Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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HomeIssue 50Head count – tourists or cattle

Head count – tourists or cattle


A cow is worth $1100. The carrying capacity of cattle land in The Centre is two cows per square kilometre. They are sold as three-year-olds. So a square kilometre of cattle land will earn its owner $733 a year.

Not a lot of money, yet there is lively trading in that land, and clearly all eyes will be how owners can boost that return.

Table grapes and watermelons grow well in the region. How would either stack up against cattle in land productivity?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the national yield for “other grapes” in 2018-19 was 12.5 tonnes per hectare, or 125.2 tonnes per square kilometre.

The national yield for “melons” in 2018-19 was 32.9 tonnes per hectare, or 328.8 tonnes per square kilometre.

Beats the hell out of just two cows, the product from “pastoral” square kilometres of land.

The Financial Review reported earlier this year that Narwietooma, Derwent and Glen Helen were bought for $38.5m or $3460 per square kilometre by Tim and Emily Edmunds to add to their nearby Napperby Station.

Roy and Janet Chisholm had moved from Napperby east to the Stuart Highway near TiTree where they are now growing not cattle but fodder, and plan to found a horticulture empire.

Among other things they produce fodder called Rhodes at five tonnes per hectare and $350 per tonne.

So here we have cattle. Add water. Stir and shake vigorously until a consensus, however reluctant, is found by the cattlemen, the government and the environment movement for turning pastoral into horticultural land.

Given the measly $733, diversification into products other than meat is what the future use of rural land may be all about.

Fortune Agribusiness has $150m burning holes into its pockets, ready to plough it into horticulture development at Singleton in the Davenport Ranges about 400 km north of Alice Springs.

For a few decades we were counting the heads of tourists to gauge our economy. Now we’re back to cattle, but with horticulture tacked on.

John Childs, now retired, is the author of an immensely detailed water resources map of the NT.

He says the Singleton area is well documented, allowing reliable judgments to be made in the current consideration of a 40,000 megalitre per year application from Fortune Agribusiness.

If granted, it would be the single largest private water licence allocation in the NT which does not currently have a water pricing regime and does not charge developers for water, writes the Guardian.

The newspaper quotes the NT Environment Centre’s chief executive, Kirsty Howey saying: “It is beyond the pale to be giving water licences to developers and ensuring they have rights to water when there are no water rights existing with respect to safe drinking water in remote Indigenous communities.”

Fortune Agribusiness plans to develop 3,500 hectares of “intensive irrigated horticulture” including avocados, mandarins and grapes.

There are some sticking points: Our free-range cattle are sent out to graze. Apart from ultimately being rounded up for transport to slaughter their main encounter with humans is being mustered, branded, castrated and dehorned (not a happy occasion altogether).

Using the land for horticulture requires workers. The reluctance of Aboriginal people to do that kind of work is well-known. This is treated with embarrassed silence by some, scorn by others, and inexplicably remains a talking point every time someone promotes a project, including mines, stressing the multitude of jobs being created.

This undignified charade can go on without consequences because no matter how many jobs are offered, they’re not going to be taken up.

According to a local, TiTree right now has a shortage of 100 grape pickers. None of the locals on welfare are putting up their hand. In fact traditional owners even flick work on land which they own to itinerant backpackers or interstate teams.

But cattle are there to stay and even prosper further, if Jock McPherson gets his way.

As an employee of stock and station businesses in The Centre for decades, and owning one himself, the industry icon is likely to answer the question “have you been in the cattle industry all your life” by saying: “Not yet.”

He says Alice Springs remains the cheapest place in Australia to run a cow.

“It’s all about the size of the leases, the steady improvement of the quality of stock, the ongoing development of transport equipment and infrastructure.

“You can run significant numbers up here. There is no better place to rear a calf anywhere anywhere else in Australia.

“It’s a great environment to raise organic certified cattle, chemical free.”

Premiums of 25% to 30% are paid for organically raised stock.

Mr McPherson, peeping out at the cattle scene from under his Akubra for decades, says he’s an interested observer of the development of horticulture, especially growing cattle feed locally which saves transportation costs from south.

“It’s a good thing, depending on what they are growing. Buying hay down south means you have to cart it a long way.”

He’s keeping an eye on growing crops and vegetables in TiTree and Ali Curung including table grapes and melons but doesn’t see an explosive development of the industry.

Over time Chinese entities had come and “shown a bit of interest, wanting to know all sorts of questions, but it didn’t lead to much,” he says.

An advantage of diversification is the influx of people from other parts of the country who have skill sets not strongly represented in The Centre.

Running killing works are a vexed issue at the moment, a fact confirmed by on-again, off again Noonamah abattoir in the Top End.

There is no reliable stream of cattle nor of workers throughout the year.

The mustering season is mostly from mid-year to September or October, says Mr McPherson.

“A constant supply all year ’round doesn’t happen.”


UPDATE 5.30pm

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security said today, in part referring to the Singleton project:-

The application was published as a notice of intent to make a licence decision in September 2020; the public comment period closed October 2020.  The department is continuing to process the application.

The Controller of Water Resources is aware that we are about to enter the Christmas period and in the interest of open and transparent decision making will not make a decision regarding the application until the New Year.

The Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan 2018-21 provides detailed information about the hydrogeological nature of resource; outlines the available water, and allocates water across a range of beneficial uses, with primacy to the environment and public water supply.

One of the Plan’s key features was an increase in the groundwater allocations for consumptive uses from 44,150 to 138,405 megalitres per year.

The Plan identifies three management zones. Singleton Station is located in the Central Plains management zone, which is the largest water resource area under the plan and key for horticultural developments. In this zone the Plan sets aside 56,725ML of groundwater per year to support environment and cultural beneficial uses.

The Plan also makes available 87,720ML of groundwater for consumptive use, which includes an allocation of 500 ML/year for public water supply and 26,091ML for Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserves within the Central Plains management zone, as per page 9 of the Plan.


  1. Several issues arise. Having gone through the trials and tribulations of growing vegetables and fruit in the SA Riverland with saline water and watched the degradation of land. It is obvious that the water evaporates but the salts do not.
    We all see the results in our swampies. Please plan for it now. The waste land via salt in WA and South Australia should be a warning. It would be wise to look at how Israel handles the problem as they are making lots of money selling their technology to desert countries.
    I was a spokesman for the Australian Democrats on water matters in SA and I see the same issues arising here 40 years later.
    The research and promotion of a wide range of horticultural prospects should have been on display where the Kilgqriff estate is now, years ago to attract the type of investment that are now being looked at here.
    The company mentioned in the article is but one of many (see Wide Open Agriculture and Camelicious in Dubai to see what is possible), sniffing at the edges of intensive food production and as mentioned at the time the opportunity cost of that development at Kilgariff is proving to be large, while demonstrations of what is possible and sustainable here are well hidden away near the jail where prospective investors cannot readily inspect them.

  2. “The reluctance of Aboriginal people to do that kind of work is well-known.”
    Let’s be fair Erwin, this applies to Aussie workers in general.
    I have just heard on the news that some fruit pickers are working for $3/hour!
    A big project down south to entice unemployed workers to pick fruit including travel assistance etc had produced 27 workers.
    Conditions are sometimes appalling and worker facilities sub standard.
    Underpayment seems to be the norm throughout the industry.
    Backpackers are coerced by visa requirements.
    And Trevor is correct: Irrigation is usually a mining operation with limited life, particularly where you have underground water and massive evaporation.


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