Elders agronomist honoured in cotton industry awards - Elders Rural Services
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Elders agronomist honoured in cotton industry awards

An impressive young agronomist with the drive to help increase the productivity and profitability of cotton was one of the finalists in the 2014 Australian Cotton Industry Awards announced last month.

Heath McWhirter is the Senior Cotton Agronomist with Elders in Griffith and one of three finalists for the Chris Lehmann Trust Young Achiever of the Year award, sponsored by Bayer CropScience.

Considered one of the ‘young guns’ of the industry, Mr McWhirter was among 15 people who were recognised for their contribution before more than 1,000 people at the awards dinner last month.

Zara Lowien, Executive Officer of the Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association, was the 2014 winner for her work in representing the cotton industry among government and community decision makers for the region.

Now in their 11th year, the awards celebrate excellence, innovation and leadership across the whole supply chain in the cotton industry – from growers and ginners, to product suppliers, agronomists, researchers and extension teams.

Mr McWhirter has worked with Elders in the Murrumbidgee Valley for the past four seasons and strongly believes that the region has a lot more potential to be achieved in cotton yield and quality.

Originally from a beef property at Bermagui, he was first exposed to cotton in 2004 when he took part in a Twynam cadetship program before completing his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree at Charles Sturt University.

He was awarded CSU Student of the Year in 2006 and then went on to complete post graduate studies in agricultural economics.

He is a myBMP accredited adviser and member and active participant in Crop Consultants Australia.

For the past two seasons, Mr McWhirter has been trialling a plastic degradable mulch that help warms the soil, promotes better crop establishment and reduces water usage.

He explained that the Riverina has a short, cool climate season where cotton yields are consistently better from fields that are planted early and get off to a good start.

“The first season’s trials showed that the plastic mulch may help improve yields by 2 bales/ha,” he said.

“This led us to take another step last season to design a plastic laying machine and increase the crop sown under plastic in collaboration with Tatura Engineering, CSIRO and Travail Park Farming.

“This trial was large enough to be picked by a round bale picker, more like commercial conditions, and produced yield benefits of 0.5 to 2 bales/ha.

“This coming season, the trial will be expanded further to a 10 hectare block.”

Supporting new growers

Mr McWhirter is also involved in a program to attract new growers into the cotton industry.

A joint program between Elders, Monsanto and CSD, Mr McWhirter is working with 15 growers of alternative crops who are interested in cotton but have yet to grow it.

The program involves regular field walks at key stages of the crop’s development, such as land preparation and planting, establishment and early season pests, flowering and late season pests, cut out and final irrigation, defoliation and picking.

“Our objective is to give these growers confidence to grow cotton and demonstrate that the Elders team can support them through the entire cotton production cycle,” Mr McWhirter said.

“It also shows the range of support that CSD, Monsanto, cotton merchants and other industry professionals can give them, as well as the contacts to work with.”

Developing young agronomists

Another one of Mr McWhirter’s responsibilities at Elders is developing graduate agronomists, three of whom have benefited from his experience and enthusiasm so far.

“This work has only reinforced my enthusiasm for the cotton industry and demonstrated the wealth of opportunities available to young people in the industry,” he said.

In 2013, he and fellow Elders cotton agronomist at Coleambally, Richard Malone, embraced social media as a way to engage with the industry, launching a Facebook Community page called ‘Cotton Update’.

The page aims to increase awareness of the crop’s development throughout the season and currently has more than 430 followers.

Mr McWhirter sees a bright future with Elders and the cotton industry.

He would like to strengthen his knowledge of cooler climate cotton production and ways of redeveloping established irrigation areas like the Murrumbidgee Valley to suit cotton.

Mark Allison, Elders Chief Executive Officer, congratulated Mr McWhirter on his award on behalf of all Elders employees.

“To be recognised at this level among a field of outstanding candidates is a great honour so Heath can be very proud of this achievement,” he said.

“We look forward to further supporting the growth and development of Heath’s career at Elders.”