Black speargrass pastures in the Kimberley

Page last updated: Thursday, 23 May 2019 - 9:45am

There are many different pasture types in the pastoral rangelands in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. We provide this pasture information to be used as a reference for assessing pasture condition, and as a guide for pastoral station staff and others interested in the productivity and maintenance of the pastoral rangelands.

Assessments can be used to monitor the success of management and to set goals for improving rangeland condition.

Black speargrass pastures

These pastures are part of the Kimberley red soil group - not spinifex pastures, and black speargrass (Heteropogon contortus) is the identifier grass. Use the interactive key to pasture condition to help identify pasture type.

Pastoral value

Black speargrass can be heavily grazed when young, especially when regenerating after fire. However, mature black speargrass is not preferred by cattle and so the value of the pasture largely depends on the other species growing with it. When pasture condition declines and undesirable or unpalatable species become more dominant, the carrying capacity of black speargrass pasture is quite low.

It is possible that some black speargrass pastures have become established on previously degraded red-soil areas that used to carry more productive pasture types.


Black speargrass pastures occur on plains and lower hillslopes throughout the east and north Kimberley. They are found on a variety of sandy to loamy soils and usually occur as grassy, open eucalypt woodlands.

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Pasture condition

Good: In good condition, these pastures are almost completely dominated by black speargrass. The plants are robust and, unless the pasture is regrowing after a fire, there is virtually no bare ground. Small amounts of other desirable perennial grasses, such as white grass and ribbon grass, may be present, but generally do not comprise more than 20% of the stand (Figure 1).

Photograph of black speargrass pasture in good condition in the Kimberley
Figure 1 Black speargrass in good condition in the Kimberley (photograph taken in May 2008).  A Black speargrass, a desirable species in this pasture type, is dominant and forms a dense stand.  B Only a few undesirable species, such as perennial threeawn, can be seen; groundcover is very dense.

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Fair: As pasture condition declines from good to fair, black speargrass remains dominant but its density is reduced, with gaps visible in the stand. Intermediate species, such as wire grass, and undesirable species, such as threeawns, become more prominent. Palatable perennial grasses, such as ribbon grass, are all but absent (Figure 2).

Photograph of black speargrass pasture in fair condition in the Kimberley
Figure 2 Black speargrass in fair condition in the Kimberley (photograph taken in June 2008).  A The desirable perennial, black speargrass, is still dominant, but the stand is less dense.  B Small areas with no perennial grass cover are visible.  C There is an increased amount of the undesirable perennial threeawn.

Poor: Poor condition is characterised by increasingly large areas with little or no perennial grass cover between the black speargrass plants. These areas may support annual grasses early in the season, but often become bare later in the year as the annual grasses are grazed, trampled or dry up and blow away.

While undesirable perennial grasses and a few scattered intermediate species may be present, black speargrass remains the dominant perennial grass (Figure 3).

Photograph of black speargrass pasture in poor condition in the Kimberley
Figure 3 Black speargrass in poor condition in the Kimberley (photograph taken in July 2008).  A Black speargrass is still the dominant perennial grass, but the stand is broken  up into smaller clumps.  B Large areas with no perennial grass cover are visible.  C Undesirable species, such as perennial threeawn, are scattered throughout the black speargrass.

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Associated plants

Plants associated with black speargrass pastures in the Kimberley
Common name
(link to DPIRD species page)

Scientific name

(link to FloraBase)

Life form
Desirable species    

Black speargrass

Heteropogon contortus


White grass

Sehima nervosum


Ribbon grass

Chrysopogon fallax


Intermediate species

Wire grass, northern Wanderrie grass

Eriachne obtusa


Nineawns, bottlewashers, limestone grasses

Enneapogon spp.

annual or short-lived perennial

Annual sorghum

Sorghum stipoideum


Undesirable species

Unequal threeawn, feathertop threeawn

Aristida inaequiglumis


Threeawn grasses

Aristida spp.


Contact information

Kath Ryan
+61 (0)8 9166 4015
Matthew Fletcher
+61 (0)8 9166 4019