Stories of drought resilience – Karma Waters Station

In our latest issue of the Gulf Croaker, we feature stories of drought resilience throughout the northern Gulf. One such story comes from Karma Waters Station, where the Pedersens make the most of the good times while preparing for the dry times.

Almost 90% of the Gulf Savannah NRM region (itself an area almost as big as Victoria) is comprised of extensive beef operations on native pasture.

These multimillion-dollar operations run on grass and therefore rainfall. The grass is not just what’s in the paddock now, but also what’s going to be there in 3-, 6- and 12-months’ time. Careful management to balance production against the long-term sustainability of the land is required, and part of this is about preparing for drought.

Karma Waters Station, owned and run by Alan and Karen Pedersen, has been at the forefront of pasture management for many years. Located near Mt Carbine, the station is principally a breeding enterprise on a native pasture-stylo mix. About 45,000ha in size, the station is made up of productive alluvial soils along some watercourses, Ironbark gravelly ridges, shale to greywacke and steep shaley hill country. Running about 1,600 head in total in two breeder herds, the operation turns off 450–500kg 4-year-old bullocks into the Mareeba saleyards or Townsville meatworks.

The station started out with a single 19,700ha block, won in a ballot in 1989. Alan and Karen then went on to purchase 25,300ha from Fred Burdell (Nychum Station) in 1991, which included about 50km of Mitchell River frontage. Combining both blocks into a single property, they needed a station name. Alan and Karen searched ‘lucky’ in the thesaurus and one of the words was Karma. With so much river frontage on the Mitchell and St George River, they decided to add “Waters”—and Karma Waters Station was born.

Both blocks were bare of infrastructure and cattle when they took them on, being some very hilly country, bony ground and hard going. Alan had been on the adjacent Hurricane Station since the 1980s, so knew what he was in for. The country is mostly black speargrass, giant speargrass, native sorghum and kangaroo grass, and gets about 800mm of rain per year. While they always get some rain, it can be pretty variable—from 400mm in a dry year, to more than 1200mm in a wet.

Alan and Karen have lived on Karma Waters since 1995—raising three boys (Jack, Ian and Robert) on the property—and have always been strong members of the local community, holding positions on local councils, the Cairns School of Distance Education P&C Association, the Cairns to Karumba Bike Ride, Cairns Radio Branch of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association and Mt Carbine Rodeo Association.

The Pedersen Family

The Pedersen Family of Karma Waters Station (L to R): Jack, Ian, Karen, Alan and Robert

Karma Waters Field Day 1

Alan Pedersen, Keerah Steele (Gulf Savannah NRM) and Emily Corbett (DAF) at the Drought Resilience Field Day in April 2022

Karma Waters Field Day 2

Joe Rolfe (DAF), Vern Ezzy (QRIDA), Wayne Slack (QRIDA) and Karen Pedersen at the Drought Resilience Day in April 2022

Karma Waters Field Day 3

Participants at Gulf Savannah NRM and Cape York NRM's Drought Resilience Day at Karma Waters Station, April 2022

Karma Waters Field Day 4

Participants at Gulf Savannah NRM and Cape York NRM's Drought Resilience Day at Karma Waters Station, April 2022

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Right from the outset, Alan and Karen wanted to manage their station to get the best out of the country in the longer term. In 1992, they did some 45km of fencing to exclude stock from Mitchell River and constructed 15 stock dams to provide watering points away from the river.

“We went on to develop the Mitchell country into five main paddocks for breeders and eight smaller paddocks for weaners, finishing steers, aged cows and holding our bulls,” says Alan. “As part of breeder management, we take the bulls out of the breeder herds in September and return them in early February.”

This process is a key part of their drought management, as it controls when calves are on the ground and ensures the bulls are in top condition when they go back.

“Our breeders alternate on a year on, year off spelling regime, which allows the country to regenerate and maintain our stylos and 3P grasses (Palatable, Perennial and Persistent),” Alan explains. “Taking all weaners off and moving breeders into a fresh paddock in second round muster during September gives them the best possible chance to handle the toughest three months of the year.”

Alan also says the timing of their second mustering round is crucial. “In a tough year we would shift breeders into a fresh paddock in early August to maintain body weight as long as possible, even if a late season break means feeding hay in December. In a good year we often do second round in mid-October, as cows are holding condition well and will actually increase body weight until mid-November in a fresh paddock. Moving stock before the country is flogged-out is critical to maintain groundcover and maximise water penetration at storm time—and brings the country away so much quicker.”

From as early as 1991, Alan and Karen aerially seeded stylos into their pastures to improve drought resilience. They used the Seca variety, especially developed for the northern grazing area.
“The stylos take a few years to get established, but then they increase the carrying capacity of our country and provide a high protein feed for stock available well into the dry, plus being a legume, they kick the soil along,” Alan explains. “These paddocks are used to carry weaners through to the storm season and finish off steers for processing. The stylos last really well, and combined with our wet season spelling and fire management, we aim to keep them about 20–30% of the pasture yield. This ensures that our 3P grasses come on, and our risk of poor seasons is reduced. At higher densities stylos can outcompete the 3P grasses, so we manage that with fire.”

As a result, Karma Waters can stock at 1 beast/9ha, which is about twice as good as the 1/20ha possible without stylos, wet season spelling and fire management. Even at that stocking rate on their light country, Alan and Karen have found their pastures are improving year on year.

“We know they are improving as we have been doing photo monitoring since 2005. We’ve found this a really important and simple tool. Being able to look back though a photo album and see what the country really was—not what you remember it was—has been a really powerful tool in our whole-of-property management.”

The pasture monitoring on Karma Waters includes a simple photo, taken from a star picket-marked point twice a year—end of year at break of season, and post-wet season. They do an assessment of the groundcover and species at the point and use the photo to record conditions.

“Our main preparation for dry years is the work we put into preparing and managing the country,” Karen says. “With the combination of wet season spelling, fire management and stylos, we typically have enough feed in paddock to carry us through even the dry years without having to heavily destock. We’ve built more than 45 dams across the property at no more than 2km apart, so the stock don’t have to walk too far in hilly country. Each of the dams we’ve built, we make sure they are 4–5m deep which gives us about 18 months of water. We also have three equipped bores that deliver 1400 gallons per hour, and we’re planning on strategically placing another 6 bores on the property to give water certainty in tough years.”

Managing fire is a critical part of their land management. “Most of our country is burnt on a 3 to 4-year cycle, depending on the seasons and external interference,” Alan says. “We burn in the storm season after 50–100mm of rain. We use fire to clean up the country or get rid of excessive fuel loads, which has been part of land management in this country for thousands of years. We also use fire to control some weeds and introduced stylos when they become too dominant in the pasture makeup.”

Drought resilience is more than just land management, however. As Karen explains, “An important part of our station drought resilience is also income diversification. We run a successful bush camping venture on the property, with nine sites established along the Mitchell River. These are open during the dry season and have proven very popular.” With beautiful swimming spots and big blue skies, it’s not hard to see why.

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