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To Stand Still is to go Backwards: Effective NRM Extension in the Burdekin Rangelands

Bob Shepherd

Senior Extension Officer, DPI&F, PO Box 976, Charters Towers Q 4820. www.dpi.qld.gov.au Email bob.shepherd@dpi.qld.gov.au

Abstract

The results of a change in extension focus precipitated by extensive land degradation in the Burdekin Rangelands in North Queensland are presented. The breadth of extension activities and cooperative approach between landcare groups and extension staff from QDPI&F and other agencies is highlighted. Relevant and local research work that provided much of the content for extension activities is summarised. Financial incentives provided by externally funded programs were a major factor in the significant implementation of on-ground works including 1782km of riparian fencing, 638 km of subdivisional fencing, 161 off stream watering points, 121 additional waters to spread grazing pressure, 10,660 kg of herbicides for weed control and reclamation of 8897ha of degraded land. Other outcomes from the extension program and reasons for high levels of participation are listed. Inadequate evaluation of changes in grazier attitude and grazing land management practices is identified as the major deficiency of the extension work. Improvements for future projects are also suggested including a succession plan for extension officers and employing generation Y staff to work with generation Y graziers.

Introduction

Like most other extensive grazing areas in Queensland, production was the focus of extension in the Burdekin Rangelands prior to the mid 1980’s. Poor land management during the drought years of the 1980’s precipitated a change in priorities by the beef industry and associated agencies in the Burdekin Rangelands. Driving between Mt Garnet and Clermont or Townsville and Hughenden in 1987, clearly demonstrated that most properties were devoid of grass cover. The root cause was the high levels of adoption of modern technologies promoted by industry and the QDPI that finally exceeded the capacity of the land to support them. These technologies included rapid movement and return of cattle during and after drought, cattle breeds adapted to drought and parasites, survival feeding which allowed the landscape to be “vacuum cleaned” of grass and drought assistance schemes that rewarded poor land management.

This paper provides an outline of the extension effort used to broaden the focus of beef producers to achieve a greater level of adoption of sustainable grazing land management practices.

Increased Awareness of Sustainable Rangeland Management

DPI & CSIRO research projects established in the mid-1980’s quantified the effects of poor management and resulting land degradation on runoff and soil loss. (McIvor et.al.1995; Scanlan et.al.1996). Charters Towers branch of the Cattleman’s Union (CU) recognised that continued land degradation on such a widespread scale was a threat to the long-term viability of the beef industry in the Burdekin Rangelands. A well attended CU forum led to the formation of the Dalrymple Landcare Committee (DLC) in mid-1988 with the following objectives:-

  • To create an awareness of the level of land degradation in the Dalrymple Shire
  • To extend alternative land use and cattle management practices to improve the productivity of Dalrymple Shire
  • To promote the highest level of productivity without detriment to the natural heritage of Dalrymple Shire.

Nine field days and property-walks between 1989 and 1994 conducted by the DLC and supported by DPI, CSIRO, Tropical Weeds Research Centre (Lands Dept) and QNPWS, created a high level of awareness amongst graziers of land degradation in the Burdekin Rangelands. A needs assessment conducted by DPI in 1991 highlighted woody weeds, pasture degradation, soil erosion, drought management and marketing of cattle as being the major issues that beef producers felt they could do something about to improve their beef production enterprises (Mims & Reid 1992). This was a clear indication that grazier awareness of land management issues was high.

On-Ground Activities

Severe drought from mid 1991 to 1994 further reinforced the need for improved management of grazing land. While the Dalrymple Shire Council provided machinery at a subsidised rate to assist landholders with soil conservation works, it was not until the Drought Landcare Program (DLP) and the Drought Regional Initiative (DRI) commenced in 1994 that there was widespread action on land degradation. Nine local landcare groups formed, and used these funds to commence weed control programs. The success of the DLP and DRI was the realisation that working in groups could attract funds and result in significant on-ground change. Over the next ten years, the number of landcare groups increased to twenty and 59 projects were implemented with $5,189,426 of funding from NHT-1&2, NAP and the Burdekin Rangelands Reef Initiative (a DPI program). Landholders contributed a matching contribution of three times this amount. The DLC was the proponent for most of these projects. Using the ideas of local landcare group members, landcare coordinators employed by the DLC and DPI extension officers each wrote half of the project submissions. On-ground works implemented by the landholders in landcare groups are shown in table 1.

Table 1. On-ground works implemented by landholders from 1994 to 2004

On-ground Activity

Length

Area

Quantity

Time

Riparian fencing to regulate grazing frontage and riparian areas

1782km

     

Subdivisional fencing of large paddocks to allow wet season spelling

638km

     

Additional watering points to spread grazing pressure across properties

   

121

 

Off-stream watering points to decrease reliance of cattle on natural waterholes and springs

   

161

 

Fencing areas of critical habitat eg softwood scrubs and springs

10km

     

Reclamation of degraded land by ripping and seeding

 

8897 ha

   

Strategic control of a range of Weeds of National Significance (WONS) using herbicides & bulldozers

   

5660 L
5000 kg

504 dozer hrs
5265 man days

Tree planting in near-urban areas

 

2 ha

   

Other on-ground activities included an extensive feral pig control program along a 100 km section of the Burdekin River, harvesting of native pasture seed to sow on degraded land and water quality monitoring using two hydrolabs.

Concurrent Research Projects

Ecological Studies in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ECOSSAT) was a large CSIRO trial investigating the options for managing grazing land including stocking rates, tree clearing, sown pastures and fertilizer application in the Burdekin Rangelands (McIvor & Moneypenny 1995). The trial established appropriate stocking rates for native pastures and improved pastures, and highlighted the environmental impacts of overgrazing.

Much applied research work on the ecology and management of woody weeds and feral pigs by the staff at the Tropical Weeds Research Centre has assisted graziers to make substantial inroads in controlling pest plants and animals in the Burdekin Rangelands. Bio-control agents have been released for rubber vine, parkinsonia, lantana, parthenium, bellyache bush and harrisia cactus. The rubber vine rust is the most successful agent released to date. It has increased the use of fire to control what was the district’s worst weed. The staff has also willingly provided training to graziers, local government personnel and weed spraying teams on weed identification and chemical application techniques. Field days have been held on many of the TWRC applied research sites.

The Ecograze trial conducted by CSIRO and DPI identified the grazing management practices required to keep grazing land in good condition or recover degraded land. It also demonstrated the rate at which unsustainable practices could degrade land in good condition. The key practices identified to promote good land condition included wet season spelling, light to moderate pasture utilisation rates and the use of fire (Ash et.al.2001).

Commencing in 1997, the “Wambiana” trial is the most comprehensive research project in the grazing lands of the Burdekin Dry Tropics region. The impacts of a range of grazing systems on biodiversity, runoff & soil loss, land condition, beef production and economics are being measured (O’Reagain & Bushell 1999). Many groups including graziers, students, bankers, policy makers, Qld Rural Adjustment Authority & Meat & Livestock Australia board members and research & extension officers have visited the trial.

Prior to 1998, the parameters for good water quality in the dry tropics were based on wet tropics streams. At the invitation of the DLC, the Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research (ACTFR) at JCU commenced work on water quality monitoring as part of an extensive riparian fencing project in the Cape River catchment. Much research work followed, on the impacts of cattle grazing in riparian zones on water quality. ACTFR has expanded its staff and post-graduate students, largely due to their work in the grazing lands of the Burdekin Basin.

The Burdekin Catchment Healthy Country project at “Virginia Park” has taken the grazing land management practices identified from the EcoGraze project and demonstrated their application at the commercial paddock scale. Monitoring of runoff and soil loss at a range of scales from less than one hectare to 300 hectares has been done in parallel with the grazing management work. This information in conjunction with SEDNET modelling produced a sediment budget for the whole Burdekin Basin and identified the hotspot areas for high erosion rates (Roth et.al. 2004).

Most of these projects were part funded by the beef industry R&D body, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA).

Concurrent Extension Projects/Activities:

While the on-ground projects were running between 1994 and 2004, a wide range of extension projects and activities were conducted. The Dalrymple Landcare committee held field days/seminars on pasture identification & management, managing small-holdings, managing the three “V”s (Viability of enterprises, Vulnerability of production/markets & Variability of rainfall) and hosted a district landcare conference and a national dryland salinity conference. All of these extension events were strongly supported by DPI, CSIRO, Tropical Weeds Research Centre, JCU and QPWS and were well attended by graziers.

Producer demonstration sites (PDS) and producer initiated research & development sites (PIRDS) were established on four properties to address a range of issues, including land reclamation, pastures for flooded areas and improving herd efficiency (more with less). The demonstrations were at a commercial scale and were funded by MLA, DPI and agribusiness.

Using a modified version of the Local Consensus Data technique (Clark et.al.1992), Local Best Practice information was documented from nine groups of graziers (primarily landcare groups) with similar land types (Kernot 1998). Modelling “what if scenarios” using the herd models of Holmes (2002) showed that significant efficiencies in terms of reduced stocking rates, were often possible by adopting the group’s collective best practice knowledge. Six of the groups participated in Smart Manager, a follow-up project that documented herd performance and identified improved management options at the individual property level (Kernot 2004).

A range of extension activities were run under the DPI’s Risk Management & Drought program to encourage graziers to better manage for drought, these included climate workshops, pasture monitoring and pasture budgeting, alternative industries seminars (Shepherd & Lewis 1993), documentation of a series of case studies on managing risk (Wheeler & Cahill 2001) and the Northern Stocking Rate demonstration project using breeder cattle (Smith 2000).

Graziers participated in property management planning workshops from 1989 to 2002. The actual workshop format evolved from property mapping and area measurement (Cannon & Cummins 1989) to FutureProfit, which was a holistic approach based on the South Australian model of Heinjus & Read (1993). This training encouraged graziers to make strategic decisions when participating in externally funded on-ground projects. Six Burdekin Rangelands groups participated in the mapping workshops; seven participated in FutureProfit. An estimated fifty graziers also participated in the Grazing For Profit course offered by Resource Consulting Services.

To address the problem of non-viable property size, the Desert Uplands Committee obtained state and federal funds to conduct a property build-up scheme. The scheme provided an interest rate subsidy on the cost of partnership rearrangements, property build-up, property development, succession planning, leasing additional land, and diversification. Approximately 50 properties participated in the scheme; the majority were from the Burdekin Rangelands section of the Desert Uplands.

To increase the adoption rate of industry sponsored R&D, MLA funded DPI and other agencies to develop the Grazing Land Management Education package (Chilcott et.al.2003). The information is delivered as an interactive workshop that covers the grazing land ecosystem, managing grazing, fire, weeds, sown pastures, tree-grass balance and planning. The GLM workshop is an integral component DPI&F’s current extension effort in the Burdekin Rangelands. The package meets the requirements of Frank (1995) that innovation must be assessed in conjunction with associated practices and not as an isolated entity. It is easily tailored to meet the needs of specific groups of graziers.

Using CSIRO’s SEDNET modelling of the Burdekin Basin, two of the highest sediment producing sub-catchments have been chosen for a new extension project to improve grazing land management and reduce sediment discharge. The findings of this project will be applicable to other extensive grazing land catchments in Queensland. The project, funded by AgSIP, is providing an opportunity to work exclusively with the graziers in these two sub-catchments using a mixture of group and one-on-one extension. This project is in contrast to past extension projects where the “vegemite approach” was adopted as the high priority areas were not adequately quantified.

Other extension activities included:-

  • Modelling the herd and financial performance at the enterprise level using the DPI&F herd models Breedcow & Dynama. (Holmes 1995)
  • Rural Community Development including the Building Rural Leaders program, working with indigenous groups and small rural towns to create employment opportunities in conjunction with the development of the White Mountains National Park.
  • Meat Profit Days in Townsville and Charters Towers, beef marketing forums, grazing land management forums and a bankers forum/field trip on land capability and land condition. All of these events were joint efforts by DPI&F extension officers and the North Queensland Beef Research Committee.
  • Student education; Charters Towers & Dalrymple Shire has four secondary schools, a school of distance education and seven primary schools. Extension staff have willingly made themselves available for school excursions and classroom activities. Presentations from local DPI&F staff are always provided to groups of tertiary students from a wide range of universities including Townsville, SE Queensland and the USA who regularly visit cattle properties in the Dalrymple Shire. Natural resource management is the focus of most of the material presented.

Landcare groups managed all of the on-ground works projects. This resulted in ownership and increased levels of participation whilst minimising project administrative costs. Most of the extension and research projects had advisory or management committees that consisted primarily of local graziers and the landcare coordinator with technical input from government departments, JCU and the Dalrymple Shire Council.

Outcomes for Graziers

By 2001, there were 20 local landcare groups under the umbrella of the DLC. These groups accounted for approximately 70 percent of the commercial landholders in the Burdekin Rangelands. Four groups in one area ceased to function by 2002 and have since reformed as one active group. Current membership across the 17 active groups represents 60 percent of the commercial properties in the Burdekin Rangelands.

Achievements resulting from the extension effort in the Burdekin Rangelands include:

  • Widespread awareness of the symptoms and causes of land degradation and that rainfall is not the major determinant of land condition
  • A greater understanding that pasture composition is a reflection of past grazing land management practices
  • Establishment of benchmarks for current industry practice
  • At a regional level, the trend in pasture cover levels during severe droughts has been improving since 1987
  • Working in groups has provided access to substantial funding for on-ground works including fencing, stockwaters, land reclamation and pest control as shown in table 1.
  • A much higher percentage of on-ground project applications are approved when they are written by landcare coordinators or extension officers
  • Development of holistic PMP’s for approximately 40 percent of Burdekin Rangelands properties
  • Diversification on ten percent of properties
  • Ability for some graziers to use herd models to analyse changes to animal husbandry, management practices or use of natural resources and the flow-on effect on productivity and profit
  • Increased levels of wet-season spelling of pastures as a practice to improve land condition
  • Creation of employment in pest management activities for long-term unemployed people
  • Coordinated and integrated projects produce widespread and enduring benefits eg weed control across sub-catchments
  • Key indicators of herd performance understood by graziers who have participated in relevant training
  • A positive trend towards reconciliation between indigenous groups and the owners of cattle properties in some areas.
  • A strong network of effective community leaders across the Burdekin Rangelands
  • A much greater level of sound project management skills developed amongst community members
  • Whole systems approach has increased the levels of adoption of research findings
  • Proactive DPI&F team to work with industry to improve sustainability and profitability

Reasons for Success

The reasons for the high levels of participation by graziers in extension programs include:-

  • Producers’ needs were ascertained prior to the commencement of natural resource management extension programs
  • The breadth of activity conducted by extension officers (mainly DPI&F and DLC landcare coordinators)
  • The range of group activities supported by one-on-one extension where possible.
  • The continuity of tenure of experienced extension staff since the late 1980’s has built a solid rapport and trust with landholders (three extension officers averaged 15 years in the Charters Towers DPI&F office up to 2002)
  • The financial incentives offered by externally funded projects
  • Extension officers developed a wide network of contacts, including specialists, to direct graziers to, to ensure that appropriate responses are obtained to meet their needs in developing sustainable and profitable enterprises
  • The amount of relevant and strategic research work done by agencies and industry, much of it on-property
  • Commitment and drive of RD&E staff from DPI&F and other agencies

While agency staff working in other rangeland areas could consider these points as the basis of a successful extension program, no extension program is perfect; there have been deficiencies in the natural resource management extension work conducted in the Burdekin Rangelands. Prior to the Burdekin SEDNET modelling, the extension effort was spread over the whole district and was not always strategic. While the level of uptake of on-ground works and the number and types of extension activities are quantified and well documented, changes in the adoption of best practice from research has not been measured. The construction of a riparian fence and the installation of an off-stream watering point does not automatically lead to a well-managed riparian zone; a change in attitude and grazing management is required to make the best use of the investment in capital infrastructure. The lack of emphasis on evaluation in extension has made measuring non-physical changes difficult. The DLC has recently commenced an NLP project to measure changes in attitude and land management between 1991 and 2005.

Future Challenges for Extension

Several issues must be addressed to improve the adoption of sustainable NRM practices in the Burdekin Rangelands.

  • The implementation of a succession plan for extension officers is essential. Temporary extension staff on externally funded two or three year projects lacks continuity and is less than adequate to develop a profile in a district. Generation Y will provide the future managers of the enterprises in the Burdekin Rangelands. It is essential that generation Y extension officers be employed as part of the succession plan to work with tomorrow’s managers. Sheahan (2005 p 109) identifies the need to use generation Y employees to understand and communicate with generation Y customers. Multimedia and high capacity GIS will play an increasing role in all facets of property management - this is second nature to generation Y.
  • Agencies are reducing the breadth of expertise as specialists retire and not replaced; this diminishes the pool of people with expert knowledge in some fields, eg sown pastures and fodder cropping. In the Burdekin Rangelands, private consultants are not filling these gaps as is happening in other regions.
  • Some of the areas in the Burdekin Basin identified by the SEDNET modelling are “tough nuts to crack”. They present the biggest challenge as they consist of non-viable properties with severely degraded land and possibly high debt loads. New approaches need to be identified and implemented to achieve real change with the graziers in these areas.
  • There are service black spots in high sediment-producing catchments adjacent to the Burdekin Rangelands; long-term allocation of resources is essential to achieve changes in those areas. This is a task for the Burdekin Dry Tropics Board in partnership with the agencies.

Conclusion

An extension program based on hands-on extension activities and supported by financial incentives and a substantial body of local research, has enhanced the sustainable management of the Burdekin Rangelands. While group activities supported by one-on-one extension have enhanced outcomes for graziers, the pendulum needs to swing more towards the one-on-one approach to ensure the integration of newly acquired NRM knowledge into the beef production enterprise (Landsberg 2005). It is essential that the economics of sustainable management systems be documented to increase the likelihood of adoption. Future extension programs must place more emphasis on evaluation so that changes in attitude and management practices are measured.

Acknowledgements

Advice provided in the compilation this paper by Brigid Nelson (Extension Officer DPI&F Charters Towers) & Marie Vitelli (Landcare Project Officer Dalrymple Landcare Committee Inc Charters Towers) is acknowledged and much appreciated.

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