Trends in natural resource management in Australia's Monsoonal North: the beef industry

Crowley, Gabriel (2015) Trends in natural resource management in Australia's Monsoonal North: the beef industry. Report. James Cook University, Cairns, QLD, Australia.

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This report describes trends in the beef industry in the Monsoonal North. It aims to provide the region's natural resource management (NRM) groups with an understanding of how best to support the industry, undertake the changes required to improve its environmental sustainability and economic viability, and to provide it with resilience in the face of increasing development pressures and climate change. This report charts the industry's history and development; describes its current condition and the pressures and drivers it is experiencing; and explores how these are likely to change in the near future.

The region: The Monsoonal North covers 20% of Australia's land surface across the tropical savannas. It shares a monsoonal climate, extensive intact ecological systems, generally poor soils and limited development. Its river systems carry nearly half of the runoff. The region has a large Indigenous population; most land is either under Indigenous ownership or subject to Native Title; and the highest proportion of Indigenous people live in the region's north and north-west. The region also faces a number of shared issues, particularly the challenges of intensifying climatic extremes and pressure to exploit Asia's growing demand for agricultural produce, which is placing pressure on land and water resources.

The industry: Cattle production is northern Australia's most important agricultural industry. Two-thirds of the Monsoonal North is currently used for extensive cattle grazing. Through most of the region, cattle are grazed at low stocking rates on native pastures, with introduced pasture species being restricted in extent. Most enterprises breed animals for the low-value live export trade or for fattening and finishing on better pastures or in feedlots.

Cattle numbers in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia have doubled since 1965, and fluctuated with changes in demand and climatic conditions. In 2009, the Monsoonal North held around 5.7 million head of cattle. High export demand from Asia and drought destocking has seen the region's cattle numbers fall and prices rise through 2014-15. In the longer-term, continued growth in global demand, a reduced Australian dollar and high global prices, and improved incomes are forecast for Australian beef producers. Since 2009, each of the three northern governments have released policy documents that included targets to increase the herd size by between 1 and 5%, with the greatest planned increases on Aboriginal land in the Kimberley. Between 2009 and 2014, the Northern Territory herd grew by more than the projected 5% increase. Herd size in Queensland has recently diminished because of drought, and the current government's stance on herd-building is unclear. Nevertheless, long-term growth is expected to increase the northern Australian herd by a further 80% by 2050.

Recent growth in the northern cattle herd has been achieved through intensification (spreading grazing pressure using water points and fencing) and development of underutilised properties, notably on Indigenous lands. Indigenous pastoralism is growing rapidly, with developments in all parts of the sector from cattle breeding to slaughter.

Markets: Most beef grown in northern Australia is sent to Asia, with Indonesia being the largest buyer of live cattle. Despite a long-established framework for assuring animal health and welfare within Australia, widely-publicised animal mistreatment in Indonesia resulted in the temporary closure of the live-export market in 2011 until animal welfare could be assured throughout the supply chain. This closure demonstrated how dependence on a single market exposed the northern beef industry to market volatility. Bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations by the federal government are now progressively broadening market access, with agreements favouring Australian beef now in place or close to finalisation with most significant beef markets.

Enterprises: Cattle enterprises in the Monsoonal North have been struggling because, in real terms, cattle prices have declined, while input costs have remained stable. In addition, escalating land prices through the 1990s and 2000s encouraged many land owners to increase their mortgages to levels that became unsustainable once land prices fell. This has implications for environmental management. In comparison to pastoralists in a good financial position, those in debt have less resilience to cope with drought; are less likely to adopt practice improvements needed for improving enterprise viability and environmental conditions; and are more likely to suffer adverse health effects.

Many enterprises, especially those with small herds, derive more income from off-farm work than they earn from cattle operations. While large cattle enterprises allow economies of scale, increasing cattle herd size seems less important to profitability than does improving herd performance.

Performance: Except on Mitchell Grass pastures and small areas of intensively managed pastures, cattle performance in the Monsoonal North is substandard when compared to the rest of the country, and is affected by poor quality pasture quality. Breeding performance is typically poor; with low pregnancy rates; high foetal and calf death rates; and many cows are lost. However, the achievements of the top 25% of the industry indicate there is great potential to improve performance on the remaining properties.

Health and well-being: Pastoral production is a stressful occupation, involving financial insecurity and isolation; and pastoralists have high rates of injury, disease, accident and suicide. Recent years have brought additional challenges associated with falling land prices, market instability and drought. In the Burdekin Dry Tropics, proposed coal mining is increasing stress levels for many pastoralists.

Supply and demand: Domestic demand for beef in Australia stagnated because per capita beef consumption has fallen, but global demand is escalating with population growth and economic development. Demand for beef is expected to keep increasing until at least 2050, with greatest growth occurring in China.

Australia was the world's top beef exporter until 2003. Only Brazil and India currently export more beef than Australia does. Australia's disease-free status gives it access to markets that are closed to these exporters. Australia's dominance of the live-export trade to Indonesia also helps provide a disease free buffer to its north. Australian beef producers are disadvantaged by protectionist measures employed by both beef importing countries and exporting countries. The Australian Government has been engaging in international trade agreements that will overcome some of these barriers and increase market access.

Market requirements and consumer preference: A high percentage of Brahman genes in the herd makes northern cattle attractive for slaughter and feedlots in tropical countries. However, slow growth rates and long transport distances mean most beef is sold in the low end of the market. Ethical, health and environmental concerns have contributed to the decline in domestic meat consumption, and are influencing consumer preferences in global markets. These concerns are driving practice improvement throughout the Australian beef supply chain.

Challenges: Industry viability is constrained by lack of infrastructure, including feedlots, intensive fattening pastures, saleyards and meatworks, inactive ports and poor quality roads, all of which combine to make freight expensive, pushing up input costs. Considerable advances have been made in alleviating these constraints by building meatworks in Darwin, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley. However, lack of competition through the supply chain may be depressing returns at the farm gate. The ports of Darwin and Townsville are operating at record capacity, but some northern ports with export facilities (Port Hedland, Weipa, Mourilyan and Mackay) have not operated for several years. Water for cattle operations and irrigated crops may be at risk if extraction for these and other activities is not sustainably allocated. While broadscale irrigated cropping is likely to be restricted to a small proportion of the region, its requirements for water resources and fertile soil may deprive the pastoral industry of some of its most productive pasture land. Extraction for mining and irrigated agriculture is of particular concern. This has become a contentious issue with several coal projects in Queensland's Galilee Basin. Mining also has the potential to disrupt pastoral operations by removing land from production for both mineral extraction and infrastructure. Again, this is a significant issue in Queensland, where several landholders will be affected by the rail corridor servicing mines in the Galilee Basin. The disruption caused by mining poses a risk, not only to the financial viability of pastoral enterprises, but also to the health and welfare of pastoralists and their families. If well managed, however, mining and agricultural development can also have co-benefits, improving regional economies and providing employment and infrastructure.

Weeds, fire, pest animals, disease and cattle theft all impose financial burdens on northern pastoral operations. Production losses caused by weeds have been estimated at costing the industry around $1,000 million/year; pest animals: ca $36 million/year; disease and parasites: ca $390 million; and cattle theft between $1.5 and $2 million a year in Queensland alone. No industry-wide estimates are available for impacts of fire, cyclones or other natural disasters. Conversely, pastoral managers perform important roles in control of weeds, fire, pest animals and diseases that would not be undertaken if no one was living on the lands they manage.

Climatic and seasonal conditions are also serious constraints, particularly in inland Queensland, where periods of drought of two or more years are not uncommon. Conversely, extended periods of above average rainfall may encourage pastoralists to stock land beyond its long-term carrying capacity, and develop unrealistic impressions of what average conditions are. This could be an issue in the Kimberley if the elevated rainfall of the last few decades is not sustained.

Climate change is already being felt in the region. Temperature have risen by up to 1.0°C since 1910, with further increases of up to 5°C expected by the end of the century. Droughts, cyclones, wildfires and flooding rains are likely to intensify over the next few decades, and continue to intensify until at least the end of the century. Carbon dioxide enrichment may increase forage production, but reduce its quality and stimulate woody thickening, as woody plants are favoured over tropical grasses. In most climate change scenarios, whether rainfall remains roughly the same or decreases, pasture growth and safe stocking rates in the Monsoonal North are expected to decrease, with the worst scenarios predicting decreases in pasture growth and safe stocking rates of between 50% and 60%. Climate change will also have adverse impacts on each stage of the supply chain, with effects ranging from increasingly uncomfortable work conditions to increased frequency of flood and cyclone damage to infrastructure.

Policy environment: Many organisations have an influence on the direction of the pastoral industry. Individually, or as part of cross jurisdictional alliances, national, state and territory governments promote industry sustainability and herd-building. The preferred approach is to improve trade relations; simplify regulation; invest in roads; and provide a conducive business environment to attract infrastructure investment. The Developing Northern Australian White Paper and the

Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper further these objectives. Under Australian national legislation, the Red Meat Advisory Council was established to represent the interests of beef and other meat producers, and is reported to by various state farming organisations that work closely with the industry as advocates and information and extension providers. Research and marketing is largely driven by Meat and Livestock Australia (informed on northern issues by the North Australia Beef Research Council) and extension is delivered by state agencies, state farming organisations and NRM groups. The emphasis of both research and extension is on practice improvement, rather than herd building. The Australian Government funded Indigenous Land Corporation is also playing a pivotal role in the northern grazing industry by assisting Indigenous people acquire, develop and manage pastoral properties. Finally, the policies and assessments made by financial institutions can both determine the level of debt that a pastoral enterprise can acquire and the cost of repayment, and influence whether developments seeking external funding are seen as viable.

The Australian Government is committed to climate change action by virtue of signing international agreements. Its commitments to reduce emissions will help moderate the long-term impacts of climate change. Both the Western Australian and Northern Territory Governments have also made climate change commitments and the Queensland Government is currently revitalising its climate change agenda.

Regulatory environment: Legislation and regulation govern much activity on pastoral properties, most of which are pastoral leases coexisting with Native Title. This type of land tenure allows pastoralists to undertake most activities that can be justified as core business to a pastoral operation, including pastoral-related activities that reduce carbon footprints. Diversification into other activities requires the consent of Native Title holders, which is usually negotiated through Indigenous Land Use and Access Agreements.

Pastoralists have the right to water stock and clear vegetation for pastoral uses, but conditions vary between jurisdictions and water use for agricultural development requires a permit. There is a lack of clarity about whether permits can be granted for non-pastoral uses (including diversification into broadacre cropping) in Western Australia and Queensland.

Pastoral leases also come with a range of legislated responsibilities. Leaseholders in each jurisdiction are to manage weeds, pest animals and diseases and to report notifiable cattle diseases to the relevant authority. They must use National Livestock Identification Scheme tags to ensure their cattle can be traced through the supply chain, and adhere to animal health and welfare standards. In addition, as employers, pastoral operators must follow conditions laid down by Fairwork Australia. Graziers in the Burdekin catchment are required to manage their properties to minimise reef pollution.

The rights of miners to access land and water override those of pastoral leaseholders. While legislation facilitating exploitation of mineral and gas and fuel resources purports to safeguard other interests (notably environmental matters and water access), few mining proposals have been rejected because of environmental or pastoral concerns.

Practice improvement: Much effort has been invested in identifying the best practices to improve the profitability and environmental sustainability of the northern beef industry. Key areas of knowledge advancement include:

• Improving land condition

• Improving diet through exotic pastures and supplementary feeding, especially at finishing

• Improving reproductive performance by culling non-productive animals, vaccinating against reproductive diseases and improving diet quality

• Increasing liveweight gain through early weaning and improving diet quality

• Spreading grazing pressure by increasing fencing and water points.

Improvements to herd management are largely compatible with practice change required for reducing adverse impacts on biodiversity, carbon footprints and Great Barrier Reef water quality. Improved animal performance increases animal growth rates (meaning fewer animals are required to produce the same volume of meat), and therefore also reduces the methane emissions generated. Good herd performance in rangelands is also dependent on moderate stocking rates to maximise forage quality, especially by improving the cover of productive perennial grasses. Improved ground cover also reduces soil loss (when cover is at least 50%) and gully formation (when at least 75%).

Resilience to climate change will be built by undertaking the practice improvements identified to improve pastoral productivity and land condition. Of particular importance is the ability to adjust stocking rates in relation to seasonal conditions. At the industry level, decision support, including improved access to climatic information, is required to assist pastoralists make the best decisions for their circumstances.

Diversification: Another approach to increasing enterprise resilience is diversification. Options being canvased include small-scale irrigation of pasture crops for finishing cattle on the property, grain and oil seed crops, biodiversity conservation and carbon abatement. Conservation efforts on some properties attracted subsidies in return for entering into conservation agreements. Biodiversity offsets may widen opportunities for on-property conservation, particularly in Queensland, where a formalised offset scheme is being developed. A small number of pastoral properties in the region are also receiving funding for fire management to reduce carbon emissions. A range of other emission reduction opportunities are at various stages of development, including reducing emissions from pastoral operations through improved herd management and adjusting cattle diets and storing carbon in soil or vegetation.

Natural resource management implications: As practices to improve performance are adopted and/or diversification options are pursued, careful management will be required to avoid potential adverse environmental impacts. Best-bet options for improving environmental outcomes along with pastoral productivity include:

• Avoiding the use of "transformer" grasses (with high biomass and fuel loads), or at least ensuring they do not escape from improved pasture plantings

• Protecting areas of high biodiversity values when increasing extent and/or intensity of grazing, in particular protecting biodiversity values on riparian corridors when planning irrigated cropping projects

• Ensuring wet season supplementary feeding does not weaken native perennial grasses

• Ensuring early dry season burning does not lead to vegetation thickening and biodiversity decline.

The NRM implications of the current trajectory of the pastoral industry are mixed. Herd building will put more pressure on the natural environment. However, performance improvement has many benefits by reducing the number of hooves and mouths required to produce a kilogram of meat. If well managed, mosaic agriculture can contribute to herd performance while taking pressure off pastures and the natural environment during the wet season, but managed poorly could result in further degradation of alluvial environments and over stocking of adjacent areas.

The environmental footprint of diversification into agriculture would similarly need to be managed carefully. However, increasing income from various forms of ecosystem service delivery, particularly on lands that are marginal for grazing, would be a boon to both pastoral enterprises and the environment.

Central to all this change are the pastoralists themselves. And with all that is required from them and all the stresses and strains they already have to bear, many will be in no position to take up improved practices, let alone participate in conservation activities. Pathways out of debt must be found before resilience in the face of change can be achieved, and pastoralists must be supported in the adoption of new practices, rather than have it mandated.

Item ID: 43653
Item Type: Report (Report)
ISBN: 978-0-9944984-0-3
Keywords: beef industry; conservation; monsoonal north; Australia
Related URLs:
Funders: Australian Government’s Regional Natural Resource Management Planning for Climate Change Fund
Date Deposited: 12 Apr 2016 04:38
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050209 Natural Resource Management @ 30%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 20%
07 AGRICULTURAL AND VETERINARY SCIENCES > 0702 Animal Production > 070299 Animal Production not elsewhere classified @ 50%
SEO Codes: 91 ECONOMIC FRAMEWORK > 9199 Other Economic Framework > 919902 Ecological Economics @ 30%
83 ANIMAL PRODUCTION AND ANIMAL PRIMARY PRODUCTS > 8303 Livestock Raising > 830301 Beef Cattle @ 50%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9609 Land and Water Management > 960904 Farmland, Arable Cropland and Permanent Cropland Land Management @ 20%
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