Last Blog: Sustainable Beef can’t be defined without discussing carbon flows”
THE most over-used and misused word in the English language is “sustainable”. Everybody uses it, but often there is little agreement on what it means. The term is like a magnet to nebulous feel good words.
Beef production being sustainable has two aspects, producers have to remain profitable and the environment has to remain healthy as a result of beef production, including water quality. To achieve both aspects of sustainability, the “resilience” of the paddock has to be maintained. The only way paddock resilience can be maintained in both the short-term and long-term, is to ensure that sufficient carbon keeps flowing through the paddock. The natural world can’t “function” without carbon flows.
For me, “Sustainable Beef” is producing beef at a profit while maintaining the “integrity” of the production system. The former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was thinking in a similar way when he said, "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
The difference between resilience and sustainability is that one is a state/condition and the other is an outcome. The dictionary says sustainability means “keep from failing”.
Most processes focus on carbon stocks and measurement when defining sustainable beef. To ensure there is no confusion over terminology, below is carbon stocks and carbon flows explained (see also one of my earlier posts).
Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome, i.e. a process.
When beef production is not sustainable, everybody starts talking about all the negative outcomes from human stress to environmental problems. This is really talking about the symptoms, not the cause. Trying to solve each symptom separately is applying reductionist science instead of looking at the big picture and trying to identify the common denominator.
Why carbon flows?
All debates should start with the basics. Get the basics wrong and nothing else is going to fall into place the way they should.
Carbon is the organiser as it flows through the paddock above and below ground. The movement of carbon activates so many processes that occur in the paddock. Energy, nutrients and water all follow the path of carbon.
Carbon is the main building block of all life, be it grass, cattle or soil life. Cattle are 18% carbon and grass is 45% carbon. Flowing carbon is also responsible for keeping all life above and below ground functioning, because it carries the energy all life needs. When the level of carbon flowing through a paddock drops, then the level of life in the paddock drops.
Higher carbon flows result in more cattle to sell and more soil life to keep the soil well structured and fertile. When carbon flows start to drop, this is the first stage of soil degradation.
The landscape is interactive – self organised – however we “disorganise” it when we mismanage carbon.
The two components of paddock resilience
Paddock resilience is a combination of plant resilience and soil resilience and both rely on carbon flows.
Maintaining plant resilience relies on good animal management. Poor animal management, that reduces plant growth after rain, reduces the flow of carbon into plants and the paddock.
To remain resilient, plants need adequate carbon flowing into them to maintain energy reserves and build extensive root systems for
sourcing water and nutrients. Roots are also important for water infiltration into the soil, they act as wicks to take water down through the soil profile. The water travels down beside the roots. The wick effect is especially important with harder soils. Roots are 45% carbon.
The perennial grass plant above is what a plant lacking resilience looks like. It is struggling to come out of dormancy after good rain because it is short of stored energy. Energy reserves in plants are short-term carbon brought in by carbon flows. In perennial grasses they are stored in the roots and also in the crown. These reserves are the energy source prior to green leaves collecting energy. This plant is generating no carbon flows to feed soil life or cattle.
Maintaining soil resilience also relies on animal management. Think of the soil as a construction site. Soil life is responsible for keeping the soil well structured and fertile. If animal management reduces the ability of plants to supply carbon compounds to soil life, then their population drops.
Carbon flowing into plants is the true source of soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is about 58% carbon (short-term carbon). Organic matter changes the bulk density of soil, which adds to water storage capacity. Apart from being a store of nutrients, organic matter is the raw material for humus, which is long-term soil carbon. Humus is the undigested portions of organic matter.
Because humus is highly charged, it will aggregate many soil particles into stable aggregates. This leads to better soil structure and it is the resultant pores that hold extra water containing the soluble nutrients like nitrate nitrogen. Humus also has a higher water holding capacity than clay because it has a smaller particle size. Humus changes the pH of the soil and so buffers against any toxic elements present.
With poor animal management, plant resilience fails first, then soil resilience declines. Poorly managed plants do not generate enough carbon flows to keep the soil healthy. This highlights that your animal management affects the soil, by affecting plants first.
What paddock resilience and lack of it looks like
For those seeking tangible evidence of when resilience exists, it is the ability of a paddock to generate carbon flows from rain, i.e. how well the pasture responds 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.
The next photo was taken by Patrick Francis and I thank him for capturing such a powerful image.
Water infiltration is the first requirement for producing carbon flows
The right hand side of the fence is a grazing paddock, not a farming paddock and is what an unsustainable beef operation looks like. Look at the surface water right up to the fence and nothing on the other side. The pooled water is caused by more than just poor soil structure, there is also a lack of roots in the paddock to help water enter the soil. Unsustainable beef is nutrients flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef. Moreover, the lost nutrients and water could have been driving higher beef production for economic sustainability.
Paddock resilience is the ability to generate carbon flows
The two pictures above show the productive capacity of each side of the fence at a later date, i.e. the ability to produce carbon flows. The top photo is the left hand side of the fence and the bottom one the right hand side of the fence. The resilience of each side of the fence is very different. Stating the obvious, resilience, sustainability and water use efficiency all rely on ongoing carbon flows.
This series of photos explains what is behind disappointment when a paddock does not respond to rain very well. The photos also highlight that current carbon flows rely on past carbon flows. Just as money makes money, so carbon makes carbon. This feedback loop is central to understanding/defining sustainable beef.
Natural systems (paddocks) have evolved to remain resilient (sustainable) and can withstand extreme events such as drought or heavy rain, but we reduce their “defences” when our management reduces the level of carbon flowing through them.
The “Carbon Grazing” principle relates to managing carbon flows
If the first priority for achieving sustainable beef is keeping enough carbon flowing through the paddock, above and below ground, then management has to be focused on when the bulk of the carbon arrives.
Nature has designed the system so that water activates the flow of carbon into the landscape via photosynthesis. The bulk of the carbon arrives from the atmosphere in the short period following rain. Think of plants as the entry point of carbon into the paddock. After entering plants, carbon then flows everywhere else in the paddock, including through cattle.
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. This is why pasture rest is TIMING, not TIME.
Basing resting decisions on a certain period of TIME is no guarantee that carbon will come into the paddock because there is no guarantee that it will rain.
The “Carbon Grazing” 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.
Carbon Grazing is resting pastures for 4 - 6 weeks after rain. This time was arrived at after talking to a cross section of scientists and producers. It is important to not get caught up on the exact time between four and six weeks, as temperature influences plant growth. Also, the length of rest required, depends on the resilience of the paddock, as resilience is at the centre of pasture response. One producer I spoke to, with really healthy pastures, is of the opinion that he can achieve full recovery after about four weeks.
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 that they can't afford to rest pastures, it begs the question, can you afford not to.
Carbon Grazing is a principle and just that, not a new land management system. It underpins all successful land management systems. In a sense, the principle is an action plan.
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 cattle, is set.
Carbon Grazing is strategic (tactical) rest after rain, and is based on the premise that nature does not have a predictable pattern.
Carbon Grazing is short-term removal of animals from pastures after rain.
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 (Carbon Grazing) 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 different techniques for resting pastures after rain without selling animals.
Producers have no control over how much rain arrives but they do have control over the level of carbon flows generated by what rain does arrive. Rain is obviously a major driver of production but it is not the final determinant - it is the level of flowing carbon that determines the level of rural production and landscape health.
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. The wording is saying don’t eat the conduit prematurely. This approach will ensure future animal production and ongoing resilience of the production base. It will also ensure better environmental outcomes.
TIME relates to consumption
It is important not to confuse management of flows with consumption of existing stocks (pasture).
Resting for set periods of time when it is not raining is a consumption issue (maintaining ground cover) and should not be confused with strategic / tactical rest after rain. The exception is when a regeneration event has occurred and freshly germinated perennial seedlings need to be protected to allow them to establish.
How much ground cover is consumed is important, but it is the second decision a producer makes, not the first. What sets the level of ground cover in the first place, is the amount of carbon a particular form of management allows to enter the paddock after rain.
Provided it is not excessive, grazing is beneficial for carbon flows as it removes rank pasture that can inhibit pasture growth next time it rains.
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 carbon flows concept is the package of knowledge that provides an understanding of why there has to be adequate carbon flowing through the paddock to ensure beef is sustainable. The Carbon Grazing principle is part of this knowledge package.
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 profit and environmental outcomes.
Better management of carbon flows reduces methane per kg of production
The methane debate is one of subtleties, with the true issue being the production of methane per kg of production. Differences between production systems become clearer when the outputs are expressed this way.
The major strategy for reducing methane production is the same as the key driver for profitability in grazing: reducing the number of grazing days per kilo of product, and this relies on improving the digestibility of the diet.
Good management of carbon flows is so important for increasing the digestibility of the pasture.
Resting paddocks for a short period after rain increases the percentage of leaves to stems. Leaves are more digestible than stems, i.e. have a lower carbon:nitrogen ratio.
Resting pastures after rain increases pasture resilience, which in turn results in pastures being able to respond better to rain and so being green for a higher percentage of the year. Green pasture is more digestible than dry pasture, again a lower carbon:nitrogen ratio.
Thinking visually, we need to speed up carbon as it flows through the rumen of cattle to reduce methane and increase profits. More nitrogen (protein) attached to the carbon speeds it up.
The level of methane produced is another example of the general principle that the greenhouse outcomes of agriculture are a reflection of economic efficiency.
Just thinking carbon stocks can give a false sense of environmental security
Perhaps because of climate change policy, we have become too preoccupied with carbon stocks and measuring carbon and not paying enough attention to carbon flows.
Photo: Patrick Francis
The photo above shows carbon stock per unit area may be increasing via expanding tree growth, but carbon flows have been ignored creating negative issues for cattle production, cattle health, soil health and the owner’s business. Just talking about carbon stocks is far too narrow when discussing sustainable beef.
Highlighting that paddocks are different, when defining sustainable beef, is taking a reductionist science approach
It is often stated that because of the broad range of ecosystems in which beef is produced, a "one size-fits-all" global standard is unrealistic.
Circumstances change but the general principles of landscape function don’t.
In Nov 2008 I was invited as the guest speaker to open the Queensland NRM Groups Collective Grazing Symposium in Cairns. The person working for the Collective who invited me, said people in the Groups around the state kept talking about how different they were and this was not consistent with the over-riding body calling itself a Collective. My brief was to highlight how much they had in common. My talk concentrated on all the carbon processes that were common to all regions in the state.
There is one aspect of sustainable beef production that is common to every country, every farm and every paddock, and that is the proper management of "carbon flows".
Patrick Francis on gaining the trust of consumers
This is an extract from a paper that Patrick Francis prepared for a 2014 workshop held by QLD DAFF. It was held to consider the need for a separate carbon module in extension programs. Patrick was the editor for 32 years of the Australian Farm Journal and its predecessor FARM Magazine.
“Consumers may not understand how carbon flows impact livestock productivity and health, and improvements to ecosystem services, but they do know they are important and want to be associated with them when purchasing red meat. Incorporating carbon flows knowledge as suggested by Alan Lauder into education programs provides them with additional credibility needed to meet consumer expectations for ethical production.
Red meat marketers are keen to promote ethical characteristics for brands but in reality there is little credible basis at industry level on which to justify claims made (photo below). The carbon flows concept if widely understood and applied by farmers will underpin many of the ethical claims already being made about beef."
Incorporation of carbon flows functions within grazing best management practice training programs has post farm gate beef marketing implications as it provides a credible basis on which to make red meat brand claims which an increasing percentage of consumers are looking for in respect of livestock health and welfare and environmental management irrespective of challenging climatic conditions. Photos: Patrick Francis
The only time you can build paddock resilience is during the short period after rain.
Sustainable Beef really means sustainable management.
Leaving the management of carbon flows out of defining sustainable beef is like an engineer leaving gravity out of calculations.
With carbon, once you understand the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole landscape and how it functions.
It is often said that healthy soils are the foundation of healthy ranches, but taking one step further back, it is actually carbon flows that are the foundation of healthy ranches. This is because it is carbon flows that keep plants healthy which in turn keep soil healthy. It is carbon compounds that underpin the health/resilience of both plants and the soil and these carbon compounds will not exist without carbon flows.
A resilient paddock is one that has the ability to generate enough carbon flows from rain to keep itself functional and productive.
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.
Two paddocks can have equal long-term soil carbon stocks, but it is the one that has the most carbon flowing through it, that will have the highest level of production.
For the clear thinkers - when it comes to carbon, if you can't measure a change in the stocks, then all the carbon has to be in the flow.
Carbon Grazing is about attending to the most fundamental thing a grazier/rancher 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 it should.
Good management of carbon flows is the basis of sustainable beef production and catchment protection.