Some of the main points raised in 2017

A few years ago, while traveling in rural Queensland, I met an interesting woman in the Blackall newsagency. During the course of conversation she commented, “The expensive dieting programs in the city are a total waste of money. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut and move”. This woman was a clear thinker who was focused on getting back to basics.

Likewise, producers who focus on good management of carbon flows, understand that this is one of the basics you have to get right. If you get the basics wrong, nothing else will fall into place the way they should.

Carbon flows are the most fundamental thing a producer has to get right?

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

Paddocks can’t function without carbon flows because carbon is the main building block of all life. Cattle are 18% carbon, grass is 45% carbon and soil life is carbon based. Also, carbon is the carrier of energy that all life requires.

Nutrients and water also follow the path carbon takes. The more carbon that flows through the paddock, the better the other cycles function.

Without the ongoing flow of carbon and all the different compounds it forms as it keeps moving, the landscape would become bare and lifeless.

More flow = More meat and grain

A producer’s day job is recycling carbon i.e. managing carbon flows. Producers set out to turn a portion of the carbon that is flowing through the paddock into saleable carbon products, like meat and grain. The more carbon that flows, the more cattle and grain are produced for sale. 

All else being equal, the grazing paddock that has the most carbon flowing through it will be the most productive and resilient.

Has extension focused on the wrong aspect of carbon when discussing decision making?

Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome. With carbon, the “management decisions” producers make relate to carbon flows.

Long-term soil carbon is important for paddock health. However, if you want to increase production in the short term, it is the faster moving short term carbon that increases production, not the slow moving long term carbon. In the case of soil carbon, it is accepted in the scientific community that stocks of long term soil carbon are slow to change, which reinforces the point that long term carbon can’t to be responsible for short term increases in production.

For those interested in long-term soil carbon, this carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows i.e. when carbon enters plants from the atmosphere.

The carbon flows concept is different to discussing the carbon cycle diagram     

The carbon flows concept, 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 to help producers better understand the different roles of 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 easiest way to grasp the carbon flows concept is to think of individual carbon atoms entering the paddock from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and then heading off in all different directions, before finding their way back to the atmosphere. Some quickly, some slowly.

The different speeds of paddock carbon

Short term carbon is the fast moving carbon and long term carbon is the slow moving carbon.

The faster moving carbon has a different role in production and landscape health to the slower moving carbon.

Short term resilience is linked to the faster moving carbon and long term resilience is linked to the slow moving carbon.

Why carbon suddenly turned up in extension

For the thirty years that I was a grazier up until 2000, not once was the word carbon mentioned to me. CSIRO confirmed this to be true. Land management was never explained in terms of carbon management, or more specifically, management of carbon flows. Nobody suggested to me that my day job was recycling carbon. It was never explained to me that the meat and wool I sold were actually carbon compounds. Now carbon is being discussed in extension but not in its full context.

It was climate change policy that introduced the word carbon into extension. This explains why current extension is focused on carbon stocks and measurement. This is where funding is being directed, not carbon flows projects.

The reason carbon was originally left out of extension can be traced back to reductionist science. Reductionist science breaks up landscape function into separate processes and is sometimes referred to as putting information in silos. Those who take a reductionist science approach place a lower importance on carbon than those who take a systems approach.

How moving carbon carries energy

During photosynthesis, light energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy. The energy of the sun is stored in the new molecular structures that carbon forms.

The carbon hydrogen bonds in C6H12O6 (carbohydrates) contain more energy than the carbon oxygen bonds in CO2.

Think carbon before nitrogen

A bare paddock has no carbon above ground while a paddock of frosted or rank grass has carbon but little nitrogen.

A person running a grazing operation can afford to supplement nitrogen (protein) when it is in short supply. However, it is not commercial to supplement carbon when it is short. Hay is expensive.

Correctly manage carbon flows from the atmosphere to your paddock and you will still have options when it has not rained for a while.  

Thinking with a new mindset

It is natural that the way somebody sees the world, influences the decisions they make. Discussing carbon flows is a different way for graziers to look at the landscape and understand how it functions. With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions.

When producers get their head around the flows way of thinking, they focus on management that will maximise flows. 

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.

Increasing the speed of the faster moving carbon increases profit & reduces methane

From a “management” point of view, it is carbon flows that are important, but moreover, it is the speed of flows that is the critical thing for a rural producer. 

How quickly carbon moves from one life form to the next, driving production and landscape health, depends on how much nitrogen is present with carbon.

This is why the carbon:nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) is an important concept for producers to understand 

Leaves have a higher percentage of nitrogen to carbon than stems i.e. lower C:N ratio. This allows microbes in the soil and microbes in the rumen of cattle to multiply faster due to the higher availability of nitrogen. The faster microbes are able to multiply and consume their carbon based food, the quicker the faster moving carbon moves.  

There is a reason why a paddock is more productive when the faster moving carbon (short term carbon) moves even faster. In the case of soil, nutrients joined to carbon become plant available sooner if carbon moves faster. In the case of livestock, nutrients and energy joined to carbon becomes available to sheep and cattle sooner.

Increasing the speed of carbon through ruminant animals, like sheep and cattle, increases profits by getting them to market sooner and reduces the production of methane per kg of production.  

Financial analogy

To put fast and slow moving carbon into a commercial analogy, think cash flows versus capital.

Cash flows keep you in business, just like carbon flows keep you in business.

The fast moving short term carbon makes money for you because it feeds all the life in the soil that keeps the soil productive AND feeds sheep and cattle. Remember cattle are 18% carbon, with all this carbon coming from the fast moving carbon. It is the fast moving carbon that builds larger root systems in plants so that they can access more moisture and nutrients to grow. It is central to plant energy reserves that determine how well plants can come out of dormancy.  The ability of perennial grasses to come out of dormancy and grow after isolated small falls of rain, is especially important in dry years when getting something to grow is critical.

The slow moving long term carbon, like soil humus, should be seen as part of the capital of a farming business. It is essential for increasing the “storage” of water and plant available nutrients that would otherwise escape the paddock.


Carbon is the organiser as it flows through the paddock.

Carbon stocks are simply a reflection of how well carbon flows are managed.

The health of the Great Barrier Reef and waterways is dependent on good management of carbon flows.

Because of their deep roots, perennial edible shrubs like saltbush and leucaena transfer the use of rain further into the future i.e. they can generate carbon flows when it is not raining. They also hold onto their nitrogen (protein) longer, with saltbush not affected by frosts.

Next week’s discussion:   “What really is paddock resilience?”

Alan Lauder