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Grazing in the Barkly Tablelands

Regional overview

Mitchell grasslands

The Barkly tablelands are in the north-west of the Mitchell grass region, on the Northern Territory side of the border. The tableland itself rises more than 200 metres above sea level. This country is well suited to cattle grazing and it is economically one of the most important areas for pastoral production in the NT. There is little permanent surface water on the tableland, and one factor in the success of pastoral use is the comprehensive network of bores throughout the area that feed raised earth dams ('turkey-nests') for watering cattle.


This area comprises 44 properties of which 25 are corporately owned. These 25 properties however represent well over 50 per cent of the Barkly. Some of the largest cattle grazing properties in the world can be found in this region—the largest lease is over 12,000 square kilometres and runs around 65,000 head of cattle. Properties tend to be well improved, and larger leases may have more than 100 bores. The tablelands turn off the most cattle per annum of any region in the NT (127,925 in 1995–96) and had a total cattle population in that year of around 497,000. While only 14 per cent of properties in the Northern Territory are in this region, it carries more than 35 per cent of the total Territory herd.

Grazing management

Most properties have taken up property management planning (PMP) and adopted rotational grazing, supplementary feeding and pasture monitoring as part of their operational strategies. The quality of native pasture grazing means that there is little attempt at pasture improvement, simply because Mitchell grass is so productive on the cracking clay soils. The major species is Mitchell grass, but Flinders grass also provides important feed in the summer months. In addition there are significant areas of swampy bluebush (Chenopod) shrubland which are highly palatable and therefore susceptible to overgrazing if not well managed (Perry 1960; Morton et al 1995; Finlayson et al. in McComb and Lake 1988). Heavy grazing pressure may also be affecting vegetation of Lake Woods and Lake Sylvester.

Tableland weeds

The major weed problem at present is Parkinsonia, with noogoora burr (Xanthium strumarium) causing some problems for producers in the east of the Barkly. There have been two outbreaks of prickly acacia (Acacia nilotica) on Barkly properties in the last year, but both have been eradicated. Vigilant control programs are in place to ensure that this weed, which has wreaked havoc in Queensland, does not become established in the Barkly region.The spread of mesquite (Prosopis spp) has been reduced via programs involving chemical, mechanical and biological controls. (NTDPIF Annual Report 1999).


The Barkly Tablelands district is largely semi-arid and has well defined wet and dry seasons. The climate is monsoonal with most of the rainfall coming in from the gulf region. Nearly all rainfall is received during the hot summer months, November to April, with the greatest incidence during January and February.

The average annual rainfall varies from 625 mm in the northern part of the district to around 350 mm in the south eastern corner of the tableland. The variability of rainfall has an important effect on the cattle industry. Lack of summer rains reduces pasture growth and can induce drought. The chance of drought occurring on the Barkly is approximately one in 10 years. Corporately owned properties have essentially been able to make themselves free of drought, in that cattle can be shifted to affiliated properties in Queensland or elsewhere where seasonal conditions may be more favourable. For the rest of producers in the Barkly, the probability of drought must be factored into their long term property management plans.


Live export has become increasingly important for private producers in this region. Corporate properties, which essentially run a whole state or regional portfolio of properties as though they were one paddock, tend to turn off stock to affiliated properties for fattening. They may also sell some cattle fattened over the wet. Some properties in the region are being used as a kind of holding bay for live export out of Darwin, for cattle from affiliated enterprises in other states.