Mosaic irrigation for the northern beef industry

We undertook a comprehensive assessment of opportunities for establishing and operating mosaic irrigation to support the intensification and diversification of beef production in northern Australia.

A major industry

The beef industry is an important part of the economy, culture and landscape of northern Australia.

The $1 billion industry accounts for five per cent of all jobs in the north, covers 90 per cent of the land area, carries 30 per cent of the nation's cattle numbers and produces 80 per cent of Australia's live cattle exports. It is based on extensive grazing of mostly native and naturalised pastures and by area it is the dominant commercial land use in the north.

However, the industry faces a number of challenges including declining terms of trade and exposure to market shocks.

A place for mosaic irrigation?

Irrigated forage production has been widely advocated as one way the productivity of the northern beef industry may be increased. Irrigation mosaics involve irrigation of small discrete patches of land dispersed across the landscape rather than concentrated in irrigation schemes or precincts.

It has been suggested that incorporating irrigated mosaics into beef production systems would confer a number of benefits, including enabling beef enterprises to:

  • have cattle reach turn-off weights sooner
  • meet markets with higher specifications
  • turn-off at times of year when prices are higher
  • facilitate increased reproduction from first and second calf heifers.

The potential for mosaic irrigation to deliver these benefits, however, has been largely untested.

Assessing the sustainability of mosaic agriculture in northern Australia

We worked with industry to examine the practicalities of establishing mosaic irrigation for the northern Australian beef industry.

The project aimed to help maximise the value of mosaic irrigation for the northern beef industry, by identifying where and at what scale it can be most effective, as well as identifying how it can be most productively incorporated into the north's existing beef production systems.

Research findings

  1. Northern Australian groundwater resources provide opportunity to increase beef production via irrigation.
  2. Mosaic irrigation to support northern Australian beef enterprises has the potential to become more commonplace over the next decade.
  3. A high proportion of northern Australia's pastoral properties may have enough suitable soils and water for small-scale irrigation.
  4. Ready availability of forage grown on property could drive positive change to beef production systems and boost productivity at the enterprise scale.
  5. Mosaic irrigation to enhance the beef industry is not dependent on large scale public investment in infrastructure.
  6. The environmental impacts of mosaic irrigation development will be small compared with those of the cattle industry itself and other land uses.
  7. Mosaic irrigation promises modest benefits to northern beef enterprises provided systems are carefully designed, constructed and managed.
  8. While they are small compared with the size of pastoral stations, mosaic irrigation units may constitute a high proportion of the capital value of the entire enterprise.
  9. There is renewed and new impetus for the diversification of pastoral enterprises in northern Australia.
  10. Constraints to the development of mosaic irrigation on beef cattle enterprises are largely institutional, social and economic, rather than biophysical.
  11. Lack of data can obstruct sound decision-making.
  12. Graziers planning mosaic irrigation must access specialist advice and carefully select where irrigation units are placed on their properties in order to maximise the chances of success.
  13. The likely scale and distribution of mosaic irrigation suggest major regional impacts are unlikely.
  14. Mosaic irrigation developments require an immediate return on investment.
  15. Environmental risks must be managed strategically.
  16. Mosaic irrigation is unlikely to transform landscapes or the northern beef industry, but it has potential to transform some businesses/enterprises.

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