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With carbon gains comes resilience

04 February 2021

Two years of history-making drought that led to almost total destocking, coupled with a September 2019 bushfire that wiped out 1,000ha, hasn’t impeded Wilmot Cattle Company’s soil carbon journey.

When the annual soil carbon measurements were taken in May 2020, the burnt-out sites still came in at 4.7% carbon – the same as the previous year and double the soil carbon levels of five years ago.

Wilmot Cattle Company's General Manager, Stuart Austin, is now looking to make the same carbon gains all over again on recently acquired land at Gunnedah, but this time there will be money to be made.

A soil carbon project on the company's properties was approved for participation in the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund in 2020. This means the business can start earning money by sequestering carbon through soil improvements. The aim is to sequester two tonnes of carbon/ha/year, which will earn additional income of $250,000. For a 5,600ha enterprise emitting 1,800t of CO² equivalents per year, it also means the company is well and truly carbon neutral.

Stuart ran the figures (which are generated through grazing, feedbase growth and soil data, livestock figures and extensive farm mapping) through a carbon accounting process piloted by MLA earlier in 2020 and the carbon sequestration was confirmed.

The growth in soil carbon – measured annually at the same sites since 2012 (when they were 2.3%) – is attributed to the grazing system implemented on each farm. Stuart’s grazing system involves running a small number of large mobs moved frequently in an intensive grazing system with long spelling periods for pastures. The intensive grazing system integrates extensive water infrastructure, moveable hot wires, and multi-species forage crops and perennial pastures that provide year-round ground cover and facilitate consistent 1kg/day weight gain for cattle.

"Initially the change in grazing system was driven by the need to be more productive and more profitable," Stuart said.

"As a result, we've also developed a more sustainable business.

“With greater resilience to climate variation and improving our carbon bottom line has been an additional and, maybe originally, an unintended benefit."

Bouncing back

Stuart believed resilient soil health was what supported a quick return to productivity following the fires (and on the back of a year which saw only 437mm of rain – almost a third of the average annual rainfall).

"When we did get 180mm of rain in January 2020, the country just leapt away, which meant we could buy cattle earlier than others and as a result, they were cheaper," he said.

The business is also focusing on breeding climate resilient cattle.

"To turn cattle off faster and reduce lifetime emissions we’re using genetics to breed a smaller-framed, highly-fertile animal," Stuart said.

Building further on the gains made by this grazing system, the company is also exploring the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme, which involves landholders establishing a biodiversity stewardship site on their land, generating credits to sell to developers or landholders who require those credits, to securely offset activities at other sites.

"But setting up all of this is not simple and it takes a lot of work. It has cost us about $160,000 to get to this stage with the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)," he said.

Stuart’s top tips for carbon sequestration

For those considering following the lead of Wilmot Cattle Company when it comes to developing a livestock enterprise which supports carbon sequestration, here’s Stuart’s top tips.

  1. Establish your soil carbon baseline
    Start taking soil samples from the same location at the same time every year and get them tested at a facility that can do a LECO carbon test.

  2. Establish a solid foundation through training
    For us it was the Grazing for Profit training offered by Resource Consulting Services. It gave us a whole new perspective on our business and our people and showed us how to think and manage for the next 100 years, not just five years.

  3. Find a mentor
    Seek out someone who will support you and give you good advice when you need it.

  4. Look at the big picture
    Stop thinking and acting year-to-year and start thinking long term.

  5. Build resilience
    Reducing risk in your business and focusing on increasing production without increasing costs supports a more robust business. Learn to think grass and then how many cattle you can run, not the other way around.

Lessons learned

  • Earning money from carbon is achievable for livestock producers, but it takes time and money.
  • Building soil carbon supports a climate resilient and highly productive enterprise.