Pastoralism began in Cape York Peninsula when the Jardine brothers drove 250 cattle from Bowen to Somerset on the tip of Cape York Peninsula. This epic journey was not because any pastoral paradise was beckoning but rather in response to their father’s need for fresh meat at the establishing settlement of Somerset. Their journal records the spectrum of country in Cape York Peninsula, from forested sand ridges and dense scrubs to waterless, treeless coastal plains and boggy tea tree flats.
Much of Cape York Peninsula shares the uniformity of low soil fertility, the legacy of eons of long dry seasons and leaching rainfall. Soils are generally sandy, poorly structured, infertile, and prone to erosion. Consequently, pasture is generally sparse, rapidly-maturing and low in nutritive value.
Climate is monsoonal wet-dry with growing seasons varying from 7 months in the south east to 3 months in the south-west. The wet season is reliable by Australian standards. The dry season is relentlessly dry except in the south east corner. Temperatures rarely limit growth of tropically-adapted plants.
Fewer than 60 holdings, mostly family-held and operated, carry about 170,000 cattle grazing about 7 million hectares. Pastoral holdings vary in size from 50,000 to 300,000 hectares, smaller holdings being in the more climatically-favoured south east. Average herd size is about 1400. Gross annual value of turnoff is generally less than $10 million and many landholder families rely on off-property income to continue operating.
Carrying capacities on the best grazing country, black soils dominated by dense pastures of plume sorghum, giant spear and annual kangaroo grass, vary from 10 to 20 hectares per head. Much more commonly, sandridges and drainage depressions with poor soils and sparse pastures dominated by fire grass and wanderrie grasses support half to one-quarter this density of cattle.
Low carrying capacity and productivity has effects both within and without pastoral businesses. On property, improvements where costs are proportional to carrying capacity, fencing, water point development, and clearing have been slow to occur. Boundary fencing is often incomplete and dry season water points often sparse. Clearing has been minimal and further discouraged by dense and vigorous regrowth of native vegetation. In the region generally, roads are abominable and communications difficult.
The original Shorthorn herd, with some South Devon injections, has slowly been upgraded toward majority Brahman blood since the 1960s. Herd improvement and infrastructure development accelerated during the 1980s tuberculosis eradication campaign even while numbers were drastically reduced through destocking of infected areas. There is still a feral herd of predominantly Shorthorn blood living outside built paddocks. Apart from the success of old-fashioned cattle at breeding in good seasons, the contrast in productivity between the feral cattle and the modern cattle adapted to heat and ticks is stark.
Since the 1980s there has been intensification of cattle management, with active weaning, supplementary feeding with urea and phosphorus, and, on a smaller scale, oversowing of native pastures with legumes.
Cattle turnoff rates are still limited by mustering and marketing costs. Old cows are a particular problem and most still die on property. There is increasing interest in turning off younger cattle, perhaps even weaners, but risk averse pastoralists, who remember the 1974 slump when most cattle were unsaleable, like to diversify turnoff ages to keep their options open.
Heavy monsoonal rain in January-March often makes access both to and on land difficult from January until June. Until the recent advent of sporadic live export through Weipa, markets were distant over very poor roads, expensive to get cattle to and uncertain as to price for a product that is often unsuitable. For most pastoral enterprises, marketing of cattle is still problematical.
Cattle management is dominated by annual mustering that is becoming bi-annual as pastoralists develop trapping techniques in lieu of helicopter mustering. Aside from fencing, management has traditionally revolved around use of fire, both to enhance cattle management and protect pasture from wildfires. Whereas regular winter burning of the same small patches was once common as a mustering aid, burning is now much more geared toward controlling shrub and tree density by burning after early summer storms. Spelling in the growing season prior to burning is recognized as good practice but few pastoralists have enough paddocks to fully implement it. Wildfire is a recurring problem and preventative cool-season burning is essential to avoiding late dry season disaster.
Widespread weeds are Hyptis and Sida, which are generally confined to patches of high grazing pressure beside streams and swamps and in holding paddocks. The past decade has seen an influx of aggressive weeds, the most problematic for pastoralists in the south east being Sicklepod, Grader Grass and Lion's Tail.
With limited fencing, feral cattle, especially bulls, are the most significant pest animals, and considerable effort is put into culling them so that they don’t dilute the effects of upgrading herd genetic quality. Fluctuating numbers of pigs cause considerable damage to pasture and water in favoured areas, and dingoes and wild dogs attack young and weakened cattle.
Increasing the numbers of cattle grazing on native pastures is limited to increasing the density of dry-season stock watering points and thereby making more pasture accessible. Although higher levels of pasture utilisation are possible, increased grazing pressure is not applied uniformly and almost certainly will lead to degradation of more fertile areas along stream banks and drainage lines.
Higher performance of cattle could result from better management of nutritional supplements but since these generally work by increasing forage intake, they also endanger the more fertile areas unless numbers are adjusted to compensate.
In Cape York Peninsula the potential to increase cattle performance by oversowing native pastures with exotic legumes is severely limited by low soil fertility and by environmental considerations. Scope for increasing carrying capacity through more intensive pasture improvement is severely limited by restrictions on tree clearing as well as low fertility and environmental considerations.
A number of properties have been withdrawn from the cattle industry with the gazettal of National Parks, and tourism is an increasing form of income for both a number of individual properties, and the region as a whole. Several other pastoral leases are now in Aboriginal ownership, some still managed actively as cattle enterprises. There is still scope for cattle enterprises to be developed on Aboriginal land, both pastoral leases and traditional, with good social outcomes, but it cannot be seen as economic salvation for significant numbers of people. Indeed, a viable Cape York Peninsula economy will certainly be based on a multiple-use environment in which the pastoral industry is but one contributor.
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