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How understanding of carbon flows led to improved extension outcomes

Beef Central, 19/10/2012

A summary of carbon stocks and carbon flows, how they relate to rural production and Rory and Kathy Frost's perspective as producers on how learning about the concept of carbon flows has enhanced their understanding of related extension activities.  

Putting carbon stocks and carbon flow into perspective

Carbon stocks are a measure of the different carbon compounds present at a particular point in time.

In the case of carbon trading, the amount of carbon atoms present is measured, so carbon can be traded as a commodity.

In the case of organic matter, soil tests measure the stock of this carbon compound to quantify the health of the soil.

Carbon flows on the other hand are an indication of how much activity is actually occurring in the system. It could be the amount of carbon flowing into a paddock over one year or after a rainfall event.

Plants allocate some of the carbon flows to below ground and the remainder goes into plant parts above ground.

The higher the flows, the higher the level of rural production. Plants release some of the carbon flows directly to soil life as part of getting the resources they require. The percentage of carbon flows released above ground for livestock to consume, is influenced by previous management and environmental conditions.

Carbon stocks can be either short term, medium term or long term.

As a generalised comment, 75–80 percent of new carbon introduced by photosynthesis will be gone within 12 months. Some will be gone in a day, weeks or months. The actual amount depends on moisture levels and temperature.

Money makes money, carbon makes carbon

Founder of the Carbon Grazing principle Alan Lauder suggests that the way soil samples are taken means they do not include all of the short term carbon that those focused on carbon flows would consider relevant. He believes this is likely to be because the focus generally is not on carbon flows – it is on carbon stocks, especially long-term carbon.

Long term carbon stocks do not generally change much over time and are often a reflection of what type of soil you have and where you are in Australia in terms of temperature and rainfall. It is the short term carbon stocks that are highly variable. A small percentage of the new carbon coming in each year can potentially end up in long-term carbon stocks.

In Beef Central's associated article about the regeneration of a claypan on Rory and Kathy Frost's Southern Queensland cattle property, the claypan is likely to substantially build long-term carbon stocks over time because it is coming off a low base.

Short-term carbon stocks (called labile carbon) are a measure of what has happened in the recent past in terms of carbon flows.

This is where the discussion on stocks and flows overlap.

The amount of labile carbon present is also an indication of the resources that will become available to plants in the near future, assuming there is adequate moisture to see them released .

There are some who feel that to be able to manage and understand soil organic carbon, it is important to monitor and measure only labile carbon levels.

To better understand carbon in the big picture, it is useful to consider carbon stocks and carbon flows as related, but separate debates.

Carbon flows are much more influenced by management than long term carbon stocks.

One reason grazing country and cropping country has a different level of soil organic carbon is because properly managed pasture has higher carbon flows over the year.

Two paddocks can have equal long term carbon stocks but it is the one that has the most carbon flowing through which will have the highest level of production – a bit like capital versus cash flows.

The change in the Frost’s claypan shows all the good that carbon leaves behind as it flows through a paddock.

Just as money makes money, so carbon makes carbon as the regenerated claypan demonstrates.

Implications for extension

As a producer, Kathy Frost said that it was when she understood the concept of carbon flows that current extension information became easier to understand.

She said that producers had to try to pull information together, whereas scientists tended to pull in the opposite direction as they are forced to become experts in a particular field, and concentrate on just part of the overall system.

She believes this “reductionist science” has held back the connection between “carbon flows” and how the system works, and this is reflected in a lot of current extension programs.

Kathy said that as soon as she understood the concept of carbon flows, the separate issues that extension officers talked about fitted together.

“It joined up all the dots,” she said. “I could see the big picture of how the landscape really functioned by following the path of carbon. 

“Everything suddenly became simpler and obvious.

“Getting ground cover into perspective is a good example.

“Maintaining ground cover is at the forefront of current extension.

“Putting aside letting animals eat too much pasture after it has grown, it is carbon flows that determine the level of ground cover.

“This is simply because grass is about 45pc carbon when dry, so ground cover will not exist without carbon flows.

“Traditional extension would observe that the ground cover on the claypan is increasing, however modern thinkers would note that carbon flows have increased over the five years.”  

Rory Frost said that given the word carbon was not even used in extension ten years ago, prevailing thought has progressed a long way in the interim.

“The word carbon just wasn’t seen as part of explaining land management,” he said.

“While some industry organisations are still to change, carbon stocks are often discussed in extension now.

“The next step is to expand past carbon stocks to include carbon flows."

Carbon flows 'natural entry point of the debate'

The Frosts attribute their understanding of the importance of carbon flows to Alan Lauder, the founder of the Carbon Grazing principle. 

The Carbon Grazing principle focuses on the role of carbon flows and how to maximise them.

Mr Lauder’s book “Carbon Grazing” is used by learning institutions including the Colorado State University in America and his approach to discussing carbon flows is set to be introduced into the curriculum of a leading Australian university in 2014.

Associate Professor Allan Dale of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University says Mr Lauder’s clear ideas about the central role of carbon stocks and flows “cut through several complex cross-cutting debates between soil scientists, carbon traders and agronomists in ways that can make practical sense to cattle producers”.

“Alan understands that securing profitability is the key to good grazing management, and that the management of carbon stocks and flows in the paddock over time drives enterprise profitability,” associate professor Dale says.

“From this, pasture and soil health, animal health, erosion management, water retention and tradeable greenhouse gas emission avoidance and sequestration all follow. Alan takes some very complex system principles and turns those into the pragmatic actions needed for producers to stay in the grazing business for the long term."

Despite this level of support Mr Lauder’s concepts are yet to be adopted into ongoing extension programs.

Mr Lauder says there is a view that his work on carbon flows simply fine tunes existing extension programs, or tells the same story in a slightly different way, but he rejects that theory.

He sees carbon flows as a “natural entry point of the debate”, and believes that adding carbon flows does not discredit current extension work, and nor would it require existing extension work to change. 

"It is more like adding an introductory module that helps producers and students see how all the current topics discussed fit together," he said.

“It is a case of preparing the mind so that things are less complicated.

“It also focuses producers on something their management has some control over.

“We may not have any control over how much rain arrives but we do have some control over how effective it is.”

He also believes that incorporating carbon flows into extension work in Queensland would help to reduce the flow sediment and nutrients onto the Great Barrier Reef. A soon to be released report will discuss the particle size of sediment going onto the Great Barrier Reef, as a result of different land management. It would appear that better management of carbon flows will result in a lower percentage of the particle size that can kill coral in 24 hours.

Kathy Frost says the transformation that has occurred in the claypan highlights a key point that Alan Lauder makes: “All else being equal, the paddock with the highest carbon flows through it will be the most productive”.

“At the end of the day, rural producers sell a carbon product be it grain, livestock, wool or hay.

“They sell something that has lived. This is why it is in their interests to understand how to manage carbon flows better.”
 

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