Grazing in the VRD-Sturt

Victoria River District 

Cattle grazing in the Victoria River District has traditionally needed little input from producers as stations covered vast tracts of land. In the past livestock were watered via natural sources such as rivers and fencing was limited. Under this management regime, significant degradation occurred locally as very large herds of uncontrolled cattle built up around water holes. Large numbers of feral horses and donkeys contributed greatly to grazing pressure. The 1960s saw the beginning of property and breeding stock improvements in the region, as a result of improved transport facilities and the opening up of new markets. Today the VRD is seen as a very successful grazing area in which negative impacts have been kept to a minimum through maintaining conservative stocking rates.

Sturt Plateau

The plateau is at present characterised by ongoing subdivision of large extensive leases (around 2000 square kilometres) to smaller ones (around 600 square kilometres). The majority of the original properties have now been subdivided to some extent. Many of these newer properties are in the earlier stages of development, and stock numbers are limited by lack of infrastructure including fences and bores. However, as development proceeds, herd sizes are increasing.

While the majority of enterprises run cattle on native pastures, there is a trend toward developing more intensive grazing systems based on improved pastures and other crops. The area has seen some clearing to this end, although limited roads have restricted horticultural options mainly to grain and hay cropping. The provision of land for agistment, and short-term 'depoting' of live export cattle on route to Darwin, represent additional income sources for plateau producers.

Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication campaign

The greatest shift to property management came via the improved infrastructure that was necessary to comply with the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication campaign (BTEC) in the late 1970s and 1980s. Funding was provided to develop additional fencing and watering points, needed for the mustering and testing requirements of the campaign. Bores were financed away from river systems, shifting some of the grazing pressure from riparian environments, wild cattle numbers were reduced and herd management was improved by encouraging age segregation. (Condon 1988: 262)

The efficiency of mustering, which for a long time had been in the form of wild cattle 'harvesting', was greatly improved by the introduction of helicopters. This has meant that paddocks can now be mustered twice yearly, and with a far greater effectiveness than in the past.

Property dynamics

Properties in the VRD are large, and stocking rates are fairly low, on average at around 8 head per square kilometre. At present property sizes range from one to 12,000 square kilometres, although the average size is 4000 square kilometres. There is a trend in this region, as in most of northern Australia toward company ownership, and the majority in the VRD are now corporately owned. Owner/ manager run enterprises are still significant however. On average, properties change hands around every 10 years, which is very high, and manager changes are also frequent. There are around 30 operating properties in the VRD at present. This number has fallen over recent years, and significant tracts of land are now under Aboriginal control or are conservation reserves.

Virtually all grazing in the VRD takes place on native pastures. Improved pastures were experimented with in the past, but graziers' resources would seem better served by improving management of native grasses.


Under BTEC, the VRD essentially switched its herd make-up from largely Shorthorn dominated in the mid-70s to the Brahman-based herd of today. Thus the region has been able to benefit greatly from the growing live export trade. Breeding to produce stores for this market has become the major concern of pastoralists in the region, and there is now very little turn-off of stores to domestic markets from the VRD. An alternative to the live cattle market is provided by the two nearby abattoirs in Katherine and Batchelor.

Future outlook

Overall the outlook for the pastoral industry in the VRD is very good, both economically and on a land management front. The live export market is predicted to continue to grow as South East Asian economies recover from the market collapse of 1997.

For producers to take advantage of these markets, the land condition needs to be well managed. At present in the VRD, the efficiency and sustainability of land-management practices is the focus of much research, and producers seem open to change. Various landcare and best best practice groups have been formed, and in 1996 the Victoria River District Conservation Association (VRDCA) had 30 member properties, which accounted for most of the land in the area. Demonstration sites and courses which assist producers improve land management practices and returns are in demand.

The Tropical Savannas CRC initiated a management study in the region in 1996. The VRD Management Study provides a cohesive way to bring together a number of separate research projects in this district. See the links at the end of the page to read about the VRD Management Study.

Land systems

The Victoria River District is a mixture of grassy plains, rolling savannas and rocky spinifex country. Overall woodlands with grassy understoreys typify the vegetation over most the region, although tree density decreases significantly in the south. Around 30 per cent of the region may be considered 'unproductive country', because of low carrying capacity and inadequate stock control, although as the VRD develops this figure will continue to fall.

The region is characterised by large areas of hummock grasslands associated with sand and skeletal soils. There are around sixteen local pasture units making up the eight main pasture land communities, as described in Tothill, J. C. & Gillies, C. (1992), which are interspersed throughout the region.

The hummock grasslands are widespread throughout the central zone of the region. Here local pasture units include:

  • curly spinifex (Plectrachne pungens)
  • soft spinifex (Triodia pungens )

In the north-east and north-west large areas of monsoon annual tallgrass pastures, featuring annual sorghums (Sorghum intrans, S. stipoideum ), occur.

Patches of tropical-subtropical perennial tallgrass pastures of ribbongrass (Chrysopogon spp.) are scattered throughout the entire region. Aristida-Bothriochloa pastures, in eucalypt and open woodlands, are mainly found in the south-eastern corner of the region south of Daly Waters. The local pasture unit of this community is Aristidapruinosa-three awn. Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.) tussock grasslands occur on clay soils found around the south of the region along the Buchanan Highway.

Bluegrass (Dicanthiumfecundum) also grow on clay soils but are found in the northern inland sectors and have a sinuous distribution associated with watercourses. North of the Mitchell grass tussock grasslands grow numerous patches of annual shortgrass forb pastures, without top feed (palatable shrubs and trees). They occur in low open woodland on calcareous soils in the drier sections of the region. Occurring along the coast are pockets of perennial shortgrass pasture lands of saltwater couch (Sporobolus spp.). These areas are not associated with top feed.

In good years the spaces between the Mitchell grass tussocks is taken up by annuals, especially flinders grass (Iseilema spp.).

Rainfall and pasture

The region has a warm dry monsoonal climate with rainfall concentrated between November and March. Rainfall can be highly variable, and decreases from around 1000 mm in the north to less than 400 mm in the south. Fluctuations in rainfall can have a significant effect on structure and composition of the Mitchell and mixed grassland communities especially in the south of the region. This part of the VRD also receives occasional falls of winter rain.

The period of useful pasture growth (growing season) can range from only 9 weeks in the south to 5 months in the north. However the nutritive value of grasses in the north, such as sorghum species, declines rapidly with maturity. The nutritional worth of grasses tends to improve as one heads south.