WHY CARBON SUDDENLY TURNED UP IN EXTENSION

Did you know that carbon was not discussed in extension until recent times?

For the thirty years that I was a grazier up until 2000, not once was the word carbon mentioned to me. Land management was never explained in terms of carbon management, or more specifically, management of carbon flows. Nobody suggested to me that my day job was recycling carbon. It was never explained to me that the meat and wool I sold were actually carbon compounds.

Dr David Freudenberger, a former CSIRO rangelands scientist and now lecturer at ANU, says my claim is true. He said land management simply wasn’t discussed in terms of carbon. Dr Allan Wilson, another former CSIRO rangelands scientist said the same thing. Allan said that they only got as far as discussing organic matter but did not couch it in terms of carbon. A Queensland Country Life journalist said that if carbon was seen as relevant back then, they would have been writing about it.

REDUCTIONIST SCIENCE

The reason carbon was originally left out of extension can be traced back to reductionist science in education institutionsReductionist science is sometimes referred to as putting information in silos. Reductionist science breaks up landscape function into separate processes and is a focus on isolated processes within a system.

Those who take a reductionist science approach place a lower importance on carbon than those who take a systems approach. This is because there are always more important things than carbon when you look at isolated processes in a paddock.

It is only when you step back and look at the whole paddock and everything in it, that the importance of carbon becomes more obvious. This is because carbon is a part player in so many processes.

When a big picture perspective of the landscape and how it functions is taken, it quickly becomes obvious that flowing carbon influences the other cycles. The more carbon that flows the better the other cycles function. Some understandably think that water is the main driver however it is how well carbon flows have been managed over time that determines how effective water is in promoting current carbon flows. If water ends up in a gully instead of the soil, then it promotes no carbon flows.

Extension is more successful when it takes a systems approach i.e. starts with the big picture and then looks at the finer detail second. This is because producers manage paddocks, not a collection of isolated processes. 

CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY  

It was climate change policy that introduced the word carbon into extension. This explains the current incomplete discussion around carbon. Current extension is focused on carbon stocks because funding is being directed towards carbon stocks projects and not carbon flows projects.

Institutional processes are always slow to change, so if carbon wasn’t part of the debate in 2000, then it is unreasonable to expect that current extension would have fully matured in the area of carbon.

In 2008, Dr Greg McKeon wrote – Future graziers will see themselves as “managers of carbon”. This is a different view of the world to what Dr David Freudenberger said existed in 2000. Today I am sure Greg would write – Future graziers will see themselves as “managers of carbon flows”.


ALAN LAUDER

RESTARTING CARBON FLOWS TO REPAIR A DEGRADED CLAY PAN

We all know that poor management degrades paddocks, BUT, have you ever considered what is going on with the degradation process? The answer: slowly less and less life exists in the paddock, both above and below ground.

Getting back to the basics, because all life relies on flowing carbon to exist, it is the reduction of flowing carbon, with poor management, that degrades paddocks. Look at the first photo of the long-term claypan. Prior to the saltbush being planted, the claypan had become bare and lifeless. 

Photo 1: Planting saltbush in degraded country

This series of photos will demonstrate how increasing the amount of carbon flowing through the claypan turned it into productive country. The images will help you understand the important processes that moving (flowing) carbon activates. You will note I used the word moving, not sequestration. A leading soil scientist estimated that there would be 15-25 t/ha (0-30 cm) of long term soil carbon in the claypan pictured here. Yet this type of carbon, on its own, was not able to make the claypan respond to rain. It took the arrival of short-term carbon, after planting hardy saltbush, to complete the mix of carbon required for production.

These photos are about restarting carbon flows. It is an extreme example to highlight that functional landscapes rely on carbon flowing through them.

OLD MAN SALTBUSH

Saltbush seedlings, that can establish in degraded country were planted to provide a source of carbon flows, when nothing could establish naturally from seed to do the job.

The top left hand image is Old Man Saltbush 12 months after the seedlings were planted. The second photo is another year later. Sheep are responsible for the lack of leaves on the saltbush. They were chasing a bit of protein to go with dry grass elsewhere in the paddock before the rain.

In the bottom right hand image you will notice carbon is now flowing into the area around the shrubs. In other words, the landscape is slowly building resilience. The carbon flows introduced by the planted saltbush provided a food source for soil life, with the resultant soil life improving the soil. As the soil improved, grass and other plants were able to germinate and further expand the area that carbon is flowing through.

All this happened over a two year period at Yelarbon, when rainfall was well below average. 

Photo 2: Clover adding more nitrogen and carbon to the system (3 years after the saltbush was planted)

THREE AND FIVE YEARS AFTER PLANTING

Photo 2 was taken 3 years after the saltbush was planted. The clover is now adding nitrogen to the system as it further contributes to carbon flows.

Photo 3 was taken 5 years after the saltbush was planted. Again the sheep are eating the saltbush to compliment the dry grass.

Photo 3: 5 years after the saltbush was planted
Photo 4: Prolific grass growing 5 years after the saltbush was planted

After carbon started flowing again, energy, nutrients and water all followed. All producers appreciate the importance of energy, nutrients and water, so this puts flowing carbon in a new perspective for them. Plants are now growing, which is introducing energy. The build-up of organic matter in the soil is increasing nutrient supply. Looking at the prolific grass, water is obviously getting in now. It wasn’t before, as photo 5 shows.

Photo 5 was taken immediately after a few millimetres of rain. This photo also highlights the linkage between management of carbon flows and keeping sediment and nutrients off the Reef.

Photo 5: Rain pooling on the soil surface before carbon flows were restored.

CARBON FLOWS DETERMINE RESILIENCE

The wet decade of the 1970’s, with all the rain that arrived, couldn’t repair this claypan. Nor the big rain in the early 1990’s. However, during a period of below average rainfall, the claypan repaired because of carbon flows introduced by the planted saltbush. 

The point I am alluding to is that many producers form too close a linkage between rainfall, rural production and healthy landscapes. This linkage is only true up to a point.

Producers have no control over how much rain arrives but they do have control over the level of carbon flows generated by what rain does arrive. The level of flows generated by rain depends on how well their management allows plants to grow following rain. Rain is obviously a major driver of production but it is not the final determinant, it is the level of flowing carbon that determines the level of rural production and landscape health.

After seeing the positive outcomes in these pictures, I tell producers to think in reverse to appreciate how management that reduces the flow of carbon into paddocks, also reduces production and degrades paddocks. As paddocks become less resilient, droughts turn up sooner. This claypan was in a state of drought during normal years. 


ALAN LAUDER

HAS EXTENSION FOCUSED ON THE WRONG ASPECT OF CARBON WHEN DISCUSSING DECISION MAKING?

A grazing paddock is a dynamic system, not a static one.

Thinking carbon flows is to take a dynamic approach while thinking carbon stocks is to take a static approach.

THE CARBON FLOWS CONCEPT

The carbon flows concept, discusses the role of carbon as it keeps moving through the paddock, above and below ground, including through livestock. The concept explains what carbon does as it moves and the processes it activates, before returning to the atmosphere. It highlights that carbon is the organiser as it flows through the landscape. It discusses the different speeds of carbon to help producers focus on the things that matter the most.

The carbon flows concept should not be confused with discussion of the carbon cycle diagram.The carbon cycle diagram is a one dimensional discussion. It goes no further than saying that carbon cycles. It simply discusses the different pools carbon moves between.   

The easiest way to grasp the carbon flows concept is to think of individual carbon atoms entering the paddock from the atmosphere and heading off in all different directions before finding their way back to the atmosphere. Some quickly, some slowly.

Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome.

If extension started with a discussion of “carbon flows” to set the scene and then discussed “carbon stocks” in terms of them being a resource, then extension would lead to a better understanding of how a paddock functions and needs to be managed.

Last week’s column highlighted that carbon flowing through the paddock is the main building block of all life and responsible for carrying energy that all life needs. Hence the need for management to concentrate on maximising the carbon flows from what rain falls.

The carbon flows concept discusses management that increases or decreases the flow of carbon through paddocks. It identifies feedback loops, such as why the level of current flows is influenced by the management of previous flows.  

SHORT-TERM CARBON IS THE BULK OF CARBON FLOWS

Short-term carbon (the fastest moving carbon) which accounts for the bulk of carbon flows, moves through the landscape by an ongoing interchange between plants, animals, and the soil. This exchange powers the health of the paddock generally and pastoral productivity in particular. The volume of flowing carbon in a paddock reflects recent land management decisions.

On the other hand, the level of long-term carbon is a consequence of past decision-making. Long-term soil carbon is important for paddock health, even though it moves at an extremely slow speed and its level is slow to change. However, it is not responsible for short-term changes in paddock health or productivity. Short-term improvements in paddock health and productivity are driven by the short-term carbon introduced in the first phase of carbon flows. Also, the carbon in long-term soil carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows. 

This highlights that the “management decisions” graziers make, relate to short-term carbon and carbon flows.

Long-term carbon is an outcome and reflects the management of carbon flows over time.

With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions.


ALAN LAUDER

WHAT IS THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL THING A PRODUCER HAS TO GET RIGHT?

Did you know that cattle are 18% carbon? This is the first of a weekly column titled, ‘WHY CARBON FLOWS?’. I am going to take a more expansive look at carbon to the way it is currently treated in extension. 

Carbon is the main building block of cattle, grass and soil life and carries the energy that all three require.

When producers sell cattle, they are selling a carbon compound. The reason I use the term carbon compound, is because carbon is the main building block of all life on this planet, including cattle. Carbon is one of the most successful atoms at bonding with other atoms.

In fact, all rural production sells something that has lived, be it meat, fibre, grain, hay or vegetables. The best way to understand what life includes is to think of what dies. Grass dies, cows die, soil microbes die, crops die and worms die.

Not only is carbon the main building block of all life, but it is also responsible for carrying the energy that all life relies on, as it flows through the paddock above and below ground. Nutrients and water also follow the path carbon takes. Put simply, the natural world can’t function without “flowing carbon”.

Producers are managing more than just the carbon based products they sell. They also have to ensure their management supports the other carbon based life that maintains the productive capacity and health of their production systems. Soil life that is responsible for keeping the soil well-structured and fertile, will not exist if carbon does not keep flowing through the soil to allow them to construct their little bodies. In a grazing system, grass that is 45% carbon when dried, supplies the carbon that cattle require to construct themselves.

CARBON FLOWS VERSUS CARBON STOCKS

Current extension has a focus on carbon stocks and measurement whereas this column will focus on the management of carbon flows because this is the most fundamental of the basics a producer has to get right. Get the basics wrong and nothing else will fall into place the way they should.

There is a reason why current extension is focused on carbon stocks and measurement. The focus of climate change policy is on carbon stocks and measurement. Hence this is where funding is directed, including extension.

Carbon stocks are a snap shot of how much carbon is in a paddock at one point in time, noting that not all the carbon present is measured. But, it is thinking carbon flows that allows us to better understand how a paddock, and everything in it functions and needs to be managed. Follow the path of carbon and what happens in a paddock will be a lot clearer. Next week, I’ll write more about the difference between carbon flows and stocks.

MORE FLOW = MORE MEAT AND GRAIN

A producer’s day job is recycling carbon i.e. managing carbon flows. They set out to turn a portion of the carbon that is flowing through the paddock into saleable carbon products, like meat and grain. The more carbon that flows, the more cattle and grain are produced for sale. 

Carbon is always moving (sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly).

Carbon moves from one life form to another via consumption. Above ground, when cattle eat grass, the carbon in grass moves into them. Selling cattle is harvesting carbon when it has entered the cattle part of the food chain. Then the carbon moves into us when we eat meat.

Carbon also moves into us when we eat vegetables. It just happens that humans are also 18% carbon.

When we breathe out carbon dioxide, this is simply some of the carbon that has entered our bodies (via food) moving on. In this case, the carbon is flowing back to the atmosphere.

Below ground, carbon also keeps moving to maintain soil life.  

Without the ongoing flow of carbon and all the compounds it forms, as it keeps moving, the landscape would become bare and lifeless.

All else being equal, the grazing paddock that has the most carbon flowing through it will be the most productive and resilient.

Plants rely on carbon inflows to construct themselves. It is plants that make carbon available to the food chains that underpin commercial production and positive environmental outcomes.

How successfully pastures are able to introduce carbon into the landscape in the first phase of carbon flows is determined by animal management. Plants and animals have evolved together and rely on each other. However, if animals dominate plants, then carbon flows are reduced. In the absence of animals, pastures become moribund and again have a lower capacity to introduce carbon into the paddock. 

For those interested in long-term soil carbon, this carbon has to start the  journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows.

Everything discussed to this point makes management of carbon flows the cornerstone of food production, rural profit, reducing the effect of dry times, improved water quality and meeting the expectations of the broader community for better environmental outcomes. 


ALAN LAUDER