Carbon Forum: why breeders should care about the carbon footprint

AgCarbon Central will regularly feature articles from industry stakeholders in a series called the Carbon Forum. Today’s author is Dr Richard Eckard of the University of Melbourne’s Center for Primary Industries Climate Challenges, who has been instrumental in shaping emissions reduction strategies and policies.

Dr Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne

Why should we care about the carbon footprint?

While the discussion of carbon footprints is not new to the livestock industry, the Paris COP21 Agreement established a global agreement to limit warming to below 2°C, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. net zero greenhouse by 2050.

The recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow has now increased short-term ambition, with the new Global Methane Pledge aiming to reduce methane by 30% by 2030. While governments have been slow to respond, we have seen many multinational agribusinesses set targets. for their supply chain from 2030.

According to a recent study by Oxfam, of the 100 largest economies in the world, 69 are companies, not countries. As over 70% of Australian agricultural produce is exported, these supply chain objectives are more consequential to agriculture than government objectives, as this will become critical to supply chain and market access. 2030.

The Australian red meat industry has proactively responded to this emerging supply chain constraint, setting a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 (CN30). This has not been done in isolation, as a number of other jurisdictions around the world have set similar goals; for example, the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil, New Zealand’s zero carbon bill, California’s methane cap and the Global Methane Pledge from the COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

All offer at least 30-40% less methane from livestock by 2050. In addition to this, we have seen active discussions on border adjustment tariffs aimed at leveling the playing field, imposing equal carbon pricing to countries deemed to have political ambition. The UK, Japan and Canada are also considering carbon tariffs so that tightening domestic carbon prices do not negatively impact local competitiveness.

What can breeders do?

  • First, it must be recognized that methane is the greatest form of energy loss from animal production systems, and it should be in our own productive interest to minimize this loss.
  • Second, nearly 60% of the nitrogen consumed by ruminants never completes the cycle and is lost to the environment. It should therefore also be in our interest to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use, thereby reducing the loss of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
  • Third, soils rich in organic matter are more productive, recycle more nutrients and hold more water, making them much more resilient to future climates. It is therefore also in our own interest to maximize the soil organic matter in our pastures, which then has the co-benefit of extracting more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fortunately, good pasture fertility, good species composition, and good pasture management all contribute to maximizing organic matter in our grazing systems.
  • Finally, planting more trees on farms, if done correctly, would confer significant productivity benefits by reducing wind chill and reducing heat stress, with carbon being a co-benefit.

Caveats with carbon trading

While the above four strategies are in the interest of productive and more resilient animal production, there are different risks associated with avoiding emissions (reducing methane and nitrous oxide) versus storing the carbon in the soil.

If we send our animals to market three months earlier, it’s been three months of methane that they haven’t produced. As a producer, you could sell this emission reduction (on the FER or on the voluntary market) because there is no long-term obligation associated with this trade.

When the day comes that your supply chain demands a lower carbon status from your farm, you simply stop selling those emission reductions. Selling soil carbon is fundamentally different because first, soil carbon is a finite inventory (like a bank account) on your farm; the more you sell, the less you have to balance your own obligations when the supply chain requires proof of low-emission status.

Second, soil carbon is mostly correlated with rainfall in Australia, which means you may have a lot of it today, after our current La Nina, but if we go into a dry spell, the soil carbon you you sold is no longer there.

There are farmers selling soil carbon today at modest prices who will most likely need to return to the market by 2030 to buy back that carbon at much higher prices, to meet the demands of the chain. supply.

The key message here is, insert your own soil carbon against the needs of your own farm, rather than selling so someone else can offset their emissions. Farming production is your main game, so don’t risk future supply chain access by selling soil carbon for short-term gain.


In a typical animal production system, methane from rumen fermentation accounts for over 75% of all emissions, which the rest of this article will focus on next.

  • Efficiency: There are simple things farmers can do to improve the amount of methane per unit of product, including reducing the number of unproductive animals, improving herd health, improving weaning rates and reproductive efficiency. . All of these can reduce the methane produced by at least 10 pc.
  • Make better use of legumes in our pastures is also essential to reduce our dependence on imported protein or synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, but also recognizing that some of these legumes (eg Vetch, Lotus, Sulla, Leucaena, Desmanthus) have a direct effect on reducing methane in the rumen by up to 15pc.
  • Oils and tannins: Significant research has also been conducted on dietary supplements that reduce methane, including oils (e.g. cold-pressed canola flour), tannins (in some forage legumes) and some commercial products on the market made from methane. essential oils (eg MOOTRAL and AGOLIN) . These supplements can reduce methane by up to 20 pc. However, the challenge in livestock systems would be how to practically supplement grazing animals. This is an area of ​​active research at the moment, but could include granulation of the active ingredient with high quality roughage, water delivery or slow release bolus technology.
  • Reproduction: There is obviously also a potential to breed animals that produce less methane (residual methane production). While these gains are initially slow, perhaps only reaching 1pc less methane per year, this could mean 10pc less methane within a decade as a permanent methane reduction.
  • Methane oxidation: Just when we think all the options are inside the animal, the Zero Emissions Animal Production Company (ZELP) has produced a wearable device that hangs around the animal’s neck and can decompose up to to 50% methane when the animal exhales.
  • next 1 to 5 years: Strategies emerging from research in the next 1-5 years would include a methane vaccine (achieving about 20% less methane) and at least two methane inhibitor products (Asaparagopsis/Seaweed and Bovaer®/3-NOP) , both of which have been shown to reduce methane by up to 80 pc in containment studies. While methane vaccine is a logical solution for more extensive grazing conditions, the use of methane inhibitors is still limited by practical methods of administration under grazing.
  • early childhood programming: Ultimately, research should be aimed at a technology called early programming, based on the concept that the human gut microflora is a product of our upbringing, and the same seems to be possible in the rumen. A recent study showed that cows and their calves supplemented with a methane inhibitor during weaning produced approximately 20% less methane over the following 60 days without supplementation. This raises the prospect of intervening once per generation, with subsequent animals having low methane production.

There is now no doubt that all sectors of the economy will need to demonstrate carbon neutrality by 2050. It is clear that in the short term livestock industries will make heavy use of our own carbon offsets in trees and the ground, but by definition this has a limited impact. long-term contribution since there is an upper limit of carbon that can be stored in soils and the area planted with trees.

Although initially seen as a threat to the livestock industries, the more proactive research response has begun to deliver tangible solutions that mean carbon-neutral livestock production is entirely possible within the next decade or so. of them.

Melvin B. Baillie