Australian Natural Resources Atlas

Natural Resource Topics

Agriculture - Beef Industry - Australia


Benchmarking Rural Industries' Practices and Productivity Performance and Review of Industries' Capacity to Change

This project describes the main regional environmental challenges facing the Australian beef industry and outlines the industry's response to these challenges in terms of changing land management practice. This project provides analysis on a national and industry regional scale and is not intended to have property level uses.

Regional adoption rates of practices are documented and future directions for the industry are proposed. Some of the major environmental challenges for the beef industry such as salinity and the beef industry's position within the inland and northern areas of Australia have placed increased pressure on production systems. The cumulative effects of intensifying land use within these landscapes is demonstrating itself by increased weed infestation, declining water qualities, habitat loss and increased populations of pests and feral animals.


Where is Australian beef produced?

In 1998, the Australian beef cattle industry occupied an area in excess of 200 million hectares. These production areas are generally located in the inland and northern areas of Australia, and represent one of Australia's major land users.

Beef production occurs across much of Australia, but is split geographically and physically into six zones. These zones are:

These regions, zones and the distributions of cattle (including feedlots) are represented in the maps below.

Map of regions Map of proportion of herd by SLA Map of feedlot distribution by postcode

The proportion of Australia's beef area within each of these regions is shown in the table and chart below. Further detail of each of the beef regions is presented in the regional information pages

Region Area(ha) % of Australian beef area
Northern Region 158,504,422 72%
High Rainfall zone 6,634,626 3%
Temperate zone 6,304,595 3%
Pastoral zone 145,565,201 66%
Southern Region 61,196,364 28%
High Rainfall zone 7,832,294 4%
Temperate zone 9,044,788 4%
Pastoral zone 44,319,282 20%
AUSTRALIA 219,700,786 100%

In December 1999, Australia's feedlots had the capacity to hold more than 873,000 cattle. Of this capacity, 505,455 head of cattle were contained within feedlot facilities.

The State-by-State breakdown of the capacity of Australia's beef herd and feedlot facilities are provided in the chart below. This chart shows Queensland as having both the highest herd size (10.1 million head) and highest feedlot capacity.

In June 1999, 49% of Australia's lot fed beef were held on 14 very large lots each holding more than 10,000 head. At the same time, 14% of the lot fed beef were fed on 700 lots holding less than 1,000 head each.

What land and water resources are used in Australian beef production?

The beef industry is large and diverse, and beef is produced under widely varying climatic and environmental conditions. Beef is produced on properties that vary in size, management regimes and enterprise mixes. Cattle numbers have reduced from a peak of 23.8 million in 1996/97 to just over 20 million in 1999.

Beef is predominantly produced in inland and northern regions of Australia, in areas from the Gulf country in the Northern Territory and Queensland through inland New South Wales and into northern Victoria.

In 1999, the key production statistics for the Australian beef industry were:

How many beef cattle does Australia's herd include and how much meat do they produce?

In 1999, Australia's beef herd totalled in excess of 20 million. A breakdown of the herd in terms of breed is presented below.

Breed Number ('000) Proportion (%)
Hereford 3,874 19.2
Angus 1,687 8.4
Shorthorn 849 4.2
Murray Grey 358 1.8
Other British breed 173 0.9
European breed 121 0.6
Brahman 3,659 18.2
Santa Gertrudis 1,012 5.0
Other Tropical breed 729 3.6
British breed cross 2,165 10.7
British x European 978 4.9
Bos indicus x Bos taurus 2,964 14.7
Other types 1,578 7.8
AUSTRALIA 20,146 100.0

In 1999, a total of 9,321,000 cattle were slaughtered, producing 1,955,000 tonnes of meat to a total value of $3 763 million. 92.6 % of these cattle were retained for the domestic meat market and the remainder were exported as shown in the pie charts below.

The main market destination for exported feedlot cattle was Japan (September 1999), which received almost 349,000 beasts or 63% of total. The proportions of feedlot cattle with domestic and other export markets are described in the chart below.

Chart of September 1999 feedlot cattle market destinations

What are the key characteristics of Australian beef producers and farms?

The Australian beef industry employs a total of 34,320 people over 31,780 properties and nearly 800 accredited feedlots. Key characteristics of Australian beef producers and farms are presented in the following tables. These statistics are further analysed in the regional pages

Key characteristic
Industry average Northern
High Rainfall Temperate Pastoral
Age of owner/manager 58 years 53 years 52 years 51 years
Owner/manager education and skill:
- Completed university/tertiary or trade
30% 23% 23% 8%
- Completed 5-6 years high school 22% 15% 47% 54%
- Completed 1-4 years high school 34% 42% 22% 28%
- Primary or no schooling 15% 20% 8% 10%
Family members working on farm 71 hr/wk 104 hr/wk 135 hr/wk 95 hr/wk
Owner manager work on farm 45 hr/wk 54 hr/wk 55 hr/wk 53 hr/wk
Number of dependent children 0.6 1.0 1.1 1.0
Farm cash income ($) 43,954 57,198 201,751 132,784
Total farm debt - June 30 ($) 120,487 250,237 591,160 326,932
Farm business profit ($) - 9,033 7,662 120,394 32,975
Total off farm income ($) 29,858 38,527 19,931 10,441
Owner work off farm 6 hr/wk 1 hr/wk 2 hr/wk 2 hr/wk
Area operated - June 30 11,688 ha 9,076 ha 11,255 ha 114,626 ha
Farm ownership/ tenure:
- Freehold
12% 59% 5% 4%
- Long term crown lease 85% 41% 35% 92%
Employment of non-family labour 9 hr/wk 20 hr/wk 73 hr/wk 42 hr/wk
Landcare membership 33% 42% 18% 76%
Length of group involvement 6 years 6 years 5 years 8 years
Key characteristic
Industry average Southern
High Rainfall Temperate Pastoral
Age of owner/manager 58 years 59 years 59 years 46 years
Owner/manager education and skill:
- Completed university/tertiary or trade
30% 37% 18% 49%
- Completed 5-6 years high school 22% 18% 20% 33%
- Completed 1-4 years high school 34% 26% 53% 18%
- Primary or no schooling 15% 19% 9% 0%
Family members working on farm 71 hr/wk 64 hr/wk 45 hr/wk 120 hr/wk
Owner manager work on farm 45 hr/wk 43 hr/wk 69 hr/wk 57 hr/wk
Number of dependent children 0.6 0.5 0.4 2.0
Farm cash income ($) 43,954 25,711 37,559 170,124
Total farm debt - June 30 ($) 120,487 83,898 80,977 310,545
Farm business profit ($) - 9,033 - 24,929 - 10,595 233,757
Total off farm income ($) 29,858 34,221 23,368 26,698
Owner work off farm 6 hr/wk 7 hr/wk 7 hr/wk 3 hr/wk
Area operated - June 30 11 688 ha 720 ha 1 815 ha 225 558 ha
Farm ownership/ tenure:
- Freehold
12% 93% 51% 2%
- Long term crown lease 85% 3% 47% 98%
Employment of non-family labour 19 hr/wk 15 hr/wk 17 hr/wk 32 hr/wk
Landcare membership 33% 34% 21% 61%
Length of group involvement 6 years 6 years 5 years 8 years

A wide variation of characteristics exists across the beef industry. Northern zone producers, on average, generate higher farm business profits than southern zone producers. Producers in the temperate zone of the northern region generate higher business profits than the other high rainfall and pastoral zones. Unusually, pastoral zone producers in the southern region generate the highest business profit. Further analysis of this finding would need to be completed before drawing conclusions. Producers from the zones with the higher farm profits are expected to be more likely to invest in changes in management practice.

Other factors that are clearly different between zones are:

'Pastoral zone' holdings are generally of leasehold tenure, very large holdings and have a high level of landcare group involvement. Northern region/temperate zone producers generally have properties that are freehold tenure, operating relatively smaller areas and supported by lower levels of landcare group membership. It is expected that implementation of management practices would be more likely on freehold properties (depending on lease conditions) where producer landcare group membership is high.Other indices such as age, education level and farm employment rates are variable both within and between zones. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from these indices due to their variability.

What are the main environmental challenges facing Australia's beef industry?

A review of available literature on the Australian beef industry has highlighted a number of recurring issues in environmental management. For grazing stock, the following issues were highlighted:

The Australian Feedlot industry has also identified a number of environmental management issues arising from feedlot operations:

The proportion of regional beef farms reporting significant degradation (ABARE, 2000) is shown in the two graphs below. The relative standard errors reported in the tables attached to these graphs give an indication of the relative sampling error. The survey is conducted of a proportion of the farms in Australia. A high sampling error figure indicates that only a small proportion of the total farms has been surveyed.

Graph of Northern beef farms with significant degradation (1998-99) Graph of Southern beef farms with significant degradation (1998-99)

The average Australian beef property area affected by various forms of degradation is shown in the graph below.

Graph of average farm area affected by degradation (1998-99)

The most significant form of degradation reported on Australian beef farms (ABARE, 2000) is the presence of weeds. The distribution of woody weeds and weeds of national significance throughout Australia is shown in the maps below. The Decade of Landcare mapping was based on broad scale investigation, and represents an overview only.

Map of woody weeds (Decade of Landcare) Map of weeds of national significance

What is the Australian beef industry doing to meet these challenges?

There has been considerable growth in organised land management groups in recent years. These various groups address the sustainability of agricultural land use by examining issues such as land degradation, water quality, salinity, soil fertility and feral animal control on a local basis.

The PrograzeŽ program, jointly developed by NSW Agriculture, the Meat Research Corporation, now the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in 1994. PROGRAZE uses a series of organised courses run by state department officers and other accredited deliverers such as agricultural consultants. The courses concentrate on setting and achieving livestock and pasture production targets using skills in assessing livestock and the quality, quantity and stability of plant species within the grazing system.

A survey undertaken by ABARE in 1996-97 (The Australian Beef Industry, 1998) found that beef producers who are members of a land management group such as Landcare:

These statistics are summarised in the table below.

% of broadacre farms with beef cattle
NSW Vic Qld SA WA Tas NT Aust
PROGRAZE - aware of 45 33 N/A 31 16 48 N/A 39
PROGRAZE - undertaken 11 5 N/A 12 0 15 N/A 9
Farm plan (professional) 6 12 10 13 9 19 18 9
Member of land management group (ie Landcare) 69 46 31 19 39 28 50 37

Management practices being adopted by beef farmers to address the main issues of weeds, water erosion and surface waterlogging, include:

The national adoption of these and other practices varies as shown in the chart below.

In March 1999, Meat and Livestock Australia held a workshop with representatives from all sectors in the beef cattle industry to develop a strategic plan for the beef industry to the year 2002. A number of Strategic Imperatives facing the beef industry were identified along with relevant strategies to address each imperative and a number of relevant goals.

The draft Strategic Imperatives included:

The key environment related objectives of the strategic plan specifically relate to the need for improved grazing techniques and other on-farm land management strategies. Goals for these strategies include:

Regional pastoral bodies are required to consider these strategies when developing regional grazing practices. Examples of this are represented on the charts below. These charts provide survey response information on perceived factors requiring attention in the southern temperate and high rainfall zones (left) and types of grazing management used (right). This example shows the issues requiring attention to ensure good quality pastures are maintained and the management.

Beef industry codes of practice.

The beef grazing industry does not currently have a specific code of practice, however, some guidance is provided to farmers through codes of practice for general agriculture such as that developed by the Queensland Farmer's Federation or through the PrograzeŽ program.

PrograzeŽ uses a series of organised courses run by state department officers and other accredited deliverers such as agricultural consultants. The courses concentrate on setting and achieving livestock and pasture production targets using skills in assessing livestock and the quality, quantity and stability of plant species within the grazing system.

The National Beef Cattle Feedlot Environmental Code of Practice
The Australian Lot Feeders Association initiated the development of the National Beef Cattle Feedlot Environmental Code of Practice (the Code), in early 1998 to address the environmental legislative requirements of all States and Territories with regard to feedlot practices. Through the development of this code, benchmarks have been established to provide guidance for the stakeholders of beef cattle feedlots.

The code specifies environmental performance objectives, operational objectives and practices that provide ways of achieving compliance with the environmental duty of care. The purpose of the code is to enhance self-regulation by the industry by relation to practices that do or may impact upon the environment. Environmental best management practices are given covering management of drainage, pens, manure and effluent, spoilt feed, dead stock, odours, dust, noise, visual impact, fly and vermin, weeds and seeds, and chemicals.

Organisational Structures

The industry is supported by a network of structures and organisations. These structures support the industry in areas such as marketing, infrastructure and research and development. Supportive bodies include peak bodies, government agencies, beef marketing organisations and R & D institutions. A summary of this structure is presented below.

Cattle Council of Australia
Australian Lot Feeders Association
Meat and Livestock Australia Ltd
Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation
Land and Water Australia
Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry - Australia
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service
Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Beef industry research and development

Cooperative Research Centre
The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for the Cattle and Beef Industry (meat quality) is a joint venture between the University of New England, CSIRO, NSW Agriculture and the Qld Department of Primary Industries. The CRC officially commenced operations in 1993 and has funding of $60 million over seven years. The Commonwealth Government and industry sponsors provide funding for the CRC operations.

The principle objectives of the CRC are:

The CRC receives sponsorship from over 40 commercial firms from the beef production, processing and service centres. These firms provide cash or in-kind resources to facilitate research and education activities.

Meat and Livestock Australia
The major research and development funding agency in the meat industry is Meat and Livestock Australia Ltd. MLA provides approximately $45million per annum to research organisations for R&D. Appproximately 20% of these funds are devoted to projects concerned with environmentally sustainable production. Major programs include the Sustainable Grazing Systems (SGS) Key Program and the North Australia Program. Prograzier magazine, NAP News and Tips n Tools are published regularly to ensure the results of these programs are distributed to more than 15,000 producers.

MLA also conducts a a producer initiated research and development scheme (PIRD) to meet the industry's request for greater producer involvement in research and development. Under the scheme, producers with an initiative aimed at improving the efficiency and profitability of their farm business through on farm research and development can apply to the MLA for funds of up to $10,000 per project.

More than 300 producer groups across Australia have now received PIRD funding, enabling research and development to be aimed at addressing local and regional issues.

In a 1994 survey conducted during the MLA Temperate Pasture Sustainability Key Program, producers identified problems in pasture management in need of research. These key areas are presented in the following chart.

Graph of perceived pasture management problems in need of research

Meat and Livestock Australia is currently in the process of surveying the industry on adoption of management practice. These results were not collated and were unavailable for this report.

In addition, the CRC for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas conducts research pasture and production system in the area bordered by Townsville, across the gulf and top end and over to the Kimberley. Research from this CRC investiges how the landscape works and various savanna ecosystems function. This research assists in the development of sustainable production systems in this region.

How are Australian beef farmers working with other agricultural industries to overcome environmental challenges?

Beef produced in the southern region, and to a lesser extent in the northern region, generally forms either part of mixed farming systems or mixed farming regions. In these regions, beef is produced alongside the grains industry, a developing cotton industry and in parts the sheep industry. More extensive areas in the northern region support specialist beef producers.

Historic environmental issues that have the potential to impact on regional environmental values and beef production levels where mixed industries exist include:

The resolution of these issues on a regional level requires ongoing research and development. The beef industry is involved in the agro-political planning processes through peak bodies, Landcare groups, catchment management bodies and local authorities. Through these organisational structures, they are working with other rural industries to manage the environmental effects and have input into industry codes and BMP's. Landcare group membership is particularly high in the pastoral zones. Wide environmental community concerns such as water quality, protection of biodiversity and use of land according to capability are considered through similar structures.

An example of a joint livestock industry response to a common regional issue is in the Western Division of New South Wales. In this region, beef and wool producers are confronted with similar environmental challenges that stem from the integration of their production systems into landscape systems. Native population grazing pressures (eg kangaroos), combined with pest populations such as rabbits, woody weeds and foxes, affect the production capacity of the pastoral systems to maintain adequate feed sources. In response, landholders in this region prepared a set of best practice guidelines on Total Grazing Pressure (TGP) that includes both production and landscape function related management responses. Key elements of these are:

How do these factors affect the future prospects of the industry?

The beef industry is a rural industry that faces a number of developing and expanding environmental challenges. These challenges are expected, as the industry is a major user of land resources. The developing salinity, vegetation management and degraded soils issues will require evaluations of the effects beef management practices have on wider landscape processes. The adoption of currently recommended management practices may require on-going development to respond to regionally specific issues and to emerging issues. In some of the more badly degraded areas, re-vegetation may be required, or at the very best, a change in farming system. These changes will /should be determined by the degradation process occurring. Failure to do so will result in the progressive decline in utility for the beef industry. The beef industry to date has demonstrated a readiness to respond regionally - the challenge will be to manage the effects of change in regional communities.

Further information

Link to related web sites:

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