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Kununurra ARS Conference Report

Posted by Bestprac on Oct 30 2012

By Angus Whyte

I flew into Darwin very early on Saturday (22nd) morning, spent a few hours going around the Parap markets and getting some supplies for the trip to Kununurra (850km). I had to wait as Annabel Walsh and Becky Kossler flew in to Darwin at 2pm, then we all drove to Katherine, then on to Kununurra on Sunday, arriving in Kununurra at about 3pm local time (to register), after some detours and sightseeing on the drive from Katherine (another story!).

So on the first Sunday evening we all met up at the “Grande” in Kununurra for drinks, nibbles and meet & greet etc. It was so good to see some faces that I unfortunately only ever see every 2 years at these conferences; we caught up and prepared ourselves for the next few days of listening to all the great things that are happening in the rangelands. I must admit that I was home fairly early as I never really adjusted to the time zone there, so most nights about 9-9.30pm saw me in bed; the flip side was that I was out of bed at 5.30am so I had no trouble being up in time to catch the bus for the “Kings in Grass Castles” tour to Newry Station (and beyond!).

Newry Station is owned by Consolidated Pastoral Co (CPC) and is managed by Tom & Camellia Shephard. The property is situated about 70km East of Kununurra, just in NT and we arrived at the homestead for a cuppa. Matt Bolam started the talks off by explaining the management strategy used on Newry and some of the challenges that they have, i.e. flood gates being washed away in the wet so stock making their own arrangements, large paddocks and labour issues. We didn’t spend any time looking through the pasture which I would have liked to have done; we did, however, spend a while talking about the production systems that are managed across the rangelands. This was very important because sometimes Rangeland scientists seem to forget that people live out here and need to make money! We then moved on to Dingo Springs, which is just a beautiful spot on a lovely creek that is part of “Keep River Site of Conservation Significance”. It certainly is important to Matt Bolam who speaks passionately about his love of the area and the Gouldian Finches, who from time to time call this home.

We also heard about the work the WA government are doing on controlling donkeys and the innovative ways they are using to cull the animals. The next stop was the Zebra rock mine for lunch and a look at the beautiful colours that occur in the rocks. We had a very nice meal of “silver cobbler” (catfish) for lunch, before getting back on the bus and to the WA border.

At the WA, NT border we heard how important biosecurity was to the WA people, how much they valued it and also how it was enforced. They made sure not only fruit and vegies were left at the border, but also made sure that stock were dipped and trucks washed out to reduce weed infestations. We arrived back at Kununurra at about 3pm, in time to get ready for a great Kimberley BBQ at the Country Club, again not much more to say; lots of chat, drinks and great food.

Right, so Tuesday morning was the start of formal proceedings in the Leisure Centre; the day started with a quick welcome, followed by an opening, and then into the papers, which is what we came for. We started with Professor Jerry Holechek from New Mexico USA who helped outline where he thought our finite energy supplies, land degradation, population growth and urbanisation may take our food production systems. Out of that it all seemed to show some great opportunities for the rangelands in the healthy production of food/fibre and that people would need to shift closer to their food sources as energy supplies dropped.

We then moved on to some papers about the impact climate change may have on our production systems and also the cost of dust storms. To me these all had similar conclusions in that we had to encourage and retain more ground cover, perennial plants and reduce run off.

After lunch the papers presented seemed to get very complex and certainly much more scientific that practical, so I must admit I zoned out for a bit. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a theme of either production or conservation; both can’t happen together. This shows that, in the 200 odd years we have been here, we have actually learnt nothing about our environment, let alone how to harvest produce from our environment while enhancing ecological health. So when Tim Wiley came on, as the last speaker, and actually spoke about asking for and then respecting the values of the landholders, as well as the local community, my ears shot up. Tim is working with “Peedamulla” station, out from Port Hedland WA, and he was looking for a new way to plan for agricultural production across a diverse landscape while maintaining, or enhancing, environmental and cultural values. What Tim did differently was that he actually asked the owners what they wanted/needed and the values they would like respected, then he overlayed this with the production options for land types so the owners could find a unique production system that met all of their needs, while respecting their values. That evening we had free time, so went out to a friend’s place for dinner and debrief.

Kununarra Rangeland ConferenceThen “D day” arrived and I had to give a presentation, on Wednesday morning, so I had to be sharp and on time for kick off. The focus of the day was production systems in the rangelands; this series of talks had the only two farming landholder talks of the conference, including mine. Follow this link to view the abstract of my paper, the full version will be published in the Rangeland Journals in the future. We heard from MLA about the fact that costs for the northern pastoral industry are rising at 2.5% a year and production increases are going at 1.2% a year so, if we are going to stay profitable, something needs to change. Then we heard a couple of talks about future direction of beef industry and grazing management; when you put this into perspective with the sorts of gains required, then really none of these were going to take the industries where they need to go.

The next session started with a talk on the risks, versus the rewards, of intensifying grazing through more waters and fences; this combined with a couple of other talks in the session went a fair way towards explaining the divide between scientists and practitioners. While scientists can put together projects that will test various parameters, evaluation systems and ways of monitoring, they have no concept of managing the land or the livestock. I think that if the skills of rangeland managers were respected more, then that would be reciprocated. We also heard from Nan Bray, (the other landholder) from Tasmania, talking about the value of leaving family groups of livestock intact (not weaning) so that the Mums could adequately train their offspring about the plants in the ecosystem and their roles in the diet. This may also be valuable for the protection of newborns if the whole family are able to assist warding off predators, rather than just Mum.

After lunch, on Wednesday, Ben Forsyth facilitated a panel session and asked the floor for some questions; there was some very good discussion around food production, live export and landscape management - issues that are important to us all.

That night we all went out to “The Hoochery” for a fantastic dinner; this is the local rum distillery and obviously an institution. We had a beautiful dinner and, as advertised, the power at Kununurra is very good for 23 hours a day; we had a black out for most of the dinner. I’m sure all went home with bellies full of lovely food and also some of the local brew. I know I tested some of the different varieties.

The last day of the conference saw two concurrent sessions, one on “fire management in a carbon economy” and the other on “Understanding rangeland ecosystems and assessing impacts”. I chose to go to the rangeland one (this was sponsored by the Western CMA). The points that I took out of this session were that, in order to monitor and reduce impact, scientists and agency staff need to work with the land managers so that they can see the issues developing in the landscape, such as erosion, weeds etc, and then assist them in finding ways to deal with them in a targeted and efficient approach.

In the afternoon we heard about weeds and goats in western NSW, as well as the need for a new approach to land management in the southern rangelands of WA (this area is as big as NSW!). This reinforced that our rangelands are decreasing in productivity and this decline needs to be turned around and there are so few people living in parts of the rangelands that will be very difficult.

The Conference was then summed up by Ron Hacker who did a great job of doing an “executive summary” of the conference. Ron pointed out that at each conference there seemed to be fewer rangeland scientists; this was starting to get to a “tipping point” and he felt their input wasn’t being respected by the broader community. This could equally be said for farmers and agency people involved in the rangelands, as all feel very under respected in the current climate. Maybe if we all feel that we aren’t being respected then we need to all work together more to make sure that the science is relevant and that it is used on ground. So, if not formally, I think that agency staff need to broker outcomes between scientists and rangeland managers to make sure the outcomes are used in the field and there is constant feedback both ways.

I know that when I walked out of the conference I did wonder, “What’s next?” What outcomes had we decided upon? What areas do we need to improve on? I can only hope that everyone walks away with a bit more knowledge to do a better job in their role in the rangelands. It will be very interesting to see what happens when the next conference comes along in 2014.

I would especially like to thank Bestprac and the Lower Murray-Darling CMA for their support so that I was able to travel up there and not just attend the conference, but also experience the beautiful area known as “The Kimberley”.
 

Last changed: Oct 31 2012

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Comments

By Ben Forsyth on Nov 01 2012
Great article Angus.

For those who could not make it to the Conference, Gus gave a fantastic presentation on life at Wyndham Station and inspired many with his emotion and passion for his land. Many delegates, myself included, felt that Gus gave the best presentation of the three days and he hopefully feels just a little chuffed with his efforts in making scientists and some extension types realise that some of us European share a connection to country akin to our indigenous cousins. I was sitting next to one of the Aboriginal men in the crowd and at one point, where Gus was expressing his connection to Wyndham, I heard him say "Too right, that's how I feel!" I think there could be no higher endorsement!

I look forward to catching up with far more Bestprac Members in around two years time.
Ben Forsyth
Three Rivers Station, Meekatharra
ARS Councilor & Conference Committee Member

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