Smart Farms – Revitalising the Southern Rangelands – Hillview Station

This case study is based on the Smart Farms Project Revitalising the Southern Rangelands and the pastoral industry through advanced and refined grazing management project. Here we explore the outcomes of exploring and implementing new technology and techniques at Hillview station, a regenrative pastoral station working to adapt to the continual pressures of drought and other climate pressures.

This case study is based on the Smart Farms Project Revitalising the Southern Rangelands and the pastoral industry through advanced and refined grazing management project. Here we explore the outcomes of exploring and implementing new technology and techniques at Hillview station, a regenerative pastoral station working to adapt to the continual pressures of drought and other climate pressures.


For the past twelve years, Darren and Kim Cousens (pictured above with Mexican rancher and regenerative agriculture thought leader Alejandro Carillo) have made their home at Hillview Station, a vast 149,000 ha cattle station located approximately 60km southeast of the remote town of Meekatharra in Western Australia.

The landscape of Hillview Station is strikingly varied, with vast stretches of Wanderie tussock grass underneath Mulga woodlands, interspersed with patches of saltbush, rugged breakaway country and a significant expanse of Spinifex.

Bubba Ngundi Creek, the only major creek system, runs through the property and culminates as a flood out on the southern section of the station. The ancient waterways and shallow aquifers are the lifeline of the station and contribute to its unique character.

The annual rainfall usually averages around 240mm. However, this past year fell short of this, mirroring much of the greater Southern Rangelands region, which, too, experienced a lower-than-average rainfall year.

Despite these challenges, Darren and Kim carefully maintain their operation, running a core herd of Santa Gertrudis bulls over Droughtmaster/shorthorn breeders, and adjusting numbers when necessary to ensure the sustainability of their operations.

Cattle adeptly forage across this diverse landscape, with some favouring the nutrient-rich flood-out systems and others gravitating towards the richly vegetated Wanderie country. A key priority for Darren and Kim is the development and implementation of holistic grazing strategies that encapsulates and harmonises herd behaviours with the landscape’s ecological processes. They actively engage in trials, share knowledge within the pastoral community, and collaborate with partners like Rangelands NRM, as they work towards shared goals in regenerative pastoral practices.

Darren and Kim’s story is one of resilience, adaptability, and deep-seated passion for the land they call home.

The Journey

Over the past two and a half years, Hillview Station has embarked on a transformational journey, spurred on by a National Landcare Program, Smart Farms small grant. Inspired by the stories of success of Old Man Plains Station in the Northern Territory near Alice Springs, Darren and Kim aimed to introduce similar practices in the Western Australian Southern Rangelands, but with a unique twist: incorporating new technology.

Old Man Plains Station, is a research station that has made significant strides in improving carrying capacity, pasture growth, and meat quality through its Quality Graze grazing management strategies. Keen to bring this success across the border to the WA Southern Rangelands, with the aid of technology, the Smart Farm’s project initially focused on the new and revolutionary technologies of Cibo Labs and Ceres Tags.

The project evolved with mentoring from Northern Territory rangelands expert Dionne Walsh and Mexican regenerative rancher Alejandro Carrillo, to further expand, develop and modify Hillview’s grazing strategies and regeneration aspirations.


Cibo Labs in Action at Hillview Station

Cibo Labs impressed Darren and Kim right from the outset. With the help of Phil Tickle and Nik Henry, they implemented the Pasture Key service, an innovative system that leverages satellite imagery and machine learning to provide weekly maps detailing feed on offer, total standing dry matter, and ground cover data. This information proved invaluable, aiding in informed grazing management decisions. Throughout their journey, the team at Cibo Labs has been a pillar of support, addressing any queries and ensuring the smooth running of the system. The first step was to integrate the grazing patterns of Hillview Station into the Cibo Labs Pasture Key platform. A 5km grazing radius around their watering points, and outer ranges of this, reflected the general grazing pattern of their livestock (Figure 1).

This division into grazing units allows Darren and Kim to have a really good look at how their watering points are being utilised.

The Feed on Offer (FOO) maps (Figure 2) have been particularly beneficial for Darren and Kim. These maps, using a traffic light colouring scheme, provide a visual representation of the average FOO within the grazing radius of each watering point and the outer range areas. This allows them to quickly assess the condition across the station.

Another valuable tool is the map detailing Total Standing Dry Matter (TSDM) independent of any grazing unit. It offers data expressed as kg/ha at a 10m resolution (Figure 3).

A key advantage of the detailed TDSM, along with high resolution map layers of ground cover, fractional cover and  NDVI, are their ability to provide a comprehensive overview of the entire station. Given the vast and often inaccessible nature of areas, it’s impossible to traverse the entirety of a station. Cibo Labs provides this bird’s eye view, making it easier to monitor conditions across the property.

The suite of maps helps to monitor how each grazing unit is fairing as a result of all the complexities that happen on the station. Interestingly, the system captures rainfall and its impact. Sometimes, unnoticed rainfall events in the far reaches of the property are revealed through  increases in FOO or TSDM in the subsequent week’s map. A following visit to these areas confirms the rainfall. It’s fascinating to observe how rapidly each landscape type responds to rain, especially after moving cattle out of that area to allow for recovery.

It’s also fascinating to compare current conditions and historical years/seasons maps stored in Cibo Labs, to help with planning and re-thinking of grazing strategies.

When it comes to the accuracy of the data, Darren and Kim believe the data is an accurate and a fair representation for their station. Particularly in knowing that over time, it will only improve as they input field data into Cibo Labs.

The field data collected via transects, is a basic set of 5 pasture cuts (0.25m2) that are weighed, photographed and observations noted at each site, which takes Darren or Kim about 10 minutes to complete. The machine learning process, built by Phil and the team at Cibo Labs,  constantly calibrates and improves the satellite’s pasture remote sensing that is based on this uploaded pasture cut field data.

This calibration work is happening on a number of stations and farms across Australia, and Hillview is contributing to that, particularly for the land systems in the Meekatharra area. Other stations are also involved in the WA rangelands, which is helping to increase the accuracy and integrity of the satellite remote sensing interpretations of pasture. In this way, the pastoral community can benefit from each other’s input, including those currently getting on board with the Australian Feedbase Monitoring, Cibo Labs’ free lower-resolution service in collaboration with MLA, which derives its information from the same source.

Darren and Kim regularly engage with Cibo Labs, using the maps and data to inform their decisions. Observing the data changes weekly helps drive their decision-making process. They can also verify how changes in their grazing strategies are reflected in the maps and data.
Even in a dry year like this one, with most of the station being in the red due to drought, the system has proven instrumental in decision-making. Notably, the April rain, visibly reflected on the maps, providing some relief and eliminating the need for an urgent muster.
The tool doesn’t replace getting out onto the ground, observing with your own eyes, and weighing up the multitude of factors that are a part of daily life on a station. With this in mind, Cibo Labs Pasture Key platform has proven to be a valuable tool in helping Darren and Kim to oversee Hillview’s vast and diverse landscape and aiding their decision-making.

Navigating Tech Innovations with Ceres Tags

Ceres Tags (Figure 4) are smart ear tags, equipped with direct satellite transmission technology that allows for livestock tracking without any need for on-ground infrastructure. They provide valuable data on location, activity, and unusual behaviour. When Darren and Kim initially tested these tags on their cattle, the resulting insights were enlightening.

The integration of Ceres Tags into the Cibo Labs platform was an impressive step forward. It gave Darren and Kim a comprehensive view of their pastures and cattle movements, a crucial advantage in the vast rangelands (Figure 5).

However, challenges arose when the tags began to fail, either by ceasing data transmission or falling out of the cattle’s ear. Only a few tags managed to withstand the journey. Despite these setbacks, the potential of Ceres Tags remains high, with the new Ceres Ranch tags potentially offering improved durability. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, neither these new tags nor other alternative tags, could be trialed this time around.

While the Ceres Tags faced hurdles in this project, they shouldn’t be discounted yet. If they can prove resilient in rangeland conditions, they could become an invaluable tool in the future.

Converging of grazing management concepts

Dionne Walsh, a seasoned expert from Range IQ was enlisted to guide Darren and Kim. With more than 25 years in the Rangelands space, Dionne’s blend of academic and practical skills, together with her prior collaborations with Cibo Labs and Old Man Plains Station, made her the ideal mentor for Darren and Kim.

Dionne worked closely with Darren and Kim towards the end of the project to integrate and bring all the elements together. She was able to offer them an overview of the work being done on Old Man Plains and how they could use this information to refine their management system. Additionally, she equipped them with tools, including a spreadsheet to analyse the Cibo Labs data, adding another layer of refinement to their grazing management decisions.

A recent trip to the Harvey Beef facility reinforced Dionne’s insights. The facility prefers steers at 400-450kg, which coincidentally is the weight that Old Man Plains moves their stock off. Old Man Plains attains not only superior profitability but also improved rangelands forage, soil health and water efficiency gains. This year, due to dry conditions, Darren and Kim moved their steers off at 300kg, but now they have a clear target to aim for.

Furthermore, Brahman (Bos Indicus) cattle yield less meat-to-weight-ratio, so are not suitable for Harvey Beef’s Koojan Downs feedlot. This bodes well with the fact that Darren and Kim made a shift from Braham bulls to Santa Gertrudis (Bos Taurus) bulls over a number of years, not long after purchasing the station.

A memorable part of this project is the field day hosted by Hillview Station featuring Alejandro Carrillo, a 4th generation rancher from the Chihuahuan Desert (Photo 1). Alejandro has transformed his low productivity and often drought-stricken property into a high biodiversity, high productivity ranch. He has managed this even when their average rainfall is 250mm.

Alejandro’s success has inspired Darren and Kim to trial a few more things on their property, particularly high-density impact grazing in an area not far from the homestead.


Embracing change

Over the course of the two and a half years, Darren and Kim have witnessed substantial changes on their property. This progress was made possible despite 2023 being an exceptionally dry year, thanks to a reinvigorated approach to grazing methods, coupled with the strategic use of cutting-edge tools. These elements have significantly propelled the development of Hillview.

Their strategy centres around managing cattle weight gain and optimising feed, with a clear focus on land regeneration. They understand that while it is not an instant fix, it’s a sustainable approach that offers long-term benefits. To tap into the premium market they desire, will necessitate building a consistent supply of quality feed to achieve a 400 to 450kg weight range target.

They have also recognised the value of using cattle as a cost effective resource. With a grazing management more in sync with nature, livestock play a crucial role in building soil, water, and forage resources. These resources, in turn, will continue to improve over time exponentially.

Also, by embracing a new era of technology specifically designed to meet station managers’ needs, is proving instrumental in refining decision making processes on Hillview and managing the vast scales more efficiently.

Darren and Kim are confident that this integrated approach has set them on a path towards enhancing resiliency of not just their landscape and pastoral business, but also their personal well-being and goals. Their openness to novel grazing techniques, trialling of new tools, and in adapting these based on these initial results have all been encouraging experiences.

As they look to the future, Darren and Kim are eager to continue their journey of regeneration for improved landscape function and resiliency. They are committed to keep experimenting, scaling up based on proven outcomes, and continually expanding their knowledge.

A community invested in innovation

Throughout the course of the project, several field days and workshops were held across a number of stations in the Southern Rangelands. While these events, due to their remote locations, didn’t drawn large crowds, they became close-knit gatherings that allowed for knowledge sharing and open and honest conversations.

During the chilly nights and brisk mornings gathered around the warmth of campfires, there were incredible moments of connectedness and learning that were truly inspiring (Photo 2). The pastoralists of the southern rangelands really are an amazing community of people who have immense resiliency and drive to improve the landscape for the following generations.

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the time, effort, and passion that both Kim and Darren invested in this project, significantly contributing to the overall industry. Their dedication and commitment have left a permanent mark on the project.

Furthermore, many other pastoralists and passionate rangelands specialists were involved in the project, enhancing our collective goal of fostering regenerative land management practices. Ideas exchanged during these events have led to innovations that go beyond this project.
This project was only made possible through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.


Case study written by Sarah Jeffery, Rangelands NRM Project Manager
Sarah is a Project Manager for Rangelands NRM, working in the rangelands of Western Australia. She has a particular focus on working with communities in sustainable agriculture projects in the Southern Rangelands. The Southern Rangelands encompasses the Gascoyne, Murchison and Goldfields-Nullarbor subregions, spanning from Ningaloo on the west coast to the Nullarbor Plain bordering South Australia.


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