WILL Australia ever ride on the cow’s back as comprehensively as it once depended on the Merino? There are so many moving parts to this question that only the brave or the foolish would provide a definite “yes” or “no” answer.

If Australian beef production remains on the same grassfed footing, the answer could be reasonably “no”.

The past two decades have given a solid indication of the nation’s biophysical cattle carrying capacity: between 26-29 million head. Assuming that Australia can sustainably carry much more than 29 million head is to assume an absence of drought – and in Australia, that’s never been a safe bet.

In a new round of projections , CSIRO and the Bureau of Meterology forecast that Australia’s rangelands will become progressively hotter over the next 80 years. Evaporation rates will increase, and there is likely to be longer spells between more intense rain events.

Add in cattle heat stress, and the trends all point to a progressively challenging environment for grassfed beef production.

Move to a different production model, and the picture shifts.

If beef markets offered enough return, there is considerable scope for “sustainable intensification” by moving more cattle into feedlots or intensive grazing projects.

That’s not just an option for the south. Last year, CSIRO said that on its assessment of the Flinders and Gilbert river catchments in north Queensland, there is 10 million hectares of potentially arable soils in the region, of which about 50,000ha could host an irrigation scheme.

Proponents of the Etheridge Integrated Agriculture Project, also in north Queensland, say it is feasible to develop a 65,000ha vertically-integrated irrigation business based around sugar, guar bean production and beef cattle grazing.

The role of beef in these schemes, if they ever progress, will greatly depend on demand for beef. On that score, there is good news and bad news.

In the developed world, beef is occupying a shrinking portion of the dinner plate. That’s largely due to aggressive competition from cheap, intensively-farmed meat like chicken and pork, but health is also playing a role – even though some recent studies have debunked the notion that red meat on its own adversely affects health.

In the growing economies of Asia, beef is in growing demand. But it would be premature to think that Asian beef demand will be a prosperity pump for Australia’s beef industry.

Asian cultures have a preference for pork and chicken, the animals that have long sustained peasant farmers and are still the cheapest way of turning plant matter into meat protein. And other countries have noticed that Asia wants meat.

After China leapt up the charts as a beef export destination in 2012, Australian beef shipments to the People’s Republic fell off 20 per cent in 2014. Uruguay, New Zealand, India (via the back door) and soon Brazil (via the front door) are piling into the Chinese market.

And there are a few wild cards in the future global beef market. Laboratory-produced beef made from stem cells is a technical reality. Meat made from soy protein and other plant sustances is getting to the point that even enthusiastic meat-eaters are taking notice.

While the beef industry is tied to the reproductive cycle of cattle, prey to the weather, and hobbled by tradition, these novel foods are on fast development cycles backed by big money. If “low fat” food can catch on, “animal-free meat” can too.

So what’s the message from this washing machine full of trends? Probably the same as ever: people will always want to eat beef, but those who want to produce it and earn a satisfactory living, probably should aim to be in the top 20 per cent of producers on any chosen indicator.

More than any other factor, doing something well is where the margins are.

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