Pig farmers can turn pig poo into profits, thanks to the new Carbon Farming Initiative.
As one of the additional programs in the recently signed carbon tax legislation, the initiative allows farmers to use approved methodologies to earn carbon credits by reducing carbon emissions or removing carbon from the atmosphere and then selling those credits for a hefty price.
While some farmers have been implementing carbon farming methods for a while now — often to help their own production or land management — Australia is the first country to have a federally backed carbon offset market for farmers with approved methodologies. The Carbon Farming Initiative kicks off officially in December.
But can beef farmers turn cowpats into cash? Welcome to the Crikey farmyard, where we examine what carbon farming initiatives are available to different farmers and how they can cash in on this burgeoning industry.
Some methods — carbon soil sequestration, planting environmental plantings, reducing fertilisers, limiting tillage — can be implemented by a wide range of farmers while others are more industry specific.
Effectively carbon farmers either reduce carbon in the atmosphere by storing it or they can reduce or avoid carbon emissions by capturing and destroying methane emissions from livestock manure or landfill.
Pig farmers must be happy as a pig in methane-emission reduced manure after news that they were the first industry to have their method of reducing carbon pollution approved. There are four other methodologies currently with the Domestics Offsets Integrity Committee, including ones to reduce emissions from savanna burning, landfill gas, and waste diversion and also a methodology to sequester carbon through environmental plantings.
The government says it is trying to encourage industries to come up with specific livestock or industry methodologies. So what are different farming groups proposing?
Pigs, and their sloppy refuse, are the big winners when it comes to carbon farming so far. Peak industry body Australian Pork worked with the government and scientists to develop the current methodology.
Australian Pork claims that by implementing the manure ethane program, farmers can increase the return on each pig by $3.45.
As pigs are penned — rather than roaming around — their manure is localised and often pumped out to nearby ponds.
Farmers can then remove carbon emissions from the manure by covering the pond with polyethylene, which forces the methane to rise as a gas. The gas is then collected and can be destroyed through flaring, turned into electricity (which can be used on-site or sold back to the grid).
There are 680 commercial piggeries in Oz and it’ll cost $75,000-$200,00 to install the equipment required, depending on the size of the piggery. The government thinks it’ll take just 18 months for large piggeries to get a return on their investment, while it may take smaller farmers up to five years.
“The short answer is that we really don’t see that carbon farming is going to be viable in the context of our industry, so we haven’t done any detailed analysis,” a spokesperson from the Australian Chicken Meat Federation told Crikey.
Chicken manure can’t be used in the same way that pork manure can. “It’s dry, not wet like in the case of pig manure. You’d have to add water and build tanks, there is just not the infrastructure,” explains the spokesperson. “It’s not impossible scientifically to see things happening but in economic terms — the size of farms, the locations — there’s nothing obvious there that pops out.”
Dairy Australia was involved with the original discussions between Australian Pork and the department of climate change regarding the methodology, but backed out of the manure emissions methodology that was eventually passed.
“At the moment, because dairy effluent doesn’t produce the same effluent systems in methane, it’s not cost effective. But we haven’t ruled it out,” Catherine Phelps, program manager for natural resource management and climate change farmers at Dairy Australia, told Crikey.
But rather than focusing on cow pats, Phelps said the dairy industry has started working with researchers to examine adding feed additives to increase the oil and quality of feed. More oil in the feed means less emissions from the cow.
As Dairy Australia wrote in a proposal to the Department of Climate Change:
“… for every 1% increase in total oil in the diet, average methane emissions can be reduced by 3.5%. For Australian pasture-based dairy systems methane reductions of 10-25% maybe achieved through the addition of dietary oils to the diets of the milking herd. This is particularly the case in summer and autumn when the oil content of pastures is low.
Averaged over a year, this can result in a reduction of methane emissions of 5%/ cow. On an average dairy farm this would be the equivalent of 1.2 tonnes/CO2e reduction. “
It’s hoping to come up with a methodology in the coming months, with grape marc — a byproduct of the grape industry — one of the possible additives to be tested.Vegetable farmers:
“The impact on horticulture in relation to this scheme is less consequential than it is to some other industries,” a spokesperson from AUSVEG, the peak body for vegetable growers, told Crikey.
But AUSVEG are still examining its options, noting that its CEO sits on the Land Sector Working Group, which is examining the Carbon Farming Initative. “AUSVEG is currently speaking with consultants who have expertise in this area to explore what benefits may potentially be available to our members under the scheme,” said the spokesperson.
Horticulture is one of the most difficult farming industries to implement carbon farming methods such as carbon sequestration in soil because growing produce results is a lot of earth disturbance, says Michael Kiely from the Carbon Farmers of Australia.
The CEO of Woolfarmers, Jane Brownbill, told Crikey that wool is already the “most sustainable and biodegradable fibre” around but that the organisation was really excited when it learnt that pig farmers had a carbon farming method approved and wool farmers don’t want to miss out on the opportunities the initiative presents. “We’re agin’ the carbon tax, but we’ll work within it,” said Brownbill.
There is no obvious frontrunner methodology but Brownbill, only new in the job, is hoping to meet with her executive and plan out how they would work with the government to develop one. This would probably involve working with R&D organisations such as Australian Wool Innovation and also the NFF, said Brownbill.
Ron Cullen, CEO of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia told Crikey that it was “relying on the National Farmers Federation to take the lead”. “We’re very small, we don’t have the capacity to cover all the issues,” said Cullen.
He also noted that while there were no immediate technologies to be implemented, there was a lot of work being done to examine ruminant nutrition (ruminants being mammals that digest plant food, including sheep, cattle, goats and camels) and the role it could play on lessening the impact on the environment, although the research was not sheep specific.
Hopefully Cullen won’t expect too much from the NFF, because Charlie McElhone, general manager of policy at the NFF, told Crikey: “It’s not the NFF’s role to develop methodologies or go through the science of what can and can’t be done.”
McElhone notes that the NFF played a part in pushing the government for the initiative and it was supportive of the program but that now it was “up to the market and up to research and development organisations, research agencies and individual farmers to put through methodologies and work through government systems”.
“There’s a bit of a temptation from all sides to maybe downplay the limitations and risks of carbon markets,” warned McElhone, noting the issue of “permanence” — such as when a farmer commits land to a carbon forest that they may want as agricultural land again in 10 years. “There needs to be extensive education and awareness programs within this to make sure that farmers who go in to it — and we encourage them too — go in with their eyes wide open.”
Graziers are often perfect candidates for carbon soil sequestration projects, because grazing lends itself to carbon, says Michael Kiely, from Carbon Farmers of Australia, a not-for-profit company encouraging farmers to enter carbon markets. CFA is pushing for its own soil sequestration method to be approved, which employs the use of buffer pools for storage.
Kiely also noted that farmers shouldn’t put all their eggs in one methodology basket. “The focus on sequestration is misleading because there are several levels of offsets that can be accessed at the same time from the same set of practices,” explained Kiely.
He added that methane emissions reductions from animals, reduction in nitroxide emissions from changing fertiliser practices, environmental plants and strategic plantings could all be implemented at the same time by farmers. “The whole portfolio put together in a method that exposes farmers to an acceptable level of risk is the ideal operation of the Carbon Farming Initiative,” said Kiely.
Although, he did suggest the potential carbon farmers exercise caution: “We recommend a beginner should not commit to changing their whole operation in one whole swoop, just put 200 hectares aside.
“The other thing that motivates carbon farmers is a love of the land, to treat it well and give it the best chance to perform,” added Kiely. “One of the great rewards of the carbon farming is seeing the land respond with joy to the rest, resuscitation and regeneration.”