An agricultural odyssey Down Under

It’s big, it’s flat, it’s a land of extremes – including blistering droughts. But while farming remains a ­fundamental part of Australian life, it has taken a heavy toll on the enviroment. Chris and Mathilde Stuart take a tour of ­Australia and discovered problems that make South African farmers’ woes seem almost manageable.

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It’s big, it’s flat, it’s a land of extremes – including blistering droughts. But while farming remains a ­fundamental part of Australian life, it has taken a heavy toll on the enviroment. Chris and Mathilde Stuart take a tour of ­Australia and discovered problems that make South African farmers’ woes seem almost manageable.
According to a friend, who speaks with typical Aussie ­directness, Australia can be defined by the five F’s: flat, flies, fires, floods – and one further robust adjective ­beginning with an “f”. Harsh perhaps, but is it justified? Testing this was one the aims of our 35 000km journey around Australia to see for ourselves what the impact of farming has been on the landscape in the 218 years that Europeans have been living here.

Australia is a fascinating giant island continent which was first populated by Aboriginal peoples between 40,000 and 60,000 years before the present, perhaps even longer. These were hunter-­gatherer peoples who kept no livestock and ­cultivated no crops. It was only with the advent of European settlement from 1788 that crops were cultivated and domestic animals farmed. The first “settlers” were convicts, selected for their various skills or muscle-power from the overflowing prisons and convict hulks on the Thames River in England, and the military contingent that were their guard. Large areas of Australia, especially in the far tropical north, were only settled in the past 100 years and less. Because of this recent settlement and utilisation, the human population is still low today at some 20 million in a land of 7 690 000km2 , of which vast tracts are desert and semi-desert.

Is this really sheep country?
The first question we asked ourselves was whether cattle and sheep grazing were suited to areas that receive low rainfall and are subject to frequent drought. A case in point is the Anna Creek Station, at 24 000km2 the largest functioning cattle station in the world. That is bigger than our Kruger National Park. It lies at the southern fringe of the Simpson Desert and along part of the salt Lake Eyre in South Australia. It is clearly desert, although some rain had fallen when we travelled through in early 2006. During the dry season they run 12 000 cattle, when good rains fall up to 17600. That gives a maximum carrying capacity during the dry season of one large stock unit to 200ha! Most of the cattle are Santa ­Gertrudis but there are some Longhorn crosses. ­Musterings (roundups) are undertaken with fixed-wing aircraft, motorbikes and horses.

Large tracts of the station consist of ­gibber (pebble) plains, low sand dunes and salt flats. These are at best marginal areas, and overgrazing and erosion were clearly visible. This was something we encountered throughout Australian open-range cattle country. It was in the vicinity of this cattle station that in 1989 381mm of rain fell within 44 hours. ­Station ­owners and ranch hands could not move around their properties for weeks, and in at least one case cattle could not be mustered (rounded up) for several months. A land of real “macho” extremes – years, even decades, of drought, and then such a downpour.
In the Kimberleys, to the north of the Tanami Desert in northern Western ­Australia, sheep ranching was the first farming activity. By 1912 there were some 300 000 sheep, with just two ranches, Liveringa and Noonkanbah, accounting for more than two-thirds of this total. Low wool prices, rising production costs, low lambing rates as a result of disease and predation, and most serious of all, massively reduced ­carrying ­capacities as a result of ­overgrazing, caused a ­complete switchover to cattle. Cattle ranchers trekked with great herds for thousands of ­kilometres from southeastern Australia. They ­followed an open-range system of grazing which continues on many stations to this day. Companies are the ­biggest ranchers now in this area, and in fact across much of Australia’s vast cattle lands. Most properties average 300 000ha! There are few internal fences on the large ranges, and in general there are too few artificial water points, resulting in severe ­over­grazing and trampling around these points. Bulls run with the herds throughout the year, and there can be heavy cow and calf losses towards the end of the dry season. ­Mustering only takes place once or twice each year for branding and market selection.

Cattle in decline
Cattle numbers have fallen drastically here in recent years as grazing ­deteriorates. Fewer than 500 000 head of cattle now range over the Kimberley; the native pastures have relatively poor nutritional value and still dominate, but in recent years ­nitrogen and sulphur supplements have been ­increasingly given to reduce weight loss ­during the dry season. Brahman and Brahman crosses are rapidly replacing Shorthorn stock, as they are better adapted to the tropics. As we crossed the northern cattle country we gained the impression that many areas were overstocked, with overgrazing and erosion clearly visible on many of the stations.

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Then there is the issue of salinification of the soil as a result of overcropping in areas unsuited to this activity. Farmers are in trouble in Western Australia, parts of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. The most extreme impacts are encountered in southwestern Western Australia. In fact in dryland salinity, Western Australia has the dubious label of being the world leader.
Where native woodlands, mainly ­mallee, have been cleared and replaced by short-root crops, these cannot take water at any great depth, and the water table rises. On rising, the groundwater dissolves salts in the soil. The water evaporates on the surface, leaving behind salt which creates salt crusts. These salt areas are difficult and expensive to rehabilitate because they are highly saline and prone to erosion as the soil structure deteriorates. Unlike many native plants, most grain crops are not salt-tolerant. As rains fall, the salt deposits concentrated on the surface drain into streams and rivers.

As with most things in Australia one has to calculate on a massive scale. Consider that some 2,5 million hectares, 14% of all agricultural land, has such high salinity levels that it is for all intents and purposes out of production. This is predicted to rise to 17 million hectares by 2050 and 41 300km of streams will be badly affected by high saline levels. To a greater or lesser extent more than 50% of all farms in Western Australia are affected. There is much talk of replanting and ­rehabilitation, but the expenses would be so huge that even the state and federal governments tend to shy away from the problem. Over three million hectares of land are sown with specialised crops, pasture and salt-resistant fodder plants. Almost 800 000ha have been planted with trees for salinity ­management, and 210 000km of earthworks for salinity management have been erected, but this is still only scratching the surface.

Severe water stress
And in such a parched land, finding enough water, as in South Africa, is an increasingly difficult problem. We crossed the two biggest rivers in the southeast, the Murray and the Darling, and both were very low and under huge pumping pressure. This on rivers where paddle streamers once carried wool bales to inland ports. In some places only a canoe would get through now. The situation is so severe in Western Australia that extreme measures have been mooted. These include constructing a pipeline or canal from the well-watered northern Kimberleys, a distance of over 5 000km. But the costs involved are prohibitive. Towing icebergs up from the Antarctic has been considered but discarded.

Wasteful flood irrigation is still used ­extensively in some areas, especially on huge cotton farms in the east. ­Cubbie Station in southern Queensland is one of Australia’s largest flood-­irrigation ­cotton ­producers. It extends over 80 000ha in the arid ­outback, but not all is actively ­cultivated. In a good season they can inundate 14 300ha with up to 90 000 megalitres from its total ­storage ­capacity of 460 000 megalitres. In a land with decreasing water supplies, and ­suffering frequent drought, flood ­irrigation is wasteful and does not make sense.

We can personally testify to the ­severity of fires, having lived through a massive conflagration to the north of Cape Arid National Park in southwest Australia. As with our South African fynbos, fire plays a natural role in many Australian vegetation types. But as with most things in that country, these fires are on a truly monumental scale. In the 16 months we spent in Australia, fires claimed the lives of eight humans, more than 200 000 sheep and some 5 000 cattle. In one fire in the west of New South Wales on New Year’s Day 2006, at least 30 000 sheep burned to death. As in many other countries, graziers burn veld to improve and stimulate new growth. Unfortunately, in much of the rangelands, especially in the northern ­tropics, regular and indiscriminate burning poses a serious threat to the survival of many of the indigenous, adapted pasture species.

So our friend is at least in large part ­correct: much of Australia is certainly flat, fires and floods are often of epic ­proportion. And that other “f” word? Vast areas of marginal land are overgrazed, trampled and eroded, but some ranches are well run. The size of many of these ranches and stations mitigates against correct ­management. If one thinks of running a 300 000ha ­cattle station with minimal internal fencing, scarce and relatively expensive labour, and only infrequently seeing your livestock … remember many ranches are even ­bigger than this. One sheep station on the ­Nullarbor Plain covers about one million hectares!

One other aspect we have not touched on here is land redistribution to the Aboriginal peoples, a topic familiar to the South ­African farmer. Here in South Africa we tend to think of this as “our” problem but Australian farmers, ­ranchers, politicians, human rights activists and Aboriginals are wrestling with similar issues. This is a topic for another time.

And the last word goes to the flies! We have experienced large numbers of flies in a number of different parts of the world, but there is no doubt that Australia is home to the largest and most persistent fly ­populations on this globe of ours! Whether you are in cattle or sheep country, national parks, beaches or woodland, even the southern cities, for much of the year but especially in summer they are your constant ­companions. What is amazing about many of these bushflies is that they migrate up to 1000km southwards in the warmer months from their breeding grounds. Most females lay their eggs in cattle or sheep dung, which lies around in abundance because there are no indigenous dung beetles adapted to devour this bounty. We thought they were ­seeking moisture from our sweat, and some do, but then we found it strange that they mainly cluster en masse on your back. The reason being, we have since been told, is that they are waiting for you to defecate and provide a feeding and breeding ground! So, there you have the five F’s of Australia. |fw

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