Carbon neutrality and profitability difficult to combine on small cattle farm

Addressing issues: Benalla farmer Bill Sykes is eager to reduce carbon emissions, but needs to find a way to do what while having his farm remain profitable. Photo by Simon Ruppert

When local farmer Bill Sykes spoke to the Ensign about his difficulties achieving carbon neutrality on his Benalla farm, many in the community were eager to help.

After a brief chat with Benalla Sustainable Future Group (BSFG) president Peter Holmes, Dr Sykes invited members to his property for a chat.

“I met with about 20 people, nearly all were from BSFG,” Dr Sykes said.

“I explained the operation of my farm which, whilst small, is typical of many grazing properties in the area.

“I sought to highlight the number of things that a farmer has to factor into their daily business activities. In that context climate change is one of the factors that needs to be considered.

"We had Frank Dunnin attend. He is a retired agricultural scientist and he spoke to us about soil carbons, and the dynamics of soil carbons.

"In essence as he said the is no free lunch. If you put more carbon into the soil, then you forgo that carbon going into plants and being utilised by animals to put on weight, or produce milk or wool, for example.

“Frank also spoke about the difference between native pasture species and improved pasture species. In essence, native pasture species, such as kangaroo grass, tend not to use water in winter or spring and then use water modestly during summer.

“The net result is less kilograms of dry matter produced for utilising by livestock, but increased soil carbons.

“Whereas your improved pasture species utilise that moisture during the winter and spring, turning it into grass which is then utilised by the grazing livestock. So that was Frank’s explanation.”

Dr Sykes said when you drilled down into the nitty-gritty of what else could be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or increase soil carbons, there were no new ideas on the table.

“Comment was made that if you use less diesels, if you do less cultivation, and have less diesel-powered tractor usage, that would pull down your carbon footprint.

“That is not so relevant to a grazing operation such as mine, as 85 per cent of my greenhouse gas emissions are methane from the cattle.

“So that is where I have to make the impact.“

However Dr Sykes said the technology to address that was yet to be developed.

"There are some methods, such as feed additives including one made from seaweed,’’ he said.

``But that is still in a developmental stage, it’s in its early days.’’

Mr Holmes said that while planting lots of trees on a property was an option to offset carbon emissions, from a profitability perspective it was not necessarily an option on smaller farms in areas like Benalla with limited rainfall.

Mr Holmes said that with so much of Dr Sykes’ farm’s carbon emissions coming from cattle, it was difficult to achieve carbon neutrality while remaining profitable.

“So we would concur with him that we need technological advances in areas like feed additives,” he said.

“But we still believe that we need to encourage farmers to keep planting more trees on their properties, which is something that can be done right now.

"However in terms of remaining profitable whilst addressing carbon emissions, it’s a challenging situation and I’m pleased Bill raised these issues.

“We still believe the best carbon removers are trees and deep-rooted grasses, but we agree that the viability of that depends on if it is financially viable or not.”