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Biodegradable film leads to big yield gains

Primary Industries

Commercial trials of a degradable agricultural film that reduces water use and significantly increase yields in underway across 10 US states.

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Developed initially for the cotton industry in Australia, OneCrop is also being used in the corn, soybean and industrial hemp industries.

Comprised of low-density polymers, non-genetically modified starch and oxo-degradable compounds, the film is laid over the top of the seedbed as it is sown using the patent pending Norseman Techni-Plant FL – the world’s first High Speed Precision Planter with integrated Film Layer.

The fully biodegradable film is designed to degrade after 90 days and be broken down completely by the time crops are harvested.

The film has slits at 3-inch intervals (7.62cm) directly above the seed location and is held in place by a layer of soil on each side of the row.

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, the company was founded in 2014 by former Irishman David McGrath and Chris Thomas.

McGrath began talks with the CSIRO – the Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research – about developing film technology to improve the efficiency of the cotton industry in 2012.

“I soon realised that cotton really took advantage of the microclimate, germinated and locked in moisture, which is incredibly sensitive here in Australia,” he said.

“Once we had proven the concept it was pretty clear that what we were developing could represent a step-change in a $3 billion market here in Australia.

“Really what we’re doing is putting a little greenhouse directly on top of the seedbed.”

Cotton trials in Australia and the United States last year resulted in yield increases of 50 per cent in Queensland and 47 per cent on the Texas Panhandle.

McGrath said OneCrop also reduced water usage by up to 2 megalitres per hectare, increased daytime soil temperatures by 7C and reduced the amount of seed required because of higher germination rates.

He said the cost of the system was offset by the savings in water and the increases in yield “by a considerable margin”.

“What we’re doing is tricking that seed into thinking it is already in a much warmer time of the year and that is where a lot of the benefit of the crop is being realised,” McGrath said.

“Moisture is a massive part of the story. First of all it forms condensation underneath the film so it’s like it’s permanently raining on top of the seedbed.”

Cotton is currently fetching about USD$450 (A$570) for a 500lb (227kg) bale, or US 88 cents per pound.

“If you can improve yield by 50 per cent and you’re able to go from 10 bales to 15 bales per hectare and you’ve got 1,000 hectares then that is a significant increase in revenue,” McGrath said.

OneCrop has a partnership with fellow Australian company Norseman Machinery to incorporate its film into a specially designed planter.

A six-row Norseman Techni-Plant FL machine in action.

Two of the machines have been shipped to the United States to be used on commercial crops including cotton, industrial hemp, seed corn, sweet corn, soy beans and mung beans across 10 states including Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Kentucky and California.

The first 2018 rollout took place in January at a sweet corn farm in California with the bulk of the cotton planting done in April.

“We wanted to have a number of seasons just where we knew that we could operate without any issues and the best way was for us to do it ourselves but now we are at the point where we have had actual growers in the driver’s seat and they’ve been operating our machinery in a kind of try before you buy scenario,” McGrath said.

“Now the machinery and the system from end to end is commercially available for anybody who wants to buy machinery or film for contract or for their own properties – it’s ready.”

One Crop will also have at least three machines being used by commercial cotton growers in Australia when their planting season begins in August.

“We know who our customers are in Australia and within the next two years we’ll be able to identify exactly who are our potential growers.

“The numbers we haven’t been able to tie down is the size of the opportunity in the United States – we’re in 10 states this year so if we ended up having 10 machines sold into every one of those states in the upcoming season then that might be interesting.”

OneCrop is also conducting trials in China and has received inquiries from corn producers in Russia and the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.

McGrath said the technology had the ability to open up more areas for cotton production that were previously too cold or did not have enough available water.

“We’re starting to get genuine interest out of the far flung corners of the world – it seems to be a global opportunity,” he said.

The company was last week awarded the USD$100,000 Future Food Asia Award for its technology.

It will also launch a fundraising campaign in a bid to raise a further A$2.5 million (USD$1.8 million) to build its production facility, and help fast-track the commercial rollout.

“Every cent we have ever had has simply been reinvested back into the business.

“The opportunity out there is phenomenal so that money will help us grow that opportunity.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story. Copied to Clipboard

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