Pastoralism is a major land use in northern
Major land use
The beef cattle grazing industry is the major user and manager
of land in the tropical savannas. It contributes hundreds of
millions of dollars to regional economies across northern Australia
and provides employment for thousands, both directly and indirectly
via service industries. Cattle grazing properties have existed in
the tropical savannas for more than a century and as such played a
significant part in the region's history and development.
The pastoral industry of northern Australia differs greatly from
that in the south. Broadly speaking the poor soils result in
pastures of low nutrient value. To sustain an economically
worthwhile herd properties must therefore be very large. In fact,
some of the largest grazing properties in the world are to be found
in this region of Australia. Paddocks may encompass thousands of
hectares and a range of soil and vegetation types.
There are definite exceptions to this picture however.
Properties in North East Queensland and in the more south eastern
sector of the Mitchell grass region are much smaller than elsewhere
in the savannas. In most cases this is a function of better soil
types, more nutritious feed and thus higher carrying capacities,
although historical factors can be significant also.
Climatic factors also partly determine carrying capacities,
although the relationship between the two is not entirely
straightforward. It is not simply a case of "more rain equals
higher carrying capacity". For a start, very high rainfall tends to
leach away nutrients from the soil, so that while there may be
plenty of lush plant growth during the wet season, its nutritive
value is very low. Areas further inland tend to have better soils,
more nutritious native pasture species and generally higher
carrying capacities. And yet, these are also the areas that are
more susceptible to drought.
Fluctuations in climatic variables from one growing season to
the next can have an enormous impact on grazing enterprises. Some
areas of the tropical savannas are subject to periodic drought,
others to flooding. The former will effect herd and pasture
condition, the capacity of country to carry fire, the rate of weed
invasion and may necessitate the sale of cattle at unprofitable
prices. Producers in areas susceptible to drought are advised to
factor this is to their long term stocking rates; producers with
conservative stocking rates can survive drought with less damage to
stock and land condition and can survive longer.
Changes to the industry
Over the previous few decades the industry has undergone
significant changes to increase production and improve long-term
viability. Since the 1970s new breeds of cattle, Brahman and
Brahman cross (Bos indicus ), more suited to tropical
environments have been introduced, which has improved the genetic
make-up of herds.
Supplementary feeding, in which cattle are fed nutrient
supplements to make up for low levels of nutrients in pastures, has
tended to stabilise production in the long term by enabling herds
to better withstand droughts. In the short term it has allowed
producers to increase stocking rates over the dry season since the
cattle are able to eat more of the standing matter.
New pasture grasses were also introduced. The combination of
these with supplementary feeding and more resilient cattle herds
has meant that graziers have been able to maintain larger herds,
and improve animal health and condition.
National Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign
The National Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign
(BTEC), initiated in 1970, also improved the efficiency of many
pastoral operations in northern Australia. BTEC required better
property and paddock fencing to enable improved herd monitoring and
control. While costs borne by producers to meet the requirements
were high, the long-term benefits were substantial. In addition to
the eradication of the targeted diseases, increased infrastructure
such as fencing and watering points improved many producers'
capacity to manage both cattle numbers and distribution. It also
enabled them to adopt better management practices such as weaning
and supplementary feeding.
While the majority of cattle grazing properties in the tropical
savannas continue to be owner-operated, around 13 per cent are now
corporately owned. However, this figure belies the significance of
these corporate producers to the region. They tend to own larger
properties in areas of better grazing country and carry more than
40 per cent of the total cattle run in the tropical savannas (ABARE
1999: 99). As they tend to own properties across many regions, they
have greater flexibility in herd
management because the cattle can be moved about
depending on seasonal and market fluctuations. Not surprisingly,
these properties tend to outperform owner-operated ones.
Aboriginal people too now own and manage significant numbers of
properties in the tropical savannas. While the figure for the total
area is only 3 per cent, Aboriginal ownership is far more prominent
in some regions than in others. For example, 30 per cent of leases
in the Kimberley are currently Aboriginal-owned and this number is
predicted to rise.
In Cape York Aboriginal people own 7.1 per cent of the total
pastoral lease area (Cotter 1995). The value of these lands may go
beyond financial or economic concerns to incorporate cultural and
social needs. For this reason, Aboriginal management approaches can
differ markedly from their non-indigenous counterparts.
Wambiana: the big picture on grazing
Dr Peter O'Reagain and John Bushell from Queensland's Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (QDPI&F) have led the Wambiana grazing trial for the past eight years. The project, is co-funded by QDPI&F and Meat and Livestock Australia, but has also received support from a range of other funding bodies. The project aims to develop a set of best practices and guidelines for graziers and over the life of the project has assessed the ability of different grazing strategies to cope with rainfall variability in terms animal production, economics and resource condition. [read more...