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Boundaries show property size in the Kimberley: there are very large properties
Boundaries show property size in the Kimberley: there are very large properties

Industry profile

The pastoral industry generates significant income for the Kimberley region — approximately $42.7 million in 1996-97. Pastoral leases are very large and the 93 in operation at present occupy around 23 million hectares. The majority of pastoral companies are on the eastern side of the Kimberley region, while family-owned operations predominate in the west.

Aboriginal enterprises


In 1999 there were 28 stations leased and managed by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, and this number was predicted to rise  Photo: Dennis Schulz

Aboriginal communities manage leases in both the east and west. In the north, there is a broad mixture of family, Aboriginal and corporate-owned properties, some of which are taking advantage of tourist traffic by providing accommodation or cattle station tours and activities. The industry accounts for a quarter of the total cattle population in the state of Western Australia, and the majority of Kimberley cattle supply the live export market. Aboriginal-owned properties are becoming increasingly significant for the region. In 1999 there were 28 stations leased and managed by Aboriginal people, and that number was predicted to rise.

General outlook

In general the outlook for the cattle industry in the Kimberley is good. Trade to south east Asia is again on the rise, and new markets have emerged in North Africa and the Middle East. For example, in the last financial year Egypt replaced Indonesia as the major buyer, receiving around 114 000 head of cattle. Indonesia received 52 000 which was less than half of its import for the previous year. However, such markets are subject to strong international competition.

Climate

One of the most important management issues for graziers in the Kimberley is climatic variability, especially when compared to other regions in the tropical savannas. In general, rainfall is far less predictable from year to year; this in combination with a longer dry season means that margins for error in estimating carrying capacities and so forth are far slimmer. Fire also is important, although the main use of prescribed burning is as a tool to mitigate against damaging late dry season fires. These burns tend to be carried out from fixed wing aircraft, or from the ground. Feral animals are largely under control because of various programs undertaken by Agriculture Western Australia and the leaseholders themselves.

Grazing management

The other major management issue in the Kimberley is the heterogeneity of the pasture communities, which can lead to problems of uneven grazing because cattle select favoured species and neglect others. The question is how to manage these pasture communities so that some areas do not become severely overgrazed while others are under-utilised. Suggestions include limiting the stocking rate to the number of cattle that can be supported by the most preferred community or fencing along pasture species boundaries. However neither option is particularly cost effective. Most graziers instead aim to best utilise as much of the pasture as possible.

Waterpoints can play a part in the strategy via their capacity to influence cattle distribution over an area, but these can be expensive to install. Fire too can be a useful tool. As stock prefer 'green pick' (new shoots from burnt grasses), burning can be used to encourage them to move into new areas. Since the shoots of normally undesirable species are also grazed, the overall condition of pasture composition is improved.

Range condition

In general, range condition in the Kimberley is in fair to good condition. Land management funds and initiatives are often limited by the size of the properties in the Kimberley—the average lease size is 250,000 hectares. Recently though, the WA Parliament passed the WA Land Administration Act 1997, which gave new and expanded powers to the Pastoral Lands Board. Essentially a greater emphasis was placed on conservation to enable the board to develop policies to discourage degradation of the land (see websites below for details of this Act). These shifts in policy reflect moves by governments across the savannas to encourage more sustainable land-management practices on pastoral leases.

Industry developments

Like most of the tropical savannas, the Kimberley region has experienced rapid and far-reaching change over the last 10 to 20 years. Pastoral enterprises employ far fewer people now than they have done in the past, and employ improved technologies in property maintenance and management. Overall there have been developments in infrastructure in the area, reinforced by the BTEC (Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign) program which required that properties improve capacity to control and monitor cattle movements more effectively. To this end many fences were erected and bores drilled.

In addition there has been a dramatic rise in the number of pastoral enterprises in the area owned and managed by Aboriginal people. Often Aboriginal people are managing the country with socio-cultural objectives held to be just as important as economic outcomes.

Decline in enterprises

In the Kimberley region overall there has been a decline in the number of pastoral enterprises, and some increase in the corporatisation of those that remain. The number of businesses running cattle has declined and so too have herd numbers. The service industries which support the graziers have also been reduced. For example, the meatworks in Broome have closed, giving local graziers little choice but to export their cattle live, or ship them relatively long distances to alternative meatworks. Some would argue that the industry is increasingly relying too heavily on the live cattle export market, which is far more vulnerable to international beef market or currency fluctuations, than the local processed market.

Live cattle export

This shift toward the live cattle export market, which now almost completely dominates the Kimberley pastoral industry, is predicted to affect herd and pasture management. Buyers of live cattle demand better quality animals and will reject outright those that do not meet their standards. Pastoralists then have a very pressing impetus to improve the quality of their herd, and may be prepared to sacrifice some of the quantity to this end. Stocking rates may have to fall to ensure adequate high quality pasture, which bodes well for long-term sustainability.

Pasture communities

The Kimberley region is dominated by hummock grasslands, which grow on sands and skeletal soils. The other seven main pasture communities present have scattered distributions throughout various sectors of the region, which are described by Tothill, J. C. & Gillies, C. (1992).

Local pasture units (LPU) incorporated in the hummock grasslands include:

  • curly spinifex (Plectrachne pungens)
  • curly spinifex - ribbongrass
  • curly spinifex - annual sorghum

Monsoon and tropical-subtropical perennial tallgrass pastures are a widespread feature of the Kimberleys. These are often confined to areas associated with watercourses. LPU included in these areas are:

  • ribbongrass (Chrysopogon spp.);
  • whitegrass (Sehima nervosum);
  • whitegrass - plume sorghum -ribbongrass;
  • whitegrass - annual sorghum;
  • whitegrass - bundle-bundle;
  • frontage grass pasture land.

Monsoon annual tallgrass pastures are mainly scattered across the northern inland areas where annual sorghums (Sorghum intrans, S. stipoidium) predominate. Forb pastures without top feed (palatable shrubs and trees) form annual shortgrass grasslands in low open woodland. These are mostly found in the southern Kimberleys, particularly to the west of Halls Creek. LPU occurring in these areas are:

  • shortgrass grassland - ribbongrass;
  • shortgrass - curly spinifex.

Tussock grassland pastures, growing on black soil plains, which extend between Fitzroy Crossing and Derby, feature Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.) as the main grass species. Around the littoral zones of Broome, Derby and Wyndham saltwater couch (Sporobolus spp.) makes up most of the perennial shortgrass grasslands without top feed. Throughout seasonally flooded lowlands, in the east around the Durack River, cockatoo grass dominates the monsoon tallgrass pastures. In a few isolated pockets in the central Kimberleys blugrass (Dicanthium fecundum ) midgrass grasslands are found on clay soils.