Table Of ContentsNext Page

Establishing a way forward for the management of riparian zones on Queensland dairy farms

Robert Chataway1, John Miller2 and Warren Orr1

1DPI&F, Mutdapilly Research Station, Peak Crossing Qld 4306. Email
DPI&F, Stephens St, Murgon Qld 4605.


Dairy riparian landholders are being challenged to review management practices and modify them where they threaten the integrity of the riparian zone. A better understanding of farmers and agency staff views are needed in developing new strategies to manage riparian zones. Face to face, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 54 farmers and 8 agency staff across Queensland dairy regions. Questions were asked concerning the role of the watercourse and riparian area on the interviewees farm, and what the key issues and major constraints to better riparian zone management were (farmers and agency staff). We found that farmers are highly focused on the economic role this zone plays in the farming business with most resource management issues viewed within this context. With regard to key management issues, the most common State wide issue for farmers was current and potential restrictions on their right to manage and graze the riparian zone as they best saw fit. On a regional basis, major issues were; weed management in south east and central Queensland, bank instability on the Darling Downs and maintenance of water quality on the Atherton Tablelands. For agency specialists, degradation of the riparian zone by grazing animals and invasive vine weeds were two key issues. Farmer and agency interviewees were in general agreement that time and money were the two major constraints to farmers better managing the riparian zone.

Media Summary

Riparian land on Queensland dairy farms is valued for its productive and ecological benefits. There is a need to develop management strategies that protect the environment and are economically feasible to farmers.

Key Words

dairy industry, Queensland, riparian, semi-structured interviews


Dairy farmers in Queensland are being challenged to more actively manage riparian land for improved environmental outcomes. This is due to increasing societal awareness of the important contribution this land plays in catchment health – water quality, stream processes, provision of habitat and maintenance of biodiversity (Tubman and Price 1999) – and demands of State legislation, for example, Water Act 2000. However, the management of watercourses and their associated riparian zones is a contested issue. Historically they have been important sources of water, shade and forage on dairy farms. Management strategies that provide improved environmental outcomes for the riparian area may be in conflict with production values of that land area. A better understanding of farmers and agency officer’s views on key management issues will provide a more informed grounding on which improved practices can be developed. Semi-structured interviews can provide a rich description of the social dimensions and process that underpin a particular issue or situation (Boxelaar and Paine 2005). This paper reviews the finding of semi-structured interviews conducted with dairy farmers and agency staff located in the State’s main dairy regions.

What was done

Face to face semi-structured interviews (Sarantakos 1998) were conducted with 54 farmers and face to face or telephone interviews conducted with 8 agency staff involved with riparian zone management across the State (Table 1). Potential farmer contacts and agency staff were obtained from the five subtropical dairy program teams located across the State (Chamberlain 2000). On contacting these teams, it was requested that farmers recommended would represent the diversity of opinion expected on riparian zone management. Nominated farmers were contacted regarding their willingness to participate in an interview. Of those contacted only a small proportion of farmers (<5%) were unwilling to participate. The farmer interviews obtained views on the role of watercourses and riparian areas on their farms, the key management issues associated with the riparian zone and the main constraints to better riparian management. Agency staff came from different organisations; local councils, catchment management authorities and State departments. Interviews with agency staff focused on what they saw to be the key management issues associated with the riparian zone and how they believed these should be resolved. The one dairy researcher interviewed all farmers and agency staff in southern and northern Queensland while another interviewed farmers in the Fitzroy Catchment. Interviews were conducted between October 2004 and March 2005. During the interviews, detailed notes were taken, typed up, and mailed back to interviewees to check for correctness. The interviews were analysed in terms of the broad themes that emerged from them.

Table 1. The distribution of interviewees across dairy catchments of Queensland, April 2005


Total dairy enterprises in the catchment

Farmers Interviewed

Agency staff interviewed

Southern Queensland









Burnett and Mary








Central Queensland





North Queensland








State Total





What we were told

The role that watercourses and riparian areas play in the farming enterprise

Watercourses and their associated riparian areas were generally valued for their functional attributes; larger reliable streams for their supply of water and smaller ephemeral streams and gullies for the provision of shade and forage. The value of streams was tempered by their management cost, particularly if they were susceptible to wild flooding, had steep unstable banks and/or divided farms. A small number of farmers commented on the value of streams and their environs in providing habitat for rare or endangered fauna.

What are the key management issues associated with the riparian zone

A key issue raised by farmers across the State was in relation to their current and future rights with respect to management activities within the riparian zone. Concern was expressed about current lack of rights to conduct activities in the stream bed, such as the removal of vegetation, and the future threat of compulsory fencing and complete exclusion of cattle from the riparian zone. New approaches to stream management appeared contradictory to some, ‘Once they would have paid you to keep the watercourse free. Now they are likely to charge you if you remove anything from it.’ (Logan Catchment) There was also concern that generic regulations may be applied across the State and this would be inappropriate given that ‘Creeks are unique in their problems. We need to avoid narrow, specific guidelines.’(Logan Catchment).

On a regional basis, weed management was the most common issue raised by farmers and agency staff in SE and Central Queensland. The two weeds considered most problematic to the riparian zone were cat’s claw vine (Macfadyena ungis-catii) and chinese celtis (Celtis sinensis). In North Queensland para grass (Brachiaria mutica) is problematic in the riparian zone. What was considered a weed was somewhat situational. For example, on a farm that lacked shade trees on the Mary River, camphor laurel, chinese celtis and wild tobacco ‘if animals can get under them’ were not considered weeds (Mary River Catchment).

In the Condamine Catchment, bank erosion was a key issue raised by farmer and agency interviewees. Farmer interviewees mainly attributed the problem to the removal of willow trees (Salix spp.) over 25 years prior by the local River Improvement Trust to improve the flow of water and reduce the risk of flooding. A number of farmers expressed anger about this removal as they believe it did a lot of damage. Agency staff attributed the poor bank stability to a wider suite of factors that included the lack of woody vegetation, uncontrolled grazing, siltation of waterways and invasion of the riparian area by lippia (Phyla canescens).

In North Queensland, having water leaving the farm of an acceptable quality was a key issue raised by a number of farmers. Farmers identified good grass cover on slopes and gullies as an important factor in achieving good water quality outcomes. Water quality outcomes were not raised by farmers in other State dairy regions but were raised as a key issue by agency staff across the State.

Flooding, grazing management and the role of woody vegetation were other issues raised across the State. Flooding was a particular issue for farmers located on streams lower in the catchment. The recurring cost on fencing and rehabilitation works is a major deterrent to undertaking on-ground works. With respect to grazing, farmer interviewees generally favoured controlled grazing in the riparian zone to manage weeds, reduce the risk of fire and keep the area ‘open’ and accessible. While agency staff were sympathetic to these reasons for grazing, they generally stated that ideally cattle would not access the riparian area and farmers would be assisted financially to manage the area for improved environmental outcomes. With respect to the role of woody vegetation on stream banks, while farmers were mostly in agreement that it had a role in stabilising banks, they questioned its’ importance relative to grasses. A mix of grasses and trees was considered desirable in minimising erosion. Agency staffers were more positive in valuing woody vegetation for maintaining stream stability. In relation to how far the tree line should extend from the stream edge, for most farmers it was no more than stream width or alternatively to the top of the first bank. Economic consideration was the common reason for restricting the width. Agency staff varied in their opinion on this matter. However, most were pragmatic in their approach and considered that the ‘bottom line’ was the importance of continuing to have dialogue with farmers and not being too prescriptive to achieve this.

Constraints farmers face in managing the riparian zone in the way they would like best

Money and time were the two main constraints to better management that farmers routinely raised. Even when funding is available for project materials, being time poor makes it difficult to undertake field work. A number of farmers expressed frustration with funding approaches to riparian works. They believed that the current approach was too piecemeal and there were too many agencies involved. ‘There is a need for ongoing commitment rather than small piecemeal activities.’ (Brisbane River Catchment) While farmers views varied on what activities they believed should be eligible for funding, there was a general concern that support for ongoing management/maintenance costs could not be assured. Other issues that constrain action were unfavourable seasonal conditions, lack of awareness of degradation and inability to access advice through qualified extension personnel.


Farmers continue to value watercourses and their adjacent lands primarily for their functional (economic) value to the farm. With declining terms of trade and periods of prolonged drought following deregulation of the milk industry in July 2000, most farmers aren’t well placed to reduce reliance, or increase expenditure on riparian land, to achieve improved environmental outcomes. Some form of co-funding is important in demonstrating the wider communities willingness to pay for environmental benefits sought (Vanclay 2004).

While not articulated by farmers, the concern about current and potential loss of management rights to watercourses and adjacent lands may be in response to the increasing level of legislation that has been introduced to protect the integrity of watercourses and vegetation communities, for example the Vegetation Management Act 1999 and Water Act 2000. There is a need for greater dialogue between farmers and those responsible for implementing legislation to better understand the rationale behind legislative changes.

Regional issues provide a good entry point for discussion and investigation into other riparian management issues. There is also the opportunity for interaction and learning between regions. For example, there is increasing pressure on primary producers in SE Queensland to reduce sediment and nutrient input to streams that discharge into Moreton Bay (Slack-Smith 2005). Farmers from north Queensland, who have been under scrutiny for some time with respect to concerns regarding the net export of nutrients to the Great Barrier Reef (Prove et al. 1996), may be able to assist farmers in SE Queensland in developing an appropriate response to this issue.

With respect to grazing, and the maintenance or expansion of woody vegetation layers along streams, there was some difference between farmers and agency staff interviewees in their views. In general, farmers placed greater importance on maintaining a grass understorey and a grazing animal presence. This particular desired view of a riparian landscape by farmers has been noted before (Chataway et al. 2002) and contrasts with the more heterogeneous and multi-storeyed landscape generally favoured from an ecological perspective (Jansen and Robertson 2001).

Farmers and agency staff are in general agreement that money and time are the two main constraints preventing better management of the riparian area. The call for a more consistent approach to the reimbursement of farmers for the range of non-crop services provided is becoming increasingly common amongst industry organisations and service providers (Lovett et al. 2004).


There is a level of agreement between farmers and agency staff on some of the key management issues associated the riparian zone. Time and money however constrain better management of the zone. There is a need for an on-going commitment from the wider community to assist farmers in undertaking management activities within this zone that will achieve improved environmental outcomes while enabling farmers to retain or improve their current economic viability.


The study was supported through funding from the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries and Dairy Australia.


Boxelaar L, Paine M (2005) 'The social dimensions of on-farm change to improve water quality and biodiversity.' Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Chamberlain P (2000) Outcomes from farmer defined research priorities. In 'AAAP-ASAP Satellite Conference'. Gatton. (Ed. T Cowan) pp. 46-53. (University of Queensland: Gatton, Qld)

Chataway RG, Orr WN, Lowe S (2002) Sloping land and riparian zone management on Bremer River catchment dairy farms. In 'Proceedings of the Fifth IFSA European Symposium April 2002'. Florence, Italy pp. 793-794

Jansen A, Robertson AI (2001) Relationships between livestock management and the ecological condition of riparian habitats along an Australian floodplain river. Journal of Applied Ecology 38, 63-75.

Lovett S, Price P, Cork S (2004) 'Riparian ecosystem services.' Fact Sheet 12, Land and Water Australia, Canberra.

Prove B, Moody PW, Reghenzani J (1996) 'Nutrient balances and transport from agricultural and rainforest lands: a case study in the Johnstone River Catchment. Final Report, Project DAQ3S.' Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane.

Sarantakos S (1998) 'Social research.' (Macmillan: South Yarra)

Slack-Smith E (2005) 'Diffuse source best management practices: review of efficacy and costs.' WBM Oceanics Australia, prepared for Moreton Bay Waterways and Catchments Partnership, Brisbane.

Tubman W, Price P (1999) The significance and status of riparian land. In 'Riparian Land Management Technical Guidelines, Volume One: Principles of Sound Management'. (Eds S Lovett and P Price). (LWRRDC: Canberra)

Vanclay F (2004) Social principles for agricultural extension to assist in the promotion of natural resource management. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 44, 213-222.

Top Of PageNext Page