Australia is a relatively flat continent, with mean elevation just exceeding 200 metres. The dominant feature of the continent is the Great Dividing Range which spans the length of the eastern seaboard. There are very few naturally good soils for agriculture. Most are infertile and shallow, with deficiencies in phosphorus or nitrogen. To offset these deficiencies, superphosphate and nitrogenous fertilisers are widely used, particularly on pasture and cereal crops. Fragile soil structure and a susceptibility to waterlogging are other common features of Australian soils, while large areas are naturally affected by salt or acidity. These soil characteristics restrict particular agricultural activities or rule out agricultural activity altogether.
With the exception of Antarctica, Australia is the world's driest continent. The wet northern summer is suited to beef cattle grazing inland and the growing of sugar and tropical fruits in coastal areas. The drier summer conditions of southern Australia favour wheat and other dryland cereal farming, sheep grazing and dairy cattle (in the higher rainfall areas) as well as beef cattle. Within regions there is also a high degree of rainfall variability from year to year, which is most pronounced in the arid and semi-arid regions. Rainfall variability often results in lengthy periods without rain. The seasonality and variability of rainfall in Australia require that water be stored, and 70% of stored water use (including groundwater) is accounted for by the agricultural sector. Storage ensures that there are adequate supplies all year round for those agricultural activities requiring a continuous supply. Irrigation has opened up areas of Australia to agricultural activities which otherwise would not have been suitable.
Evaporation is another important element of Australia's environment affecting agricultural production. Hot summers are accompanied by an abundance of sunlight. This combination of climatic variables leads to high rates of evaporation. Areas that have been cleared for crop and pasture production tend to coincide with five-nine months of effective rainfall (where rainfall exceeds evaporation) per year. In areas of effective rainfall of more than nine months, generally only higher value crops or tropical crops and fruits are grown, while in areas with effective rainfall of less than five months, cropping is usually restricted to areas that are irrigated.
Since European settlement the vegetation of Australia has altered significantly. In particular, large areas of Australia's forest and woodland vegetation systems have been cleared, predominantly for agricultural activity. The areas that have been altered most are those which have been opened up to cultivation or intensive grazing. Other areas, particularly in the semi-arid regions where extensive grazing of native grasses occurs, now show signs of returning to timber and scrub.
For more detail see the article Environmental impacts of agriculture and the section, Geography and climate.
This page last updated 23 January 2006