Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 073 March-April 2008 - North
Agricultural consultant Robert Freebairn assesses the prospects for agriculture in the subtropical north, after canvassing opinions about the one region where water is not in short supply n The top third of northern Australia receives two-thirds of the nation's rainfall and 70 per cent of its run-off. Yet almost all of our agricultural production comes from the south-east and south-west corners, causing environmental stresses in many areas and over-utilisation of rivers. To some, in hindsight, it is as if Australia has developed agriculture at the wrong end; a historical accident because of our European origins in lower- latitude and Mediterranean regions. Those who are starting to cast a fresh eye over the agricultural potential of the north argue that unlike much of the early development in the south, there is time to ensure better planning and environmental management and therefore avoid the stresses that have been placed on southern farming landscapes. The Murray--Darling system, for example, has more than 80 per cent of its normal inflows allocated for domestic, industrial and agricultural use. By contrast, very little of the water in northern rivers is used at all. Land that could be used partly or wholly by some form of agriculture in northern Australia totals about 100 million hectares (70 per cent of the land area). Of this, about five million hectares is said to have soils and climate suitable for crops. Quarantining this from future agricultural development (much of it with 700 millimetres, or more, average annual rainfall, and most with 450mm or better) is regarded by many as ignoring world and Australian research that shows agriculture and good natural resource management can coexist. One of the issues of contention facing northern agriculture, as it is in the south, is land clearing or thinning. However, it is the largely undeveloped nature of the north that farmers and agricultural professionals say can be used to balance, from the start, sound agriculture and natural resource management. Modern research shows that good grazing and cropping management can combine with good soil care, erosion protection and the retention of biodiversity. Also, large areas of northern Australia have good soils and little or no timber (for example, the Mitchell grass areas). Today, most farmers understand the need FATHER AND SON IN DEVELOPMENT QUEST n Scott and Harr y Harris are developing 931,000 hectares in nor th-west Queensland, and see enormous potential for lifting agricultural production, including cropping, in their area. Their expansion plans include subdivision, upgrading of watering systems, the introduction of cropping and a feedlot. They are convinced all this can be done hand-in-glove with sound environmental management. Scott and his father, Harr y, bought the 931,000ha 'Strathmore' proper ty near Croydon three years ago. Their immediate plans are to double cattle numbers over the next six years and then begin growing maize and forage sorghum to supply their own feedlot. They believe they can not only safeguard natural resource aspects, such as soil, run-off water quality, erosion reduction and the biodiversity of plants and animals, but improve on current conditions. Harr y Harris was raised on a small, nor th- west NSW proper ty near Coonabarabran. He and his brothers, through hard work, foresight and astute judgement, developed a number of profitable proper ties across NSW, Queensland and Western Australia. Harr y has been involved in nor thern Australian agriculture for 30 years and owned land in WA's Kimberley during the 1980s and 1990s. Scott has worked in nor thern Australia since his teens and, like his father, sees an enormous future in soundly developing the region. 'Strathmore' is larger than a typical central- west NSW shire; for example Bland, based on West Wyalong, is 757,000ha with 600 farms. The average annual rainfall on 'Strathmore' varies from 650 to 800mm. Most of this falls from December to early March. Paul Carberr y, NSW Depar tment of Primar y Industries (DPI) climatology advisor y officer and nationally recognised climate scholar, says that in the past 20 years rainfall reliability in many par ts of nor thern Australia, including the area around 'Strathmore', has been as good as, or better than, much of southern Australia. The Harrises' immediate aim is to double the size of their Brahman and Droughtmaster breeding herd to 50,000 'cow units'. Beyond this plan are numerous avenues for fur ther development. Subdivision involving 1300 kilometres of new fencing and 120 new dams is proposed over the next six years, in addition to the current program of upgrading existing fencing and water infrastructure. More paddocks and better water will allow for the development of improved pastures and improved cattle management. Until now, poorly watered and unfenced areas have led to overgrazing (especially on good soils near water) and under-grazing on areas fur ther away from water. Overgrazing leads to bare areas, loss of pasture species and erosion. Under-grazing leads to suppression of some species, greater wildfire risk and waste of valuable feed. The fencing and watering program will see paddocks reduced in size so that no paddock is larger than 15,000ha. The Harrises feel that in years to come additional subdivision is likely, with fur ther gains in productivity and land management. Three rivers, including the Gilber t and Einasleigh, run through 'Strathmore'. In addition, during the wet season large bodies of run-off water flow across many par ts of the proper ty. Provided approval can be gained, the Harrises hope to collect small por tions of the across-paddock high flows (less than one per cent) to store in dams, which would supply a proposed 9300ha irrigation project. Grain and forage sorghum and maize will be grown to supply grain, hay, silage, and green- chop to an on-farm feedlot. About 9000ha is also proposed for predominantly dr yland forage sorghum, although if approval can be obtained, supplementation irrigation to finish these crops is a possibility. Crop production without irrigation, especially forage, is possible on the deeper soils that, in most years, will be close to their water-holding capacity at the star t of the dr y season. Areas of treeless countr y with good drainage and good-quality soil are proposed for the irrigation and dr yland cropping projects. Unlike in southern Australia, the proposed scheme does not threaten any over-allocated river extraction levels. It will also be set up and managed from the outset to guard against salinity. Off-flows will be retained and re-used, and sensitive ecologies will be protected. Several farms across nor thern Australia already successfully crop small areas, principally as an adjunct to cattle enterprises. Expansion of nor thern farming, even if on a relatively large scale, will still represent only a small percentage of the region's landmass. But it would add to the region's efficiency and productivity, and avoid the current practice of having to transpor t large numbers of animals each year to southern feedlots. Scott Harris aims to establish a 12,000- head feedlot with an annual throughput of 25,000 to 30,000 head. Improved pasture management, combined with fodder crop grazing and the feedlot supplied by the grain, is expected to improve animal turnoff weights by 150 kilograms per head or more. Previous 'Strathmore' owners introduced the perennial legume stylo (Seca and Verano) into some areas of native grass pastures. Scott Harris says that it suits a lot of their countr y and he intends to extend its establishment. Stylo, and perhaps other legumes, coexist well with native grasses, and improve feed quality and soil nitrogen fer tility, and therefore the value of the grasses. Native grasses together with introductions by previous owners of buffel grass and the annual, liver-seed grass (Urochloa panicoides), are the main grass pasture components. Scott has a high regard for the native grasses and feels that good grazing management as well as suitable legumes as par t of the species mix are capable of supplying good quality and quantities for grazing. Soil fer tility and strategies to correct deficiencies are areas for future investigation. Most cattle proper ties, including 'Strathmore', feed supplements at various times of the year to address deficiencies such as phosphorus and protein (for example, urea combined with molasses and phosphorus). However, applying fer tiliser over 900,000ha of pasture is unlikely to be a priority when so many other high-return investment choices, such as greater subdivision, upgrading water systems and adding legumes, are available. More information: Robert Freebairn, 0428 752 149, email@example.com to coexist with the natural environment and the problems that have built up in the Murray--Darling system -- in which 80 per cent of water has been diverted from a system that covers 14 per cent of Australia and produces 90 per cent of the nation's irrigation production -- can be avoided by careful planning and sensible regulation. However, critics of northern agricultural development say that it is not suited climatically, that soils are poor, climate change will cause problems, and that agriculture harms the environment. A recent publication, The Nature of Northern Australia, authored by ecological and environmental scientists and members of the WildCountry Science Council John Woinarski, Brendan Mackay, Henry Nix and Barry Traill, typifies the anti- 'northern agriculture' stance in that they dismiss the potential for agricultural development, opposing, as environmentally damaging, future prospects Northern agriculture GROUND COVER MARCH -- APRIL 2008 24 and current developments (such as the Ord scheme). It would be more fruitful if influential environmentalists worked with farmers and agriculture scientists to ensure sound agricultural practice was combined with high-quality natural resource management. To isolate large areas with good rainfall and suitable environments from multi-billion-dollar agricultural development is hardly realistic in a world with seven billion people -- and growing by 1.5 per cent a year. Critics are quick to point out failed past northern developments, such as rice at Humpty Doo and cotton on the Ord. But remember, early agricultural developments also failed when NSW was first settled. Grain farming was not regarded as suited to much of north- west NSW until as recently as the 1950s. However, such criticism is often historical in that it does not acknowledge the advances that have been made since KEY POINTS n The top third of nor thern Australia has 100-million hectares of potential agricultural land n Environmental scientists oppose agricultural expansion in the nor th, but proponents say environmental issues can be resolved with planning and research Could the 'forgotten north' redefine Harry and Scott Harris of 'Strathmore' at Croydon, north-west Queensland, checking areas on their property with good-quality loam soil suitable for cropping and pasture development. The Harrises believe that the north has enormous capacity to increase agricultural production and provide diversity for the nation's grain and livestock industries (important in drier southern seasons), and that this can be achieved with sound land management.
Ground Cover 072 January-February 2008 - North
Ground Cover 074 May-June 2008 - North