REGENERATING OUR LANDSCAPE

Sharing information on innovative leading performance in managing Australia’s natural environment to encourage the wide adoption of regenerative landscape management techniques by our farmers and land managers - and why this is essential.

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Why resilience is important

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Australia has one of the most variable climates on earth and extreme weather repeatedly affects the Australian farming sectors. We have always had droughts, floods and heatwaves, however the climate seems to be getting more extreme lately and it seems to be becoming even more variable. Some would suggest it is becoming a bit random, which is worse than being variable, because we need patterns to plan, i.e. when to plant, when to harvest, when to put the bulls and rams out etc.

When anybody talks about adapting to a changing climate, ask them what adaptation means?

The question has to be asked; are we concentrating too much on our response to the changed circumstances (being reactive), instead of trying to reduce the effect/impact of a changing climate (being proactive)?

Successful farmers are the ones who are good at adapting to whatever their circumstances are.


A resilient paddock is one that has the ability to generate enough carbon flows from rain to keep itself functional and productive. Resilience has two components, soil resilience and plant resilience. Plants fail first then the soil fails, i.e. poorly managed plants do not generate enough carbon flows to keep the soil healthy.  

Resilience absorbs change

A resilient paddock provides the capacity to absorb changed circumstances. Fragile ones just collapse, even with small changes. Being able to absorb changes, means they hurt less.

To quote Dr Leonie Pearson, “The alternative of a resilient system is a vulnerable system: when a system loses resilience it becomes precarious, or fragile to change effects, and even small influences can have disastrous effects”

As a season heads from dry towards drought, this is just another form of changing circumstances.

Defining resilience in a practical sense

Getting back to basics, resilience is the ability of a paddock to generate carbon flows from any rain that falls, i.e. resilience is the ability to respond to rain. Perhaps the best test of resilience is the ability of paddocks to respond to isolated small falls of rain during a dry period, i.e. slow the arrival of drought.   

 In a broader sense, resilience is the ability of a paddock to turn rain into carbon compounds.

The photo is a perfect example of what two different levels of resilience looks like.

The different aspects of paddock resilience

Paddock resilience has two components, plant resilience and soil resilience. The maintenance of both requires good management of carbon flows.

Resilience also has to be considered in terms of short-term resilience and long term resilience.

The fast moving short-term carbon supplies short-term resilience. On the other hand, the slow moving long-term carbon supplies resilience over time. It protects the long-term survival of the system.

Pasture resilience is part of short-term resilience

Allowing more carbon to flow into plants increases their resilience by increasing internal energy reserves for them to call upon. It also increases their root volume, which allows them to access more moisture and nutrients to grow. Both energy reserves and roots are short term carbon.

Soil resilience consists of both short-term and long-term resilience

Allowing carbon to flow into the soil feeds soil life responsible for restructuring the soil to improve infiltration and water holding capacity. It is short-term carbon in carbon flows that feeds soil life.

Organic matter that supplies nutrients to plants is short-term carbon and is part of carbon flows.

Soil humus is long-term carbon. It brings long-term resilience. It helps hold soluble nutrients that would otherwise escape the paddock and end up in waterways. It provides better soil structure which provides spaces for water to be stored. It changes the pH of the soil and so buffers against any toxic elements present.

Long-term soil carbon originates from short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows. Thinking longer term, good management of carbon flows is critical to ensure the ongoing replacement of the little bit of longer-term carbon that is always leaving the system and returning to the atmosphere.

Soil carbon on each side of the fence in the photo

I quote what a soil scientist who worked for the Federal Department of Climate Change wrote after looking at the photo.

“My guesses...

Looks like the soil is a sandy loam to me and there is a striking difference between the vegetation cover either side of the fence.

It looks like a semi-arid region with a rainfall less than 350mm (14 inches) per year.

Assuming that the vegetation cover difference has existed for some time. (keep in mind that a change in vegetation such as shown could increase soil C by 0.2 – 0.5 t/ha/yr. Therefore if the change has been for 10 years then maybe an increase in soil C of about 2-5t/ha or for 20 years 4-10t/ha).

Considering this level of uncertainty I am guessing for the bare paddock anything from 15-25 t/ha (0-30cm) and for the vegetated paddock anything from 35-50t/ha (0-30cm)”.

Thinking past stocks to flows has positive commercial outcomes

The assessment by the soil scientist on the degraded side of the fence provides an important insight into the broader debate around carbon stocks and carbon flows.

The bare side of the fence still has long-term soil carbon, but this stock of long-term carbon on its own could not make the paddock functional. A functional paddock also has to have short term carbon flowing through it, as the other side of the fence demonstrates. 

Apart from positive environmental outcomes such as protecting the Great Barrier Reef, better management of carbon flows to improve resilience also has commercial outcomes.

The unwillingness of the Queensland Department of Agriculture to see logic in including discussion of the carbon flows concept in extension, because of a stocks focus, is costing the Queensland economy about $70 million a year. This figure was arrived at after a leading rangelands scientist, who was frustrated with the Department’s policy position, suggested going onto the Queensland Treasury website to discover the value of sheep and cattle production to the Queensland economy. It is a conservative figure based on sheep and cattle producers achieving a small gain in production, after seeing their paddocks differently.

Adding more pathways by which carbon is able to enter the landscape

Because resilience relies on carbon flows, there is a need to increase the number of pathways for carbon to enter the paddock i.e. increase the mix of plants to cover all circumstances.

Increasing the number of pathways means carbon can be collected at different tiers while utilising water at different depths.

A production system based on perennials is more resilient than one based on annuals. This is simply because perennials generate more carbon flows over time, especially in marginal years. Only perennial plants can respond to single isolated falls of rain.

At the extreme of the perennial debate are the perennial edible shrubs like leucaena and old man saltbush (shown in the photo) that transfer the use of water further into the future. They grow under adverse conditions. They maintain carbon flows over time because of their deep roots sourcing moisture deeper in the landscape, which is not available to the grasses.

Reducing the effect of drought relies on building resilience

The best response to drought is to increase resilience to reduce its impact so that it arrives later and breaks earlier. This approach has the added advantage of sometimes not entering drought when others are caught.

Conclusion

The only time you can increase resilience, is when it rains. This is because good management of carbon flows after rain underpins resilience.

A resilient paddock that is well equipped to produce carbon flows is also one well equipped to better withstand extreme events, be they drought, heat or heavy rain.

Next week’s discussion:   “Animals can be very selective”


ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Where carbon resides

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

At a land management forum I attended a few years ago, a retired scientist commented that from his experience, problems are never solved by reductionist science. He said it was taking a systems approach that solved problems. The point he was making was that you need to be aware of everything that could possibly be influencing the problem you are trying to solve, i.e. you need to understand the big picture.

The flow of carbon through a paddock influences a lot of processes. If the flow falls too low, it causes a multitude of problems. Production and environmental issues can often be rectified by simply changing management to increase carbon flows.

The diagram below shows the earth system with regard to carbon. It is a great diagram because it puts everything into perspective. The amount of carbon on this planet is finite but some is always moving. It is interesting to know where all the carbon is, given different discussions focus on different pools and the flow of carbon between them.

Earth carbon pools and the flows between the pools (1 Giga tonne = 1,000,000,000 tonnes)

The first surprise for most of us is that the oceans contain 67% of the carbon on earth. Also, there is a lot more carbon flowing backwards and forwards between the oceans and the atmosphere than there is between the land and the atmosphere.

The atmosphere only has 1.3% of all the carbon on earth, which explains why it is easy to drastically alter its carbon content given the magnitude of the flows going on.

Thinking past carbon stocks

The diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.  

he diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.  

Think of your grazing paddock as a sub system within the earth carbon system. All life on this planet is carbon based. So, in order to exist, your cattle, grass and soil life are all relying on the atmosphere as a source of carbon atoms. All agriculture produces and sells carbon based products, i.e. all agriculture sells something that was living.

A grazing paddock is a dynamic system, not a static one. Thinking carbon flows is to take a dynamic approach while thinking carbon stocks is to take a static approach.

What flowing carbon in a paddock looks like

The picture below reminds us that we have to keep short term carbon flowing through the paddock to remain in production. 

Carbon is the main building block of everything living, be it cattle, grass or soil life and carries the energy that all three require.

Sometimes the main focus is long term carbon, sometimes short term carbon

Climate change policy has a focus on long term carbon and measuring, however the decisions graziers/ranchers make relate to short term carbon as part of managing carbon flows.

The diagram suggests that of the 62 Giga tonnes coming down from the atmosphere, most of it returns to the atmosphere again. Carbon trading is focused on the 2 Giga tonnes that stays above and below ground while producers are harvesting some of the 60 Giga tonnes that is flowing through the paddock. 

The carbon flows concept  

The carbon flows concept, that is the basis of this column, discusses the role of carbon as it keeps moving through the paddock, above and below ground, including through livestock. The concept explains what carbon does as it moves and the processes it activates, before returning to the atmosphere. It highlights that carbon is the organiser as it flows through the landscape. It discusses the different speeds of carbon as part of increasing profits and reducing the production of methane per kg of production. The concept is not dismissing the importance of long term soil carbon, instead it is suggesting that because long term carbon is hardly moving, it is only about 2% of flowing carbon.

The carbon flows concept should not be confused with discussion of the carbon cycle diagram. The carbon cycle diagram is a one dimensional discussion. It goes no further than saying that carbon cycles. It simply discusses the different pools carbon moves between.   

The carbon flows concept discussed in this column is a systems approach.

Expanding the debate

When extension focuses on just carbon stocks and measurement, this is a form of reductionist science as the focus is too narrow. The purpose of this column is to broaden the debate. 

It is only natural that past producers like myself want to help current producers. The seasons lately seem to be harder to deal with, hence the need for more knowledge. The catalyst for me to write this column was my failure over many years to have any influence on the policy of the Department of Agriculture in my home state of Queensland, even after presenting a logical case to those at the top. To this day the Department still has a policy focused on stocks and measurement, not flows.

Not a long time ago while giving a presentation on carbon flows, I was again reminded of Departmental policy. About ten minutes into the presentation, an extension officer of the Department interjected with the comment, “Maybe I am stupid, but none of this is making any sense to me”. I thought to myself, he wouldn’t have made that comment if his Department had a different policy. Then another Departmental extension officer joined in with the comment, “Look, we have been measuring carbon and it is not changing”. The comment did provide an opportunity to explain the difference between stocks and flows in another way. My response, “Well, if you can’t measure a change in the stocks, then all the carbon has to be in the flows. You have just confirmed the thrust of what I am saying”.

Conclusion

With any production or environmental problem you are trying to solve, part of the solution will be improving carbon flows into the paddock. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is a perfect example.

Carbon stocks are the outcome of carbon flows, be they short term or long term. This highlights that discussing carbon flows is the entry point of any discussion around the role of carbon in the paddock, in fact even carbon trading.

Being too focused on stocks and measurement is a good example of reductionist thinking.

Because rural producers sell carbon based products, their day job is recycling carbon. The more carbon that flows, the more they have to sell.

With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows in a paddock, the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions becomes clearer.

Next week’s discussion:   “Why resilience is important?"

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Practical facts that provide understanding

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Did you know that if we compressed the atmosphere and turned it into liquid, then the oceans would be 500 times bigger? This reminds us that we perceive things the way we think.

What actually happens in the paddock can at times be very different to our perceptions. Take the case of root growth with grasses. When livestock over consume the leaves of grasses, while they are trying to grow after rain, some would assume that this is just reducing potential ground cover. Even amongst those who are aware that there is a relationship between root growth and grazing pressure, they still may not be aware that there is a tipping point after which leaf removal can suddenly have really adverse outcomes for root growth.

The effect leaf removal has on root growth

It is so easy for us to forget that plants make decisions just like we do. It is now well known that plants send out chemical instructions to activate soil microbes to get them to do what they need done. The graph above highlights that plants also make decisions around allocation of incoming carbon (remembering that roots are 45% carbon). Plants are not stupid, so we have to assume that they do understand the importance of roots, however when leaves start to be excessively over eaten by animals, they place a higher priority on replacing leaves. This is logical as leaves are the entry point of carbon and energy.

The water holding capacity of organic matter

There is no substitute for going back to the basics to get things into perspective. When running a grazing business, there is a price to be paid for not letting plants generate carbon flows to their full potential.  Thinking about the carbon that ends up in the soil, a 1% increase in soil organic carbon means the soil can hold an extra 144,000 litres per ha (2.5 acres). Organic matter can hold 5 times its weight in water.

The energy in organic matter

Just as modern society is reliant on energy, the health of paddocks and their productive capacity are driven by available energy. It is carbon that carries energy. Sheep and cattle rely on the stored energy in grass and, soil life also relies on the energy brought in by plants. Researchers in England discovered that an acre (0.4 ha) of soil with 4% organic matter contains as much theoretical combustible energy as 20-25 tonnes of anthracite coal. Another researcher in Maine, US, equated the energy in that amount of organic matter to 4,000 gallons of fuel oil.

Conclusion

We have all heard the saying, “Perceptions are stronger than the truth”. However, with land management, facts are better than perceptions.

Having understanding is the basis of good management.

Next week’s discussion:   “Where carbon resides”


ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Wet years are overemphasised in relation to regeneration

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Thinking a wet period on its own can improve a paddock’s productive capacity and resilience is like thinking a runner can win a race without adequate preparation. To understand the true driver of paddock regeneration it is what you do in the average years that matters just as much as the wet years.


The foreground had a deficiency of carbon above and below ground prior to the wet period, so hardly regenerated

Thinking a wet period on its own can improve a paddock’s productive capacity and resilience is like thinking a runner can win a race without adequate preparation. To understand the true driver of paddock regeneration it is what you do in the average years that matters just as much as the wet years. 

How successful wet periods are at regenerating paddocks is determined by how well carbon flows have been managed in the lead up-years.

Wet periods can either fast forward all the good work you have been doing in average years, or if you have been a poor manager of carbon flows, then when the wet period has ended, you can find yourself in the same position you were in before it started.

It is carbon flows over time that prepare the soil to allow better germination and establishment of perennial grasses. This is because carbon flows generated by plants, feed the soil life that are responsible for restructuring the soil and making it more fertile. Poorly managed plants only generate small flows of carbon, which means soil life is limited in what it can do.

If a paddock is degraded, then plants can struggle to establish, even in good seasons.

The photo above is of a paddock that was locked up for 15 months during a period of above average rainfall. It shows that wet periods are more successful at regenerating better functioning areas. The area in the foreground, reinforces that what wet periods can achieve is highly dependent on the state of the landscape prior to the favourable rain.

The 15 months rest was able to regenerate a lot of the paddock, but not change the area in the foreground, where carbon flows had fallen too low over time. The next photos are close ups.

Close up of where we are standing in the above picture

Where we are standing, the greener grass is the productive paspalum. It re-entered the landscape following rest, while in the foreground of the first photo, only useless galvanised burr is growing.

The rest period had sufficient rain for regeneration of grass from seed on several occasions, yet the area in the foreground was not able to respond. There was little water infiltration in this area and the soil was not able to maintain moisture on the surface long enough to allow germination. Little ground cover, to keep the wind and sun off the soil, was another issue limiting germination.


Close up of the area that didn't respond to the wet period

The role of weeds

Think of weeds as nature’s repair agent. When paddocks start to degrade, nature sends in weeds as an alternative way to generate some carbon flows. The blue galvanised burr in the foreground of the first photo, is playing this role. We all know that when the perennial grasses come back, the weed population immediately drops.

Why wet periods can be misleading

Wet years can be very deceiving. There is often a good coverage of pasture and it looks like the paddock has regenerated. But has it? Look closer, and a lot of the ground cover is annuals, which will disappear when the rain stops. The fact water keeps arriving in wet periods and has more opportunities to soak in, masks the reality that the soil condition has not changed. This is not to discount the value of the extra plant carbon that is introduced into the paddock by the short term prolific growth. This plant carbon could be the beginning of soil improvement if management changes and starts to focus on improving carbon flows.

What extra plants remain long-term when the wet period has ended, is the true test of what has been achieved.

Maintaining a seed base

Regeneration of perennials relies on an adequate seed base, which is why resting after rain in average seasons is critical. 

There is not enough time in a wet period to produce the necessary seed, then see it germinate, and finally, see seedlings establish.  

Conclusion

If there are not more perennials after the completion of the wet period, then little has been achieved. Naturally, this comment does not apply to pastures in very good condition that had already achieved the maximum possible coverage of perennials. 

The “so called” average years are really part of the regeneration process. Good management is ongoing. This is why I feel uncomfortable when somebody suggests that all we need is a wet season to undo degradation.

Next week’s discussion:   “Practical facts that provide understanding”



 


ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Edible shrubs need different management to perennial grasses

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

When I visited South Africa in the late 1990’s, I met rangelands scientist Dr Louis du Pisani. He told me how he had discovered the difference between perennial grasses and perennial edible shrubs, in terms of how they store and utilise energy reserves. He explained that what happens in the roots is different.


With ongoing grazing pressure that depletes energy reserves, old man saltbush starts to grow very small leaves which is a sign it is close to dying.

His research into the Karoo Bush, which is similar to our perennial saltbushes, showed that when the shrub called on energy reserves, the root volume did not reduce. The energy reserves were in the centre of the roots and not part of the structure. The ability of the Karoo Bush to maintain root volume, after calling on energy reserves, means it can keep sourcing moisture and nutrients below the roots of perennial grasses.

In good years, annuals utilise excess moisture lying between perennial grasses to add to carbon flows, while in dry times, edible shrubs utilise moisture that is below perennial grasses to provide some carbon flows when perennial grasses are dormant. But, it’s critical that both the grass and the shrubs are managed according to their needs.

Like perennial grasses, if the energy reserves become depleted, then edible shrubs become weak and die. What alerted Louis to the different storage process, was that the Karoo Bushes that had died from overgrazing, had the normal root volume, i.e. the roots did not reduce with the depletion of the energy reserves. 

Another lesson in timing

His other important discovery was that, unlike perennial grasses, which replenish energy reserves before reaching maturity, the shrubs made the main transfer of plant sap out of the leaves and down to the roots, with the onset of a dry season, but little before. We know that in Australia, Old Man Saltbush has the ability to transfer plant sap from leaves to roots.

Because of the timing of the transfer from leaves to roots, the complete defoliation of edible shrubs before the onset of dry times, if allowed to happen regularly and then followed by continuous grazing, can see the death of shrubs through depleted root reserves.

A blessing and a curse

It is the ability of shrubs to grow in dry times, that puts them at risk if not managed properly. A shrub producing new growth in a dry time from subsoil moisture, after it has been completely defoliated back to stems, is no different to a perennial grass plant that is starting to grow from rain after being dormant. In both cases, energy reserves will start to run down if animals keep them defoliated as they keep trying to grow.

In a mixed pasture of grass and edible shrubs, poor grass managers transfer grazing pressure onto the shrubs too early in the drought cycle. If animals are only removing some of the leaves on the shrubs, to source trace elements, then there is not a problem.

Appreciating that edible shrubs have a different process to perennial grasses, is important for the management of saltbush plantations. It also explains why established plantations of Old Man Saltbush perform well for some and not others.

Francis Ratcliffe’s novel, “Flying Fox And Drifting Sands”, published in 1938, documented how over grazing early in the twentieth century in South Australia, saw the demise of saltbushes in large sections of the arid areas.

Conclusion

While shrubs have the ability to produce carbon flows in dry times, they do need to be managed differently to grasses.

Next week’s discussion:   “Wet years over emphasised for regeneration”

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Ongoing stable methane emissions from cattle doesn't change the climate

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Could it be that a lot of cattle producers world-wide are being unfairly blamed for progressing climate change because of the methane released by their cattle? Going one step further, this article will suggest that the methane emissions of the Australian sheep and cattle industry are not changing the climate, because they have been stable since the 1970’s.


Cows up to speed on climate change

We have to ask the question, is the current way of comparing methane and carbon dioxide, using the Global Warming Potential (GWP) approach, the best way to assess the outcome of the methane produced by ruminant animals like sheep and cattle? I raise the point, keeping in mind that the debate is about “climate change”. We keep hearing the comment that we have to limit “change” to two degrees.

I am not suggesting that the science the IPCC and the world is relying on is wrong, but maybe it is worth having another look at how we are interpreting it in the area of ruminant animals.

The scientific evidence to support what follows in this weeks’ column, resides in the peer reviewed paper, “Offsetting methane emissions – An alternative to emission equivalence metrics”, which was published in the “International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control” – (click on “Download PDF” after the link opens, then click on “Article”). The thrust of the published paper is that we should be comparing “ongoing methane emissions (or reductions)” to “one-off emissions (or reductions) of carbon dioxide”. This weeks’ column will focus on the outcome of “ongoing stable methane emissions” from ruminants. The GWP approach focuses on one-off emissions and compares a one-off emission of methane to a one-off emission of carbon dioxide.

Ongoing stable methane emissions from cattle reach equilibrium

The best way to understand the diagram of the cow below is to visualise methane constantly being released by the cow and accumulating above it (in the green circle).  While the cow is releasing methane, past emissions will be breaking down in the atmosphere at the same rate. Methane lasts 12 years in the atmosphere (some suggest shorter), before being broken down into CO2 and H2O. It is broken down by a chemical reaction with hydroxyl radicals (OH) that keep forming in the atmosphere. Assuming the methane released by the cow each year is the same, then the methane residing in the atmosphere (green circle) will be in equilibrium, with the additions and subtractions.  It is true that cow size and pasture quality determines the amount of methane released, however, the fact the cow changes size and eats a different diet over time is a variable which averages out over time.

In the diagram above, think of the equilibrium amount of methane, as a permanent balloon of methane that follows the cow around every day. When the cow is sent to the meat works and replaced by another cow, the balloon follows the next cow that is put in the paddock. In fact, all the cows that follow for the next 500 years.

The cow and its replacements, will be producing methane permanently, however, at the end of the life cycle of the methane, what is produced in the first year of the new cycle, will only be replacing the first year in the previous cycle, which will now be gone. Methane is not an accumulating gas like carbon dioxide is.

How the atmosphere functions

I am a very basic person, I like to get back to basics and go from there. So let’s look at the climate change debate from the atmosphere’s perspective, and how it functions.

The atmosphere does not understand the difference between all the different greenhouse gases, nor the comparative figures we put on them with the GWP approach.  It only understands the total “radiative forcing” of all the gases combined. A bit like we are only interested in the flood height, not where all the water came from.

The warming effect of each greenhouse gas is known and is referred to as "radiative forcing" and is measured as watts per cubic metre of gas. Stabilising the climate relies on stabilising the total radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The purpose of the cow diagram was to show that ongoing stable methane emissions from ruminants, do not change the total radiative forcing.

Australian methane emissions

If you talk to the atmosphere, it sees sheep and cattle in Australia as the mouse in the room in terms of the changes it is witnessing. This is because the combined methane emissions of sheep and cattle in Australia peaked in 1970 and have basically remained stable since, with just a slight decline. This is a little known fact. It is interesting to note that the 1970’s was the last time the herd was at 30 million head. So while it is true that methane from Australian ruminants have always influenced the day to day climate, in recent times, their methane has not been a cause of the ongoing change in the net balance of greenhouse gases, as the diagram below shows.


The bottom line on the graph is the amount of methane released each year by livestock.

The top line on the graph is the net mass of methane attributed to livestock. The net mass is emissions less what has broken down. It is often referred to as the atmospheric burden.

The amount of methane in the atmosphere is still increasing, however this is not due to Australian ruminants. 



The methodology behind the GWP approach

The Global Warming Potential (GWP) approach has been widely adopted as the metric for comparing the climate impact of different greenhouse gases.

For those wanting to know exactly how the GWP methodology came into being, read the paper, “The global warming potential – the need for an interdisciplinary retrial” by Keith P Shine.  

The GWP approach was designed for decision makers in government and considers three time horizons, 20/100/500 years.

As Keith Shine explains in his paper, decision makers were presented with modelling showing comparisons over 20 years, 100 years or 500 years, they put their finger on the middle time horizon and ran with it.  That is why we have the 100 year rule.

How I came to my current position

When I went into Idalia National Park in Nov 2009, a year that was very wet in the first half, the photo below is what I saw. There were no sheep or cattle in the park, just kangaroos. It was obvious that the kangaroos had completely shut down the carbon flows in the area between the trees, i.e. carbon that should have been in the paddock was still in the atmosphere.

An enclosure inside Idalia National Park, west of Blackall. Photo taken 14/11/2009

At the time, it was being suggested by some that sheep and cattle should be replaced with kangaroos because kangaroos emit virtually no methane. It was a perfect example of having a single issue debate and not looking at the big picture (taking a systems approach). I then decided to compare the carbon footprint of kangaroos versus sheep and cattle. If kangaroos reduce carbon flows, then their methane advantage is immediately being eroded. Also, a kangaroo researcher at the University of Sydney had told me that kangaroos are even more selective than sheep in what they choose to eat. This means that when they are present, they are reducing the digestibility of the diet available to cattle, which means the cattle will then produce more methane per kg of production.

As somebody who knew absolutely nothing about how the atmosphere functioned, I started reading and really struggled, as it was so complicated. However, having no formal training in the area, meant I was reading with no preconceived ideas. After I progressed past the stage of total confusion, something did not add up with how the science was being applied in regard to ruminants. If my memory serves me right, it was the three different figures placed on methane that really started me thinking. One thing lead to another and then a group of well respected scientists joined me in thinking outside the square. Hence the paper referred to at the start.

The peer reviewed paper

In the paper “Offsetting methane emissions – An alternative to emission equivalence metrics”, the science is very complicated but the logic is not. The reference to “equivalence metrics” is a reference to the GWP approach.  

The paper is part of an emerging body of work on how to do better than the 1990 IPCC approach. As well as our paper, Smith has written one and later Myles Allen has also written a paper. The paper has been cited by another paper.

The way the GWP approach works, is that ONE OFF emissions of methane are compared with ONE OFF emissions of carbon dioxide. Also, the GWP approach comes up with different figures when comparing methane and carbon dioxide, depending on the time frame of the comparison. If we are looking 20 years forward, then they say methane is 72 times worse than carbon dioxide, 21-23 times worse if the time frame is 100 years, 7.6 times worse if the time frame is 500 years.

However, our paper makes a strong case for comparing ONGOING emissions of methane with ONE OFF emissions of carbon dioxide. This approach gives the same comparison between methane and carbon dioxide, regardless of the time horizon chosen.

Experts in the field initially struggle with this approach much more than lay people, because their mindset is fixed on the GWP approach and how it compares methane and carbon dioxide.

Applying the science of the paper in the paddock

After suggesting that methane and carbon dioxide should be compared differently, the paper then looks at how much carbon needs to be sequestered in the paddock, to remove the effect of the ongoing stable methane.  

The paper proposes that a one-off sequestration of 1t of carbon would offset an ongoing methane emission in the range of 0.90 – 1.05 kg CH4 per year. Provided we keep the carbon from the CO2 in the landscape, then the one off sequestration accounts for the ongoing methane for centuries.

The paper came up with building up the sink over forty years, a bit like paying off an interest-free loan at 2.5% of the balance each year.

Applying the equation published in the paper is like leaving the cows in the paddock as if they were not emitting methane.  

Putting it another way, the green circle above the cow in the diagram, is the atmospheric burden produced by the ongoing methane and, this is what has to be offset by bringing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it’s carbon in the paddock.

Because of the way the atmosphere functions over time, the paper had to apply the 0.3 factor (about to be discussed) to calculate the figure for carbon. The 0.3 factor increases the figure for carbon because sink efficiency reduces over time.

Committed warming, which was mentioned in the column beside the cow diagram, did not have to be considered in the offsetting calculations, because it applies to both CO2 and CH4.        

In a sense, the paper documents how producers can be part of the solution. The equation in the paper is reversing climate change. Even offsetting 5% of ongoing stable methane is reversing climate change. 


Realistically, nobody expects
cattle producers to be applying the paper’s equation and reversing climate change, when society has chosen to let climate change continue with the ongoing release of carbon dioxide.

However, there are plenty of cattle producers who are good managers of carbon flows, who without even realising it, are applying the paper’s equation. This is because better management of carbon flows increases paddock carbon, especially short term carbon. I deliberately mentioned short term carbon, because the atmosphere doesn’t differentiate between short term carbon and long term carbon. It just knows that the carbon atom is not in the atmosphere.


The 0.3 factor

Feel welcome to skip this section and the next one. They are a bit heavy going and are included more to answer the questions technical people would be asking.

When the paper calculated how much carbon has to be removed from the atmosphere, and stored in the paddock, to offset the ongoing stable methane emissions, the oceans had to be considered. This is because carbon dioxide moves between the oceans and the atmosphere, as part of rebalancing.

For fossil carbon emissions, this re-balancing of carbon by the oceans works for you, and takes some of the carbon out of the system. For sequestering carbon, the re-balancing of carbon by the oceans works against you.

Atmospheric scientist, Pep Canadell explains that in the short term, in times of growing CO2 emissions, a proportion of 0.4 remains in the atmosphere. This is called the airborne fraction. When one looks at the longer term, this fraction drops to a proportion of  0.3 (the 0.3 factor that we use in the paper). Put simply, if you are talking long term, for every tonne of carbon you remove from the atmosphere, the end result will be a reduction of 0.3 of a tonne in the atmosphere.

The 0.3 is called “the airborne fraction of cumulative emissions”.

The long-term nature of CO2 is what justifies balancing it against the long-term equilibrium CH4 level, in which case, you have to use the actual long-term number for CO2.

Putting all this into a layman’s perspective, you have to sequester three times more than simple logic suggests. The reduction in “sink efficiency” is because of the rebalancing of carbon by the oceans is undermining your efforts on land.

The abstract of the paper

It is widely recognised that defining trade-offs between greenhouse gas emissions using “emission equilivalence” based on global warming potentials (GWPs) referenced to carbon dioxide produces anomalous results when applied to methane. The short atmospheric lifetime of methane, compared to the timescales of CO2 uptake, leads to the greenhouse warming depending strongly on the temporal pattern of emission substitution.

We argue that a more appropriate way to consider the relationship between the warming effects of methane and carbon dioxide is to define a “mixed metric” that compares ongoing methane emissions (or reductions) to one-off emissions (or reductions) of carbon dioxide”. Quantifying this approach, we propose that a one-off sequestration of 1t of carbon would offset an ongoing methane emission in the range of 0.90 – 1.05 kg CH4 per year.

Our analysis is consistent with other approaches to addressing the criticisms of GWP-based emission equivalence, but provides a simpler and more robust approach while still achieving close equivalence of climate mitigation outcomes ranging over decadal to multi-century timescales”. 

Conclusion

If you believe in human induced climate change, then it is the long term gas carbon dioxide which will paint us into the corner, not stable methane from ruminants (sheep and cattle).

 “Stabilising the climate means cutting all future carbon dioxide emissions and stabilising ongoing methane emissions from ruminant animals. This statement does not apply to fossil methane which is different to ruminant methane as it keeps adding a new carbon atom to the atmosphere.

Sheep and cattle produce less methane per kg of production when carbon flows are managed better. This is because the digestibility of their diet is better. Also, with better management of carbon flows, the extra carbon (including short term carbon) residing in the paddock is offsetting some of the equilibrium methane.

Next week’s discussion:   “Edible shrubs need different management to perennial grasses”



ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Carbon levels influence rainfall

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

If you are lucky enough to catch those first summer storms, subsequent storms will often follow the same track. The first storm changes the ground cover (carbon levels) relative to surrounding areas, as well as increases soil moisture.

Weather and land are inseparable and interrelate with each other.


Bare soil provides a different energy response to covered soil

My initial interest in this subject was stimulated by a discussion I had with Robert (Bob) Leighton over tea one night. I sought his opinion, as one of Australia’s leading meteorologists, on why storms often follow where previous storms went. Often one property or part of a property would remain dry, while the one next door was having a reasonable season.

It was not his area of expertise, but he started to explain how storms required a certain amount of moisture for it to start raining and, the rain stops when the moisture drops below a certain level. If there is an additional source of moisture, then the storm would proceed instead of petering out. Creeks and rivers were discussed as a source of moisture, which is consistent with storms often performing better near them over time. In the course of conversation, he raised the issue of vegetation cover and its influence on rainfall by contributing moisture. The other issue he raised was the temperature of the landscape due to vegetation cover or lack of it and how this effected the weather.

In a previous trip to America, Bob had been told by US researchers that they had been researching the issue of vegetation and its effect on rainfall. This is the question he asked on my behalf: 

“I remember when I was visiting AWC over four years ago that there were discussions about the interesting weather experienced in Kansas storms, tornadoes, ice storms etc. And they told me that a major moisture input for tornadoes, storms originated from the vegetation through “tornado valley”. (Of course, I originally thought that most of the moisture would have come from the Gulf of Mexico). I was wondering if you know of any statistics or papers on the subject of moisture availability from vegetation for cloud build-up in your territory that would be available”.

Response from Steve Corfidi (Kansas):  

“I don’t think that there is much question that local evapotranspirative fluxes affect patterns of convective initiation. The role of “vegetatively-derived” moisture is, however, a comparatively new one; the importance of the subject has become more widely accepted only in the last 10 years or so. Canadian meteorologists in the prairie provinces are especially interested in the subject, as their short wheat-growing season corresponds to the time of maximum thunderstorm frequency.” 

Steve included a manuscript received by the Iowa State University, which in part stated, “Vegetation cover was found to promote convection, both by extraction of soil moisture and by shading the soil so that conduction of heat into the soil was reduced (thereby increasing the available energy).”

Studies of 30 years of monsoon patterns over India by Purdue University scientists showed that tropical storms are sustained by moist soil, but tend to fizzle over dry ground."

"The storm will have more moisture and energy available over wet soil than dry" (Associate Professor Niyogi)

Grazing pressure and rain

In 1998, while in South Africa, one of the groups of scientists I spent time with was at the Range and Forage Institute in Bethlehem. During discussions, it was explained to me by one of the scientists that he was convinced that lack of vegetation cover due to excessive grazing, was responsible for a drop in rainfall on the plateaus that rise up above the plains. He said that these small elevated areas were the most productive sections as they had much higher rainfall than the lower plains area. His theory was that due to greatly reduced vegetation cover (carbon levels), there was much more heat rising up from the soil and dispersing the rain bearing clouds.

Dam changed rainfall

The concept of moisture from the landscape promoting thunderstorms, is well supported by a long term change in rainfall near Inglewood on the Qld/NSW border. A long-term producer who had a property beside the Coolmundra dam explained to me that, after the dam was built, the rainfall increased above the-long term average recorded in his family’s records. He explained that the path of the storms was over the dam before getting to his property. This gave the storm clouds an opportunity to increase their moisture level. When questioned on whether others further along the storm path had an increase in rainfall, he assured me they had not. It is likely that the dam activates clouds close to raining and so they part with much of the moisture before getting to others’ properties. 

Thermal differences

German scientist Wilhelm Ripl talks about preventing large thermal differences in the landscape: 

“The more evaporation processes at and within the surface and foliage of vegetation per area that takes place, the more even the temperature is distributed and the cooler are vegetation structures, markedly so at times with high-energy flow (midday in summer). Areas that are mostly better cooled show lower atmospheric pressure than the overheated surroundings. It is easy to understand that these small local areas lacking any means for an efficient temperature-regulating system are channelling energy into global weather systems and thus modulating them. Areas with an even cover of vegetation, with sufficient evaporable water, have more predictable weather events than do damaged areas without proper vegetation cover.”

An example of temperature differences

This is a comment by a reader of the column some time ago: 

“Hi Alan, The carbon flow and the outcomes you describe has some impact and can be impacted by the conditions in the ground, including temperature. I have taken temp readings here on my farm and find that on hot days the variation in temp from bare soil to trash covered soil and then to growing grass covered soil can be 5 degrees c between each, i.e. a full span of 10 degrees c”.

Conclusion

Resilient landscapes, due to better management of carbon flows over time, have the potential to attract higher rainfall, as they have different energy patterns and often have more moisture to offer weather systems.

Next week’s discussion:   “Ongoing stable methane emissions from cattle doesn’t change the climate”


ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Drought in perspective

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Have you ever thought of drought in the context of carbon balances? 

Graziers run a carbon business, and they are out of business, when animals consume the last of the carbon residing above ground. A producer’s day job is recycling carbon and then selling carbon based products, be it meat or fibre.

Who does drought visit and when?

Droughts are the climax of a dry spell, however the arrival of drought is determined by more than just lead up rain. The timing comes down to the ability of paddocks to generate some carbon flows from any isolated small falls of rain to postpone drought. This relies on how well soil is structured to let rain in and the ability of plants to respond. Of course, good operators sometimes postpone the drought phase for long enough to escape it with, what others call, drought-breaking rain.

Thinking cause and effect, drought is the run-down of “short term” carbon above ground, i.e. ground cover.

One strategy for slowing the onset of drought is to increase the percentage of perennials in the pasture. The advantage of perennials is that they can respond to isolated single falls of rain while annuals can’t.

The survival mechanism for perennial grasses to cope with dry times is to go into dormancy. Interestingly, soil microbes have the same strategy. During dry periods, perennial grasses will be going in and out of dormancy, adding a bit to ground cover each time they come out of dormancy.

The survival mechanism for annuals is to avoid dry times. They do this by producing seed so that the next generation can germinate and grow next time there are good conditions. This is why pastures weighted towards annuals are fair weather friends and let you down quickly when the going gets tough.

Because perennials are the only reliable source of carbon flows over time, avoiding drought is all about maintaining the health/resilience of the perennials.

Having paddocks with healthy/resilient soils is the other aspect of slowing the onset of drought. Healthy soils let rain infiltrate quicker, reducing run off. This is very important because there seems to be a pattern lately for rain to be heavier, even in dry years. Soil health relies on carbon flows to feed the soil life needed to keep it well-structured and fertile.

Plants fail first and then the soil starts to fail. This is because carbon flows reduce as plants become unhealthy. So in reverse, with better management, it is the perennials that repair quicker than the soil. Whichever way you look at it, plant management after rain determines your destiny.

Increasing short term carbon balances in perennials postpones drought

If you want perennial grasses to respond to small falls during dry periods, they have to be resilient.

Resilience relies on good energy reserves needed for coming out of dormancy and, increased root volume to allow them to source more water and nutrients. Because energy reserves and roots are short term carbon, they will disappear quickly without adequate management of carbon flows.

Plant roots are important for water infiltration


Plant roots act as wicks to take water down through the soil

Paddocks are more water efficient and have increased capacity to capture resources when plants are physically present.

Roots, which are 45% carbon, act as “wicks” to take water down through the soil profile, especially important with harder soils.

This is achieved by water travelling down beside roots. Better managed plants, with more extensive root systems, distribute water faster through the soil and to greater depth.

With perennial grasses, the roots grow and die back. This results in cavities where roots have previously been. These cavities are very effective for water infiltration.

This wick effect is especially important if isolated small falls of rain are heavy.

Water use efficiency relies on plant health & soil health

The example that follows demonstrates why some producers achieve higher carbon flows from isolated falls during dry periods and so postpone the arrival of drought. It relates to the combination of better soil structure and the wick effect.  

The exercise documented in the box above, was one I carried out in a degraded paddock. It was a harder soil type where both the soil and perennials were unhealthy in a lot of areas. It followed 50 mm (two inches) of rain. I used a piece of high tensile fencing wire many times to establish how far water penetrated depending on the configuration of grass cover and the health of the area being sampled. It is likely that the isolated perennial grass plants, with access to less water, went into dormancy quicker than the ones in the grass clumps. When management of carbon flows changed for the better, following this exercise, the isolated perennial grass plants acted as a catalyst to see small clumps develop, i.e. there was already a source of carbon flows unlike the bare areas.

Drought preparedness is just as important as forecasts 

In recent times, there has been a focus on improving long term weather forecasting. This is a step in the right direction provided graziers don’t become too focused on when to destock instead of reducing the impact of drought. Both strategies are risk management, so should be considered together and not seen as separate issues.

Conclusion

Natural droughts are a lack of rain, while man made droughts are a lack of carbon flows from what is actually enough rain to just remain in production.

Perennial grasses are well adapted to drought but not to continuous defoliation, because it runs down their energy reserves.

Those who manage carbon flows better are stressed less by dry times.

Make every drop of water go through a plant. Water must leave via transpiration and not runoff. 

The smart operators think about drought when it rains. 

Next week’s discussion:   “Carbon levels influence rainfall”

Alan Lauder

Major General Michael Jeffery's speech at the Talkin' Soil Health Conference

Thursday, March 29, 2018

ADDRESS BY

MAJOR GENERAL THE HONOURABLE MICHAEL JEFFERY,

AC, AO(Mil), CVO, MC (Retd)

AT THE TALKIN’ SOIL HEALTH CONFERENCE

KATANNING LEISURE AND FUNCTION CENTRE, PEMBLE STREET,

KATANNING

“KEY LESSONS LEARNT”

THURSDAY, 15 MARCH 2018

  • Thank you for attending this session – I hope our story at Soils For Life can inspire you
  • This is a story about the growing momentum in Australian agriculture towards regenerative agriculture
  • Often, new regenerative practices have been adopted in the face of failure – of crops, pastures, finance
  • I founded Soils For Life as a non-profit organisation designed to encourage the wide adoption of regenerative landscape management practices, to restore landscape health and produce quality and nutrient-dense food and fibre
  • Whilst Australia has land and water degradation problems we also have the solutions
  • These solutions involve:
  • regenerating degraded landscapes
  • ensuring more resilience in the face of increasing climate variability and in the provision of clean, green food and fibre on a sustainable basis 
  • In the process, increasing the ‘natural capital’ value of the landscape and assisting landholders to gain better returns socially and economically
  • This is what we do…
  • We define the global imperative
  • I see a big global train smash, through soil, water and food insecurity
  • Countries like India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are facing big problems, with the rapid reduction of water from finite aquifers, loss and degradation of arable land, and an overuse of chemicals, pesticides and inorganic fertilisers
  • Yes - Australia has issues with agricultural land degradation, but we’ve also got the answers
  • Soils For Life focuses first on fixing the paddock, and our third priority is to fix the policy
  • (I spoke this morning about the very positive developments on the policy front)
  • Our Case Studies tell the best stories
  • In ‘fixing the paddock’ we have established 21 Soils For Life case studies of leading agricultural best practice across a range of agricultural enterprises and established a proven farmer to farmer mentoring program. 
  • Soils For Life is now rolling out the next phase to 100 case studies over three years to embrace all agricultural types and geographic locations in Australia
  • Three Rivers Station is located at the headwaters of the Gascoyne River in the rangelands in the mid-north
  • These rangelands are vast areas of lands from the headwaters and catchments of major rivers including the Gascoyne and the Murchison
  • As a result of decades of heavy grazing practice, the rangeland perennial grasses have steadily declined, causing surface damage, and the fragile topsoil was exposed and vulnerable to the variable climate and occasional, but quite extreme rain events
  • (I’m sure this is familiar territory for many of you here)
  • Dramatic action was triggered at the 2003 muster when the family observed that the cattle did not look as good as they thought they ought to, given the amount of feed that appeared to be on offer
  • They made the decision to remove all the mustered cattle from Three Rivers and to de-stock the property
  • To this day Graham Forsyth is convinced that if he had not done this, many of the cattle would have died the following summer, even if heavy weaning was carried out
  • This courageous act has cost the family approximately one million dollars in direct costs and lost opportunity from the pastoral lease
  • The Forsyth’s priority for helping the soil recover its health is to slow down the flow of water on the landscape so that it soaks into the soil
  • The reduction in grazing pressure to very light grazing has already resulted in vegetation re-establishing in some of the better areas, such as where healthier, protected soils hold seed banks of perennial grasses
  • The Forsyths have also trialled and developed “water calming” interventions, starting at the erosion source areas and working downstream. The results are compelling…
  • The combination of completely de-stocking, foregoing revenue, plus perennial pasture, water interventions, rotational grazing has resulted in clean, green and healthy livestock
  • The pictures tell the story…
  • On the other side of the country, the Maslin family has managed Gunningrah for 100 years
  • At 4200 hectares, it’s located at the southern end of the Monaro Tablelands of south-eastern New South Wales 
  • The Maslins identified an opportunity to make the most of the rainfall they received
  • They found that the health of watercourses could be significantly restored by slowing the rate of water flow, especially after rain, by a series of physical interventions in the landscape – leaky weirs and contour banks
  • The cell grazing method they chose to adopt involves dividing the land in some cases into an increased number of smaller paddocks which are intensively grazed for short periods, followed by sufficient recovery periods to allow pasture to regenerate
  • As a result of the new practices, the ground cover improved from 70% to around 85% in the first five years
  • In 2011 some areas had close to 100% ground cover
  • Gunnigrah’s native pastures have increased substantially
  • While our Soils For Life work is fundamentally about soil, water and plant regeneration, our program has now become a long term data, information and research base with a proven mentoring program
  • This farmer to farmer mentoring means farmers have close access to leading practices on soils, water and agriculture in general
  • When we go onto the farms, we evaluate  soil carbon and nitrogen levels, soil water retention, innovative techniques and equipment and the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental performance, as part of a new, comprehensive natural capital assessment
  • One of the most important requirements of our work is to find the means to measure soil carbon levels  - they are a vital component and a key indicator of a healthy soil 
  • Soil carbon helps support a healthy balance of nutrients, minerals and soil microbial and fungal ecologies, and enhances the ability of the soil to hold water  
  • Across the Australian dry land cropping and grazing sector, most actively farmed soils have a carbon content of 1.5% or less, yet to deliver its myriad of benefits, the soil carbon levels for quality agriculture should be around 3% to 5%

 

  • We’re very proud of the work we do, and we’re steaming ahead…
  • We’re currently applying our disciplines – examining the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental performance -  to Brownlow Hill, near Camden on the outskirts of Sydney
  • It’s one of Australia’s most significant early agricultural and settlement sites for research and development over more than 200 years
  • There were originally four dairies on the property and three continue to operate, one under lease to an organic milk producer
  • This is a wonderful research project for us - monthly reports and rainfall measurements have been collected since May, 1882 and from the Bureau of Meteorology from its foundation in 1908
  • Over the years, Brownlow Hill became a North American Holstein stud of high repute and high productivity
  • But in the mid-1980s, the Downes family had compacted soil and the more they cropped and the more milk they produced, the more nutrients were being taken away in the milk tanker or running into the river
  • Their constant tillage was damaging the soil, and damaging the budget – fuel, fertiliser and spraying was becoming increasingly costly
  • It was time for change…
  • From 1985, they started to use natural poultry and then horse manure instead of synthetic fertilisers and installed sub-surface drip irrigation
  • The cropping intensity was reduced and more land was devoted to lucerne for the dairy herd and for sale as hay
  • The turning point was the incorporation of infrastructure changes to the land to control the flow of water, resulting in better retention of water in the soil
  • One of the most outstanding developments on Brownlow Hill was the introduction of BioBanking.  Brownlow Hill became the pilot for this program of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage
  • It meant that the rarity of remnant Cumberland Plain Woodland in this area very close to the Sydney urban sprawl has diversified and survived.  The Downes family has been able to resist developers (and the State Government itself) and has prevented the destruction of this threatened ecological community while at the same time, realising their least productive agricultural land has become their most valuable asset
  • We’re currently undertaking a comprehensive examination of major elements of Brownlow Hill’s successes and will be publishing that case study soon
  • It will make fascinating reading
  • This has been a snapshot of three farming stories, from the big country here in western Australia, to the plains of the Monaro, and the outskirts of Sydney
  • There are, of course, many more success stories on our website – www.soilsforlife.org.au - and more about to be told.  I have some printouts here of another very successful WA case study – the Haggertys – and there are others for you to see on our website.
  • Our aim is to have 100 case studies by 2020, providing a long term research base which will prove that transitioning from conventional agriculture and understanding what your farm really needs, will yield results
  • It’s a lot of work and we have a wonderful team of people devoted to working with farmers to produce great results
  • Have a look at our website and our Facebook page, get in touch, ask us questions
  • We do have the answers!
  • Thank you for listening

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? The Carbon Grazing principle relates to managing carbon flows

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The principle has as its basis, that effective pasture rest is achieved when enough carbon has flowed above and below ground to all the areas it needs to. The level of carbon that flows through a paddock determines plant and soil resilience AND the amount of ground cover for livestock production. Likewise, environmental outcomes, such as water quality, rely on good management of carbon flows.


Dr. John Williams, former head of CSIRO Land and Water, launched "Carbon Grazing - The Missing Link" in November 2008

Carbon Grazing is a principle and just that, not a new land management system. It underpins all successful land management systems.

Carbon Grazing is not new science, it is a different focus. It is another way of looking at how a paddock and everything in it functions. It focuses management on when the bulk of the carbon flows into a paddock.

Think of plants as the entry point of carbon into the paddock. After entering plants, it then flows everywhere else in the paddock.

The bulk of the carbon that comes into a paddock arrives in the short period after rain.

Carbon Grazing relates to the first phase of carbon flows, which is the introduction phase, i.e. when carbon moves from the atmosphere to the paddock via photosynthesis during plant growth.

This is when the level of carbon available to flow through the paddock above and below ground, including through sheep and cattle, is set. In a sense, the principle is an action plan.

Carbon Grazing is strategic (tactical) rest after rain, and is based on the premise that nature does not have a predictable pattern. Stated simply, we must allow nature to transfer carbon from the atmosphere to the landscape according to its time frame.

Carbon Grazing applied in the paddock

Carbon Grazing is short-term removal of animals from pastures after rain.

Scientists I met in South Africa carried out research which suggested that with average pastures, removing animals for 3 - 8 weeks after rain, increased pasture production by 50 - 80%. Given pasture is about 45% carbon when dried, this gives an indication of the increased carbon flows, including below ground.

When people say they can't afford to rest pastures, it begs the question, can you afford not to. 

Carbon Grazing is resting pastures for 4 - 6 weeks after rain. It is important to not get caught up on the exact time between four and six weeks, as factors like temperature influence the necessary time. Also, the length of rest required, depends on the resilience of the paddock, as resilience is at the centre of pasture response. In turn, paddock resilience relies on past management of carbon flows. One producer I spoke to, with really healthy pastures, is of the opinion that he can achieve full recovery after about four weeks.

The rest period does not commence until the plants actually start growing, which provides time to relocate animals after rain. 

Is pasture rest time or timing?

There are some subtle realities that underpin the Carbon Grazing principle. Because there is no pattern to when rain arrives, in other words when carbon arrives, the message is that pasture rest is TIMING and not TIME. Basing resting decisions on a certain period of TIME, is no guarantee that carbon will arrive. 

The practical aspect of seeing pasture rest as TIMING, instead of TIME, is that you only need to find an alternative home for animals for a short period of time.

Some of the “increased” ground cover that results from a resting exercise, can be utilised as somewhere to put animals next time it rains, i.e. the capacity for resting resides in existing pastures. An earlier column discussed techniques for resting pastures after rain without selling animals.

Stating the obvious, continuous grazing never implements the Carbon Grazing phase of rest after rainfall.

Cell grazing is just one of many ways Carbon Grazing can be implemented. A well respected cell grazer commented to me that although he locks his cells up for 120 days on average, which is a TIME approach, he said the bulk of the outcomes he achieves, occurs in the first 28 days after rain. He said he implements Carbon Grazing, because when the rain arrives, the bulk of the cells do not have animals in them.

Carbon Grazing is not the same as wet season spelling (an Australian term) as some people mistakenly think. Wet season spelling involves a much longer rest period than Carbon Grazing. Also, wet season spelling increases grazing pressure on the remainder of the property for the wet season. This is because all the animals are pushed into a reduced area.


The box above is saying that animals should start harvesting what resides above ground after adequate carbon has flowed to all parts of the landscape, including below ground. This approach will ensure future animal production and ongoing resilience of the production base. It will also ensure better environmental outcomes.

Carbon Grazing gives confidence to the broader community

Producers who implement the Carbon Grazing procedure at least once a year are in the position to represent to the broader community that they are responsible custodians of the land.

The term “Carbon Grazing” was coined in 2001 and registered the same year. It was coined for the purpose of drawing attention to the importance of maximising carbon inflows for both profits and environmental outcomes. 

Conclusion

Carbon Grazing is about attending to the most fundamental thing a grazier has to get right, and that is to maximise carbon flows from any rain that arrives. If you do not attend to the basics, then nothing else will fall into place the way they should.

Carbon Grazing is not a new land management system. It is a general principle. 

Discussing carbon flows is the entry point for discussing what profitable and sustainable land management is, not carbon stocks. As important as carbon stocks are, they are simply an outcome of carbon flows.

Carbon is the organiser because energy, nutrients and water all follow the path of carbon.

For those wanting extra supporting detail, read the appendix that follows this short explanation of Carbon Grazing.

Next week’s discussion:   “Drought in perspective”

APPENDIX


The natural world can't function without "carbon flows". This is because carbon is the main building block of all life on the planet and is responsible for supplying energy that all life relies on.

Without the ongoing flow of carbon and all the compounds it forms as it keeps moving, the landscape would become bare and lifeless.   Carbon is always moving, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. After entering the landscape via photosynthesis, one path of carbon involves moving along the two food chains, one above ground and the other below ground. This involves moving from one living thing to another living thing.

How successfully pastures are able to introduce carbon into the landscape is determined by animal management. Plants and animals have evolved together and rely on each other. However, if animals dominate plants, then carbon flows are reduced. In the absence of animals, pastures become moribund and again have a lower capacity to introduce carbon. 
All else being equal, the grazing paddock that has the most carbon flowing through it will be the most productive and resilient. 

The two aspects of carbon

"Carbon flows" and "carbon stocks" are related but different debates. Up until this point in time, the emphasis in extension has been on discussing carbon stocks and measurement, not carbon flows. See my earlier blog post dedicated to this topic

Putting carbon flows into perspective

Plants rely on carbon inflows to construct themselves. Roots, stems and leaves are about 45% carbon. It is plants that make carbon available to the two food chains that underpin commercial production and positive environmental outcomes.

Paddock resilience is critical for reducing the negative effects of extreme events, be they drought or flood
Paddock resilience has two components, plant resilience and soil resilience.

Allowing more carbon to flow into plants increases their resilience in two ways;

  • it increases internal energy reserves for plants to call on; and

  • it creates a more extensive root system to give plants access to more water and nutrients

Soils with more carbon flowing through them are more resilient because they have improved water infiltration, increased water holding capacity and are more fertile.
Long-term soil carbon is very important, however its existence over time has to be seen as an outcome of carbon flows and how well they are managed.   

Those who take a systems approach, place a high emphasis on carbon, while those who take a reductionist science approach see water as more important. The reality is that a grazing operation has no control over how much rain arrives, however, there is some control over how effective it is in producing carbon flows. How effective rain is depends on whether it enters the soil or ends up in gullies and, in the case of water that enters the soil, whether plants are healthy/resilient enough to fully utilise it. Both these issues are determined by management of carbon flows i.e. the level of carbon flowing into plants and then the soil over time. When we take a big picture approach (a systems approach), it quickly becomes obvious that better management of carbon flows increases water use efficiency.   

The best way to gauge how well we are managing carbon flows over time, is to observe the outcomes or lack of outcomes after rain. Past management of carbon flows does influence the level of current carbon inflows.

Because carbon is always moving, with some returning to the atmosphere on a regular basis, there is the need to keep bringing in new carbon. 
In the case of new carbon entering the soil, on average 80% will be gone in twelve months. The above ground exit of carbon can be even more extreme depending on livestock management or fire. 

In dry years, the potential for bringing in replacement carbon is much lower. This is the time when implementing Carbon Grazing is even more important for staying in business.

The faster moving short-term carbon provides short-term paddock resilience and the slow moving long-term carbon provides long-term resilience. Carbon Grazing has an immediate impact on short term resilience and contributes to long term resilience over time.

It is while grasses are growing after rain, that they make soluble carbon available to mycorrhizal fungi which are located on their roots. This allows the fungi to extend out into the soil and source extra nutrients for the plants to utilise. 

For those interested in the trading aspect of soil carbon, the introduction phase of carbon flows only includes short term carbon. This highlights that long term soil carbon has to start the journey as short term carbon, in the first phase of carbon flows.  

When perennial pastures are emerging from dormancy, there is the potential for so much lost production if animals consume new shoots. 

One industry extension program in Australia discusses ground cover in terms of not consuming too much, which is important, but does not discuss land management in terms of increasing carbon flows to provide more ground cover. Deciding on the level of consumption of pastures is the second decision producers need to make, with the first one being management of carbon flows to increase ground cover prior to consumption. Over consuming carbon flows after they have arrived is very different to reducing the flow of carbon in the first place, and is by far the lesser of the two evils. Carbon flows end up above and below ground, while animal consumption only involves what ends up above ground.

When soils become less fertile because of poor management of carbon flows over time, plants allocate a higher percentage of the incoming carbon below ground. This means livestock have less to eat. This is another reason why poor land managers are at a bigger disadvantage during marginal years when rainfall is below normal.

Using different approaches to engage producers

Discussing carbon flows is a different way for graziers to look at the landscape and understand how it functions. If extension discusses all the processes carbon becomes involved in as it flows through the landscape, then it quickly becomes clear to producers why the paddock with the highest flows will be the most productive and more resilient. Hence the advantage of implementing Carbon Grazing.

Producers need to operate with a new paradigm, a different mindset. They have to be able to imagine what is happening on a multitude of levels and time frames. At the moment, a lot of producers can see only the outcomes, but don't understand how they occur. They need to be able to visualise the processes they can't see happening.

A rangelands scientist told me recently that producers like recipes, however his concern was that recipes are prone to fail if circumstances keep changing. He said, Carbon Grazing is not your normal recipe, it is a flexible recipe. It is instigated on the basis of one parameter and requires only one action. This simplifies application.

The instruction left in the rain gauge to act and remove the animals from a paddock is random in timing. However, the instruction to act is always based on the same criteria, which is the presence of grass growing rain and, always requires the same action. The only variable is that the required rest period shortens as landscape resilience improves due to better management of carbon flows over time.

Timing the harvest of carbon flows

When graziers let animals harvest carbon flows too early following rain, they interfere with the biophysical conduit (leaves) that are responsible for introducing carbon into the landscape.

In other words, graziers should only be letting animals harvest the surplus, not the means by which a usable surplus is generated. They should harvest what resides above ground after adequate carbon has flowed to all parts of the landscape, including below ground. This approach will ensure future animal production and ongoing resilience of the production base. It will also ensure better environmental outcomes, including better water quality in waterways.

Conclusion

Nature has designed the system so that water activates the flow of carbon into the landscape. 

Carbon Grazing is about maximising potential inflows of carbon. It is the window of opportunity too many people miss.

We can't change how much rain falls, however we can change how much carbon flows into the paddock from what rain does fall.

Short-term improvements in paddock health and productivity are driven by the short-term carbon introduced in the first phase of carbon flows. Also, the carbon in long-term soil carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows.

The best way to gauge how well we are managing carbon flows over time is to observe the outcomes or lack of outcomes after rain.




A healthy landscape