April 12

Tyunga Farms: Brookstead QLD


Champion cotton crops produced on the Darling Downs of Queensland 

Two generations of cotton producers at Tyunga, Lauren Roellgen (left) and Johannes Roellgen (right)

Two generations of cotton producers at Tyunga, Lauren Roellgen (left) and Johannes Roellgen (right)

 Situated in the heart of the Darling Downs region of Queensland, spread over 2600 hectares of open country lies Tyunga Farms. What was once an area heavily influenced by graziers has undergone somewhat of a transformation over the past few decades, now tending to support broadacre cropping, specifically cotton production. But this transition was not an easy one for growers in the area, it was infused with doubt but perseverance has produced the high yielding cotton crops we see on the Darling Downs today. 


Originally heralding from Germany, Johannes Roellgen and his wife Scarlett, both came from faming backgrounds. It was Scarlett’s father who first established a farming business in Australia, purchasing a grazing block in the Augathella region. Johannes and Scarlett would both go on to further their studies at Gatton College. During this time, it became clear that they were drawn to the cropping side of farming as opposed to livestock management. Having friends in the Toowoomba region made a move to Southern Queensland all the easier, and in 1988 Tyunga was purchased from brothers, Mike and Peter Thomas. 


It was second generation farmers at Tyunga, Mike and Pete, who had facilitated the initial transformation of the property from a livestock enterprise in the 1950’s and 1960’s with sheep and wool production being dominant in the area at the time.  They were pioneering in redeveloping the land to accommodate a broadacre cropping operation, extending the capabilities of winter crops in the area, and moving quickly into flood irrigation for soya beans, sorghum, and corn. 

Cotton under lateral move irrigation at Tyunga Farms, QLD
Johannes Roellgen checking cotton at Tyunga Farms QLD

Cotton under  lateral move irrigators at Tyunga Farms (left)  Johannes Roellgen checking cotton at Tyunga (right)

In 1994, Johannes and Scarlett came on board in a sharecropping agreement with Mike and Peter. For the ensuing five years, Johannes and Scarlett took the opportunity to learn the intricacies of cropping at Tyunga from Mike and Peter and grow into their roles on the farm. 


By 1999, both Mike and Peter had retired, and Johannes and Scarlett were moving full speed ahead with their broadacre cropping enterprise. In those early days, a lot of time was spent at clearing sales, acquiring machinery wherever they could, and steadily building and improving their set up at Tyunga. Laser plaining was undertaken, squaring up paddocks and optimising slopes for flood irrigation. 


In the Southeast Queensland, Darling Downs area, cotton production was a risky business. Growers, including Johannes and Scarlett, were nervous about the longevity of cotton production on the Darling Downs. The standard at the time was to spray early to control insects in the crop. At that time, they were seeing up to 20 repeat sprays, and the cotton itself seemed to be going backwards in a hurry. Add to this the pressures and uncertainty of the climate in the area, which often saw a cold start and cold finish to their cotton season, considered less than desirable conditions for cotton production. In the 1980’s Mike and Peter had faced late floods which had massively impacted their cotton crops at the time, and the memory of this hung over Johannes and Scarlett and their approach to cotton growing at Tyunga. 

Cotton at Tyunga Farms  autumn 2024

The cotton industry was, and still is, continually pushing forward with technological advances and modifications to the cotton crop, and it would be these technological advances that would restore trust in cotton production at Tyunga and secure its position as a mainstay crop. The introduction first of Ingard technology, eventually followed by Bollgard technology meant that cotton was beginning to reduce its risk profile for Tyunga. The transition to this technology drastically reduced the number of sprays required for the crop each season. 


Today, Tyunga Farms run 1100ha under flood irrigation, and a further 1100ha under lateral move irrigation systems, with the remaining crops being dryland. The switch from flood irrigation to lateral move irrigation systems has proven an efficient and effective one for Tyunga Farms. The first traveling irrigator was brought onto farm in 2007. Over the years there have been multiple benefits emerge from the switch to lateral move irrigation systems, including less labour required for their operation, more precise water application and an overall better fit with minimum till farming. Although flood irrigation still has its place at Tyunga, the introduction of overhead irrigation has allowed for their broadacre cropping operation to flourish. Overhead irrigation supported the input of a wheat crop in blocks that had produced cotton the season earlier. Where flood irrigated blocks were unreliable in supporting a wheat crop, an overhead irrigator required significantly less water to get the wheat up and going. This crop rotation system has produced the best return, per megalitre of water, to date, with the wheat crop providing stubble cover in the summer months, topping up the moisture profile for the following season’s cotton. Though this is the ideal scenario, a successful cotton crop, followed by a successful wheat crop within a two-year rotation, Johannes asserts that this isn’t always possible, depending on seasonal conditions. 


In their crop program, Tyunga have also developed a space for a refuge crop alongside their cotton production, to encourage the emergence of beneficial insects in the crop program. This is a method that has been born out of the reduced sprays required in the current cotton crop, as well as a greater understanding of the role beneficial insects have in cotton production. Johannes stresses the importance of these beneficials at Tyunga and credits them as a key part of the success of their crop year on year. He sees bug checkers today spending more and more time checking for the presence of beneficials and understanding how they function in the program for overall plant health. 

Lauren Roellgen checking for beneficials in the refuge crop at Tyunga

Lauren Roellgen checking the refuge crop, planted next to this season's cotton, at Tyunga

The switch to overhead irrigation also allowed for changes to their fertiliser application process. In early operations synthetic fertiliser was distributed in one go at the start of the season, ticking that box and moving on. Soil samples, taken in the winter, were used to make informed decisions, but Johannes began to see that this was perhaps not as accurate when it came to their operation and cropping plan. They often found that the soil was lacking in nitrogen, which is to be expected post-harvest, but also lacking in potassium and sulfur. The answer to this, at Tyunga, was to introduce an application of feedlot manure, around once every three years, topping up potassium and sulfur levels and restoring micro-nutrients that aren’t provided by synthetic fertilisers. Johannes also introduced in-crop tissue sampling to his agronomic schedule, which provided a clearer picture of what nutrients the crop required. Although this meant that oftentimes an in-crop application of fertiliser was required. This was easier worked around on the dryland inputs and on the blocks with overhead irrigation as opposed to flood irrigation blocks. Tyunga introduced regular applications of feedlot manure to their processes around 20 years ago and have since seen the long-term benefits in rounding out the nutrient profile of the soil, allowing plants to better cope with stress factors. 


In 2023 Johannes was awarded the Bayer Cotton Grower of the Year award. It was the investment in and development of water management infrastructure, inclusion of beneficial insects encouraged through refuge crops and other developmental changes at Tyunga that led to the prestigious award. In order to receive the accolade, Johannes first had to snag the regional award and shared that not only was it a surprise to be awarded the Regional Cotton Grower of the Year, but an even bigger surprise to be the recipient of the national award. As the winner of last year’s award, Johannes has been invited to join the regional and national judging panel of the Cotton Grower of the Year 2024, touring cotton operations far and wide in a bid to find this year’s winner. 


Johannes and Scarlett have recently been joined on farm by the next generation of cotton growers. Their daughter Lauren has recently assumed a role on farm, splitting her time between the paddock and the office. Lauren returns to Tyunga after seven years working in the corporate ag world in Brisbane and Melbourne. On farm, she is putting her corporate background to great use, streamlining processes in the office and helping to implement management systems which will translate to greater efficiencies and better compliance in the paddock. She is investing time in Xero and AgWorld, undertaking a massive data entry project to update the systems and enhance the business’ data analysis capabilities for future decision-making. When she’s not in the office, Lauren spends her time in the field, steadily learning the ropes on all things irrigation, agronomy and machinery. 


From our time at Tyunga it was very clear that farmers need to be experts in many areas, from chemistry, to agronomy, to people management. They need to be at the forefront of technology and hyper-aware of the ecosystems they manage on farm. This is never more apparent than the amalgamation of operational styles at Tyunga, shown in their management of beneficial insects in their cotton crop and the use of refuge crops to enhance beneficials in the paddock, to their water management strategies and the application of feedlot manure for the past 20 years to round out the nutrient profile of their soils. 


Agriculture, Agronomy, broadacre, cotton, cropping, queensland, Seasonal

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