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Grazing in the tropical savannas

Pastoralism is a major land use in northern Australia

Pastoralism is a major land use in northern Australia.

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.

Climate

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.

Property ownership

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 ownership

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.

Articles

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...]