Jan 17, 2016

Satellite data helps Australian ranchers meet the rising demand for meat in a changing world

(January 14, 2016) When Russell Lethbridge walks his property in northern Australia—kicking-up clouds of dust that catch the sunlight as he assesses the grasses, shrubs and brush that fill the landscape with muted tones of green—he carries the legacy of five generations before him on his shoulders.

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About 80 percent of Australia is rangeland—known as the “Outback“—much of which is grazed by domestic livestock. It’s here that Lethbridge and his family run a herd of between 9,000 and 11,000 head of cattle to supply a range of markets—including the U.S.—with conventional beef, grass-fed beef and live cattle. The Lethbridge family and thousands of Australian families like them work the rangelands, helping supply the world’s growing demand for meat, leather and wool, while carrying on traditions akin to those of generations of ranchers who have run cattle across the western United States.

Operations like Lethrbridge’s are vital to feeding the world’s rapidly growing demand for meat and wool, especially in the face of a changing climate. Global meat consumption is set to dramatically expand in the years ahead; meat imports in China alone are predicted to swell by more than 3,500 percent by 2050.

At the same time, many developing countries—struggling to keep up with the rising demand for meat—are slashing and burning tropical forests in favor of arable land for grazing. If properly managed, Australia’s rangelands provide an opportunity to sustainably produce meat without contributing to deforestation.

Lethbridge needed to monitor his land in new ways in order to manage water resources effectively amid increasing pressures, to keep the land healthy, and to ensure his ranch is economically sustainable so that he can pass it onto future generations. He needed to step back and see his land from a distance to understand which areas were being over-grazed, where pasture was growing back and where his interventions to promote rangeland health were working.

Lethbridge turned to the Natural Resource Management Spatial Hub—a collaboration of more than 20 Australian federal and state agencies, research and industry organizations—which provides on-demand access to digital property maps using NASA’s Landsat and MODIS data. In the case of both Landsat and MODIS, these data consist of moderate-resolution groundcover images. Depending on cloudcover, new Landsat images of Lethbridge’s property are available as often as every 16 days. With MODIS—an instrument aboard the Aqua and Terra satellites—new images are available every one to two days as long as clouds don’t block the view, allowing land managers to track broad changes in land cover on a regular basis and in near real-time.