Whole farm systems modelling

Whole farm systems modelling

Background

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. 

Project outline

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.

Results

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:

Outcomes

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.

Related resources

Titlesort descending Excerpt
Dairy Greenhouse gas Abatement Strategies (DGAS) Calculator Allows farm managers to calculate the impact of adopting different abatement strategies on their total farm GHG emissions.
Greenhouse Accounting Framework Tools Decision support framework tools for greenhouse accounting on Australian dairy, sheep, beef or grain farms.
Whole farm systems modelling and analysis publications A bibliographic survey of research publications produced by PICCC's modelling projects.
Whole farm systems modelling fact sheet Fact sheet profiling the project 'Whole farm systems analysis of greenhouse gas abatement options for the southern Australian grazing industries'.