WHY WE MAKE THE DECISIONS WE DO

It is natural that the way somebody sees the world, influences the decisions they make. So, achieving change comes down to helping people see the world differently. We all want to help producers increase profits so we have to concentrate on changing how they see their paddocks by broadening their knowledge base.

MY JOURNEY OF SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

When I started as a producer in the 1970’s, I saw sheep and cattle as my source of income. That’s what I sold. 

Then I decided that the pasture they ate was the source of my income. I decided the sheep and cattle were really factories and the better the inputs (pasture), the more productive my living factories would be.

Then I decided that the soil was my source of income as that is where the pasture grew and the performance of the pastures was set by how well the soil let in water, stored it and how fertile it was.

Finally, I realised that flowing carbon was the source of my income. It is flowing carbon that feeds soil life necessary for improved soil structure and fertility. Also, cattle are 18% carbon and pasture is 45% carbon which further links flowing carbon to income.  After focusing on flowing carbon, I came to understand that the quality of the pasture is better with higher carbon flows over time because the carbon:nitrogen ratio of the pasture is better.

THINKING AT ANOTHER LEVEL

Discussing carbon flows is a different way for graziers to look at the landscape and understand how it functions. The paddock with the highest flows will be the most productive and more resilient, therefore producers need to operate with a new paradigm, a different function in their brain. They have to be able to imagine what is happening on a multitude of levels and time frames. At the moment, most producers can see only the outcomes, but don’t understand how they occur. They need to be able to visualise the processes they can’t see happening. 

THINK CARBON FLOWS AND YOU WILL SEE PADDOCKS DIFFERENTLY

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

When producers get their head around the flows way of thinking, they focus on management that will maximise flows. This will be discussed in a later column.

Extension has explained the concept of carbon stocks to producers and why they are a resource to the business. However this is not the full story. I quote what Will Robinson wrote in a recent email, “I have got my head around the Carbon Flow rather than the Carbon Bank! It makes it so much easier!”

During a presentation attended by top management of Queensland DAF in October 2014, Stephen Martin documented his increased production by changing management after seeing his paddocks differently. He concluded with the comment, “The light bulb moment for me was visualising the flow of carbon through the landscape.”

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.


ALAN LAUDER

PLANT ENERGY RESERVES ARE BUILT BY CARBON

This perennial grass plant is struggling to come out of dormancy after good rain. The reason is because it is short of stored energy. The dead plants around it probably looked like this before they died. This is a landscape and a business that is in trouble because the role of flowing carbon is not understood.

Energy is stored in carbon compounds. Perennial plants run down carbon as they fire back up after rain then become carbon positive as they become established.

In the first column it was discussed how all life can’t exist without energy. The fifth column explained how carbon flows carry energy for all life to call on.

THE ENERGY STORY FROM A PLANT’S PERSPECTIVE

At the end of dry times, perennial grasses are dry old butts that have no green leaves to promote

photosynthesis. Yet they grow with the arrival of rain, so obviously they have a mechanism to start

growth after rain. We know that plant growth requires energy, so it is obvious that they must be

sourcing energy from somewhere.

It is the roots that hold reserves of plant carbohydrates (starches/energy) needed to stimulate growth when suitable growing conditions arrive. Some reserves are also held in the crown of perennial grasses. Apart from instigating growth after dormancy, these root reserves are also important for maintaining the plant’s tissue during drought, when photosynthesis is not occurring.

When perennial grasses have enough leaf area, they become self-sufficient in energy through

photosynthesis, and no longer rely on the energy supplied by the roots. With more growth, they start putting energy back into storage in the roots. When animals maintain leaf biomass at a low volume after rain, the root reserves used for initial growth are not replenished. If this happens on a regular basis then the energy reserves will eventually be depleted.

PLANTS HAVE TO EAT TOO

Photosynthesis is plants sitting down to a meal. If we try to maintain our body function without

eating, we become anorexic. Any living thing that keeps drawing on energy reserves, without eating,

eventually dies. As a living thing, plants are no different. Root reserves should be thought of as reserve food, like the fat in our body. The horror images that come from Africa of emaciated people are no different to degraded pastures, in terms of the root cause.

Running energy reserves down in a plant is like letting a car battery go flat. The car won’t start.

Because perennial grasses produce less foliage from rain as they become unhealthy, this increases the grazing pressure on the rest of the plants in the pasture. The flow-on effect is that the health of the other plants will also drop, and so the pasture continues to decline at an increasing rate, all else being equal. Unhealthy plants are also more likely to suffer insect attacks and are also more susceptible to disease.

Energy reserves in plants are short term carbon brought in by carbon flows


ALAN LAUDER

THINK CARBON BEFORE NITROGEN

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU CAN’T AFFORD TO RUN OUT OF? THE ANSWER IS CARBON. LOOK AT THE CARTOON AND YOU WILL SEE THAT ONLY THE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF THE FENCE HAS CARBON AVAILABLE FOR LIVESTOCK TO CONSUME.

A person running a grazing operation can afford to supplement nitrogen (protein) when it is in short supply. However, it is not commercial to supplement carbon when it is short. Hay is expensive.

A bare paddock has no carbon while a paddock of frosted or rank grass has carbon but little nitrogen.

It is often stated that nitrogen (protein) is the limiting factor. However, this is only true when you are assessing what has grown.

Correctly manage carbon flows from the atmosphere to your paddock and you will still have options when it has  not rained for a while.  

It has been suggested that with average pastures, removing animals for three to eight weeks after rain increases pasture production by 50-80%. Given pasture is 45% carbon on a dry basis, this is a lot of extra carbon coming into the paddock for future use.    

For anyone who doubts the importance of allowing plants to grow after rain and build up the supply of carbon, try feeding lick blocks to sheep or cattle in a totally bare paddock.

HOW MUCH CARBON IS IN YOUR PASTURE?

Getting back to basics, carbon is the main building block of grass and everything else that grows in a pasture, so the reality is that nitrogen will not be present if carbon is not present.

With grasses, there are approximately 20 to 25 parts of carbon for every part of nitrogen.

The ratio will vary depending on the species of grass, the stage of growth, or whether there has been a frost.

With wheat/oats stubble, the ratio is 90 to 160 parts of carbon to each part of nitrogen.

When grass is analysed to assess feed value, the figure for nitrogen is multiplied by 6.25 to arrive at the protein level. The first thing to understand about pasture plants is that carbon remains fairly constant from one plant to the next or between leaves and stems.

It is the nitrogen content that varies.

After a frost, it is the nitrogen, not the carbon that is lost.

The atmosphere is 0.03 percent carbon dioxide and 78 percent nitrogen.

However, this is reversed when we look at pastures, with carbon being the main component.


ALAN LAUDER

HOW MOVING CARBON CARRIES ENERGY

When you sit in front of the fireplace does it occur to you that the heat coming out of the fireplace is stored energy from the sun? Likewise, the heat that is given off by burning grass.  

The energy of the sun is stored in carbon compounds and then transported around the landscape by these carbon compounds.

Grasses which are 45% carbon, store the energy of the sun in their structure as they grow, then pass it on to life above and below ground.

The warmth of our body and our ability to move is totally reliant on the energy stored in our carbon based food.

HOW IT WORKS

The process of how energy is stored in plants is that during photosynthesis, the carbon in carbon dioxide forms new, and more complex, carbon bonds with other atoms.

What happens is explained in the photosynthesis equation above. The energy of the sun is required for the chemical reaction to remove the carbon from carbon dioxide. The energy of the sun is also used to split water molecules into hydrogen ions and oxygen.

The hydrogen ions then combine with carbon as part of the new molecular structure of carbohydrates contained in plants.

The energy of the sun is stored in the new molecular structures that carbon forms.

More specifically, the energy is stored in the more complex bonds that carbon forms during photosynthesis.

The carbon hydrogen bonds in C6H12O6 contain more energy than the carbon oxygen bonds in CO2.

This is what scientists refer to as construction of energy.

During photosynthesis, light energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy. 

It is important to remember that energy can’t be created or destroyed, it simply changes from one form to another.

How all life (including soil life) sources energy during consumption is to break these complex bonds and release the energy. To do this, we breathe in the oxygen needed to oxidise the carbon compounds and then breathe out carbon dioxide. It is a case of reversing photosynthesis and converting the carbohydrates back to the more simple structure of carbon dioxide.

If you want to know how actively soil life (including microbes) is consuming organic matter, measure how much carbon dioxide is coming out of the soil.

The more carbon that management allows to come into the paddock, the more energy that is available for rural production and maintenance of paddock health.

The purpose of having this energy debate is to fully appreciate the value of better pasture management i.e. letting plants maximise energy collection through photosynthesis and then making it available to livestock and soil life.


ALAN LAUDER