Confessions of a grass nerd

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Manager, Dampier Downs Station.

I really like grass. There, I’ve said it, I admit it – I’m a grass nerd. This is a fact that gives Mike no end of amusement, but I’m proud of it. The fact is, the pastoral industry is built on grass. No grass, no fat cows, no income.

In this part of the world, grass means native pasture. Our cows are as free-range as you can get. Except for a week or so in the yards when they are being weaned and a few days a year when they are mustered for their annual husbandry requirements (vaccinations etc.) our cows spend all their time in large, open paddocks, free to roam where they will.

Despite this cattle are, by and large, creatures of habit. Of course there are the odd few who are exceptions to the rule and will roam widely, but most animals establish a home range and pretty much stick to it. In some places this has led to overgrazing, a serious problem that needs to be addressed (hence our fencing and water development plan).

The best way to gauge what is going on in the landscape is to look at the grasses. You see, not all grasses are created equal and just because you have grass does not necessarily mean you have feed. There are annual grasses and perennial grasses, palatable and unpalatable grasses, increaser and decreaser species. It is the relative proportion of these grasses in the paddock that will tell you whether your country is in good condition or struggling.

For any extensive pastoral enterprise in northern Australia, the Holy Grail is 3Ps – grasses that are perennial, palatable, and productive. Perennial grasses are those that initially grow from seed, mature, set seed, and then become dormant over the long dry season. When the rains eventually come again, the same plant will draw on its root reserves to produce fresh green growth and start the cycle all over again. Some perennial grasses may only live for a few years but others, such as Mitchell grass, may live for thirty or forty years.

2.1An example of a 3P – curly bluegrass.

Perennial pastures are much better yardsticks of land condition than annual pastures (those that germinate, set seed and die, usually in the one year). The abundance (or otherwise) of annual grasses can be heavily influenced by seasonal conditions whereas perennials, due to their long-lived nature, give a more reliable indication of the long-term trend.

Palatable grasses are simply those that cattle like to eat. These will vary depending on where you are and what kind of country you have. A cow may crawl through fences on one place to get to a particular species, while up the road her sisters will turn up their noses at the very same plant. Not only our cows creatures of habit, at times they can be downright contrary!

Productive plants are those that produce a lot of leaf. Cattle are very good at selecting out the plants – and parts of plants – they prefer. They’re not as good as sheep, but they can still be fussy. It is no surprise that cattle prefer green leaf over dead leaf and dead leaf over stalk. Therefore, the grasses that produce lots of soft green leaf are ideal.

2.2A ribbon grass pasture – also not bad cattle feed.

This brings us to increaser and decreaser species – grass nerd speak for the difference between grass and feed. Increaser species tend to be grass, that is, they increase under the presence of grazing. Decreaser species are usually feed, that is, they decrease under the presence of grazing. What happens is the cattle target the delicious, leafy grasses (the decreasers), while the stalky, hairy, non-tasty one (the increasers) are ignored. This gives the increaser species an unfair competitive advantage and they soon start to replace the selectively grazed decreasers.

When this happens it is time to intervene. Depending on how far the pendulum has swung it might be as simple moving the cattle off that piece of country for a wet season, giving the 3P grasses a chance to rejuvenate. If the problem is more severe it may take a few years of wet season spells to recover. It may also mean that a different class of cattle will have to be run in that paddock for a while – weaners versus breeders, for example, or even a complete destock.

And it’s not just the cattle you need to think about. Depending where you are there could be a whole range of animals contributing to overgrazing. In the Kimberley, common pest animals include donkeys, camels, feral horses, kangaroos, and wallabies. Unfortunately, some of these animals have a highly romanticised profile and ‘culling’ has become a dirty word in certain circles. But ask anyone who has gone through a drought – driving through endless miles of choking dust and watching animals, whether livestock or feral, slowly starve to death, all the while ravaging the landscape is no fun either. Sometimes a bullet really is the kinder option.

Fortunately, we had a reasonable wet season and so are fairly well set for grass. Right now, our biggest danger is fire. Wildfires at this time of year are devastating as they not only instantly wipe out our feed reserves, but can also leave bare, scorching earth that can fry any of last year’s seed that may be on the surface. Bare ground also leaves country vulnerable to erosion when the wet season returns, particularly if we get early storms with plenty of rain in a short amount of time.

Overall, managing a cattle station is a real juggling act. We need to balance the number of cattle in a paddock (or on a waterpoint) with the amount of feed available. Too many cattle and the country becomes overgrazed and less productive, too few cattle and the feed is wasted and can become a potential fire hazard in the lead-up to the wet season. Hopefully, our water development plan will allow us to address problem areas while opening up fresh new country. After all, healthy country means contented cows and one happy grass nerd.