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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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