Beef production in Queensland

I was lucky enough to meet 5 amazing beef farmers while I was in Queensland, and spend time talking to them about their businesses and the issues and opportunities that there are within this sector.

img_0566Firstly, although it’s a cliché, I was blown away by the scale of these operations, each farm averaging a size of 40,000 acres. These are big farms operating over some challenging country.

The second interesting thing was the forage that these cows were eating, the farmers called it grass but it was very different to grass that we have in the UK, it was very fibrous material with a lack of green. There was a running joke as we were driving around with either Steven or Natalie, pointing out the best fields, and comparing them to the UK.

Make no mistake, this environment is tough, its dry, unforgiving terrain that the cattle and the farming system have to adapt to if they want to survive.

I picked up a couple of common threads through all the visits.

The importance of looking after your pasture and soils.  All of the farms that we went to see were practicing rotational grazing to a greater or lesser extent. Some (including one organic farmer) were running a long rotation, and some had completely altered their operation to move the cattle very frequently and allow the grass long rest periods. All of them had grazing charts, knew exactly how much grass was in each paddocks and what was going on in terms of the next movement.

Attention to detail. Even though these are big operations they aren’t run by loads of staff, even at this size, the farms only have one or two people that are doing all the day to day tasks.  However, everything is managed and budgeted in terms of animal movements, grass performance and markets. The cattle were used as a tool to manage their grass, and the grass was managed so as to improve production.  One farm had managed to increase the carrying capacity of their farm by 7. They could get 7 times the amount of grass growth, and kg of beef produced, just by managing their grass and moving to rotational grazing.  This attention to detail also includes matching the climatic conditions and soil conditions to cow numbers.  All farmers have plans that include the level of grass growth that requires them to sell stock, and the level that needs them to increase production.  This adjustment of cow numbers, to match conditions, allows them to fully utilise their paddocks, but also destock early (potentially before the market is flooded with other cattle).

Understanding where and why to spend money.  Shifting to rotational grazing over these large areas isn’t cheap. The farm that had managed that great increase in productive capacity had to invest $2.4 million in fencing, water pipe and other infrastructure to make it work.  This is big money, but has provided big returns.

A willingness to learn and adapt. All these farmers had had some initial inspiration moment, either through attending a course, travelling and seeing other systems working (through Nuffield), or by trying something different and adapting it until it fits. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 7 years,” commented one, “I’m still learning, and fine tuning it to make it better.  You never stop learning, and the more you can see and share experiences with others, the easier it is to refine.”

Plan based on the worst case scenario. Talking to farmers, asking them how they manage to keep their businesses going through such variability and change in markets, and the climate, and talking to other projects here, there was a common thread that farmers had to remain optimistic.  However talking to these farmers, their business and management plans were not based on optimism.  They were based on the worst case scenario, and then anything above that was a bonus.

An awareness of their costs of production.  In such hard conditions, it is absolutely essential to know the costs of production. These farmers had these figures at their fingertips, were flexible in terms of market opportunities and were open to other ideas.  Because they knew their costs, they were able to react to the market quickly.

Thanks to all the farmers who made me feel so welcome and discussed their businesses and management so openly. The magic of Nuffield strikes again!

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Digging Deeper into Carbon Trading

So one of the things that I was really keen to look at while I was over here in Australia was the whole issue of payments for sequestration. It was something that we are nowhere near in the UK, and Australia is leading the way in terms of having a methodology that is approved by government and accessible by farmers.
The person who is leading the way in this is Terry McCosker, and his company Carbon Link. Carbon Link has been set up to help farmers navigate their way through the (incredibly complicated) process of becoming a trader in carbon.
Here in the UK soil carbon is a fairly contentious issue, with scientists for the most part yet to prove a conclusive link between management practices and an increase in sequestration rate. The science is pretty conclusive if you convert an arable field into long term grassland (the soil carbon goes up) and the same happens if you convert a grass or arable field into growing trees. However where there hasn’t been agreement, is the impact within your production system (for example arable or grassland) of changing management; of whether there is a link between no till systems and building soil carbon, or whether if you practice rotational grazing or plant diverse pastures, you are sequestering carbon at a greater rate.
When I asked some of these questions to Terry, he was completely clear on his position. “There are two issues,” he explained, “firstly, farmers are way ahead of the scientists, in terms of what they are doing.” He has farmers who (like some of ours in the UK) are seeing a complete revitalisation of their soils by changing management practices. “The soils are completely alive, “ he explains, “the improvement comes not just in the increase in organic matter content, but also in helping the biology in the soil do what it was put there to do.” Secondly, the issue is that we aren’t measuring to the correct depth. “Most research, stops measuring at 30cm,” he explains, “and the changes happen much deeper than that, we need to be measuring down to 1m or 1.5 metres to see the impact.”
The deeper depth of the measuring comes at a much higher cost to the farmer, as to enter into the scheme, baseline monitoring needs to happen. This baseline monitoring involves taking a soil sample every 5cm down the soil profile to either 1 or 1.5 metres and assessing bulk density and soil organic carbon measurements. Each field has 9 sample sites within it which are GPS logged. Once the baseline of the farm has been measured, the farmers can start sequestering carbon. Every5 years the fields are measured again, and after each 5 year period, the farmer needs to change management again.
The basic process is:
Year 0 – complete baseline measurements, and contracts etc
Years 1 – 5 – farm as normal, including the management that you are doing to improve the level of sequestration (there is a list of practices that you can choose from in terms of what you want to adopt).
Year 5 – soils are retested, and you are paid on the amount of carbon that you have gained.
Year 6 – you adopt another management practice for the next 5 years.

And so the cycle goes on, at the moment the agreements lock the farmers into doing it for 25 years, and the payments is guaranteed for 10 years (and then renegotiated).
It’s a fairly complicated process and one that costs a lot to get involved in, with no payments being received by the farmer until year 5. I was also interested in how you take the risk out of a biological system, where the rate of carbon that’s sequestered can go up as well as down (especially in the varied weather conditions in Australia). I also wanted to know, how he was recruiting farmers to enter into this given the inherent level of mistrust of the government and its policies by most farmers.
Here is where it got interesting. Terry McCosker also runs a consultancy firm called RCS, which delivers the Grazing for Profit course (which Charlie Arnott, who I wrote about in an earlier blog, explained was what caused the paradigm shift in his management).
I asked Terry whether he thought that there was a link between RCS and its success at helping farmers make the most of their grass and understand business management and the uptake of farmers into carbon trading and the new schemes. “Absolutely,” he explained, “these farmers are my clients and they trust me, I’ve delivered results for them in the past. As such, although it is still a big leap of faith in terms of investment and a level of trust in the policy systems, they trust me.”
Some of the other farmers that I spoke to that weren’t in the trading scheme, were watching this space to see what happened with some of these early agreements. They were of the opinion that it was progressing, it would definitely be part of future policy and that they would be including land in the future.
It also may provide a favourable option for those who are looking to invest in farms, if they can buy farms that have fairly degraded soils, the use of management to improve them, could prove pretty lucrative. And this also works in reverse, those that have been involved in safeguarding and building their soils for a few years, those pioneers in this area, miss out on the payments, as they are further down the line so can’t see such a big improvement in the levels sequestered.
But, according to Terry, here’s the secret, there is no limit to the amount of carbon that you can sequester, its all about how you measure it. Traditionally here in the UK, we have always reported carbon in terms of a percentage soil organic carbon (which is subtracted from the soil organic matter percentage). However, apparently this is the wrong way to go about it, is all about tonnes of carbon sequestered. As such, you never reach an equilibrium, once you have filled the top 30cm, you start building more stable carbon deeper in the soil, and when that is full, you build it on top.
This is completely different to the way that I have conventionally thought about it, and it blew my mind slightly! Certainly the rest of the world’s focus is on Australia over the next 5 years, and these farmers who are pioneering the system. The scientists are also watching closely, with (from what it seems to me) a secret hope that it doesn’t work and they are proved right!
All of them also understand the wider benefits that building soil carbon has. One of the research organisations here worked out that the carbon price is $12 a tonne, but the value in terms of the wider ecosystem services of that carbon is more like $200 a tonne. As such, even if the scheme doesn’t work in terms of its current methodology and process, there is a benefit to these farmers, I just hope they see it, (and also I hope the methodology does work).

Climate Clever Beef – Demonstrating potential, inspiring change

Today has been a busy day, with 3 meetings, starting with a phone meeting at 7.30am with a previous Nuffield Scholar, then off to meet Steven Bray from the Queensland Agriculture department and then Terry McCosker from Carbon Link and Resource Consulting Solutions. All the meetings have been great, and my head is completely full up!

I was meeting Steven Bray about a project that he has been running here in Queensland with northern beef producers called Climate Clever Beef. The project has run demonstration farms to look at where emissions can be reduced and also capture the economic benefits (and efficiency benefits) of changing management.

The kind of work that Steve does relies on external funding to operate projects. Environmental money is coming in, their job is to make it useful to landholders, improve profits, working on the relationship that if you are managing land better then profitability is increased as well.
Climate Clever beef was different from previous projects in that previously they had held events and field days, and were raising awareness but not seeing practice change. At the same time, greenhouse policies were brought out to lower emissions from agriculture, but had no idea what the practices were that would achieve that or how to go about doing it. The project engaged with landholders, but only a small number of farmers with intense monitoring. As such, climate clever beef was more of a demonstration project than extension. The sites were also used to do research. There was a lot of variability between sites, conditions and practices.
The project was set up using regional teams which engaged producers in various regions, and concentrated on the opportunities that were available to them in their region under their conditions. The staff were very important, they needed to be trusted by the farmer, and for new staff members, mentors were used that facilitated early discussions with farmers until the relationship was formed. A key part of this project was the use of business analysis, to highlight the relationship with efficiency and emissions reductions.
What was also interesting in this project was the use of the properties that were involved as research stations. This not only provided the farmer with access to research and scientists, but also made sure that gaps in current research were being filled, and kept the farmer engaged with the project for the whole time. The farmers would often have to take samples or send in data, which was a good opportunity for a discussion about how things were going on a more casual basis.
The use of business analysis helped to see where efficiencies could be made, but Steve was keen to point out that tools should only be used to help show impact or suggest areas to focus on. Tools allow an assessment of where we are now and what we may want to do. The demonstration activity on the farm is the practical implementation of that and shows how it fits within the business without losing money.
The farms were used to demonstrate practice change rather than following the traditional extension model of raising awareness. Another interesting area of this project, that there was also a focus on education of policy makers on what worked and what didn’t. As such there was more of an opportunity for policy makers to work on enabling policies when they knew and appreciated what the issues were. The project brought policy makers out onto farms in Queensland and the Northern Territories, to talk with farmers and scientists, see action at farm level and understand where the trade-offs may be. Thus the project had a multi-dimensional approach – training staff, facilitating demonstrations that answered land holders questions and showed them where efforts would yield results and influencing policy.
Once the farmers were recruited, there was an initial meeting which allowed for an understanding of the business and the creation of some initial baseline data. A herd modelling tool was used to understand where the carbon emissions were being generated and where the efficiency benefits could be targeted. These hubs were also used for field days to allow for awareness raising within the local community and to inform those farmers who maybe sceptical about climate change. Steve explains, “a lot of producers think that its rubbish, but by attending the day and learning a bit about the issue, they know enough to contribute to future policy debates.” The field days were very much targeted around production based issues, with carbon also talked about, but not the main issue.
The project, which is just finishing, ran in two phases of 3 years, and Steve was confident that a 3 year time period was enough to see the results of practice change. A lot of the management that was worked on with the farmers was continued with after the project. “The practical measures around herd and pasture management, have, on the most part been continued with post project,” Steve explains, “which was the goal of this, get them to understand how to do it, and what impact it has on the bottom line and emissions, and once they are doing it, we’ve done our job.” The other thing that this project has provided is data – which wasn’t there before. Through the connection of these demonstration sites to research, they are also bridging the gap between research and practice, ensuring that research is targeted and has impact.
What is the most effective way to achieve practice change? According to Steve, it has to be face to face with people, the combination of demonstration of impact, with peer to peer learning is the most effective. However there still needs to be a reason to make that change and that differs from person to person, whether you are interested in Carbon, water quality or reducing inputs or costs.
Overall Steve thinks that this is a pretty good model to achieve the elusive behavioural change, but care is needed in terms of project design and structure. “It can’t be simplistic,” he explains, “the project needs to look at the wider objectives of the business for it to have any worth at the farm level.”

Charlie Arnott, restoring landscape function through grassland management

Another farmer I met this week was Charlie Arnott.  Charlie was recommended to me by someone else that I was seeing as someone who would be good to meet and he certainly was!

Charlie is farming 5,000 hectares in Boorowa, New South Wales. He again has changed the way that he manages his farm, now coming away from traditional cropping enterprises, and a mixed farm to focussing on grass fed beef.

The businesses BAHG (big ass hairy goal) strategy (yes he has one!) for the business long term is to work with nature to restore landscape function and to have a business that is genuinely sustainable in terms of the natural environment, provides a stable source of income and is a resource for the local community in terms of creating a vibrant place to live.  Everything that he does on land is working towards this goal. His interventions on the land are all concerned with restoring landscape function, and he uses biodiversity is a measure of landscape function as there is a direct correlation between the function of the landscape and how much biodiversity it can support.

“We manage the water cycle, the nutrient cycle, the crops, soils and animals to help restore that function” he explains, “ultimately we work with nature not against it, why wouldn’t you?”

charlie_cattleWhen he came home to the farm 20 years ago it was a conventional mixed farm. They were growing lucerne, lupins, triticale, wheat barley, canola, as well as a core shorthorn breeding herd and some merino wethers. It was a busy business and he loved it.

What was his tipping point?  Charlie explains, “I saw an ad in the paper in 2003 /4 (which was a very dry summer) about a one day course on how to profit from a drought; which piqued my interest. The course was a 1 day carrot dangler for the Grazing for Profit course – which was the biggest game changer for me in terms of a paradigm shift in what I was doing.”

Charlie did the one day course which introduced the concepts that he then went on to explore in more detail in the full Grazing for Profit training. He credits this course with changing everything. “It’s like a light went on,” he explains, “the course gave me an awareness of the wider landscape, my business, financial planning and business management.”

Charlie explains the broad concept using the analogy of a pot that is held up by three legs. Inside that pot is the farm business and the farm family (the people). The first leg is your production system, the second is economics and the third is the environment. You need all three legs to be working holding up the pot for a functioning business.

We have to sort these things out, we need to eat, but we need a functioning landscape in order to produce food. We are looking down the barrel of a gun.”

The course took the principles of what was being run elsewhere (including the Savory Institute) and targeted the concept for Australian farmers and timed it at a moment when people were looking for answers.  He was convinced at the end of the day that he needed to do something different.

Traditionally the landscape wasn’t something that you bothered about and managed, you worked it.

Charlie completely changed the way that he farms, after being on the course. He now uses nature’s resources to grow pastures that regenerate with native perennial species, and uses this to feed his stock.

We always hcarnott_fertiltyad the tools in the toolbox to manipulate nature, but to change the outcome, we used the same tools differently.  The key is how you use the tools at your disposal. Using the old system, the tools that we were reliant on were fertiliser and ploughing, those have been taken out and different ones put in.”

Charlie now grows fertility in his ‘fertility centre’ where he makes compost using resources from the farm.

 

fertility_2Adopting the practices on-farm.

Having been inspired by the course, Charlie recognises the need to step away from the business and really scrutinise it from the outside. He explains “there is a need to step back and be strategic. Breaking a paradigm won’t happen without taking time to look at why things are done the way they are. You have to ask yourself the hard questions and work out why you are doing tasks and whether they are taking you in the direction that you want to go. You also have to be honest about what the end goal is.”

The course also offered support and mentoring for 3 years afterwards which was a key part.  This included peer to peer support.  Enthused by the course, once he had finished, Charlie rushed out and invested heavily in fencing and infrastructure, something which he now sees as a waste of money. “I was so keen to get going I rushed out and spent money I didn’t need to instead of thinking strategically about my next move.”  The course offers a graduate package where you are able to come along and present your business plan to a group of farmers and trainers and discuss your next steps which don’t always have to focus on the different enterprises. Charlie explains, “I went into talk about sheep and they started talking to me about why I hadn’t proposed to my girlfriend yet! Farming is more than just cattle and sheep.”

This post course support and mentoring, is seen as a crucial part of ensuring that what you learn is taken up on-farm.

“If there isn’t any support post course – you are setting yourself up to fail. Need a certain level of hand holding to get this stuff going,  and the best way to do it is farmer to farmer.”

You can find out more about the course, through this link.

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Thanks to Charlie and family for showing me round!

Talking holistic management with The Conscious Farmer

So on Friday this week, I visited Derek and Kirrily Bloomfield who farm 5,000 acres (small by Aus standards) in the Liverpool Plains region. As well as producing grass fed beef (which is delicious) they have started direct marketing their beef and telling their story to the consumers through a website and blog The Conscious Farmer.
derek-and-kirrily2One of the things that I’m interested in when talking to farmers, is the whole area of the decision making process? What was it that made them change from farming more conventionally to managing their resources more efficiently? What helped them change?
Derek was farming this land and Kirrily was the farm’s agronomist. Derek explained that he was getting fairly disheartened with farming and was deciding what to do with the future. He was looking for other options and came across regenerative agriculture. He did a course (and took his father along to) and started to change the way that he was thinking about managing the land. Another personal reason for the couple was that their first son Patrick was born at 27 weeks. The couple researched premature births and decided that they wanted to change the way that they were farming.
“We were farming commodities to pay the bills, rather than growing food,” Derek explains. “It wasn’t about the environment, we were producing what we needed to feed our family.” Their management system has completely changed now. They did away with arable cropping and the whole farm is now down to grass, with native pastures replacing the previously cropped fields. “The landscape is the first priority now,” Derek continues, “and the cattle are an essential part of the conservation process and help to revitalise the landscape and provide the essential benefits that we need in terms of biodiversity, water storage, carbon storage and a resilient system.”
derek-and-kirrily3Water seems to be a dominant theme, when I talk to any farmer here in Australia, and Kirrily explains that regenerative agriculture helps with rehydrating the landscape. “We need to hold onto what water we have,” she explains, “when we have rain, if we have bare ground, that water runs off and takes with it soil particles. By having a continuous, living soil cover, we can catch every rain drop and allow the soil (which is biologically active) to use that water to move it horizontally through the landscape and rehydrate it.”
They took me to see a great example of this in one of their fields. The text below is from a blog that she wrote about it on her site (accessible here).
Kirrily explained, “We have a gully area on our farm which was carved through our highly dispersive black soil years ago. It happened because of a combination of land contouring that was done on neighbouring farms upstream, and a lack of perennial plants holding the soil together on our farm where we used to grow annual crops. These earthworks concentrated the water (unnaturally), which then flowed over our highly erodible black soil and created the gully. (This is not a criticism of our neighbours – they were only doing what was considered the best thing at the time and was actually compulsory for us all to take part in).”

“We decided to do something about this gully area using Holistic Management planned grazing techniques. This often involves grazing the cattle in fairly high concentration (though not always), and then moving the stock on (and importantly) not re-grazing until the grasses have recovered. The cows clamber up and down the steep sides of the gully (it’s like they’re playing) – tapering out the sides of the gully, creating hoof marks where water can pool and plants can grow which then stabilise the bank and prevent further erosion (see how the animals have disturbed the soil in the image below). We then take the cows out and allow the perennial grasses to germinate, grow and recover before re-grazing.”
“You can see the below image of what the gully used to look like in 2003. Clearly the photo below and the one at the top are in very different seasons, which exaggerates the difference, but the thing to note is the sides of the gully. Below, the gully sides have no plants growing to stabilise the soil. This photo is actually after we had started work by using animals – the sides are already somewhat tapered and there are some (although dry) perennial grasses in the base of the gully. Prior to this image, the sides used to be sheer and there were no perennial grasses growing, only annual weeds, but still a plant! Perennial plants are important as their root system is generally deeper and is there all year to glue the soil together.”

“This YouTube clip shows it a few weeks ago after rain and flooding and after 2 feet of water had passed through the gully. The sides have plants growing on them, which stabilise the soil and prevent more erosion and while you can’t see them here – there are perennial grasses that grow in summer. It is now a productive paddock for our cows that was previously an unused, costly area of land on our farm. In the clip, you can see the hoof marks in the bank as our cows were grazing briefly in here only a couple of weeks prior.”

“Whilst the gully is still a bit troublesome and eroding at the head (because we can’t control the concentration of water coming onto our farm), we are doing our best to make sure any soil eroding at the head doesn’t leave our farm. The floor of the gully further down from the head is actually being raised in height as the water is slowed and the soil is caught in the vegetation and maintained on our farm. We would like to do more here such as natural sequence farming, however this shows that with only animals and plants as our tools, we can achieve great results in land regeneration.”

“Managing land in the extremes of weather while profitably producing food isn’t always easy, but we’re doing our best to leave things better than when we took over.”

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Thanks to Derek, Kirrily and the boys for being such fabulous hosts!

Everyone loves talking about the weather

It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in the world, a common thread of conversation seems to be discussions about the weather. From idle conversations in hostel common rooms about the rain, sun, temperature or forecast, to the distinct lack of winter clothes that I have brought on this trip (cos Australia’s hot right?), it is a theme that binds us all together.
When you include farmers in this conversation, weather forecasting and reporting usually takes on a new level of intensity, and its unsurprising, due to the vulnerability of these businesses to the weather and its impact. Australian farmers are used to dealing with extremes of climate, drought, fires, winter rains, but what I hadn’t realised was that there are a whole bunch of climate models and weather patterns that are different to what we have in the UK.
Graeme Anderson from the Department of Primary Industries for the State of Victoria is a climate extension specialist. His job is explaining the complexities of climate forecasting to farmers and helping them understand what impact these models will have on their management decisions. And unsurprisingly, he’s found that by starting conversations with farmers about what’s happening with the weather, they are interested in what he has to say. They can see the direct link with what they are doing on-farm.
Graeme has used video to try and explain these complex climate models to farmers. The process is to gather all the data from the climate modellers, write a script that makes it easy to understand, check that the facts are correct and the meaning is still there, pilot test it with farmers and then release it. The series of videos that he has made about the different weather events is called Climate Dogs. Each of the different weather patterns is characterised as a cartoon dog, usually a sheepdog or kelpie of some description, and the videos depict these dogs (all given names that correspond to the acronyms of the weather patterns) behaving in the way that the climate does when these conditions occur. It also explains the impact that these models bring, in terms of rainfall and temperature patterns.
Graeme also provides monthly climate forecast videos that are done in the style of a spoof sports programme with lots of humour. This means that they are shared more on social media and reach a wider audience.
There are also videos that explain the complexities of climate science, soil carbon and adaptation and mitigation options open to farmers, that he has produced that form part of an advisors CPD programme that it similar to what we have in the UK through FACTS. For advisors that want to give advice around fertiliser applications, agronomy and nutrient management planning, there is now a requirement to complete CPD, a part of which is a module around reducing emissions from agriculture, and the opportunities available to farmers to build resilience in their soils through organic matter and sequestering carbon.
Graeme has had much success in engaging farmers in the discussion about management practices to adapt to these changing weather patterns, by approaching it from the weather side, rather than the climate change debate. He regularly speaks at events about climate patterns and models and is popular with the farming community, his last event had 1,000 farmers at it.
Interestingly at the same time, the weather has been on the national news, as the south of Australia had been battered by a couple of storms, resulting in widespread flooding and power outages, and a blackout in Adelaide that went on for 24 hours. As I was driving from one farm to another, it was interesting to hear on the radio that this blackout became incredibly politicised and was used as an opportunity to blame renewable energy for the lack of power. There is an ambitious target in Australia for renewable energy generation but as you drive around wind turbines and ground mounted arrays are noticeable absent (the complete opposite of Cornwall) and in a land with so much sun, it seems a bit of a missed opportunity.
Thanks to Graeme Anderson for an extremely interesting visit, while I was in Melbourne. If you are interested in watching the climate dogs videos, click here.