Yes, I have seen a few successors of rural properties who have not had a passion for the land, and succeeded out of a sense of duty (due to expectations, emotional ties to the family heritage, etc).
Fortunately, later in life I have seen some of these have a realisation (often due to a personal crisis) which has led them to quit the farm, and follow their passion.
WHEN IS THE TIME RIGHT?
Let us now look at some biological aspects of succession planning.
I am a biodynamic practitioner, and follow some of the teachings of Rudolph Steiner.
One of his theories is that as human beings, our life progresses in “blocks” of seven years.
Now nine cycles of seven brings us to sixty-three.
If you study numerology, there’s significance in the nines.
Nine is completion. So, nine lots of seven brings us to sixty-three. Add six and three and you have nine. Time, my friends, for completion.
Now between sixty-three and seventy, we are supposed to hand over all that we “do” to someone younger.
The price we pay for not acting on this, is that we can get so set in our ways that no one wants to work with us.
This then drives off younger family members, employees and friends who see no way to advance in the business.
Maybe you haven’t yet come across this age-based / numerology-based idea in your succession planning workshops or readings.
I feel it is a very important “missing link”.
Now before you throw a hiss fit, and start on about how you are still fit, and active, and want to be involved in the business for many years to come, I will throw you a lifeline.
NOT NECESSARILY ALL OR NOTHING
You can begin to hand over the running of the business, the financial, and physical management, while transitioning into a role of mentor, advisor, supporter, and your services, and wisdom will be much appreciated.
I have done this, and can vouch for the effectiveness of the strategy.
So successful has it been for me that I am about to launch into phase two, and transition my new farm (bought at sixty-three) into a new form of ownership, where I become a minor shareholder, and the farming is done by young people who have a passion to farm, however lack the capital to buy land.
Here are a few questions that might help you to get thinking about your own succession plan.
What about sharing your plan?
How have you arrived/will you arrive at your succession plan?
Will you meet with all stakeholders?
Will your successors be having input into the shape/structure of your plan?
Who will be your successor/s?
Will it be family, a friend, an employee, or other?
Are all involved filled with joy about the plan?
Do you have any specific questions that you’d like to see answered in this blog?
One thing that came to me when on the phone with John Leggett was the concept of next generation and regenerative agriculture. Yes next gen, and regen!
What effect will transition to the next generation of land managers have on the landscape?
I look back on my experience, and the transitions from my grandparents to my parents, to myself, and now onto the new owners of the land.
The transition from my grandparents, in who’s era transport was largely horse drawn vehicles, stock work was on horses, stock transport was droving, timber treatment was with an axe, and labour was cheap.
In my parents’ era there were many changes. Mechanical clearing of timber, chemical usage in agriculture, in the form of insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, cars became the mode of transport, & stock movement to market was on trucks.
These, along with many other changes, had their effect on land management. Unfortunately, much of this change was degenerative!
A NEW ERA OF LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT
Now along comes my era in managing the land. Seeing the degeneration in the landscape, the increased cost of labour, machinery, fuel, electricity, etc., I set out to reduce the need for labour, reduce external inputs to the land, and begin to work with the land (not against it).
Now the landscape is in new ownership, having been sold to a Coal Seam Gas consortium for environmental offsets. The cattle enterprise is with new managers, and part of the agenda of the CSG consortium, is to progressively remove the grazing enterprise.
The property is owned by the CSG Consortium, while it is leased back to myself. The young couple are managing the cattle enterprise for me. The next phase of “succession” here is for me to bow out of the lease in November 2018, & the young couple will then take up the new lease from the CSG Consortium.
This agenda is largely driven by their need to satisfy state and federal regulators, who monitor the environmental offset, and its management.
What has all this to do with succession planning?
AGILE MANAGEMENT AND SUCCESSION PLANNING
In my opinion landscape management and succession planning are very closely connected.
Often people observed my land management techniques and suggested that I place some sort of management covenant on the farm.
I considered these suggestions, and was so grateful that my grandparents had not placed a covenant on the land. I was grateful that my parents had not placed a covenant on the land.
Imagine having a covenant on the land, from generations back, which dictated how to manage the land.
Consider then very carefully what “covenants” are within your succession plan. Is your succession plan sufficiently organic and sufficiently flexible to fully embrace the changes over succeeding generations?
Now to throw in another concept that is close to my heart: “anti-fragility”.
I came across a book some years back, titled ANTI FRAGILE, Things that gain from disorder by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.
The idea behind his theme of setting up systems, businesses, etc., to be anti-FRAGILE, is to build in a capacity into whatever we do, so that we can benefit from disorder!
The book struck a cord with me, and I believe that we can apply anti-fragility to almost anything.
Let’s get specific to our regenerative landscape. What “disorders” come from time to time, that we cannot predict?
Drought, flood, fire, market crashes, high interest rates, and more. How can we structure our landscape, our business, in order that we can extract benefit from these events?
On this same thought pattern, how can we make our succession plan more anti-FRAGILE.
In the event of sickness, death, relationship breakdown, what measures are in the succession plan that will see these wild cards, become beneficial events?
I have seen examples of “succession” where the older generation has been “guarantor” to the bank for loans taken out by the succeeding generation.
I have seen a number of not so nice “un-windings of these arrangements. Financial hardship, which has led to banks foreclosing, relationship breakdown in the succeeding generation, which has led for the need of property settlement. Now seeing a daughter/son in law walk way with ½ of the farm can be quite a bitter pill to swallow.
This section is largely written to provoke thought. Obviously, it is quite easy to set up a succession plan with obvious pitfalls, now maybe it is an opportunity to brain storm the hows of succession planning that is “bullet proof”.
Managing landscape for anti-fragility is quite easy, managing succession planning for anti-fragility will be your challenge.
I have had solicitors, accountants suggest testamentary trusts. These I am not in favour of. These to me are like placing a covenant on land, & what I call “management from the grave”.
Think about what could possibly go wrong with your succession plan, now think what changes may be needed to make it more anti-fragile.
My main personal anti-fragility measures are to invest in myself, through on going education, developing new skills, interests, and passions, taking ownership of my health, and fitness, and getting involved more in off-farm activities.
When in conversation with John Leggett in relation to the re-birth of my Soils for Life blog, the topic of SUCCESSION PLANNING came to the fore.
Now, as with many things that I “have a go at”, I am no expert on succession planning, however I suspect that you, as a reader, also are not!
I do however have some multi-generational experiences in this field.
Firstly though, I would like to explore the definition, according to Dr. Google, the wizard, who resides within my smart phone, on which I am writing this story.
1. A number of people or things of a similar kind following one after the other
Now I have the experience of alarm bells going off in my head!
“Things of similar kind”. Ah, what ever happened to “diversity”?
“Following one after the other”. This for me has connotations of “mindless” following, with little scope for thought, or innovation.
2. The action or process of inheriting a title, office, property, etc.
My mind here immediately races to many poor examples of inheritance, which have actually contributed to the “decline of a dynasty”, due largely to lack of a selection criteria!
Let Dr Google continue: The gradual replacement of one type of ecological community by another in the same area, involving a series of orderly changes, especially in the dominant vegetation. Succession is usually initiated by a significant disturbance of an existing community.
Now I am with this definition of succession, and in particular the first sentence. “gradual replacement”, “a series of orderly changes”, “in the dominant vegetation (personalities)”.
Now this is obviously specific to matters organic & vegetative, however, I feel that as families, businesses, farms, there is a real need to treat the process of succession as an organic process.
Sentence two: “usually initiated by significant disturbance”.
This is where I feel we need to alter the organic process, and initiate the succession planning, and actions, before significant disturbance occurs.
Yes, all too often I see succession, or change being initiated by disease, death, hardship, etc.
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH SUCCESSION
Now to get to some of my experiences with succession planning.
I grew up on a family beef cattle operation in Queensland.
My grandfather had migrated from Ireland. My father & uncle were in partnership, through what I call “the golden age” in the Queensland beef cattle industry. Land clearing (the Brigalow Development Scheme), improved pastures, and a change in cattle genetics (British to Bos Indicus).
My uncle had no children, while in our family, we were four boys.
There was no thought of doing other than following in our father’s footsteps.
While still in primary school (I am the youngest son), the succession plan was laid out.
One contributing factor to the dissolution of the partnership between my father and uncle was succession.
My father was “into” handing over the farm, while my uncle was not this way inclined.
Dad “re-passioned” (the new terminology for retirement) at sixty years of age, when he & Mum moved to a small farm at Maleny.
At this time three of my brothers were already on their portions of the family landholding, while I was working & travelling.
I leased my portion of the farm back to my father, mother, & one of my brothers, who as part of the succession plan, had remained in partnership with our parents.
My parents were very clear about their succession plan, and it was very clear to us four boys.
This took place decades before succession planning had become a “mainstream” agenda item.
I am not familiar with how my grandparents structured their succession plan, or even if they had one. The one thing that I was aware of though, is that the two sons inherited the farm, while the four daughters did not.
BACK TO THE ECOLOGICAL ANALOGY
Another extract from my Google searching on succession planning, again is specific to ecological communities, and I quote, “Unidirectional change in the composition of an ecosystem as the available competing organisms, and especially the plants respond to, and modify the environment.”
Yes, with a few word substitutions, this could well be used in relation to farm succession planning!
Some of the words that appeal to me are “UNIDIRECTIONAL” and “COMPOSITION OF AN ECOSYSTEM (BUSINESS)”. “AVAILABLE COMPETING ORGANISMS” and “RESPOND TO AND MODIFY”.
Ah the makings of a truly organic succession plan!
MY NEXT SUCCESSION EXPERIENCE
Now to my own succession planning experience with our beef cattle property in Central Queensland, “Dukes Plain”.
I had three children, a leasehold property, land values that were well above production return capability, insufficient enterprise size for three families, and the children had interests other than beef cattle and land management.
Stage one: Accept that I am not immortal.
Stage two: Accept that whomever succeeds me will “do it differently”.
Stage three: Engage a facilitator, and have a family meeting to discuss options.
Stage four: Begin to action the outcomes of the family meeting. This involves selling the farm, and re-structuring assets so that division/distribution is relatively easy.
Stage five: Launch sales initiative for the farm, while I go through the process of sorting out my healthy, and unhealthy, attachments to this tract of land that has been in the family for ninety years.
Stage six: Continue to operate the farm as if I am going to be here for ever!!! At this moment, I am by many, considered to be totally crazy! Why continue as if I am going to be here for ever?
I began by acting as if the property would be sold immediately. Stopped any new development initiatives, had no future plan for stock or land, no goals to work toward, etc.
I soon realised that the property/business was “falling to bits before my eyes!”.
I quickly understood the need for a future plan, and acting on this plan. (Acting as if I was going to be here forever!).
Ten years on, a sale of the property was effected!!!
AH, EMOTIONAL TIES
By now I had fully, well I thought I had, digested the emotional connections with the landscape, and the business.
I was well aware that operating the farm was getting in the road of what I really wanted to be doing.
An opportunity to lease back came with the sale, and a five-year lease was negotiated.
The property is now managed by a young couple, and we have entered into a partnership agreement. Yes, they have some “skin in the game!”
My realisation from leasing back, is that it was an action which indicated I still had not fully released the farm. Ah emotional ties!!!
IF I WERE TO DO IT AGAIN, WHAT??
I would do nothing differently. A great opportunity has come from “my remaining emotional tie”, and that has been the creation of an opportunity for a young couple to step forward into an agricultural enterprise, which fits with their future goals, and visions.
For me it has provided the opportunity to deal with my final emotional ties to this land, and I am in a position to happily exit the enterprise, while my partners can continue. Ah what a sweet transition! End of “channelling”!
THE most over-used and misused word in the English language is “sustainable”. Everybody uses it, but often there is little agreement on what it means. The term is like a magnet to nebulous feel good words.
Beef production being sustainable has two aspects, producers have to remain profitable and the environment has to remain healthy as a result of beef production, including water quality. To achieve both aspects of sustainability, the “resilience” of the paddock has to be maintained. The only way paddock resilience can be maintained in both the short-term and long-term, is to ensure that sufficient carbon keeps flowing through the paddock. The natural world can’t “function” without carbon flows.
For me, “Sustainable Beef” is producing beef at a profit while maintaining the “integrity” of the production system. The former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was thinking in a similar way when he said, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
The difference between resilience and sustainability is that one is a state/condition and the other is an outcome. The dictionary says sustainability means “keep from failing”.
Most processes focus on carbon stocks and measurement when defining sustainable beef. To ensure there is no confusion over terminology, below is carbon stocks and carbon flows explained (see also one of my earlier posts).
Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome, i.e. a process.
When beef production is not sustainable, everybody starts talking about all the negative outcomes from human stress to environmental problems. This is really talking about the symptoms, not the cause. Trying to solve each symptom separately is applying reductionist science instead of looking at the big picture and trying to identify the common denominator.
WHY CARBON FLOWS?
All debates should start with the basics. Get the basics wrong and nothing else is going to fall into place the way they should.
Carbon is the organiser as it flows through the paddock above and below ground. The movement of carbon activates so many processes that occur in the paddock. Energy, nutrients and water all follow the path of carbon.
Carbon is the main building block of all life, be it grass, cattle or soil life. Cattle are 18% carbon and grass is 45% carbon. Flowing carbon is also responsible for keeping all life above and below ground functioning, because it carries the energy all life needs. When the level of carbon flowing through a paddock drops, then the level of life in the paddock drops.
Higher carbon flows result in more cattle to sell and more soil life to keep the soil well structured and fertile. When carbon flows start to drop, this is the first stage of soil degradation.
The landscape is interactive – self organised – however we “disorganise” it when we mismanage carbon.
THE TWO COMPONENTS OF PADDOCK RESILIENCE
Paddock resilience is a combination of plant resilience and soil resilience and both rely on carbon flows.
Maintaining plant resilience relies on good animal management. Poor animal management, that reduces plant growth after rain, reduces the flow of carbon into plants and the paddock.
To remain resilient, plants need adequate carbon flowing into them to maintain energy reserves and build extensive root systems for
sourcing water and nutrients. Roots are also important for water infiltration into the soil, they act as wicks to take water down through the soil profile. The water travels down beside the roots. The wick effect is especially important with harder soils. Roots are 45% carbon.
The perennial grass plant above is what a plant lacking resilience looks like. It is struggling to come out of dormancy after good rain because it is short of stored energy. Energy reserves in plants are short-term carbon brought in by carbon flows. In perennial grasses they are stored in the roots and also in the crown. These reserves are the energy source prior to green leaves collecting energy.This plant is generating no carbon flows to feed soil life or cattle.
Maintaining soil resilience also relies on animal management. Think of the soil as a construction site. Soil life is responsible for keeping the soil well structured and fertile. If animal management reduces the ability of plants to supply carbon compounds to soil life, then their population drops.
Carbon flowing into plants is the true source of soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is about 58% carbon (short-term carbon). Organic matter changes the bulk density of soil, which adds to water storage capacity.Apart from being a store of nutrients, organic matter is the raw material for humus, which is long-term soil carbon. Humus is the undigested portions of organic matter.
Because humus is highly charged, it will aggregate many soil particles into stable aggregates. This leads to better soil structure and it is the resultant pores that hold extra water containing the soluble nutrients like nitrate nitrogen. Humus also has a higher water holding capacity than clay because it has a smaller particle size. Humus changes the pH of the soil and so buffers against any toxic elements present.
With poor animal management, plant resilience fails first, then soil resilience declines. Poorly managed plants do not generate enough carbon flows to keep the soil healthy. This highlights that your animal management affects the soil, by affecting plants first.
WHAT PADDOCK RESILIENCE AND LACK OF IT LOOKS LIKE
For those seeking tangible evidence of when resilience exists, it is the ability of a paddock to generate carbon flows from rain, i.e. how well the pasture responds to rain. Perhaps the best test of resilience is the ability of paddocks to respond to isolated small falls of rain during a dry period.
The next photo was taken by Patrick Francis and I thank him for capturing such a powerful image.
The right hand side of the fence is a grazing paddock, not a farming paddock and is what an unsustainable beef operation looks like. Look at the surface water right up to the fence and nothing on the other side. The pooled water is caused by more than just poor soil structure, there is also a lack of roots in the paddock to help water enter the soil. Unsustainable beef is nutrients flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef. Moreover, the lost nutrients and water could have been driving higher beef production for economic sustainability.
The two pictures above show the productive capacity of each side of the fence at a later date, i.e. the ability to produce carbon flows. The top photo is the left hand side of the fence and the bottom one the right hand side of the fence. The resilience of each side of the fence is very different. Stating the obvious, resilience, sustainability and water use efficiency all rely on ongoing carbon flows.
This series of photos explains what is behind disappointment when a paddock does not respond to rain very well. The photos also highlight that current carbon flows rely on past carbon flows. Just as money makes money, so carbon makes carbon. This feedback loop is central to understanding/defining sustainable beef.
Natural systems (paddocks) have evolved to remain resilient (sustainable) and can withstand extreme events such as drought or heavy rain, but we reduce their “defences” when our management reduces the level of carbon flowing through them.
THE “CARBON GRAZING” PRINCIPLE RELATES TO MANAGING CARBON FLOWS
If the first priority for achieving sustainable beef is keeping enough carbon flowing through the paddock, above and below ground, then management has to be focused on when the bulk of the carbon arrives.
Nature has designed the system so that water activates the flow of carbon into the landscape via photosynthesis. The bulk of the carbon arrives from the atmosphere in the short period following rain. Think of plants as the entry point of carbon into the paddock. After entering plants, carbon then flows everywhere else in the paddock, including through cattle.
Nature does not have a predictable pattern. Stated simply, we must allow nature to transfer carbon from the atmosphere to the landscape according to its time frame. This is why pasture rest is TIMING, not TIME.
Basing resting decisions on a certain period of TIME is no guarantee that carbon will come into the paddock because there is no guarantee that it will rain.
The “Carbon Grazing” principle has as its basis, that effective pasture rest is achieved when enough carbon has flowed above and below ground to all the areas it needs to.
Carbon Grazing is resting pastures for 4 – 6 weeks after rain.This time was arrived at after talking to a cross section of scientists and producers. It is important to not get caught up on the exact time between four and six weeks, as temperature influences plant growth. Also, the length of rest required, depends on the resilience of the paddock, as resilience is at the centre of pasture response. One producer I spoke to, with really healthy pastures, is of the opinion that he can achieve full recovery after about four weeks.
Scientists I met in South Africa carried out research which suggested that with average pastures, removing animals for 3 – 8 weeks after rain, increased pasture production by 50 – 80%. Given pasture is about 45% carbon when dried, this gives an indication of the increased carbon flows, including below ground.
When people say that they can’t afford to rest pastures, it begs the question, can you afford not to.
Carbon Grazing is a principle and just that, not a new land management system. It underpins all successful land management systems. In a sense, the principle is an action plan.
Carbon Grazing relates to the first phase of carbon flows, which is the introduction phase, i.e. when carbon moves from the atmosphere to the paddock via photosynthesis during plant growth. This is when the level of carbon available to flow through the paddock above and below ground, including through cattle, is set.
Carbon Grazing is strategic (tactical) rest after rain, and is based on the premise that nature does not have a predictable pattern.
Carbon Grazing is short-term removal of animals from pastures after rain.
The practical aspect of seeing pasture rest as TIMING, instead of TIME, is that you only need to find an alternative home for animals for a short period of time.
Some of the “increased” ground cover that results from a resting exercise (Carbon Grazing) can be utilised as somewhere to put animals next time it rains, i.e. the capacity for resting resides in existing pastures. An earlier column discussed different techniques for resting pastures after rain without selling animals.
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. 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.
The box above is saying that animals should start harvesting what resides above ground after adequate carbon has flowed to all parts of the landscape, including below ground. The wording is saying don’t eat the conduit prematurely. This approach will ensure future animal production and ongoing resilience of the production base. It will also ensure better environmental outcomes.
TIME RELATES TO CONSUMPTION
It is important not to confuse management of flows with consumption of existing stocks (pasture).
Resting for set periods of time when it is not raining is a consumption issue (maintaining ground cover) and should not be confused with strategic / tactical rest after rain. The exception is when a regeneration event has occurred and freshly germinated perennial seedlings need to be protected to allow them to establish.
How much ground cover is consumed is important, but it is the second decision a producer makes, not the first. What sets the level of ground cover in the first place, is the amount of carbon a particular form of management allows to enter the paddock after rain.
Provided it is not excessive, grazing is beneficial for carbon flows as it removes rank pasture that can inhibit pasture growth next time it rains.
CARBON GRAZING GIVES CONFIDENCE TO THE BROADER COMMUNITY
Producers who implement the Carbon Grazing procedure at least once a year are in the position to represent to the broader community that they are responsible custodians of the land.
The carbon flows concept is the package of knowledge that provides an understanding of why there has to be adequate carbon flowing through the paddock to ensure beef is sustainable. The Carbon Grazing principle is part of this knowledge package.
The term “Carbon Grazing” was coined in 2001 and registered the same year. It was coined for the purpose of drawing attention to the importance of maximising carbon inflows for both profit and environmental outcomes.
BETTER MANAGEMENT OF CARBON FLOWS REDUCES METHANE PER KG OF PRODUCTION
The methane debate is one of subtleties, with the true issue being the production of methane per kg of production. Differences between production systems become clearer when the outputs are expressed this way.
The major strategy for reducing methane production is the same as the key driver for profitability in grazing: reducing the number of grazing days per kilo of product, and this relies on improving the digestibility of the diet.
Good management of carbon flows is so important for increasing the digestibility of the pasture.
Resting paddocks for a short period after rain increases the percentage of leaves to stems. Leaves are more digestible than stems, i.e. have a lower carbon:nitrogen ratio.
Resting pastures after rain increases pasture resilience, which in turn results in pastures being able to respond better to rain and so being green for a higher percentage of the year. Green pasture is more digestible than dry pasture, again a lower carbon:nitrogen ratio.
Thinking visually, we need to speed up carbon as it flows through the rumen of cattle to reduce methane and increase profits. More nitrogen (protein) attached to the carbon speeds it up.
The level of methane produced is another example of the general principle that the greenhouse outcomes of agriculture are a reflection of economic efficiency.
JUST THINKING CARBON STOCKS CAN GIVE A FALSE SENSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY
Perhaps because of climate change policy, we have become too preoccupied with carbon stocks and measuring carbon and not paying enough attention to carbon flows.
The photo above shows carbon stock per unit area may be increasing via expanding tree growth, but carbon flows have been ignored creating negative issues for cattle production, cattle health, soil health and the owner’s business. Just talking about carbon stocks is far too narrow when discussing sustainable beef.
HIGHLIGHTING THAT PADDOCKS ARE DIFFERENT, WHEN DEFINING SUSTAINABLE BEEF, IS TAKING A REDUCTIONIST SCIENCE APPROACH
It is often stated that because of the broad range of ecosystems in which beef is produced, a “one size-fits-all” global standard is unrealistic.
Circumstances change but the general principles of landscape function don’t.
In Nov 2008 I was invited as the guest speaker to open the Queensland NRM Groups Collective Grazing Symposium in Cairns. The person working for the Collective who invited me, said people in the Groups around the state kept talking about how different they were and this was not consistent with the over-riding body calling itself a Collective. My brief was to highlight how much they had in common. My talk concentrated on all the carbon processes that were common to all regions in the state.
There is one aspect of sustainable beef production that is common to every country, every farm and every paddock, and that is the proper management of “carbon flows”.
PATRICK FRANCIS ON GAINING THE TRUST OF CONSUMERS
This is an extract from a paper that Patrick Francis prepared for a 2014 workshop held by QLD DAFF. It was held to consider the need for a separate carbon module in extension programs. Patrick was the editor for 32 years of the Australian Farm Journal and its predecessor FARM Magazine.
Consumers may not understand how carbon flows impact livestock productivity and health, and improvements to ecosystem services, but they do know they are important and want to be associated with them when purchasing red meat. Incorporating carbon flows knowledge as suggested by Alan Lauder into education programs provides them with additional credibility needed to meet consumer expectations for ethical production.
Red meat marketers are keen to promote ethical characteristics for brands but in reality there is little credible basis at industry level on which to justify claims made (photo below). The carbon flows concept if widely understood and applied by farmers will underpin many of the ethical claims already being made about beef.
The only time you can build paddock resilience is during the short period after rain.
Sustainable Beef really means sustainable management.
Leaving the management of carbon flows out of defining sustainable beef is like an engineer leaving gravity out of calculations.
With carbon, once you understand the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole landscape and how it functions.
It is often said that healthy soils are the foundation of healthy ranches, but taking one step further back, it is actually carbon flows that are the foundation of healthy ranches. This is because it is carbon flows that keep plants healthy which in turn keep soil healthy. It is carbon compounds that underpin the health/resilience of both plants and the soil and these carbon compounds will not exist without carbon flows.
A resilient paddock is one that has the ability to generate enough carbon flows from rain to keep itself functional and productive.
There are some subtle realities that underpin the Carbon Grazing principle. Because there is no pattern to when rain arrives, in other words when carbon arrives, the message is that pasture rest is TIMING and not TIME. Basing resting decisions on a certain period of TIME is no guarantee that carbon will arrive.
Two paddocks can have equal long-term soil carbon stocks, but it is the one that has the most carbon flowing through it, that will have the highest level of production.
For the clear thinkers – when it comes to carbon, if you can’t measure a change in the stocks, then all the carbon has to be in the flow.
Carbon Grazing is about attending to the most fundamental thing a grazier/rancher has to get right, and that is to maximise carbon flows from any rain that arrives. If you do not attend to the basics, then nothing else will fall into place the way it should.
Good management of carbon flows is the basis of sustainable beef production and catchment protection.
This is the last column in the “Why carbon flows?” series and I want to acknowledge that they would have been of a lower standard without the support of Madeleine Florin who scrutinised every column before they went out – thank you Madeleine.
I also want to thank Soils For Life for posting the columns on Facebook and Twitter.
When people get their head around the carbon flows way of thinking, they quickly discover that the bulk of the carbon that is moving in the paddock involves short-term carbon compounds, not long-term carbon compounds. Over a twelve month period, maybe 2% of the flowing carbon in a paddock involves long-term carbon. In other words virtually none. As you know, long-term carbon is moving, but it is moving very slowly. Carbon flows involve pasture as well as the soil.
The point being made is that in the short-term, long-term carbon is not driving change in the paddock. The grazing industry does not manage long-term carbon, it manages short-term carbon. Long-term carbon is an outcome. The management decisions graziers make, relate to short-term carbon. This begs the question, has extension to the grazing industry focused on the wrong aspect of carbon from a “management perspective”. Looking at soil carbon provides a good example.
The pie diagrams above show the short-term outcomes of changed management. The red section is the fast moving short-term carbon and the black section is the slow moving long-term carbon. Chan’s diagrams show how the ratio of short-term carbon to long-term carbon changes as soil organic carbon increases. As the circle gets bigger, the red component becomes larger.
When soil organic carbon went from 1.5% to 2.5%, the change was driven by increases in the short-term carbon (called labile carbon) – the red section. Look closely at the actual size (area) of the black section in each circle, which is long-term carbon (non-labile), and there is virtually no change. The percentage of long-term carbon has changed on the left hand diagram, but this is because the increase in short-term carbon has changed the total.
This diagram sums up what happens in the soil part of your paddock when you change the management of carbon flows. The left hand circle is larger because changed management has increased the flow of carbon through allof the paddock.
The energy agriculture relies on is sitting in the red pool. The bulk of the carbon movement in your paddock involves the red section.
Field experiments have demonstrated that the level of labile carbon is sensitive to management. Soil organic carbon is diverse in composition, and it is the labile fraction that is the most important for maintaining soil functionality. Labile carbon is a better indicator of soil health than total organic carbon. (Phil Moody et al).
Chan’s diagram is consistent with scientific understanding that long-term carbon is slow to change. Logic dictates that if long-term carbon is slow to change then long-term carbon can’t be responsible for short-term changes in production levels or the health of the paddock. Bankers and environmentalists both have a vested interest in promoting the role of carbon flows that are based almost solely on short-term carbon.
I am not suggesting that long term soil carbon is not important, because it is. It is a resource for production and protection of the environment. The reality is that it shouldn’t be the starting point of discussion around best management.
While the discussion above relates to soil carbon, carbon also flows above ground. Management changes also influence the level of ground cover, remembering that grass is 45% carbon when dried. Ground cover in the form of pasture is short-term carbon, another example of carbon flows being mainly short-term carbon.
Carbon trading is more focused on the slow moving stable forms of carbon, while rural producers set out to increase the volume of the faster moving short-term carbon. If you want to increase production in the short-term, it is the fast moving carbon that increases production, not slow moving carbon. Ground cover is what cattle eat and it is short-term carbon.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE LINKING MANAGEMENT CHANGES TO SHORT-TERM CARBON
The next diagram further reinforces the point that management changes are reflected in short-term carbon before long-term carbon.
If you look at the change from cropping to pasture (34 year point), the increase in carbon flows with the change to pasture immediately shows up in the short-term carbon stocks (particulate), while the long-term carbon stock (humus) hardly changes initially.
For those of you only interested in long-term carbon, long-term carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows. Even people focused on sequestration have to focus on carbon flows.
CHANGING CARBON FLOWS CHANGES PRODUCTION
Given that what all rural producers sell is based on short-term carbon, be they farmers, graziers or vegetable growers, it is easy to understand why increasing carbon flows with better management decisions, increases production. Nobody seems to talk about cattle being 18% carbon and grain 45% carbon, all short term-carbon.
It is climate change policy that is keeping the focus on carbon stocks in extension whereas producers actually manage carbon flows, that is their day job. They set out to Increase the flow of carbon so that they have more to harvest and sell.
The short-term carbon you can’t trade is just as big a driver of environmental outcomes as long-term carbon. In fact, many would say it is a bigger driver.
Changes in land management are initially reflected in short-term carbon levels, not long-term carbon. This is simply because management changes are reflected in the level of carbon flowing through the paddock. Chan demonstrated this in the pie graphs he produced which showed the breakup of soil carbon changes.
We all know that grazing animals, especially sheep, are selective in what they eat. They graze selectively the best species of plants and also the best portions of the plant. The best plant parts are the palatable new growth.
WHY DO ANIMALS SELECT THEIR DIET SO PRECISELY?
Animals select new growth because it has higher nitrogen (protein) levels. The digestibility of what grows on the tips is higher. As a generalised comment, allowing for different plant species and different soils, there is 2.5% nitrogen in new leaf and 0.5% nitrogen in the stem. This is why animals select plants that are already over grazed. They have been eaten back to ground level and only have new leaf to offer. This explains why animals will always keep returning to the same plants under continuous grazing.
As grazing animals need from 0.8% to 1% of nitrogen for maintenance (to stay alive) and more for weight gain or lactating animals, it is in their interest to select the best diet available. To calculate the protein level of plants, multiply the nitrogen content by 6.25. Cattle are not as precise as sheep, but they are still selecting new growth when they take the top off growing grass.
AN EXAMPLE OF HOW PRECISE ANIMAL SELECTION CAN BE
Measuring grasses that livestock have eaten is not easy, so one day I decided to measure the diameter of the stem at the point of bite on Old Man Saltbush plants eaten by sheep in a 4,000 acre (1,600 ha) paddock. We were left in awe at the precision of their selection. The table below documents what they were doing.
Focusing on what was eaten, 49 bites out of 54 were selected from the stem diameter range 2.25 – 3.00 mm i.e. the new growth. They were basically avoiding stem >3.0 mm.
WHEN PERENNIAL GRASSES ARE AT MOST RISK
Perennial grasses are well adapted to drought but not to continuous defoliation. The most dangerous time for perennial grasses is a run of marginal years when stock eat all the new growth every time there is some rain. This results in root reserves being drawn on regularly with little replacement, and so some plants eventually die. This is what former CSIRO scientist David Freudenberger refers to as “the paradox of average years”. Green pick is ongoing so root reserves are at risk.
Plants, like animals, also have requirements. Often what is good for an animal is not good for plants, nor the pasture in general. An animal wants to keep a plant eaten down all the time so that there is a much larger percentage of new growth, while a plant needs to be allowed to grow to maintain health.
Animals are not forward thinkers so have to be managed. They will maximise short-term production to the detriment of long-term production. Plants and animals have evolved together and need each other, however carbon flows that are essential for paddock health and production, drop drastically if animals dominate plants.
The problem we have to confront is that the way animals select their diet following rain is not consistent with the way nature designed plants to function.
With regard to when it is best to harvest carbon flows, pastures should be rested after rain. In other words, graziers need to be harvesting only the surplus not the means by which a usable surplus is generated.
Australia has one of the most variable climates on earth and extreme weather repeatedly affects the Australian farming sectors. We have always had droughts, floods and heatwaves, however the climate seems to be getting more extreme lately and it seems to be becoming even more variable. Some would suggest it is becoming a bit random, which is worse than being variable, because we need patterns to plan, i.e. when to plant, when to harvest, when to put the bulls and rams out etc.
When anybody talks about adapting to a changing climate, ask them what adaptation means?
The question has to be asked; are we concentrating too much on our response to the changed circumstances (being reactive), instead of trying to reduce the effect/impact of a changing climate (being proactive)?
Successful farmers are the ones who are good at adapting to whatever their circumstances are.
RESILIENCE ABSORBS CHANGE
A resilient paddock provides the capacity to absorb changed circumstances. Fragile ones just collapse, even with small changes. Being able to absorb changes, means they hurt less.
To quote Dr Leonie Pearson, “The alternative of a resilient system is a vulnerable system: when a system loses resilience it becomes precarious, or fragile to change effects, and even small influences can have disastrous effects”
As a season heads from dry towards drought, this is just another form of changing circumstances.
DEFINING RESILIENCE IN A PRACTICAL SENSE
Getting back to basics, resilience is the ability of a paddock to generate carbon flows from any rain that falls, i.e. resilience is the ability to respond to rain. Perhaps the best test of resilience is the ability of paddocks to respond to isolated small falls of rain during a dry period, i.e. slow the arrival of drought.
In a broader sense, resilience is the ability of a paddock to turn rain into carbon compounds.
The photo is a perfect example of what two different levels of resilience looks like.
THE DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF PADDOCK RESILIENCE
Paddock resilience has two components, plant resilience and soil resilience. The maintenance of both requires good management of carbon flows.
Resilience also has to be considered in terms of short-term resilience and long term resilience.
The fast moving short-term carbon supplies short-term resilience. On the other hand, the slow moving long-term carbon supplies resilience over time. It protects the long-term survival of the system.
PASTURE RESILIENCE IS PART OF SHORT-TERM RESILIENCE
Allowing more carbon to flow into plants increases their resilience by increasing internal energy reserves for them to call upon. It also increases their root volume, which allows them to access more moisture and nutrients to grow. Both energy reserves and roots are short term carbon.
SOIL RESILIENCE CONSISTS OF BOTH SHORT-TERM AND LONG-TERM RESILIENCE
Allowing carbon to flow into the soil feeds soil life responsible for restructuring the soil to improve infiltration and water holding capacity. It is short-term carbon in carbon flows that feeds soil life.
Organic matter that supplies nutrients to plants is short-term carbon and is part of carbon flows.
Soil humus is long-term carbon. It brings long-term resilience. It helps hold soluble nutrients that would otherwise escape the paddock and end up in waterways. It provides better soil structure which provides spaces for water to be stored. It changes the pH of the soil and so buffers against any toxic elements present.
Long-term soil carbon originates from short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows. Thinking longer term, good management of carbon flows is critical to ensure the ongoing replacement of the little bit of longer-term carbon that is always leaving the system and returning to the atmosphere.
SOIL CARBON ON EACH SIDE OF THE FENCE IN THE PHOTO
I quote what a soil scientist who worked for the Federal Department of Climate Change wrote after looking at the photo.
Looks like the soil is a sandy loam to me and there is a striking difference between the vegetation cover either side of the fence.
It looks like a semi-arid region with a rainfall less than 350mm (14 inches) per year.
Assuming that the vegetation cover difference has existed for some time. (keep in mind that a change in vegetation such as shown could increase soil C by 0.2 – 0.5 t/ha/yr. Therefore if the change has been for 10 years then maybe an increase in soil C of about 2-5t/ha or for 20 years 4-10t/ha).
Considering this level of uncertainty I am guessing for the bare paddock anything from 15-25 t/ha (0-30cm) and for the vegetated paddock anything from 35-50t/ha (0-30cm)”.
THINKING PAST STOCKS TO FLOWS HAS POSITIVE COMMERCIAL OUTCOMES
The assessment by the soil scientist on the degraded side of the fence provides an important insight into the broader debate around carbon stocks and carbon flows.
The bare side of the fence still has long-term soil carbon, but this stock of long-term carbon on its own could not make the paddock functional. A functional paddock also has to have short term carbon flowing through it, as the other side of the fence demonstrates.
Apart from positive environmental outcomes such as protecting the Great Barrier Reef, better management of carbon flows to improve resilience also has commercial outcomes.
The unwillingness of the Queensland Department of Agriculture to see logic in including discussion of the carbon flows concept in extension, because of a stocks focus, is costing the Queensland economy about $70 million a year. This figure was arrived at after a leading rangelands scientist, who was frustrated with the Department’s policy position, suggested going onto the Queensland Treasury website to discover the value of sheep and cattle production to the Queensland economy. It is a conservative figure based on sheep and cattle producers achieving a small gain in production, after seeing their paddocks differently.
ADDING MORE PATHWAYS BY WHICH CARBON IS ABLE TO ENTER THE LANDSCAPE
Because resilience relies on carbon flows, there is a need to increase the number of pathways for carbon to enter the paddock i.e. increase the mix of plants to cover all circumstances.
Increasing the number of pathways means carbon can be collected at different tiers while utilising water at different depths.
A production system based on perennials is more resilient than one based on annuals. This is simply because perennials generate more carbon flows over time, especially in marginal years. Only perennial plants can respond to single isolated falls of rain.
At the extreme of the perennial debate are the perennial edible shrubs like leucaena and old man saltbush (shown in the photo) that transfer the use of water further into the future. They grow under adverse conditions. They maintain carbon flows over time because of their deep roots sourcing moisture deeper in the landscape, which is not available to the grasses.
REDUCING THE EFFECT OF DROUGHT RELIES ON BUILDING RESILIENCE
The best response to drought is to increase resilience to reduce its impact so that it arrives later and breaks earlier. This approach has the added advantage of sometimes not entering drought when others are caught.
The only time you can increase resilience, is when it rains. This is because good management of carbon flows after rain underpins resilience.
A resilient paddock that is well equipped to produce carbon flows is also one well equipped to better withstand extreme events, be they drought, heat or heavy rain.
At a land management forum I attended a few years ago, a retired scientist commented that from his experience, problems are never solved by reductionist science. He said it was taking a systems approach that solved problems. The point he was making was that you need to be aware of everything that could possibly be influencing the problem you are trying to solve, i.e. you need to understand the big picture.
The flow of carbon through a paddock influences a lot of processes. If the flow falls too low, it causes a multitude of problems. Production and environmental issues can often be rectified by simply changing management to increase carbon flows.
The diagram below shows the earth system with regard to carbon. It is a great diagram because it puts everything into perspective. The amount of carbon on this planet is finite but some is always moving. It is interesting to know where all the carbon is, given different discussions focus on different pools and the flow of carbon between them.
The first surprise for most of us is that the oceans contain 67% of the carbon on earth. Also, there is a lot more carbon flowing backwards and forwards between the oceans and the atmosphere than there is between the land and the atmosphere.
The atmosphere only has 1.3% of all the carbon on earth, which explains why it is easy to drastically alter its carbon content given the magnitude of the flows going on.
THINKING PAST CARBON STOCKS
The diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.
he diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.
Think of your grazing paddock as a sub system within the earth carbon system. All life on this planet is carbon based. So, in order to exist, your cattle, grass and soil life are all relying on the atmosphere as a source of carbon atoms. All agriculture produces and sells carbon based products, i.e. all agriculture sells something that was living.
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.
WHAT FLOWING CARBON IN A PADDOCK LOOKS LIKE
The picture below reminds us that we have to keep short term carbon flowing through the paddock to remain in production.
SOMETIMES THE MAIN FOCUS IS LONG TERM CARBON, SOMETIMES SHORT TERM CARBON
Climate change policy has a focus on long term carbon and measuring, however the decisions graziers/ranchers make relate to short term carbon as part of managing carbon flows.
The diagram suggests that of the 62 Giga tonnes coming down from the atmosphere, most of it returns to the atmosphere again. Carbon trading is focused on the 2 Giga tonnes that stays above and below ground while producers are harvesting some of the 60 Giga tonnes that is flowing through the paddock.
THE CARBON FLOWS CONCEPT
The carbon flows concept, that is the basis of this column, 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 as part of increasing profits and reducing the production of methane per kg of production. The concept is not dismissing the importance of long term soil carbon, instead it is suggesting that because long term carbon is hardly moving, it is only about 2% of flowing carbon.
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 carbon flows concept discussed in this column is a systems approach.
EXPANDING THE DEBATE
When extension focuses on just carbon stocks and measurement, this is a form of reductionist science as the focus is too narrow. The purpose of this column is to broaden the debate.
It is only natural that past producers like myself want to help current producers. The seasons lately seem to be harder to deal with, hence the need for more knowledge. The catalyst for me to write this column was my failure over many years to have any influence on the policy of the Department of Agriculture in my home state of Queensland, even after presenting a logical case to those at the top. To this day the Department still has a policy focused on stocks and measurement, not flows.
Not a long time ago while giving a presentation on carbon flows, I was again reminded of Departmental policy. About ten minutes into the presentation, an extension officer of the Department interjected with the comment, “Maybe I am stupid, but none of this is making any sense to me”. I thought to myself, he wouldn’t have made that comment if his Department had a different policy. Then another Departmental extension officer joined in with the comment, “Look, we have been measuring carbon and it is not changing”. The comment did provide an opportunity to explain the difference between stocks and flows in another way. My response, “Well, if you can’t measure a change in the stocks, then all the carbon has to be in the flows. You have just confirmed the thrust of what I am saying”.
With any production or environmental problem you are trying to solve, part of the solution will be improving carbon flows into the paddock. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is a perfect example.
Carbon stocks are the outcome of carbon flows, be they short term or long term. This highlights that discussing carbon flows is the entry point of any discussion around the role of carbon in the paddock, in fact even carbon trading.
Being too focused on stocks and measurement is a good example of reductionist thinking.
Because rural producers sell carbon based products, their day job is recycling carbon. The more carbon that flows, the more they have to sell.
With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows in a paddock, the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions becomes clearer.
Did you know that if we compressed the atmosphere and turned it into liquid, then the oceans would be 500 times bigger? This reminds us that we perceive things the way we think.
What actually happens in the paddock can at times be very different to our perceptions. Take the case of root growth with grasses. When livestock over consume the leaves of grasses, while they are trying to grow after rain, some would assume that this is just reducing potential ground cover. Even amongst those who are aware that there is a relationship between root growth and grazing pressure, they still may not be aware that there is a tipping point after which leaf removal can suddenly have really adverse outcomes for root growth.
It is so easy for us to forget that plants make decisions just like we do. It is now well known that plants send out chemical instructions to activate soil microbes to get them to do what they need done. The graph above highlights that plants also make decisions around allocation of incoming carbon (remembering that roots are 45% carbon). Plants are not stupid, so we have to assume that they do understand the importance of roots, however when leaves start to be excessively over eaten by animals, they place a higher priority on replacing leaves. This is logical as leaves are the entry point of carbon and energy.
THE WATER HOLDING CAPACITY OF ORGANIC MATTER
There is no substitute for going back to the basics to get things into perspective. When running a grazing business, there is a price to be paid for not letting plants generate carbon flows to their full potential. Thinking about the carbon that ends up in the soil, a 1% increase in soil organic carbon means the soil can hold an extra 144,000 litres per ha (2.5 acres). Organic matter can hold 5 times its weight in water.
THE ENERGY IN ORGANIC MATTER
Just as modern society is reliant on energy, the health of paddocks and their productive capacity are driven by available energy. It is carbon that carries energy. Sheep and cattle rely on the stored energy in grass and, soil life also relies on the energy brought in by plants. Researchers in England discovered that an acre (0.4 ha) of soil with 4% organic matter contains as much theoretical combustible energy as 20-25 tonnes of anthracite coal. Another researcher in Maine, US, equated the energy in that amount of organic matter to 4,000 gallons of fuel oil.
We have all heard the saying, “Perceptions are stronger than the truth”. However, with land management, facts are better than perceptions.
Having understanding is the basis of good management.
Thinking a wet period on its own can improve a paddock’s productive capacity and resilience is like thinking a runner can win a race without adequate preparation. To understand the true driver of paddock regeneration it is what you do in the average years that matters just as much as the wet years.
Thinking a wet period on its own can improve a paddock’s productive capacity and resilience is like thinking a runner can win a race without adequate preparation. To understand the true driver of paddock regeneration it is what you do in the average years that matters just as much as the wet years.
How successful wet periods are at regenerating paddocks is determined by how well carbon flows have been managed in the lead up-years.
Wet periods can either fast forward all the good work you have been doing in average years, or if you have been a poor manager of carbon flows, then when the wet period has ended, you can find yourself in the same position you were in before it started.
It is carbon flows over time that prepare the soil to allow better germination and establishment of perennial grasses. This is because carbon flows generated by plants, feed the soil life that are responsible for restructuring the soil and making it more fertile. Poorly managed plants only generate small flows of carbon, which means soil life is limited in what it can do.
If a paddock is degraded, then plants can struggle to establish, even in good seasons.
The photo above is of a paddock that was locked up for 15 months during a period of above average rainfall. It shows that wet periods are more successful at regenerating better functioning areas. The area in the foreground, reinforces that what wet periods can achieve is highly dependent on the state of the landscape prior to the favourable rain.
The 15 months rest was able to regenerate a lot of the paddock, but not change the area in the foreground, where carbon flows had fallen too low over time. The next photos are close ups.
Where we are standing, the greener grass is the productive paspalum. It re -entered the landscape following rest, while in the foreground of the first photo, only useless galvanised burr is growing.
The rest period had sufficient rain for regeneration of grass from seed on several occasions, yet the area in the foreground was not able to respond. There was little water infiltration in this area and the soil was not able to maintain moisture on the surface long enough to allow germination. Little ground cover, to keep the wind and sun off the soil, was another issue limiting germination.
THE ROLE OF WEEDS
Think of weeds as nature’s repair agent. When paddocks start to degrade, nature sends in weeds as an alternative way to generate some carbon flows. The blue galvanised burr in the foreground of the first photo, is playing this role. We all know that when the perennial grasses come back, the weed population immediately drops.
WHY WET PERIODS CAN BE MISLEADING
Wet years can be very deceiving. There is often a good coverage of pasture and it looks like the paddock has regenerated. But has it? Look closer, and a lot of the ground cover is annuals, which will disappear when the rain stops. The fact water keeps arriving in wet periods and has more opportunities to soak in, masks the reality that the soil condition has not changed. This is not to discount the value of the extra plant carbon that is introduced into the paddock by the short term prolific growth. This plant carbon could be the beginning of soil improvement if management changes and starts to focus on improving carbon flows.
What extra plants remain long-term when the wet period has ended, is the true test of what has been achieved.
MAINTAINING A SEED BASE
Regeneration of perennials relies on an adequate seed base, which is why resting after rain in average seasons is critical.
There is not enough time in a wet period to produce the necessary seed, then see it germinate, and finally, see seedlings establish.
If there are not more perennials after the completion of the wet period, then little has been achieved. Naturally, this comment does not apply to pastures in very good condition that had already achieved the maximum possible coverage of perennials.
The “so called” average years are really part of the regeneration process. Good management is ongoing. This is why I feel uncomfortable when somebody suggests that all we need is a wet season to undo degradation.