The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) offers incentives to farmers to reduce emissions and store carbon. Participation is voluntary and provides potential for earning additional farm income, where these actions do not impact on productively and are consistent with the goals of the farming business.
Whole farm systems analysis, using a range of modelling and decision support tools, is the only realistic way to understand and fully account for the complex interactions at a farm system level of any emissions management technology or management intervention.
This research project aimed to analyse a range of options that can improve production efficiency, while reducing net emissions or emissions intensity.
Researchers built on the results of the earlier PICCC southern livestock modelling study, conducting whole farm systems analyses of a range of greenhouse gas abatement and carbon sequestration strategies for the dairy, sheep and beef industries.
The strategies, drawn from reviews and current research, were diverse and numerous, including environmental plantings, nitrogen use efficiency, dairy, ewe and beef herd fertility, novel forages, milking frequency, soil carbon and fertiliser application technology. Each strategy was analysed in a whole farm systems context, including methane, nitrous oxide, soil carbon and productivity, plus the interactions between each of these. This ensured that strategies targeting one process did not result in increased emissions or loss of soil carbon elsewhere, or reduce productivity and profitability of the farm business.
Researchers conducted approximately 30 analyses of farm management options for reducing emissions, in terms of both net emissions (NE) and emissions intensity (EI).
Across the studies there were some examples where both NE reductions and productivity gains could be achieved (e.g. extended lactation in dairy and introducing legumes to beef and sheep systems). In most of the analyses conducted, however, reducing NE to maximise offset income was not the most profitable strategy for the farm, when compared with maximising productivity or profitability while reducing EI. There will always be exceptions to this where economies of scale can make the numerical benefit worthwhile, even if the benefits as a proportion of total income are still extremely low.
Two carbon neutral grazing systems were modelled using real farm case studies (sheep/beef in south west Victoria, and wool in south east NSW), with the results demonstrating that a livestock farm can be productive, profitable and carbon neutral through planting trees, while increasing production on the balance of the land. Another case study showed that, while environmental plantings were not profitable if productive land was set aside, if these plantings could provide shade and shelter that reduced heat stress and lamb mortality, this would more than cover the cost of establishment.
Some of the modelling studies undertaken include:
- Evaluating carbon offset options for beef production systems in central Queensland
- Early mating of dairy heifers in subtropical Australia
- Carbon neutral wool growing in south eastern Australia
- What are the best uses of cotton and canola by-products for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions?
- Lifecycle assessment of beef cattle herds in northern Australia
- Smart-N technology to reduce nitrogen fertiliser inputs on dairy farms
- Improving emissions intensities of subtropical and tropical beef farming systems using Leucaena leucocephala
- Soil carbon benefits in grazing systems
- Feeding nitrates to beef cattle in northern Australia
- Impacts of greater lifetime production on emissions and profitability in dairy and wool systems
- Modelling the potential of birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) to reduce methane emissions and increase production on wool and prime lamb farm enterprises
- Effects of ewe fecundity on whole-farm productivity, profitability and greenhouse gas emissions in prime lamb farming systems
- Evaluating approaches for improving animal nitrogen use efficiency and reducing nitrous oxide emissions on dairy farms in southern Australia
- Effects of flock and genetic management options on emissions, emissions intensity and farm profitability of wool producing enterprises
- Influence of 3-in-2 milking frequency on dairy greenhouse gas emissions
- Effects of genetic and pasture-base adaptations to prime lamb enterprises on farm production and greenhouse gas emissions
- Environmental plantings on dairy and prime lamb properties
- The effect of earlier mating and improving fertility on emissions intensity of beef production in a northern Australian herd
- A simple carbon offset scenario tool (COST) for assessing dairy and sheep farm abatement options
While research on options to profitably reduce NE should still be a key priority, the research suggests that the distinct lack of clear options to profitably reduce NE makes EI is a better metric to underpin future offset methods for the livestock industries. The modelling in this project provides numerous examples where EI was reduced profitably, while meeting productivity targets. The research team were able to demonstrate how this could underpin offset methods and how this may work at a farm or industry scale.
A key conclusion from the project was that future mitigation research needs to include consideration of profitability impacts of the mitigation interventions, as it is clear that at current carbon prices the offset income alone is insufficient to incentivise the majority of graziers.
Across the project’s three-year duration, researchers published 30 peer reviewed papers, four book chapters and 29 conference papers, and developed and improved a number of decision support tools. The research team also worked closely with another PICCC-brokered project, Facilitation of improvement in systems modelling capacity for Carbon Farming Futures, to ensure that models were developed, applied and disseminated consistently across the broader, federally-funded carbon farming modelling programme.