The carbon grazing principle relates to managing carbon flows
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.
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.
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
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.
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.