In South Africa, the first recorded uses of cotton date back to 1516. That cotton strain still exists today, alongside a cotton industry that continues to grow each year.
The latest market report from Cotton SA says that about 77 400 lint bales were produced in the country in the 2020/21 season, and cotton grading shows a significant improvement from the previous year.
The industry is not without tumult, of course, but given that the crop is both a food and fibre crop, it offers the dauntless farmer incredible opportunity.
What are the uses of cotton?
Part of the reason for the cotton industry’s incredible potential is thanks to the many ways the crop can be used. Annette Bennett, technology manager at Cotton SA, says that cotton is a great crop in terms of the income it provides for the farmer.
“Further down the value chain, there are many products that can be made from cotton. The main thing in South Africa is that the seed is used as cattle feed. It’s really good for ruminants because it’s got gossypol in so they can digest it,” Bennet says.
“The seed can [also] be used [for oil]. We have an oil press in Marble Hall (Limpopo), [called] Super Oils Mills, [where] the oil can be extracted [from the seed] for food purposes, for soaps and for medical purposes. And the hulls of the seed, (the outside of the seed), can be used for bedding and all sorts of other products.”
After cotton is grown and harvested, it is taken to a gin to be processed. Bennett explains that the gin, which is similar to a mill, is where the cotton seed, fibre and linter are separated. The linters are the short fuzz left on the seed after ginning. They can be incredibly valuable, and eventually end up in paper, industrial fabrics, plastics, films, bank notes and more.
Where does cotton grow best?
Currently, the country has active cotton growing clusters across the Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. Tertius Schoeman, manager of development and transformation at Cotton SA, says that the cotton crop needs a lot of hot weather.
“It’s a summer crop. The more sunshine it gets, the better quality cotton you will have. So areas like Makatini [flats], north of Bushbuckridge, Vhembe, [and] Springbok Flats, [are ideal]. If you go further west towards North West, alongside the Northern Cape, alongside the Orange River – wherever you find the hot weather over the summertime – there you will find the opportunity to plant cotton.”
Award-winning cotton farmer Petros Sithole agrees. He explains that cotton needs to get the right amount of heat and needs to be planted the right way to encourage growth and withstand drought.
“When we plant the seed, we have to plant it when the heat units are ideal. If we want good stand that can be used for the drought-stricken areas, we also plant [in such a way that] we can easily space the plants to get the stand that can withstand the drought.”
Grain SA defines heat units as “day degrees”, which are how the optimal temperatures for cotton growth is measured. Bennett says that a minimum of 1 300 heat units are needed for optimal growth.
“We need a real base minimum of 1 300, but preferably 1 500 and above heat units. So that’s all the average of the day degrees over the season – from day one, after germination up to harvesting done.”
How do I protect my cotton crops?
Sithole also explains that the obvious inputs required for cotton farming are seeds, which are an expensive commodity, and some herbicides to control weeds. He says that in South Africa, cotton producers farm with cultivars that are resistant to bollworm and other insects. “We use herbicides to control the weeds, and we use BT cotton in South Africa, which has the [BT gene] in them that [controls] some of the worms that attack the cotton.”
To make sure that the pests that attack cotton do not become immune to the BT cotton cultivars, Sithole warns that farmers need to make sure to plant a refuge crop.
“You need to make use of a refuge area that is the area where you plant non-BT cotton, so that you can fight [against] the insects that become resistant. [Without the refuge crop], that technology will be useless.”
The refuge crop is the part of your field where you plant cotton without the BT gene. This crop makes sure that insects do not develop a resistance to the gene.
Cotton production resources
Like any farming venture, cotton production requires hard work, patience, and knowledge. Luckily, there are multiple reliable sources aspiring cotton farmers can read through to learn more about the process. For cotton production guidelines, check out this handy guide from the department of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. CottonSA also provides a wealth of information here. And of course, Food for Mzansi also has you covered with this informative article.
Sign up for Farmer’s Inside Track: Join our exclusive platform for new entrants into farming and agri-business, with newsletters and podcasts.