Australian Rangeland Society

David Phelps, ARS President and Director, DAF Office Landsborough Hwy, Longreach Qld 4730.  Email: David.Phelps@daf.qld.gov.au

It seems timely to reflect on the broader contribution that rangelands make to Australia’s well-being as the world continues to grapple with the immediate health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and medium to longer term implications of climate change and resource degradation. I encourage everyone to explore your own region’s statistics, opportunities and aspirations and contribute to the discussion.

There are many opportunities for Australia’s rangeland resources, industries, communities, towns and people to contribute into the future. In this column I attempt to provide a snapshot of current socio-economic data across all rangeland-based industries. As noted by Barney Foran and colleagues “compiling information on demography, land use and the socio-economy of the rangelands is problematic…Most classification systems are focussed in populated areas, so there is little consistency between boundaries adopted for different purposes” (Foran et al. 2019). I have drawn on a range of information sources, including The Rangeland Journal publications, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian Bureau of Agriculture, Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and published industry information to compile the data. Invariably, given that “some rather heroic assumptions have to be made to present defensible information on the rangelands” (Foran et al. 2019), there will be data that do not align particularly well.

I invite Australian Rangeland Society members, and everyone living in or interested in our rangelands, to explore the socioeconomic drivers and consider the opportunities for sustainable development for your own region. It would be great to see your thoughts on what makes your region special, the natural assets, industries, people and potential in future newsletter articles, journal contributions and ARS social media.

In this issue of the Range Management Newsletter I will provide background information, key employment data and the contribution by agriculture. The next issue will include mining, renewable energy, tourism and education.

 

Background

Australian rangelands extend from tropical savannas in the north dominated by summer rainfall, through large areas of desert in central Australia to the southern rangelands dominated by winter rainfall (Figure 1). Rangelands are defined by the Australian Rangeland Society (ARS) as “environments where natural ecological processes predominate and where values and benefits are based primarily on natural resources. They are areas which have not been intensively developed for primary production. The rangelands of the semi-arid and arid zones cover approximately 75 per cent of the Australian continent and equate broadly with the ‘Outback’. However, rangelands also occur in higher rainfall areas where limitations other than rainfall restrict use to management of the natural landscape” (https://austrangesoc.com). This expands on the earlier definition published by Box and Perry (1971) who confined Australian rangelands to ‘the arid and semi-arid areas unsuitable for crop production’.

The ABS (https://www.abs.gov.au/) and ABARES (https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares) provide the most comprehensive and accessible national datasets. I have relied on the publicly accessible regional data at https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion#/, as it available for everyone to use and explore. I have assumed the Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland ‘Outback’ and the New South Wales ‘Far West and Orana’ statistical zones (Figure 2) is the best available approximation of the ARS and ACRIS defined rangelands. I refer to this assumed best fit as the ‘rangelands’.

Figure 1. Extent of the rangelands and major population centres in Australia, from the Australian Collaborative Rangeland Information System (ACRIS) ‘Taking the Pulse’ report (https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/a8015c25-4aa2-4833-ad9c-e98d09e2ab52/files/rangelands08-pulse.pdf).

 

Figure 2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) ‘Data by Region’ statistical zones. Data are compiled from the ABS and other sources on a particular geographical region (https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion#/)

 

Land use

The major land uses across the rangelands are the grazing of native pastures, nature conservation and managed resource protection (Figure 3).

 

 

Figure 3. Australia’s major land uses. The rangelands are dominated by grazing native pastures, nature conservation and managed resource protection. Source:  https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/aclump/land-use/catchment-scale-land-use-of-australia-update-december-2018

 

Foran et al. (2019) estimated that 55.4% of the rangelands are managed for grazing, 18.9% is held by Indigenous people under national and state land rights legislation, 14.7% under Determined Native Title and 10.5% under conservation estate. There are small, but nationally important, holdings by the Department of Defence. The total land area is approximately 634,244,000 ha.

 

Population and employment

Based on the ABS ‘Data by Region’ (https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion), about 607,000 Australians live in the rangelands, substantially higher than the Foran et al. (2019) estimate. This highlights the difficulty of compiling overall rangeland data and reinforces the importance for the readers of this article to explore the statistics for your own region, where it can be guided by local knowledge.

Even with the challenges of making reliable estimates, it is clear that our resident rangeland population is a small proportion (<3%) of the nations’ total of 23.7 million and has declined over a number of years (Foran et al. 2019).

The population density is very low, at 0.13 persons/km2 compared with the national average of 3.2 persons/km2 or a non-rangeland density of 14.8 persons/km2 (23.675 million people across 164.5 million ha of land). It is perhaps no surprise that many people choose to live in the rangelands for the peace and quiet of the wide-open spaces.

The top five industries of employment in the rangelands (health care and social assistance; retail trade; accommodation and food services; public administration and safety; and education and training) employ 208,000 people in total. Agriculture employs about 26,700 people, behind mining (27,400) and administrative and support services (27,800). Construction (26,33) and transport (17,55) are other key employers (Table 1).

 

Table 1. Total employment by sector (averaged across 2015-2019) in the rangelands.

 

 Number of Employee Jobs per Sector Number of Employee Jobs % of Employment
Health care and social assistance  41,539 10%
 Retail trade  36,009 9%
 Public administration and safety  35,658 9%
 Accommodation and food services  34,699 9%
 Education and training  32,292 8%
 Administrative and support services  27,796 7%
 Mining  27,356 7%
 Agriculture, forestry and fishing  26,666 7%
 Construction  26,258 7%
 Other services  17,905 4%
 Transport, postal and warehousing  17,529 4%
 Manufacturing  13,748 3%
 Professional, scientific and technical services  12,592 3%
 Wholesale trade  9,738 2%
 Rental, hiring and real estate services  7,402 2%
 Finance and insurance services  7,132 2%
 Arts and recreation services  4,786 1%
 Electricity, gas water and waste services  3,833 1%
 Information media and telecommunications  1,703 0%
 Total  399,701 100%

Source: ABS 2020. Data by Region. https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion

 

 

The composition of employment varies between regions. For example, agriculture is by far the largest employer of workers in outback Queensland, but is negligible compared with mining in northern Western Australia and health care in South Australia (Figure 4 a, b, c).

 

Figure 4. Employment by industry in three Australian rangeland regions – a) Queensland outback,  b) Western Australia outback (north) and c) South Australia outback. Available at https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/aboutmyregion; Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat. no. 6291.0, Labour Force, Australia 2020

 

Liveability of the rangelands

Housing is roughly twice as affordable in the rangelands compared with the Australian average – potentially acting as a way to attract people into the rangelands. This is an important consideration, as population decline has been a key problem over the last decades, e.g. Central Western Queensland (Kelly and Phelps 2019). In some areas a mortgage can be paid off as quickly as within 3 years (e.g. outback South Australia and the Paroo Shire in Queensland) (http://www.regionalaustralia.org.au/home/move/).

Remote working has become common practice for office-based jobs, and organisations such the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) are encouraging strategies to relocate workers away from urban centres into regional Australia. The RAI established the Regional Australia Council 2031 (RAC2031) in May 2020 to promote and shape regional Australia as a good place to live, work and connect. Their founding members, which include NBN Co., Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank, are identifying ways to encourage staff to move to regional Australia (http://www.regionalaustralia.org.au/home/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/RAC2031_Communique01_v2.pdf).

 

Australian Rangeland Society focus

The science and discussion promoted by the Australian Rangeland Society over the years has covered a broad range of topics. From the early days of the mid-1970s, Australian rangeland conferences have included themes such as socio-economic outlooks, labour needs and unionisation, land tenure, alternative land uses, grazing management, fire management, animal husbandry, climate change and conservation. Individual presentations have included diverse topics such as horticulture (M.B. Spurling) at the 1979 Adelaide conference, and at the 1986 Armidale conference P. Maher spoke on the interaction between waterbirds and rangelands and P.M. Clark on archaeological resources in the Western division of New South Wales. Conference proceedings are available at https://www.austrangesoc.com.au/biennial-conference-proceedings/

Nevertheless, the main focus of ARS discussions and the science presented tends to remain on pastoralism, grazing land management (including conservation in grazed landscapes) and resource condition in line with the major land uses. The main topics and majority of articles in the newsletter, conference presentations and The Rangeland Journal focus on the management of grazed lands. For example, the Range Management Newsletter was first published as the Range Assessment Newsletter in March 1974, in response to national interest in defining and measuring land condition to underpin sustainable management. (As an aside, I am rather intrigued by the summary comments on the Parker 3-step method which was tested at Alice Springs, as “operator fatigue produced opposition to it [being used]” (https://www.austrangesoc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/74-1_Mar_1974_RAN.pdf)

 

Livestock production

The focus on livestock and grazed land management reflects their socio-economic importance and prominence across the landscape. Based on the ABS ‘Data by Region’ statistics, livestock for meat (beef cattle, sheep and goats) generates $4 billion worth of produce from the rangelands and wool a further $0.6 billion, or 57% of the total agricultural output (https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion). Approximately 8.8 million head of cattle and 12.2 million sheep are run on 275.5 million hectares of privately managed farmland. The estimate for cattle number is similar to Foran et al. (2019), but nearly three times for sheep, and again highlights that local knowledge and care is needed to interpret the national statistics for the rangelands.

A very rough estimate of the current market value of these livestock can be made based on some sweeping assumptions.The average price per head of beef cattle in 2017-18 was $1173 per head (https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/surveys/beef). This is below current (28 July 2020) prices at Roma (Queensland’s largest auction centre) e.g. 400-520kg cows $1,233/head, grown steers (400-500kg) $1,591/head and yearling steers (280-33kg) $1,182 (https://www.mla.com.au/prices-markets/market-reports-prices/). If we accept the 2017-18 average sale price as a useful indicator of cattle value, then the rangeland herd of 8.8 million head would be valued in excess of $10 billion.

Ewe (30kg+) sale prices at Dubbo (an important rangeland Merino sheep selling centre) averaged $169/head on 27 July, and wethers (30kg+) $190/head. If we accept the lower ewe price as a useful indicator of sheep value, then the rangeland flock of 12.2 million sheep would be valued in excess of $2 billion.

To gain a more accurate estimate, assumptions should be made based on the value and number of different classes of livestock. Alternatively, longer-term averages could be used to smooth out price fluctuations (e.g. as per Bowen et al. 2019).

Australian goatmeat exports were valued at $235.7 million in 2019 and Meat and Livestock Australia report that the majority of goatmeat is harvested from semi-wild rangeland goats. However, Victoria (with no rangelands per se) contributed the largest number of goats in 2019 (825,416 head), followed by Queensland (377,634) and SA (234,064) (https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/os-markets/red-meat-market-snapshots/2020/global-goat-snapshot-2020.pdf ). The value of goatmeat production from the ARS defined rangelands, which does not include Victoria, is probably about half of the national value.

 

Other agriculture

The kangaroo industry makes an important contribution to many rural communities across the rangelands. The gross value of production for the kangaroo industry in 2014 was $174 million. The industry reports that it ‘supports 2,000 licensed harvesters and generates over 2,000 jobs in the processing and transport sector plus more jobs in government, sales and other allied activities. Creating over 4000 direct and indirect jobs the kangaroo industry is an important part of the Australian economy’ (http://www.kangarooindustry.com/about-us/fast-facts/)

Feral deer are present in both rangeland and non-rangeland environments and are present in all states and territories. Fallow deer are the most widespread. Some states (NSW, Victoria and Tasmania) classify deer as a game species and are considered a valued hunting resource, but are a declared pest animal in WA, SA, NT, ACT and Queensland. There is little information on the value of deer as a resource, and they are more generally regarded as a pest (https://www.mla.com.au/news-and-events/industry-news/its-feral-friday-deer/). There is also little information on the distribution and economic impact of feral deer (https://invasives.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CISS-submission-Deer-Pigs-Goats-FINAL.pdf).

Feral pigs have a small export market and are often hunted for recreation. Like deer, they are generally regarded as a pest animal and the potential to spread disease which would have large economic impacts on Australia’s intensive and extensive livestock industries (https://invasives.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CISS-submission-Deer-Pigs-Goats-FINAL.pdf).

Horticulture occurs in key areas across the rangelands. The horticulture and fodder industry in the Northern Territory contribute around $250 million, with key production areas in the Douglas-Daly and Katherine regions. Crops include mangoes, exotic tropical fruit, grapes and melons (https://ntfarmers.org.au/). Sundrop Farms in South Australia’s Port Augusta region produces large volumes of tomatoes for major supermarket chains (https://www.sundropfarms.com/produce/). There are also emerging irrigated horticulture industries at locations such as Hughenden in north-west Queensland, where approvals are in place for grapes, citrus and avocado production (https://statements.qld.gov.au/statements/85378).

The Ord River Irrigation Area in Western Australia has produced mango, citrus, watermelon, rockmelons, pumpkin, chickpeas, sandalwood and chia (https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/assessment-agricultural-expansion/ord-river-development-and-irrigated-agriculture). The Ord River Irrigation Expansion Stage 3 began in 2012 (https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/measuring-and-assessing-soils/ord-river-irrigation-expansion-stage-3-cockatoo-sands).

Cropping and irrigation opportunities are being demonstrated in north west Queensland through the Strategic Blueprint for Queensland’s North West Minerals Province Economic Diversification Strategy (http://www.dsdmip.qld.gov.au/regions/regional-priorities/strategic-blueprint-nwmp/nw-qld-economic-diversification-strategy.html).

Cropping has also expanded across western New South Wales at locations such as Walgett and Trangie, which were regarded as sheep rangelands unsuited to cropping until (about) the 1970s. The far west now produces citrus, stone fruits, table grapes, tree nuts, vegetables and cotton under irrigation (https://www.investregional.nsw.gov.au/regions/far-west/#42) as well as dryland winter and summer crops. Cotton is the region’s fourth most valuable agricultural product (Figure 5a). The other southern rangelands in SA and WA have large contributions from wheat farming (Figure 5b, c). As for all of the statistics reported here, cropping data has been derived using the SA4 ABS and ABARES statistical regions. This includes the Esperance area in southern WA and Dubbo region of NSW. Both have large cropping areas, and a more thorough analysis should consider how to address districts which are dominated by cropping.

 

Figure 4. Value of agricultural commodities for the a) New South Wales Far West and Orana b) WA south c) SA outback regions.  Available at https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/aboutmyregion; Source Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat. no. 7503.0, Value of agricultural commodities produced, Australia 2020

 

The bush foods (or bush tucker) industry started in the 1980s, and there are signs that it is gaining momentum. Australian bush foods have been embraced by local and international chefs, and a gourmet line of ice cream entered the mainstream market in 2019 (https://www.connoisseuricecream.com.au/ranges/australian-native-collection/). Key rangeland bush foods include the Kakadu plum, wattleseed and bush tomato. The industry is currently estimated to worth $20 million nationally (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-06/).

 

Farm land values

The 283.7 million hectares of privately managed farmland represents 46% of Australia’s total rangeland area (of 614.1 million ha), and 76% of Australia’s total agricultural lands (of 371.1 million ha). It would be useful to be able to report the value of these farmlands, based either on an unimproved valuation or market prices. However, the ABARES note that “Information about Australian farmland value is scarce. Values of farms are not observable unless farms are sold on the market and even then, farms are traded infrequently” (https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/surveys/measuring-austalian-broadcare-farmland-value).

The Rural Bank reports on the value of farmland based on State government reported farm sale values (https://www.ruralbank.com.au/knowledge-and-insights/publications/farmland-values/). These reports provide a useful gauge to trends and return on value, but the data were too limited to be able to estimate overall land values. These reports suggest that there was some $1.1 billion of land traded across the rangelands in 2019. This includes some areas with high land values such as the Balonne and Maranoa districts in Queensland where there is grazing, irrigation and dryland cropping. Every region with available data reported declines in median land price (see Table 2).

 

Table 2. Rural Bank reported farm land market value for Australian rangeland regions, with ABS aligned regions indicated.

Rural Bank region ABS aligned region Median Price ($/ha) Area traded (ha) Compound annual growth over 20 years (%) 2019 median price growth (%) Value traded ($)
Queensland West Queensland Outback  $312 2,882,554 8 -11.7  $899,356,848
NSW Western New South Wales Far West and Orana; and Murray  $128 509,838 7.4 -11.2  $65,259,264
WA Northern WA Outback  $1,091 128,850 4.2 -8.6  $140,575,350
Not available South Australia Outback  N/a  N/a  N/a  N/a  N/a
NT Cattle regions Northern Territory Outback  N/a  N/a  N/a -48.7  N/a
NT Top end  N/a  N/a  N/a -37.8  N/a
Total  $1,105,191,462

Source https://www.ruralbank.com.au/knowledge-and-insights/publications/farmland-values/

 

ABARES estimates there are 2,892 commercial farms in the pastoral zone, with an average farm size of 86,923 ha and average farm capital value of $6.9 million (https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/surveys/farm-survey-data); 277 of these farms were surveyed within the 2018/19 financial year (http://apps.agriculture.gov.au/agsurf/agsurf.asp). Assuming this provides a reasonable snapshot of rangeland farms, this suggests a total area of 251.4 million ha with a capital value of approximately $20 billion. However, this is a simplistic estimate that should be treated with caution as it assumes the average farm based on survey data is representative of the entire zone. For example, the calculated area of farmland using this approach is 11% less than that using ABS data. Government valuations of unimproved land values may be a more consistent and reliable basis to estimate land value across the large and variable rangelands.

 

Caveats and approach

The most accessible data relating to the rangelands are available from the ABS and ABARES. In this article, I have used Statistical Division 4 (SA4) information, which does not perfectly align with the rangelands. For example, the best approximation in NSW is the ‘Far West and Orana’ division, which reaches into more eastern cropping areas such as Dubbo. The NT only excludes Darwin, and SA does not include some of the more south-easterly rangelands. A more accurate compilation of data would ideally be based on Local Government Areas, but there are also inherent inaccuracies or missing data at this level. A GIS approach based on LGA and SA4 data may provide the greatest accuracy. Some States have publicly available information from a public statistician’s office, which supplement ABS data with other official Government information.

Whilst I have taken care to interpret the available information in the context of rangelands, I accept that are likely to be inaccuracies and omissions. It was necessary to make some “heroic assumptions”, such as in calculating the value of Australia’s rangeland farms. I have not undertaken a thorough review of the literature, and there are a number of excellent Rangeland Journal publications which provide snapshots of various industries. I have only brushed the surface of the data and knowledge that extends back to 1976. I welcome feedback on improving my interpretation of these data, estimates and inferences.

Overall, it seems likely that the way I have accessed the ABS data probably overestimates key parameters such as population, cropping extent and sheep numbers (Don Burnside pers comm.).

 

Selected references

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020). Data by Region. Available at https://itt.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?databyregion accessed 6/8/2020

Australian Mining Snapshot June 2019. Available at minerals.org.au accessed 8/8/2020

Bowen, M.K., F. Chudleigh, F., Whish, G. and Phelps, D.G. (2019). Central West Mitchell Grasslands livestock production systems. Preparing for, responding to, and recovering from drought. Available at https://futurebeef.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/DCAP-DAF6_Central-West-Mitchell-Grasslands_Management-strategies-for-drought-resilience_September-2019.pdf accessed 10/8/2020.

Box, T.W. and Perry, R.A.(1971). Rangeland Management in Australia. Journal of Range Management 24, 167-171.

Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (2018). Impact of feral deer, pigs and goats in Australia. Submission to the Senate Environment and Communications Reference Committee. Available at https://invasives.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CISS-submission-Deer-Pigs-Goats-FINAL.pdf accessed 9/8/2020

Foran, B., Stafford Smith, M., Burnside, D.G, Andrew, M.H,  Blesing, D., Forrest, K. and Taylor, J. (2019). Australian rangeland futures: time now for systemic responses to interconnected challenges. The Rangeland Journal, 41(3): 271-292.

Hughes, A. (2020). Australian Operating Mines Map 2019. Geoscience Australia, Canberra. Available at http://pid.geoscience.gov.au/dataset/ga/133033 accessed 8/8/2020

Kelly, D. and Phelps, D. (2019). Looking beyond the D.U.S.T. – building resilient rangeland communities. The Rangeland Journal 41(3): 233-250 https://doi.org/10.1071/RJ18047

Meat & Livestock Australia (2019). It’s Feral Friday: Deer. 26 September 2019. Available at https://www.mla.com.au/news-and-events/industry-news/its-feral-friday-deer/ accessed 9/8/2020

Meat & Livestock Australia (2020). 2019 state of the industry report.  The Australian red meat and livestock industry. Available at https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/soti-report/mla-state-of-industry-report-2019.pdf accessed 9/8/2020

QGSO (2020) Queensland Regional Profiles. Resident Profile – people who live in the region. Available at https://statistics.qgso.qld.gov.au/profiles/qrp/resident/ accessed 8/8/2020.

Rural Bank (2020). The Australian Farmland Values report. Available at https://www.ruralbank.com.au/knowledge-and-insights/publications/farmland-values/ accessed 8/8/2020

Many of the information sources have been inserted as links and are not included as a cited reference.