THE Kimberley region is known for its vast - and seemingly endless - stretches of sparsely populated red dirt, but could cropping on some of the country's toughest farming land be a way of the future?
Argyle Cattle Company is the latest northern pastoralist company to tap into irrigated fodder production, after planting a 42-hectare inaugural sorghum hay crop at Shamrock station last month.
It has been a long time coming for Argyle Cattle Company managers Haydn and Jane Sale, who - along with the previous managers - have spent more than four years planning and securing relevant permits to grow cattle fodder in the west Kimberley.
Located 150 kilometres from Broome, the Shamrock station irrigation project has been approved by both State and Federal governments to run 12 centre-pivot irrigation systems, each on 42ha.
A licence to extract underground water from the Broome Sandstone Aquifer was also issued to Argyle Cattle Company, as part of the project.
Mr Sale said installation of the centre pivot sites would be a four-staged process, which could possibly take up to three years to complete.
He said this was so any impact on the water table and environment could be monitored, as water extraction increased over time.
In the first stage 4.5 gigalitres of water will be extracted from the Broome Sandstone Aquifer - this is set to increase to 9.5GL by the final stage.
There is an irrigation hole drilled to about 100 metres under the centre of each pivot and water is pumped for about 45m.
Argyle Cattle Company undertook a lengthy hydrogeological study over recent years to assess the drawdown impacts.
"We think environmental effects (of extraction) will be negligible because we have had a huge hydrogeological study done, as part of the approval process," Mr Sale.
"We have an extensive monitoring system for monitoring bores installed around the station, which we report back to the Department of Water as we are pumping.
"It has been quite a big process to get everything approved, so it can be monitored.
"The staged process is also for our own investment - if we start to see any water drop in the table or the recharges are not strong enough then we won't continue putting the pivots in."
The first two centre pivots of stage one have been installed at Shamrock and the second two are on track to start running this year.
The bulk of the hay grown onsite will be shared across stations within Argyle Cattle Company and Yougawalla Pastoral Company, as well as some sublease agreements this year.
Argyle comprises four stations including Moola Bulla, Beefwood Park, Mount Amhurst and Shamrock, which run 50,000-head of mainly Red Brahman, Droughtmaster, Jarrah Red and Senepol cattle across 1,037,352ha of pastoral land.
When speaking with Farm Weekly last week, Mr Sale anticipated 200 tonnes of sorghum hay would be cut from the irrigation site in about six weeks' time.
He expects to produce up to five hay cuts from the crop for the season.
To prepare the area for seeding, clearing permits were secured and studies - including extensive bilby studies and environmental impact studies - were undertaken.
Shrubs was cleared and the area was stick picked, before the seed bed was ready for the first crop.
Despite facing sweltering temperatures of 40 degrees over a number of days, Mr Sale said the system had allowed them to keep water up to the seedlings.
"We have experienced some incredibly hot conditions up here, but the crop has grown pretty well," he said.
"In two weeks another pivot of sorghum will be in the ground, followed by Rhodes grass and possibly another sorghum a month later.
"Those are the four crops we are kicking the program off with this year and they will supply all of our cattle fodder needs."
The bigger and broader plan for development further down the track is to grow feed for a feed yard, which would be setup on the station.
Mr Sale said the yard would run similar to a feedlot and use a mix of corn, corn silage and grain, as well as sorghum, Rhodes grass and a tropical legume.
He said currently the hay would not be used as a fattening exercise as such, but instead for feeding in the cattle yards and everyday operational hay requirements.
"We should be able to grow all of that hay ourselves," he said.
"Then as we move into stage two of the project we will be growing more high value fattening feeds including grain and silage to put into our own feedlot ration."
Previously, the pastoral companies were buying hay with no feed yard set-up, as Mr Sale said it was too costly and too far to freight.
Mr Sale said growing grain locally would make the feedyard work because the station could grow and then feed out the fattening ration onfarm.
He said a benefit of the irrigation project was having the ability to supply their own hay at a lower cost base.
Mr Sale added that by feeding their own cattle for weight gain in a feed yard, they would be able to enter different markets, which were chasing different weighted cattle.
"So we will be able to cater our cattle to other markets, whereas now we are selling them straight to the buyer, who may be in live export or domestic markets," he said.
"Because we can't buy that fodder at a reasonable price, because we have to freight it from mostly thousands of kilometres away, we won't have the ability to use feed for weight gain until we grow it ourselves."
Mr Sale said there were a number of stations in the area which were also using centre-pivot irrigation systems to grow fodder for their beef businesses.
He said in some cases some of those stations even fed the cattle straight onto the grass that they watered.
Other major types of irrigation systems used around Australia include sub-surface drip and flood irrigation.
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