Centre-pivot irrigation leading pastoral industry attempts to drought-proof WA’s north

Article by  Courtney Fowler, Michelle Stanley and Richard Hudson courtesy of ABC News

There are more centre-pivot irrigation systems along Western Australia’s Kimberley coast than any other region in Australia, as pastoralists attempt to grow the northern cattle industry.

However it’s not just about turning more beef into bucks, but also an attempt by pastoral stations between Port Hedland and Broome to drought-proof their properties.

As farmers around the country debate the best way to prepare for dry times, northern WA’s unique groundwater availability has been highlighted as a genuine opportunity to grow fodder on-farm.

Groundwater rich

Chris Ham, senior development officer with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), has been working with irrigated agriculture in the West Kimberley and North Pilbara for more than a decade.

Mr Ham said there were three pastoral stations with irrigation capability 14 years ago — now there are at least 12, and more with projects in the works.

Regardless of the type of system pastoralists used, irrigating a small part of the landscape could have large production benefits, he said.

“While we’re very encouraged by the growth we’ve seen, we’re talking less than half a per cent of the landscape which is really important from a sustainability point of view.

“But that land can be very productive, even though it’s a very small portion of the pastoral lease.”

There are three major types of irrigation systems used around Australia — centre pivot, sub-surface drip and flood irrigation.

It is estimated there are at least 80 centre pivots, covering about 3,200 hectares of land, installed across the north of WA.

Mr Ham said the reason the West Kimberley and North Pilbara had an abundance of irrigated agriculture was the availability of groundwater.

Two years ago, that groundwater potential was recognised by Singaporean businessman Bruce Cheung, who is attempting to establish a billion-dollar Wagyu cattle industry just south of Broome.

Pardoo Station, which has 20 centre pivots and plans to put in at least 12 more, sits above an artesian aquifer.

Technical innovation manager Kevin Bell said the operation was expanding rapidly thanks to centre pivots.

“The first lot of Pardoo Beef Corporation-born pure-blood Wagyu have already gone to a feedlot in the South West, [and] there will be increasing numbers of those leaving the pivots,” he said.

But it is not as simple as just turning on the tap; while groundwater is abundant, allocations are “very strict”, Mr Bell said.

“We would need another allocation to expand, so it’s not really endless and it’s quite controlled and monitored by the Government, which is good.

“We have to be efficient and responsible with the use of water.”

Not just pivots

Up the road above the La Grange aquifer, Anna Plains Station has also recognised the potential of growing irrigated fodder.

They’ve taken a slightly different tack, however, trialling 28 hectares of sub-surface drip irrigation for the past three years.

Anna Plains is the only pastoral station in the north known to be using this type of irrigation to grow large quantities of hay.

Pastoralist David Stoate said aside from providing feed for cattle, eliminating high freight costs in remote areas like the Kimberley was a huge financial benefit.

“It saves you having to buy in that extra fodder and you can produce it yourself, which is a big advantage,” he said.

“In the past 12 months it’s yielded just under 30 tonnes a hectare; it’s probably about 1,500 bales over 28 hectares.

“It’s just a matter of keeping on developing, keeping on learning and gradually improving the system as you go.”

Drought-proofing for the future

Pastoralists across the north have been watching these irrigation developments along the Kimberley coast with interest.

Gogo Station near Fitzroy Crossing uses two centre pivots for rhodes grass and sorghum production, as well as drip irrigation for a trial plot of more than 200 gubinge trees.

Farm development manager Phil Hams said he hoped to replicate the success of irrigators south of Broome, including Pardoo, Wallal Downs, Nita Downs and Anna Plains.

“They’re probably light years in front of us in many respects,” he said.

Mr Hams said on-farm irrigation was the key to growing the northern cattle industry, particularly during times like the current dry conditions.

“These past couple of seasons particularly have been a bit of a wake-up call,” he said.

“I think there’s an increasing realisation that there’s benefits in growing fodder on property where there’s suitable land and water.”

Fitzroy irrigation controversy

Gogo Station hopes to expand its fodder production with a 5,000-hectare irrigated agriculture development, which is being assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposal to capture and store up to 50 gigalitres of floodwater from Blue Bush Creek, which connects to a tributary of the Fitzroy River, has some environmentalists concerned.

But Mr Hams said he was confident that by having a well-regulated water allocation plan with conditions, it could actually help industry look after the land during the dry years.

“What we’re talking about are high-level flows that have already gone sideways out of the mainstream,” he said.

“If you do things right, you can progress without destroying the integrity of the river.

“And it protects a lot of the lesser country because you’re feeding up your cattle on those areas and taking pressure off the rangelands.”

Mining and agriculture magnate Gina Rinehart has been under scrutiny from green groups and traditional owners for her proposal to harvest 325 gigalitres of surface floodwater to “supercharge” the region’s cattle industry.

Reportedly the plan would allow Hancock Agriculture to increase its herd by 20,000 head across its properties at Liveringa, Nerrima and Fossil Downs.

A CSIRO report published last year estimated that harvesting surface water from the Fitzroy River could potentially support 160,000 hectares of irrigated crops in 85 per cent of years.

The State Government has ruled out damming the river but is finalising a draft water allocation plan set for release next year.

Cost is a challenge

Beyond government red tape and environmental considerations, one of the biggest challenges for pastoralists looking to invest in irrigation is the cost.

A recent DPIRD trial estimated that, including approvals and infrastructure, a 40-hectare centre pivot could cost as much as $1.25 million and take at least seven years to see a return on investment.

“As a ballpark, you really need to be earning $3,500 a hectare every year to recoup those kinds of costs,” Mr Ham said.

But former MP Paul Brown, now the owner of the Hedland Export Depot, thinks the Commonwealth should be helping pastoralists invest in water infrastructure as part of its $100 million drought fund.

The money will become available from July next year to support farmers and communities in projects that enhance preparation and responses to drought.

“We don’t need dams here like in the east — we’ve got water underneath us that we can access quite readily,” Mr Brown said.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for the Federal Government to be looking at partnerships, where they fund the cost of a centre pivot 50 per cent.

“You can bring cattle to it without having to take them off and destock your property; you could even develop a small feedlot.”

Meeting more markets

Mr Hams said creating a feed-lotting industry in the north was the end game.

Kimberley Meat Company’s abattoir, located between Broome and Derby, was opening up opportunities for stations looking to diversify from live export or trucking south, he said.

“What this sort of development does is it offers an opportunity to get into the 21st-century, meet markets, and produce more tonnes of beef.”

And there are many more pastoral operations in the region that share this philosophy.

Just down the road, the Argyle Cattle Company recently gained approval to begin constructing an irrigation precinct at Shamrock Station.

Using 13 centre pivots, it is proposing to develop 650 hectares of irrigated fodder for a stand-and-graze operation only 200 kilometres south of the abattoir.

It was the third irrigated agriculture proposal to be approved in northern WA in 2018, following the green light for developments at Carlton Hill and Pardoo Station.

All eyes on the Kimberley

SWAN Systems irrigation software expert Ivor Gaylard said there was no right way when it came to developing irrigation in the north.

He said whether farmers installed centre pivots or drip irrigation, there was a lot the rest of the country could learn from pastoralists in the West Kimberley.

“We’ve got both systems very well represented up here, so it’s a good case study for everyone to watch.”