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Thriving in drought: How investing big in water saved the Brown family

By Kristy O'Brien, Sunday November 24, 2019 - 13:23 EDT
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Amungee Mungee has been going from strength to strength in the drought-stricken Barkly region. - ABC

When Adrian and Emma Brown bought Amungee Mungee Station in 2014 to build intensive cattle production in the Northern Territory, they were warned it could be an expensive project that may not succeed.

But five years on, their business has been thriving.



The Browns have built some of the most significant water infrastructure in the northern pastoral industry and it's holding them in good stead amidst the lowest rainfall on record in the Barkly Tablelands.

As a result of the drought, hundreds of thousands of cattle have been trucked from properties in the region, and the Browns say if it wasn't for the water infrastructure development, they would have de-stocked too.

"We're really starting to push forward at a rapid rate and this drought probably won't hold us back," Mr Brown said.



But Ms Brown said investing in this water infrastructure wasn't just about drought-proofing but also getting better use of the entire property during all types of conditions.

"There was never a question of let's put a massive development in for the one in seven years where we don't get a wet season," she said.

"It was … we've got an investment here, we've spent the money buying the land but we're not using it, so it's like having a hotel and only using the bottom floor when there's another 20 floors above it.

"So, we basically said let's be able to utilise as much of the country as we can and do it in a way that it's sustainable long term.

"We don't want to put 1,000 cattle on a watering point and run them there for the rest of time, we want to be able to have 200 cattle in a paddock, do a slow rotation system so the country is getting spelled and there is no land degradation happening."



Within three years at Amungee Mungee, carrying capacity increased from 2,600 cattle in a normal season to over 40,000.

"Our feed quality has improved so we're now in a position where we can actually sell at this time of the year which is great," Ms Brown said.

The family also doesn't have the stress of needing to scramble to buy cattle once the drought does break, where prices will probably go up and quality breeding cattle will be in demand.

"This de-stocking program hurts for three to four years ahead," Mr Brown said.

So how does it work?

The Browns say it's a simple strategy that includes restricting the cattle numbers in a paddock by fencing off paddocks extensively, installing more water tanks and troughs so cattle walk no more than four kilometres for a drink.

This means they don't lose condition and allows them to graze across more areas. It also means less land degradation.

At Amungee Mungee there are also 200 sites where pasture is monitored and water quality is tested, and this helps them with long-term budgeting for grass.

The Browns have now expanded their project to other stations.

Along with their long-term investor, billionaire Brett Blundy, the Browns have now purchased two more stations, Walhallow and Creswell Downs on the Barkly Tableland.

The same infrastructure and cattle management plans will be rolled out at those stations over the next few years.

But building the infrastructure in conditions where temperatures push over 40C can test workers.



Gary Cutting, who's in charge of fencing more than 1,000 kilometres on Creswell Station, says it's hard work, but they've found ways to cope.

"We get to rotate and sit in the aircon for 400 metres so it's not too bad," Mr Cutting said.

Innovation is part of the solution; Mr Brown and his team invented a fencing machine that can cover more than six kilometres in a day using a GPS and a barbed wire machine that strains the fence as they go.

Unlike building in the city, popping down to the local hardware store isn't an option — so thousands of pieces of this infrastructure puzzle all have had to be brought in from hundreds of kilometres away.

Dealing with those long distances led the Browns to another idea.

Innovation in the outback

They were unhappy with the quality of polythene pipe and concrete troughs being brought up from southern states, so they decided to build their own.



They'd also seen the limited options for products to build up infrastructure on Ms Brown's family property Beetaloo Station on the edge of the Barkly Tableland.

"We just saw a market, there was no-one specialising in that, so we basically moved to Katherine and started the trough business," Ms Brown said.

Since then the products have been in such demand from pastoralists and the mining sector that the Browns recently opened a new factory and large extrusion shed in Darwin to bring all of their manufacturing into one location.

They can produce tanks, troughs, barbed wire and polythene pipe of different sizes.

The Browns say they're motivated by a desire to show the rest of the country what can be done in northern Australia if the right investment is made.

"I'd like to be able to say we were part of that, to make the north a better place for not just us but for everyone else who lives in the north and everyone is prosperous out of it," Mr Brown said.



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- ABC

© ABC 2019

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