Cows are eating Australia
There are 28.5 million cows in Australia, as opposed to 23 million people. Each Australian eats 43.5 kg of beef a year, on average, the third highest beef consumption in the world*. According to Meat & Livestock Australia, this country is one of the world's most efficient producers of cattle and the largest beef exporter. There are more than 79,300 properties with cattle on them; and the beef industry accounts for 58 per cent of all farms engaged in agricultural activity. (Which other activities would farms be engaged in?)
In southern Australia, cows graze on pasture planted and maintained by a farmer who looks after the cattle on a day-to-day basis. This is intensive farming. Each cow needs about 10 hectares of pasture. In northern Australia (northern WA and Queensland, Northern Territory and remote areas of South Australia) rain is less frequent and less reliable and cattle graze on native grasses rather than grass planted specially. They roam over huge areas – called stations, not farms – and each animal requires about 50 hectares: this is extensive farming. In the dry season the cattle are rounded up, or mustered, and taken to cattle yards where they are sorted and prepared to go to market. They're transported around the station and to market in huge road train trucks.
Grass in dry regions is not as nutritious as in cultivated pasture. In the dry season cows may exhaust the supply of native grasses such as Mitchell Grass and Spinifex and have to supplement their diet with Tea Tree or Mulga scrub (top). As a result, the landscape looks denuded and scrappy. In the Outback you get used to this, until you enter a national park and see tufty clumps of healthy grass and bushes rather than dusty earth and dead-looking twigs, and then you appreciate what the country would look like if the cows weren't eating it. You also (sort of) get used to endless cattle grids along unsealed roads.
In certain national parks in Far North Queensland, cows have been allowed in to graze, temporarily we are assured. (See Cows and national parks, May 2013.) The failure of monsoonal rains last summer meant cows were going hungry because their normal range was parched. The National Parks Association of Queensland claims to have evidence, however, of this temporary arrangement morphing into a permanent one. The case for a few months can be argued; permanence would be unwise.
Cows popped up everywhere on our Outback travels. I didn't expect to see our old favourites, the Belties, who looked particularly striking against the red earth. It wasn't a surprise to see Brahmans and Brahman crosses since they are much better adapted to hotter climates.
Sometimes we didn't see the cows themselves but evidence of them having been there earlier, as in sand dunes west of Windorah.
The importance of cattle to the local economy was evident in Quilpie and Longreach.
By the way, sheep are also eating Australia. And goats. Goats seem to be making a particularly good job of it.
* Argentina tops the chart, followed by Luxembourg. Source UNFAO/The Economist
This post was last updated on 16 September 2013