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Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (DPIF)

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Portrait of the NT

Portrait of the NT

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Portrait of the NT

1. General

Pastoralism was one of the first industries to be established in the Northern Territory (Northern Territory) and formed the basis for the early non-aboriginal settlement. In spatial terms, it is the dominant land based industry, occupying approximately 55% of the Northern Territory land area extending from the high rainfall, monsoonal areas of the Top End in the north to the arid regions of the Alice Springs District in the south. It provides 44% of the total output of the Northern Territory primary industry and fisheries sector. It is a significant source of income and employment in the regional areas of the Northern Territory. The industry is free of serious diseases like foot and mouth disease, brucellosis and tuberculosis.

1.1 Brief History


Cattle were brought into the Territory during the early military settlements in the 1820s. Fort Dundas (Melville Island) in 1824 and Fort Wellington (Raffles Bay) in 1827. The military settlers brought cattle from Sydney and from the Dutch East Indies (Timor). When the settlements were abandoned in 1829 some cattle were let loose in the hope of their multiplying and being useful, should the place be settled again. In 1838, another military settlement was established at (Fort Victoria) Port Essington. In the later years of this settlement many cattle escaped into the bushland and when the settlement was finally abandoned in 1849 buildings were destroyed and stock including cattle were let loose.

In 1870, approval was given for the construction of the overland telegraph line from Port Augusta (South Australia) to Port Darwin. The overland telegraph line was completed in 1872. To supply the construction parties with fresh meat, cattle and sheep were, for the first time, brought by overland droving from South Australia and Queensland.

Pastoral settlement however, began around 1875 (Alice Springs District) and the 1880s was a period of intense activity and rapid development in stocking up pastoral leases with stock from Queensland and South Australia. By the end of 1888 the stock numbers had increased to 218,874 cattle and 107,078 sheep, and 251,680 square miles were under pastoral leases. Large number of bullocks were being turned off to southern markets by overland droving, through established stock routes.

In 1885, a small trial shipment of cattle was sent to Hong Kong by Messrs Fisher and Lyons. As a result of this shipment the South Australian Government instituted a subsidy scheme whereby a subsidy of #5,000 a year was provided to any contractor who would engage in live cattle export trade. In 1891, a special steamer, the Darwin capable of carrying 250 live cattle was built for Goldsbrough Mort and Co Ltd and in 1892, eight shipments each of about 200 head of cattle were made to Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta). The first shipment was from Adelaide River and the remaining from Port Darwin. This live trade continued until the end of 1897 with about 2,000 head of cattle being exported each year.

In 1888 the outbreak of redwater fever led to a huge reduction in the cattle numbers and the area stocked. As a result interstate movement (over land droving) was stopped. In 1896, the Dutch authorities banned further live export trade to Batavia because of the dangers of redwater fever. Trade with Singapore was eventually discontinued in 1897 due to heavy financial losses. In 1900, the Dutch Government removed the ban on the import of Territory cattle into Batavia, but without any subsidy for transport no trade eventuated. Around this time restrictions on movement of Territory stock into Western Australia were also removed and later on restrictions were eased in Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales.

Despite considerable difficulties with respect to markets, meat processing (lack of facilities); diseases (redwater fever, ticks etc); environment (tropical climate and drought) and problems associated with isolation, settlement proceeded and by 1910 the majority of the areas currently utilised by the pastoral industry were occupied.

1905, Queensland imposed a law requiring dipping (to remove ticks) of all cattle moved from the Territory to Queensland. To facilitate the dipping of cattle, a government dip was constructed along the stock route at Anthony's Lagoon in 1906. This was the first dip in the Northern Territory.

Marketing however, remained one of the main problems of the industry. In 1917 the North Australian Meat Company (Vestey's) opened a meatworks in Darwin. It was never profitable and closed in 1920. In 1918 Wyndham (Western Australia) meatworks was established. After the closure of Darwin meatworks, the majority of the cattle were marketed as stores in Queensland and South Australia. By October 1946, the stock routes in use in the Territory measured 2,200 miles in length and were equipped with a total of 98 watering places (the majority of them were bores and windmills). Some Victoria River District (VRD) cattle went to Wyndham for slaughter. After the closure of its meatworks at Darwin, Vestey's developed a small and successful live cattle trade to Singapore and Manila in 1922. The trade lasted untill 1930.

The industry was adversely affected during the great depression of the 1930's as cattle prices declined to extremely low levels. But the years of the World War II provided a much needed boost to the industry. In the early 1950s the industry was again beset by problems, this time drought. Drought became the catalyst for the use of road transport for the marketing of cattle as the droving of drought affected cattle became difficult. Vestey's began to use road transport in 1956 to market Northern Territory cattle interstate. The use of road transport in part led to a reduction in the turn-off age of the cattle. The successful attempts to use road transport to market cattle prompted the Commonwealth Government to introduce the Beef Roads program in the early 1960's.

The 1960's also saw some fundamental changes to the pastoral industry in the Northern Territory. Equal pay and minimum standards of accommodation for Aboriginies was introduced. The resulting increase in labour costs triggered some capital intensification on pastoral properties. With the opening of the US and Japanese markets, prices were buoyant and this led to further investment in the industry (introduction of Bos indicus cattle, some pasture development and improved management systems). New export meatworks were established in 1963 to service these new markets.

The oil price crisis of 1974, which triggered a global collapse in commodity prices, brought to an end the boom of the 1960's. Live exports to South East Asia re-emerged in 1975, after brief revivals in 1947-48, and in late 1950's and 1960's. Although the live export trade continued on a smaller scale, it is only since the early 1990's that the trade has emerged as a dynamic and significant alternative market for Northern Territory cattle. Since the beginning of 1998 the live export trade to SE Asia declined sharply due to the economic crisis facing some of these countries since August 1997.

The introduction of the National Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) in 1970 entailed some drastic and fundamental changes to cattle and buffalo production in the Northern Territory. Infected cattle and buffalo (both domesticated and feral) were destocked which greatly reduced the herd size. Harvesting of feral cattle ended in the North. Similarly, harvesting of feral buffalo (except in the tuberculosis (TB) monitored negative areas in the Southern Arnhemland region) also ceased. BTEC required greater control of herds through property and paddock fencing and this has provided impetus for increased adoption of better management practices such as weaning and strategic supplementation. After the BTEC destocking of diseased cattle, pastoralists are restocking with more appropriate types of cattle (Brahman and Brahman cross) and as a result improving the genetic makeup of the Territorys cattle herd. Genetic improvement together with supplementary feeding and improved rangeland grazing management are contributing to the increased productivity levels evident in the industry. The proportion of Bos indicus cattle is also rapidly increasing in the tick affected areas of the Northern Territory. The Territory, through its BTEC program, has gained brucellosis and TB-free status.


Buffalo were also imported from the East Indies (Timor) during the early military settlements in the Northern Territory. Further introductions of buffalo into the Northern Territory were made from Timor during the 1840s and from India in 1886. These buffaloes were intended as rations for the early military settlements along the northern coast. Some escaped, or were released, and formed the basis of the free range animal herds which roamed the wetlands of the coastal and northern rivers of the Northern Territory. Buffalo were originally hunted for their hides but since the early fifties there have been slaughtered mainly for pet food and for human consumption.

The buffalo industry, at present, is in a rebuilding phase after the impact of BTEC. Strict disease eradication measures against bovine tuberculosis (TB) under the national BTEC campaign are responsible for major changes in the buffalo industry. Large areas of land that once supported feral buffalo with a high incidence of tuberculosis have been destocked and buffalo producers are now establishing disease-free herds under controlled management conditions. It is estimated that there are 40,000 head of feral buffalo mostly restricted to he southern Arnhemland region. The Territory has at present a domesticated buffalo population estimated to be 17,000 head.

The Northern Territory buffalo population comprises animals of the Swamp type. In 1994, the buffalo industry and Northern Territory DBIRD commenced importing Riverine type buffalo from USA with the aim of producing a better meat animal and to explore the potential of buffalo dairying. It is moving towards an industry with high quality meat (Tenderbuff) production from domesticated herds.

1.2 Industry Sectors and Enterprises

The pastoral industry of the Northern Territory (Northern Territory) comprises cattle and buffalo production. The pastoral industry is dominated by cattle production, with the buffalo industry contributing a much smaller component to the industry.

The pastoral industry is modern and well integrated into the Northern Territory economy. The sectors of the Northern Territory economy with which the pastoral industry is well linked include port, road and rail transport; the abattoir sector; Government and wholesale and retail sectors (agricultural inputs, supplies and outputs).

The climatic regime of high temperatures in the south, and high temperatures and wet season inaccessibility in the north, restrict most of the cattle turn-off and slaughtering to the April-December period. The Northern Territory has four abattoirs (two export and two domestic abattoirs) and some licensed slaughter houses (servicing isolated communities).

1.3 Role of Pastoral Industry in the Northern Territory Economy

Until the mid 1960s the pastoral industry, particularly the cattle industry, was the backbone of the Northern Territory economy. It has since been surpassed by other sectors of the economy like mining and tourism. However, the pastoral industry is of fundamental importance to Northern Territory regional economic growth, employment opportunities and export income.

In 2000, the cattle industry production was estimated to be worth $189 million. However, the total contribution of pastoral industry to the Northern Territory economy is much higher when the indirect benefits, that is, forward and backward linkages with the rest of the economy, are taken into consideration. These include benefits accruing from expenditure on cattle transport, stockfeed, wages, port charges, quarantine inspection, veterinary requirements, abattoir sector benefits, and indirect benefits through multiplier effects.

1.4 Location and Regional Significance of the Northern Territory Pastoral Industry

Based on natural vegetation characteristics, rainfall level and reliability, and geographic location, the Northern Territory can be divided into four pastoral districts: Darwin and Gulf; Victoria River District; Barkly Tablelands; and Alice Springs.

The cattle industry provides the dominant land use for extensive areas of the Territory. The industry contributes significantly to Northern Territory regional economies, offers employment and provides flow-on benefits in all the regions of the Northern Territory.