Any animal that is eating grass when it is trying to grow immediately after rain is reducing the flow of carbon into the paddock. This results in reduced ground cover and lowers potential production. If the grazing pressure is excessive it can reduce paddock health. This is why removing sheep and cattle from pastures whenever possible after rain is a good idea, but kangaroos are an animal that we can’t manage when they are present.

Photo 1: The outcome of restricting kangaroos to a sensible population (October 2018)

Kangaroos have the ability to get through normal fences, so can turn up in mass after storms and consume new growth, sometimes the lot if pastures are very low.

Kangaroos do the most damage to the environment during extended dry periods when perennial grasses are forced to go into dormancy more often. To come out of dormancy after any rain that falls, they call on stored energy reserves. If perennial grasses are continually not allowed to grow and replace these energy reserves after rain, then these reserves run down. This reduces perennial grass resilience and increases the risk of them dying.

This story, about a kangaroo proof boundary fence, illustrates why controlling kangaroos is in the best interest of graziers managing carbon flows to maximise profits and environmental outcomes. This message is even more important in the face of increasingly unreliable rainfall and discussion about drought policy.


Photo 1 was taken on a property west of Blackall, Queensland, Australia at the start of October 2018. The boundary fence in the photo is kangaroo proof. It was built around the entire 80,000 acres (32,000 ha) of the property in 2010 and then the kangaroo population was reduced to a population similar to the size found at the time of European settlement. The photo highlights that cattle numbers are well managed to ensure ground cover is maintained.

Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4

Photo 2 is looking across the kangaroo proof boundary fence from another neighbour’s property. There was good rainin February/March 2018 and then no rain was recorded during the six months prior to these photos being taken at the start of October.

The cracks in the ground in the foreground highlight that the soil is very dry because of no rain for a long time. However, photo 2 highlights that drought arrives sooner for some producers than others, and the arrival of drought comes down to more than just rainfall.

Photo 3 was taken about 400 metres (440 yards) off the boundary fence in photo 2. It highlights that there can be standing pasture well after it has rained, if the pasture is allowed to grow after rain in the first place and then what grows is not over consumed too early, be it by kangaroos or cattle.

Photo 4 was taken on a third neighbour’s property looking back at the kangaroo proof boundary fence. The boundary fence is at the top of the photo on the other side of the council road. The yellow at the top of the photo is thick grass just like in the other photos.

The foreground highlights that the good February/March rain only grew some annual grass and weeds in this area, because perennial grasses are missing. A paddock that has lost perennial grasses due to ongoing grazing pressure after rain by cattle or kangaroos, will always go into drought quicker.


Photo 5: A fenced area inside Idalia National Park west of Blackall at the start of October 2018

Photo 5 was taken at the same time as photos 1 – 4. It was taken inside Idalia National Park that joins the property in photos 1-4.

This fenced off area inside Idalia National Park documents the ability of kangaroos to shut down carbon flows into the landscape, in exactly the same way that poorly managed sheep and cattle shut down carbon flows. While no soil samples have been taken, judging by the vegetation, it is to be expected that soil carbon would be higher in the fenced off area.

Photo 6: The Idalia National Park exclosure nine years earlier

Photo 6 is a photo I took of the Idalia exclosure on 14 November 2009. The commercial property has regenerated following the building of the kangaroo proof fence in 2010 and kangaroos being brought under control, but the National Park has not changed from 2009 to 2018, and is still degraded unfortunately.

Photo 7: Another exclosure in Idalia National Park on 14 November 2009

I took photo 7 to highlight that the pattern of land degradation was the same in the National Park, regardless of soil type.

There was good rain at the start of 2009 but it meant little for carbon flows in the park, except for inside the exclosures. The National Park exclosures were the catalyst for the producer to build the kangaroo proof fence in 2010. They demonstrated what the true potential of the landscape was and what he could aim for if he built the fence. The producer could see that kangaroos were eroding his Natural Capital. He has always been on the cutting edge of change and understood that it is management of carbon flows that underpins Natural Capital.

If kangaroos keep hammering a patch of landscape, in the end plants start to die. As some plants die, this increases the grazing pressure on the remaining plants and so the downward spiral continues. Plants are protected by how many mates they have to share the grazing pressure.

It is carbon flows introduced by plants that feed the soil microbes necessary for keeping the soil well-structured and fertile. Plants fail first, then the soil fails, because there are reduced carbon flows to keep the soil functional.


Kangaroos lived in harmony with the landscape prior to European settlement, but with the introduction of artificial watering points, we changed all that and dramatically increased the population of kangaroos.

Pre-European settlement, when surface water dried up during dry times, kangaroos had to move on or perish. In inland Queensland, it is suggested that up to 80% of kangaroos would perish in times of drought.

When rain arrived the landscape had to regenerate again. Nature made sure there weren’t too many animals to impact the regeneration phase.

During dry times when there was little permanent water in the landscape, the aboriginals and kangaroos all had to move back to the only permanent water. This made the kangaroos more vulnerable to being killed. The creek that ran through my Cunnamulla property that I sold in 2002 was called “Widgeegoara” by the aboriginals. Widgeeoara means “turn back, go no further” i.e. head back to the Warrego river 75 km (45 miles) away, which is where the only permanent water was.


Photo 8: Water available for cattle but not kangaroos

The Blackall producer’s first attempt to overcome the problem of excessive kangaroos was to remove water troughs and put in tanks that the cattle could drink out of but the kangaroos could not access. A case of taking things back to the way they were before European settlement. The tanks were installed in 2002.

While the tanks did lead to an improvement in the landscape and more than paid for the investment, they only supplied partial control of grazing pressure from kangaroos.

Kangaroos have evolved to cope with Australia’s climate that is the most variable in the world. They release very little water from their body as urine.

Depending on the time of year and the moisture level of the grass, the kangaroos on the Blackall property were drinking about every five days prior to the removal of the water troughs. While some kangaroos were forced to move on after the installation of the tanks, others were going to man-made waters elsewhere and then returning.

Rain that didn’t produce surface water, but did increase grass moisture enough for kangaroos to function, also allowed them to return to the property.

The producer finally accepted that building the fence was the only way he could return his property to pristine condition.


Pre-European settlement, wildfires played a role in stopping excessive encroachment of woody vegetation into the landscape. The other part of the equation was the ability of healthy perennial grasses to out compete germinating woody seedlings for water and nutrients. This is why it is so important to keep perennial grasses healthy to maintain the correct balance of a landscape.

Photo 9: Phase one of regeneration – the arrival of a perennial grass plant to act as a seed source (October 2018)

Photos 10 and 11: Phase two of regenerations (October 2018) and abundant seed being produced and collected by ants

As we all know, you can’t get regeneration without seed. Before the kangaroo proof boundary fence was built, there was little perennial grass seed being produced on the hard soils. This was because the population of perennial grasses had become very low. Because of the low perennial grass population, the number of kangaroos present, even when cattle were removed, were able to stop most seed sets and also apply too much grazing pressure on perennial grass seedlings to allow them to establish.

After the kangaroo population was reduced to a sensible number, it was a case of waiting for perennial grass plants to establish in degraded areas and become a seed source to regenerate the area around them.

Photo 9 shows the arrival of a perennial mitchell grass plant. Looking at the size of it, it is not very old, so is a seed source that has arrived in the recent past. After over fifteen years of observing this area, photo 9 was a quantum leap forward. This is the first phase of regeneration.

The good soils on the property have regenerated as photos 1-4 show, however the fragile soils that had become more degraded, are taking longer, which is normal.


Apart from the exclosures built in Idalia National Park, exclosures were also built on the Backall producer’s property. These supplied the producer with further understanding of the true impact of kangaroos.

A total and a partial exclosure was built on the producer’s property in close proximity. The partial exclosure was built with running wire and kept out commercial animals, but kangaroos could get in. The total exclosure was built with netting and excluded both commercial animals and kangaroos.

Photo 12: A netting and running wire exclosure built on the Blackall property 

Like in the national park, the total exclusion improved the landscape back to pristine condition. However, kangaroos getting into the partial exclosure maintained it in the same condition as the paddock outside, as photos 12 and 13 show.

Photo 13: October 2002 and the pattern is still the same

For years, the running wire exclosure demonstrated that kangaroos will over-ride decisions made to improve livestock management. In 2009, when I took photos of the Idalia National park exclosures, inside the running wire exclosure on the property was still the same as the rest of the paddock.

Photo 14: Running wire exclosure October 2018 – It took the building of the kangaroo proof boundary fence to regenerate the running wire exclosure 

With the building of the kangaroo proof fence around the entire property, there was a dramatic change inside the running wire exclosure. The landscape inside it has now totally regenerated and is in the same condition as the netting one that showed the true production potential of the landscape many years earlier.

The property now has great ground cover as far as the eye can see, and when photo 14 was taken at the start of October 2018, the Blackall district was drought declared.

The ability of a paddock to produce carbon flows from rain is the true measure of paddock resilience. In photos 1-4, resilience started at the kangaroo proof fence.

To my surprise, the day I took photo 14, I noticed that there was a green tinge in the stems at the base of the Mitchell grass in this area, six months after the last rain. The green tinge indicated the landscape was ready to respond to a marginal fall of rain and produce some carbon flows, – a true sign of resilience.

The slightly green stems represented healthy plants sitting in a functional soil that must have had some moisture at depth, which the plants with deep roots had managed to reach.


Traditional discussion will allocate a percentage of total grazing pressure to all the different animals present based on how much they eat. A kangaroo is considered to eat less than what a sheep eats, and this is totally true. However, this approach misses the point if you are a big picture person i.e. a systems thinker.

It is not just what a kangaroo eats. There is also the issue of the amount of growth they shut down i.e. reduction of carbon flows into the paddock. They do this by getting through normal fences and turning up when plants are trying to grow after rain. Prior to European settlement, this was not an issue because their population was much lower.

Scientists I met in South Africa in the 1990’s, put a figure on lost growth from animals eating plants when they are trying to grow after rain. They said that resting average pastures for three to eight weeks after rain, increased pasture production by 30 – 80%. There would also be a proportionate increase in the amount of carbon going under ground to build roots and being released as liquid carbon in the form of root exudates for soil microbes.


Apart from protecting the soil from wind and water erosion, there is another practical reason why ground cover should be maintained as high as reasonably possible and not eaten right down to ground level or cut off near the base as kangaroos can do. The number of stooling points increases with pasture height and the more stooling points there are on stems, the quicker a plant can bulk up after rain.

Photo 15: Stems cut off by kangaroos and left on the ground

Photo 15 demonstrates that kangaroos have the ability to cut off stems at the base of perennial grasses, using their protruding scissor teeth. When they do this, they are not eating the stems, simply removing them to get at more digestible parts of the plant.

Photo 15 is a good example of kangaroos removing stooling points and reducing the capacity of perennial grasses to respond to rain. It is ironic that the photos were taken after 20,000 acres (8,000 ha) had been locked up for a month after rain to increase ground cover on a Cunnamulla property. Even more ironic that this was the last pasture growing rain before a drought set in.

On my Cunnamulla property, I had a formed up road in one section of the narrow laneway through the property. Because it was possible to drive at 100 km per hour (60 mph), I often surprised kangaroos just before dark when they came out to feed. As they madly hopped along the fence outside the window, I sometimes noticed a grass stem sticking out of their mouth. In their haste to get away they had obviously not released the stem from between their two teeth, which they had just cut.

The Blackall producer was better able to maintain stooling points after the boundary fence was built, because he only had to focus on adjusting cattle numbers depending on how the season was traveling.

Prof Bob Miles, a retired rangeland scientist sent me this very interesting information, “Kangaroos have protruding dentition. That is their teeth point forward and can therefore eat shoots off below ground level. Sheep and cows cannot. Cows have a big nose so only eat a few centimetres above the ground. Sheep open their gums and eat at ground level”.


Photo 16: Rain not increasing ground cover outside a kangaroo proof fence at Cunnamulla 

Photo 16 is a kangaroo proof fence built around 15,000 acres (6,000 ha) north of Cunnamulla. On the left hand side of the fence, 13,000 kangaroos were removed from the 15,000 acres over three years after the fence was built.

The left hand side of the fence highlights the ability of the property to now respond to rain during dry periods.

It is when grass is short, that grazing pressure has to be really well managed.


In the late 1990’s, CSIRO rangelands scientist Allan Wilson told me that he was involved in grazing trials to quantify the true impact of sheep and kangaroos on the landscape. To do this, they put only kangaroos into a fenced off area and likewise only sheep into a fenced off area. He said that the kangaroos did more damage than sheep when contained.

My memory fails me on the exact stocking rate, but I think they stocked the fenced areas on the basis that a kangaroo eats 60% of what a sheep eats.


Photo 17: This grey kangaroo is now in an area where the species did not exist at the time of European settlement 

Photo 17 was taken recently on my former Cunnamulla property that I sold in 2002. Unfortunately it is suffering a terrible drought, worse than anything I went through.

My father was born in 1914 and grew up in the Cunnamulla area. He told me there were no grey kangaroos in the area while he was growing up and others of his vintage confirmed this to be true. Now, grey kangaroos account for the bulk of the kangaroos in the area.

It was the introduction of man-made watering points that has allowed this non-migratory kangaroo species to move further inland and establish where they were not before. This has placed unprecedented grazing pressure on this inland country, which had traditionally been populated by the migratory red and blue kangaroo.

Continuous grazing is the worst form of land management, yet this is exactly what these grey kangaroos are responsible for, because of their small range.

Government policy is now protecting this grey species of kangaroo by stipulating that females can’t be harvested below a minimum body weight. This legislated weight is higher than the weight they have to reach to reproduce i.e. they are reproducing before they can be legally be harvested.

Unfortunately, government policy based on a lack of understanding of this area’s history is helping to degrade the landscape. Go to any forum today discussing policy and everybody is talking about the need to look after “Natural Capital”.


With the current extensive drought in Eastern Australia, there is a lot of debate about drought policy and where changes need to occur.

Management that increases carbon flows, from any rain that falls, delays the arrival of drought as all the photos show. This is a good starting point for improving policy.

Photo 18: Kangaroos consuming saved groundcover 

Photo 18 is a paddock at Cunnamulla that was locked up during the 1990’s to maintain ground cover for future use. However it was completely eaten out by kangaroos as the kangaroo dung confirms.

Unfortunately, kangaroo policy is eroding drought policy and this is costing the broader community, because drought subsidies are larger than they need to be.

When the whole of his district was drought declared in October 2018, the last thing the Blackall producer was thinking of was a drought subsidy.


Prof Brian Roberts of the University of Southern Queensland “Land Use Study Centre” explained to me years ago why there are misconceptions around the impact of different animals on the landscape. He said that it’s the animal in the landscape last that is blamed for the outcome, however, he pointed out that the ones that precede the ones there last, are also responsible for the final outcome.

Photo 19: Evidence of a high kangaroo presence 

Photo 19 was taken on the Blackall property prior to the fence being built. If this photo had sheep or cattle in the background, to the untrained eye, it would make them responsible for the state of the paddock. However the huge amount of kangaroo dung on the ground tells a different story.


The cornerstone of reducing methane produced by cattle and sheep is to improve the digestibility of their diet.

A kangaroo researcher from the University of Sydney told me that kangaroos are more selective in what they eat than even sheep are. When kangaroos remove the most digestible parts of the pasture, what is left behind for cattle to eat is less digestible. This results in cattle producing more methane per kg of production because they are on a lesser quality diet. What kangaroos are doing is changing the carbon:nitrogen ratio of what is available for cattle to eat.

A new understanding of livestock methane is now developing. Climate scientists world-wide are starting to realise that provided the ongoing methane emissions from sheep and cattle in any country are stable year after year, in other words, animal numbers are not increasing, then these ongoing emissions do not change the climate. Methane is a short term gas (life of 12 years), so the methane being produced today is only replacing the methane produced 12 years ago that has now broken down. Hence todays emissions are not increasing the atmospheric balance of methane. Put simply, these ongoing methane emissions are not changing the net balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the basis of climate change. However, any management that leads to a reduction in methane emissions is actually reversing climate change.


Kangaroos have evolved to be very efficient in their utilisation of water. As a result, they have a very concentrated urine. Their urine is so concentrated that it can contain crystals in it and not much water.

When I was growing up my father told me that sheep would not eat grass that had been heavily grazed by kangaroos, because it was tainted by kangaroo urine. He said that it remained tainted until a shower of rain removed the smell.

I had to wait until the 1982 drought, before I was supplied with evidence that proved my father was spot on with what he knew. The 1982 drought was one of worst droughts of the twentieth century and I only had 10% of the sheep left on the Cunnamulla property, with the rest on agistment.

Near the homestead was a small area of buffel grass in a dormant state. It is a prolific growing grass, so I watered it for the few rams not on agistment. It was the middle of summer, so the buffel responded quickly. It was the only green grass on 50,000 acres. After the rams had been eating it for three days, the kangaroos discovered it. After that the rams never ate it again, although they were often foraging near it. Apart from all the kangaroo dung, there were marks on the ground everywhere from them dragging their tail as they ate. I then had to build a kangaroo proof fence around the area and water some more grass.


The large volume of dry grass inside the kangaroo proof boundary fence shown in photos 1-4, represents a lot of carbon that is not in the atmosphere, remembering that dry grass is 45% carbon. Roots are about 45% carbon and inside the fence, there would also be a much higher root volume.

A lot of climate policy is all about processes, not outcomes unfortunately. Because of carbon trading, we are focused on only the long-term carbon present in the landscape. However, the atmosphere does not understand the difference between what we call short-term carbon and long-term carbon. It only understands that if carbon is in the landscape, then it can’t be in the atmosphere.

Since the fence was built, the Blackall producer has been able to maintain ground cover by being able to manage what grows and what is being eaten by adjusting cattle numbers. While the actual amount of ground cover does vary over time because of rainfall, his minimum level of ground cover is now much higher since he built the fence. This minimum level of ground cover represents “long-term short-term carbon” when other paddocks in the district are spending time bare.


The business model of the Blackall property is buying small steers and then growing them up and selling them as fat bullocks. Every time bullocks were sold and replaced with small steers, this reduced the grazing pressure, because the small steers only eat a third of what bullocks eat.

Before the fence was built, one particular year, kangaroos had a much greater impact on the business than the actual amount of pasture they ate would suggest.

Prior to the arrival of extra kangaroos, the season was starting to deteriorate but he had enough suitable grass in the pasture to fatten the bullocks on the property and sell them in October. The arrival of the kangaroos stopped this happening. As a result, he had to hold the bullocks and wait for the wet season to arrive, which did happen in January. The bullocks were eventually sold as fats in April.

The kangaroos had cost him six months production, because not being able to sell the bullocks as fats in October, meant he could not enter the next production cycle with small steers.

There was also the issue of the higher grazing pressure on the landscape that the held over bullocks applied, that replacement small steers would not have applied, given they only eat a third of what bullocks eat.

There are a lot of subtleties, and not just simple consumption figures, when discussing the impact of kangaroos.


It is true that the kangaroo meat and hide industry is producing export income and providing jobs. However an alternative option for Australia is to move away from kangaroo harvesting and concentrate on exclusion fencing to reduce kangaroos to pre European settlement numbers, and so increase total export income via much increased sheep and cattle production.

If a cost benefit analysis was conducted, it is very likely that increased sheep and cattle production would produce much more export income than the total value of the current kangaroo industry. The improvement in the environment (Natural Capital) and less human stress from drought also needs to be valued.

What is not often mentioned, is that the digestive system of sheep and cattle is more efficient than that of kangaroos.

A person in a recent ABC Landline program said that we need to utilise kangaroos more as a resource, especially given that they don’t have a carbon footprint. A quick look at the exclosures in Idalia National Park and those on the Blackall property, suggest that kangaroos do have a carbon footprint.


It is pretty obvious that the landscape was not fully functional before the kangaroo proof boundary fence was built around the Blackall property. Now it would be interesting to consider how the current producer’s landscape, that is now functional, is performing versus the one that existed pre European settlement, which was also functional.

While it is impossible to be conclusive in comparing the present landscape with the pre European settlement landscape that we did not witness, except for explorer reports. Others I have spoken to agree that it is likely that the Blackall producer is operating at a higher level, i.e. the level of carbon flows produced over time by his production system, for cattle to consume, would be higher than the carbon flows produced by the landscape pre settlement.

Putting aside the aspect of reliable introduced water, the current fenced landscape of the producer has a greater potential to maintain animals over time than the one in the past because of two factors that have changed: wild fires and moribund (rank) grass.

Fire is the more influential factor. Wild fires consume grass that could have been available for cattle to eat. It is known that these fires travelled great distances in the past because of no machinery to put them out. Pre European settlement, the pastures were able to recover from these fires that burnt grass down to ground level, because grazing pressure was not high in the recovery period. However these recovery processes take time and are periods of lower production. Especially if a wild fire precedes a run of dry years.

Low grazing pressure in the past would have, at times, produced moribund grass that is inefficient at introducing carbon into the landscape, just like over grazed unhealthy grass is inefficient at introducing carbon. Moribund grass is very inefficient at using available water. By removing the top off the grass all the time, the producer’s cattle are stopping it going moribund.

Getting back to basics, when graziers let animals, including kangaroos, harvest carbon flows too early following rain, they interfere with the biophysical conduit (leaves) that are responsible for introducing carbon into the landscape. The Blackall producer was only letting cattle harvest the “surplus”, not the means by which a usable surplus is generated. Also, he was not harvesting to ground level the way a fire does.


The photos taken inside Idalia National Park and on the Blackall property over time, highlight that kangaroos may cause more environmental damage than existing public debate suggests.

Rangeland scientists are aware that plagues of kangaroos are frustrating paddock management.

Kangaroos influence soil carbon levels because of their ability to get through fences and reduce the flow of carbon into the landscape when grasses are trying to grow after rain. They also increase the amount of methane produced by sheep and cattle because their very selective consumption of pastures changes the carbon:nitrogen ratio of the diet available to sheep and cattle.

At a policy level, consideration needs to be given to the ability of kangaroos, as an uncontrolled animal, to impact paddock resilience. This is resulting in the early arrival of droughts.

Australia would probably be better off financially and environmentally if properties were fenced to protect them from kangaroos, and the kangaroo harvesting industry slowly wound down as more fences are built. This is not suggesting that there should not be kangaroos on properties, instead a token number like there was at the time of European settlement.



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.


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.


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.


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.

Water infiltration is the first requirement for producing carbon flows

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.

Paddock resilience is the ability to generate carbon flows

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. 


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.   


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.


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. 


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.


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.

Photo: Patrick Francis

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. 


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”.


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.

Incorporation of carbon flows functions within grazing best management practice training programs has post farm gate beef marketing implications as it provides a credible basis on which to make red meat brand claims which an increasing percentage of consumers are looking for in respect of livestock health and welfare and environmental management irrespective of challenging climatic conditions.  Photos: Patrick Francis


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 all of 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.


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.


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.

Animals select new growth first, be it from grasses or edible shrubs


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.


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.

Stem diameter of tips removed from Old Man Saltbush by sheep (1inch = 25 mm)

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.


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.

A resilient paddock is one that has the ability to generate enough carbon flows from rain to keep itself functional and productive. Resilience has two components, soil resilience and plant resilience. Plants fail first then the soil fails, i.e. poorly managed plants do not generate enough carbon flows to keep the soil healthy.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


I quote what a soil scientist who worked for the Federal Department of Climate Change wrote after looking at the photo.

“My guesses…

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)”.


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.


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.


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.

Earth carbon pools and the flows between the pools (1 Giga tonne = 1,000,000,000 tonnes)

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.


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.


The picture below reminds us that we have to keep short term carbon flowing through the paddock to remain in production. 

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


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, 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.


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.

The effect leaf removal has on 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.


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.


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.

The foreground had a deficiency of carbon above and below ground prior to the wet period, so hardly regenerated

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.

Close up of where we are standing in the above picture

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.

Close up of the area that didn’t respond to the wet period


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.


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.


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 ongoingThis is why I feel uncomfortable when somebody suggests that all we need is a wet season to undo degradation.



When I visited South Africa in the late 1990’s, I met rangelands scientist Dr Louis du Pisani. He told me how he had discovered the difference between perennial grasses and perennial edible shrubs, in terms of how they storeand utilise energy reserves. He explained that what happens in the roots is different.

With ongoing grazing pressure that depletes energy reserves, old man saltbush starts to grow very small leaves which is a sign it is close to dying.

His research into the Karoo Bush, which is similar to our perennial saltbushes, showed that when the shrub called on energy reserves, the root volume did not reduce. The energy reserves were in the centre of the roots and not part of the structure. The ability of the Karoo Bush to maintain root volume, after calling on energy reserves, means it can keep sourcing moisture and nutrients below the roots of perennial grasses.

In good years, annuals utilise excess moisture lying between perennial grasses to add to carbon flows, while in dry times, edible shrubs utilise moisture that is below perennial grasses to provide some carbon flows when perennial grasses are dormant. But, it’s critical that both the grass and the shrubs are managed according to their needs.

Like perennial grasses, if the energy reserves become depleted, then edible shrubs become weak and die. What alerted Louis to the different storage process, was that the Karoo Bushes that had died from overgrazing, had the normal root volume, i.e. the roots did not reduce with the depletion of the energy reserves. 


His other important discovery was that, unlike perennial grasses, which replenish energy reserves before reaching maturity, the shrubs made the main transfer of plant sap out of the leaves and down to the roots, with the onset of a dry season, but little before. We know that in Australia, Old Man Saltbush has the ability to transfer plant sap from leaves to roots.

Because of the timing of the transfer from leaves to roots, the complete defoliation of edible shrubs before the onset of dry times, if allowed to happen regularly and then followed by continuous grazing, can see the death of shrubs through depleted root reserves.


It is the ability of shrubs to grow in dry times, that puts them at risk if not managed properly. A shrub producing new growth in a dry time from subsoil moisture, after it has been completely defoliated back to stems, is no different to a perennial grass plant that is starting to grow from rain after being dormant. In both cases, energy reserves will start to run down if animals keep them defoliated as they keep trying to grow.

In a mixed pasture of grass and edible shrubs, poor grass managers transfer grazing pressure onto the shrubs too early in the drought cycle. If animals are only removing some of the leaves on the shrubs, to source trace elements, then there is not a problem.

Appreciating that edible shrubs have a different process to perennial grasses, is important for the management of saltbush plantations. It also explains why established plantations of Old Man Saltbush perform well for some and not others.

Francis Ratcliffe’s novel, “Flying Fox And Drifting Sands”, published in 1938, documented how over grazing early in the twentieth century in South Australia, saw the demise of saltbushes in large sections of the arid areas.


While shrubs have the ability to produce carbon flows in dry times, they do need to be managed differently to grasses.



Could it be that a lot of cattle producers world-wide are being unfairly blamed for progressing climate change because of the methane released by their cattle? Going one step further, this article will suggest that the methane emissions of the Australian sheep and cattle industry are not changing the climate, because they have been stable since the 1970’s.

Cows up to speed on climate change

We have to ask the question, is the current way of comparing methane and carbon dioxide, using the Global Warming Potential (GWP) approach, the best way to assess the outcome of the methane produced by ruminant animals like sheep and cattle? I raise the point, keeping in mind that the debate is about “climate change”. We keep hearing the comment that we have to limit “change” to two degrees.

I am not suggesting that the science the IPCC and the world is relying on is wrong, but maybe it is worth having another look at how we are interpreting it in the area of ruminant animals.

The scientific evidence to support what follows in this weeks’ column, resides in the peer reviewed paper, “Offsetting methane emissions – An alternative to emission equivalence metrics”which was published in the “International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control” –  (click on “Download PDF” after the link opens, then click on “Article”). The thrust of the published paper is that we should be comparing “ongoing methane emissions (or reductions)” to “one-off emissions (or reductions) of carbon dioxide”. This weeks’ column will focus on the outcome of “ongoing stable methane emissions” from ruminants. The GWP approach focuses on one-off emissions and compares a one-off emission of methane to a one-off emission of carbon dioxide.


The best way to understand the diagram of the cow below is to visualise methane constantly being released by the cow and accumulating above it (in the green circle).  While the cow is releasing methane, past emissions will be breaking down in the atmosphere at the same rate. Methane lasts 12 years in the atmosphere (some suggest shorter), before being broken down into CO2 and H2O. It is broken down by a chemical reaction with hydroxyl radicals (OH) that keep forming in the atmosphere. Assuming the methane released by the cow each year is the same, then the methane residing in the atmosphere (green circle) will be in equilibrium, with the additions and subtractions.  It is true that cow size and pasture quality determines the amount of methane released, however, the fact the cow changes size and eats a different diet over time is a variable which averages out over time.

In the diagram above, think of the equilibrium amount of methane, as a permanent balloon of methane that follows the cow around every day.When the cow is sent to the meat works and replaced by another cow, the balloon follows the next cow that is put in the paddock. In fact, all the cows that followfor the next 500 years.

The cow and its replacements, will be producing methane permanently, however, at the end of the life cycle of the methane, what is produced in the first year of the new cycle, will only be replacing the first year in the previous cycle, which will now be gone. Methane is not an accumulating gas like carbon dioxide is.


I am a very basic person, I like to get back to basics and go from there. So let’s look at the climate change debate from the atmosphere’s perspective, and how it functions.

The atmosphere does not understand the difference between all the different greenhouse gases, nor the comparative figures we put on them with the GWP approach.  It only understands the total “radiative forcing” of all the gases combined. A bit like we are only interested in the flood height, not where all the water came from.

The warming effect of each greenhouse gas is known and is referred to as “radiative forcing” and is measured as watts per cubic metre of gas. Stabilising the climate relies on stabilising the total radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The purpose of the cow diagram was to show that ongoing stable methane emissions from ruminants, do not change the total radiative forcing.


If you talk to the atmosphere, it sees sheep and cattle in Australia as the mouse in the room in terms of the changes it is witnessing.  This is because the combined methane emissions of sheep and cattle in Australia peaked in 1970 and have basically remained stable since, with just a slight decline. This is a little known fact. It is interesting to note that the 1970’s was the last time the herd was at 30 million head. S o while it is true that methane from Australian ruminants have always influenced the day to day climate, in recent times, their methane has not been a cause of the ongoing change in the net balance of greenhouse gases, as the diagram below shows.

The bottom line on the graph is the amount of methane released each year by livestock.

The top line on the graph is the net mass of methane attributed to livestock. The net mass is emissions less what has broken down. It is often referred to as the atmospheric burden.

The amount of methane in the atmosphere is still increasing, however this is not due to Australian ruminants. 


The Global Warming Potential (GWP) approach has been widely adopted as the metric for comparing the climate impact of different greenhouse gases.

For those wanting to know exactly how the GWP methodology came into being, read the paper, “The global warming potential – the need for an interdisciplinary retrial” by Keith P Shine.  

The GWP approach was designed for decision makers in government and considers three time horizons, 20/100/500 years.

As Keith Shine explains in his paper, decision makers were presented with modelling showing comparisons over 20 years, 100 years or 500 years, they put their finger on the middle time horizon and ran with it.  That is why we have the 100 year rule.


When I went into Idalia National Park in Nov 2009, a year that was very wet in the first half, the photo below is what I saw. There were no sheep or cattle in the park, just kangaroos. It was obvious that the kangaroos had completely shut down the carbon flows in the area between the trees, i.e. carbon that should have been in the paddock was still in the atmosphere.

An enclosure inside Idalia National Park, west of Blackall. Photo taken 14/11/2009

At the time, it was being suggested by some that sheep and cattle should be replaced with kangaroos because kangaroos emit virtually no methane. It was a perfect example of having a single issue debate and not looking at the big picture (taking a systems approach). I then decided to compare the carbon footprint of kangaroos versus sheep and cattle. If kangaroos reduce carbon flows, then their methane advantage is immediately being eroded. Also, a kangaroo researcher at the University of Sydney had told me that kangaroos are even more selective than sheep in what they choose to eat. This means that when they are present, they are reducing the digestibility of the diet available to cattle, which means the cattle will then produce more methane per kg of production.

As somebody who knew absolutely nothing about how the atmosphere functioned, I started reading and really struggled, as it was so complicated. However, having no formal training in the area, meant I was reading with no preconceived ideas. After I progressed past the stage of total confusion, something did not add up with how the science was being applied in regard to ruminants. If my memory serves me right, it was the three different figures placed on methane that really started me thinking. One thing lead to another and then a group of well respected scientists joined me in thinking outside the square. Hence the paper referred to at the start.


In the paper “Offsetting methane emissions – An alternative to emission equivalence metrics”, the science is very complicated but the logic is not. The reference to “equivalence metrics” is a reference to the GWP approach.  

The paper is part of an emerging body of work on how to do better than the 1990 IPCC approach. As well as our paper, Smith has written one and later Myles Allen has also written a paper. The paper has been cited by another paper.

The way the GWP approach works, is that ONE OFF emissions of methane are compared with ONE OFF emissions of carbon dioxide. Also, the GWP approach comes up with different figures when comparing methane and carbon dioxide, depending on the time frame of the comparison. If we are looking 20 years forward, then they say methane is 72 times worse than carbon dioxide, 21-23 times worse if the time frame is 100 years, 7.6 times worse if the time frame is 500 years.

However, our paper makes a strong case for comparing ONGOING emissions of methane with ONE OFF emissions of carbon dioxide. This approach gives the same comparison between methane and carbon dioxide, regardless of the time horizon chosen.

Experts in the field initially struggle with this approach much more than lay people, because their mindset is fixed on the GWP approach and how it compares methane and carbon dioxide.


After suggesting that methane and carbon dioxide should be compared differently, the paper then looks at how much carbon needs to be sequestered in the paddock, to remove the effect of the ongoing stable methane.  

The paper proposes that a one-off sequestration of 1t of carbon would offset an ongoing methane emission in the range of 0.90 – 1.05 kg CH4 per year. Provided we keep the carbon from the CO2 in the landscape, then the one off sequestration accounts for the ongoing methane for centuries.

The paper came up with building up the sink over forty years, a bit like paying off an interest-free loan at 2.5% of the balance each year.

Applying the equation published in the paper is like leaving the cows in the paddock as if they were not emitting methane.  

Putting it another way, the green circle above the cow in the diagram, is the atmospheric burden produced by the ongoing methane and, this is what has to be offset by bringing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it’s carbon in the paddock.

Because of the way the atmosphere functions over time, the paper had to apply the 0.3 factor (about to be discussed) to calculate the figure for carbon. The 0.3 factor increases the figure for carbon because sink efficiency reduces over time.

Committed warming, which was mentioned in the column beside the cow diagram, did not have to be considered in the offsetting calculations, because it applies to both CO2 and CH4.        

In a sense, the paper documents how producers can be part of the solution. The equation in the paper is reversing climate change. Even offsetting 5% of ongoing stable methane is reversing climate change. 

Realistically, nobody expects cattle producers to be applying the paper’s equation and reversing climate change, when society has chosen to let climate change continue with the ongoing release of carbon dioxide.

However, there are plenty of cattle producers who are good managers of carbon flows, who without even realising it, are applying the paper’s equation. This is because better management of carbon flows increases paddock carbon, especially short term carbon. I deliberately mentioned short term carbon, because the atmosphere doesn’t differentiate between short term carbon and long term carbon. It just knows that the carbon atom is not in the atmosphere.


Feel welcome to skip this section and the next one. They are a bit heavy going and are included more to answer the questions technical people would be asking.

When the paper calculated how much carbon has to be removed from the atmosphere, and stored in the paddock, to offset the ongoing stable methane emissions, the oceans had to be considered. This is because carbon dioxide moves between the oceans and the atmosphere, as part of rebalancing.

For fossil carbon emissions, this re-balancing of carbon by the oceans works for you, and takes some of the carbon out of the system. For sequestering carbon, the re-balancing of carbon by the oceans works against you.

Atmospheric scientist, Pep Canadell explains that in the short term, in times of growing CO2 emissions, a proportion of 0.4 remains in the atmosphere. This is called the airborne fraction. When one looks at the longer term, this fraction drops to a proportion of  0.3 (the 0.3 factor that we use in the paper). Put simply, if you are talking long term, for every tonne of carbon you remove from the atmosphere, the end result will be a reduction of 0.3 of a tonne in the atmosphere.

The 0.3 is called “the airborne fraction of cumulative emissions”.

The long-term nature of CO2 is what justifies balancing it against the long-term equilibrium CH4 level, in which case, you have to use the actual long-term number for CO2.

Putting all this into a layman’s perspective, you have to sequester three times more than simple logic suggests. The reduction in “sink efficiency” is because of the rebalancing of carbon by the oceans is undermining your efforts on land.


It is widely recognised that defining trade-offs between greenhouse gas emissions using ’emission equilivalence’ based on global warming potentials (GWPs) referenced to carbon dioxide produces anomalous results when applied to methane. The short atmospheric lifetime of methane, compared to the timescales of CO2 uptake, leads to the greenhouse warming depending strongly on the temporal pattern of emission substitution.

We argue that a more appropriate way to consider the relationship between the warming effects of methane and carbon dioxide is to define a ‘mixed metric’ that compares ongoing methane emissions (or reductions) to one-off emissions (or reductions) of carbon dioxide. Quantifying this approach, we propose that a one-off sequestration of 1t of carbon would offset an ongoing methane emission in the range of 0.90 – 1.05 kg CH4 per year.

Our analysis is consistent with other approaches to addressing the criticisms of GWP-based emission equivalence, but provides a simpler and more robust approach while still achieving close equivalence of climate mitigation outcomes ranging over decadal to multi-century timescales. 


If you believe in human induced climate change, then it is the long term gas carbon dioxide which will paint us into the corner, not stable methane from ruminants (sheep and cattle).

 “Stabilising the climate means cutting all future carbon dioxide emissions and stabilising ongoing methane emissions from ruminant animals. This statement does not apply to fossil methane which is different to ruminant methane as it keeps adding a new carbon atom to the atmosphere.

Sheep and cattle produce less methane per kg of production when carbon flows are managed better. This is because the digestibility of their diet is better. Also, with better management of carbon flows, the extra carbon (including short term carbon) residing in the paddock is offsetting some of the equilibrium methane.