 1300 day-degrees in the season.

“Preferably, around 1500 day-degrees are necessary,” Bennett says. “And at least 160 days growing period, with a minimum of 700-800 mm water or rain, to obtain quality fibre.”

Day-degrees refer to available heat units. There is a formula to work it out, to calculate the number of heat units each crop needs for the season to grow. Find more detailed information about this concept on Grain SA.

cotton seeds
A close-up of cotton fibers growing in bolls around the seeds of the cotton crop. Photo: Supplied

4. Common mistakes beginners make, and how to avoid them

One of the biggest mistakes that smallholder farmers make, according to Bennett, is that they think they can make money on one or two hectares of land, which is not the case. 

Other mistakes occur when it comes to land preparation or planting time.

“Most farmers plant too late sometimes due to late rains,” Bennett says. “But more often than not, they have not finished their land preparation when the rain comes, and planting commences too deep and too late.”

By not planting on time, the cotton crops will not achieve an optimal plantstand. This leads to a subsequent decrease in yield and quality fibre.

5. Tips for future cotton farmers

Bennett shares the following tips for starting off as a cotton farmer.

Connect to the extension services at your nearest gin

Discuss your future contract possibilities with your gin to deliver your seed cotton there. This will help you to get access to inputs and some informal training and sometimes even assistance with delivering your crop to the gin.

Plan ahead

Keep track of your costs and do land preparation in time so that you are ready to plant from the middle of October onwards.

Educate yourself

Obtain information on how to handle the technology, how to do controlled weeding, how to plant the refuge area, and how to do spraying. Scout and understand the payment plan provided by the gin that you will deliver your seed cotton to.

“Cotton is a wonderful, rewarding crop but can be challenging! Good luck with your first steps as a cotton farmer!”

Training opportunities

Training is available for cotton farmers through Cotton SA’s accredited training programme and farmers can contact the transformation manager at Cotton SA for further information.

“The ginneries also have people who can assist farmers to plant cotton,” says Bennett. “Making contact with the extension at the nearest gin will help to provide information on where to buy seed and other inputs.”

ALSO READ: A woman worthy of the title ‘farmer’

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