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Pressure on farmers to reduce methane and have the free steak knives too

Enteric methane represents around 90 per cent of on-farm carbon emissions in cattle and sheep enterprises.

Agriculture is likely to see an uptake in methane abatement action based on market pressures pushed back to producers.

Producers in turn may well enact a methane reduction tool for stock… but most likely only if it pays the bills via higher productivity, has a low input price which limits risk, and the reduced methane output is almost a spin off like a free set of steak knives.

FeedWorks senior nutritionist Ian Sawyer said authorities and most Australians wanted methane abatement to be a voluntary uptake but no one was keen to pay for it.

“Farmers won’t be paid much for the methane at current carbon values, taking action themselves can still pay back if the tool employed results in a productivity increase,” Mr Sawyer said.

“It does not seem likely the Federal Government will mandate reductions in enteric methane production from livestock when we have significant amounts of methane involved in liquid natural gas sector that is viewed as economically important and politically sensitive.

“But farmers can expect a strong commercial pressure through industry groups and end users for methane reduction to occur. The sheep industry may be the first to cop the pressure from retailers and end users wanting reductions or offsets, while dairy, beef and lamb will all be pressured via retailers and end users backed by industry groups.

“It is better that we as a ruminant sector are seen to act proactively, or we will risk having potentially onerous constraints imposed on us in the future.”

Mr Sawyer sits in methane discussions with the Federal Government, industry bodies and research institutions around the route forward for implementing methane abatement strategies in a way that can work for producers and the rural sector.

He communicates regularly with key methane researchers locally and overseas on what is global best practice and emerging technology.

Speaking at the Pasture Agronomy Service conference in Wagga Wagga on May 24, Mr Sawyer said farmers will come under pressure from the supply chain to reduce their carbon footprint, with enteric methane management being key.

Enteric methane represents around 90 per cent of on-farm carbon emissions in cattle and sheep enterprises.

Of the enteric methane emitted nationally, beef cattle comprise 63 per cent, dairy cattle 12 per cent and sheep 24 per cent.

“My experience in poultry and pigs tells me do not expect big premiums from the market for your reduced carbon product. It is going to be a circumstance where people are expecting you to do it to qualify, not to be rewarded and do expect exclusion from the market if you don’t act,” Mr Sawyer said.

“Expect pressure to react, even if it’s us and our livestock making methane reductions and saving the bacon of others in fossil fuels.

Enteric methane is known as a flow greenhouse gas. It has a 10 year life cycle which is short for a greenhouse gas. Fossil fuels are a stock gas that last 1000 years or more and build up pressure on global warming more significantly.

Action on enteric methane can make a difference fast,” Mr Sawyer said.

“The supply chain commercial end user markets will push us to do something whatever the outcome in politics and science.”

Mr Sawyer said current government schemes have approved two methods of direct in-feed methane abatement with neither being practical or economic.

These are adding fats or nitrates to the animal’s diet.

“Fat is not economic to use at $3500/tonne while nitrates are potentially toxic – each 1 per cent of total dry matter intake we include of nitrates drops methane by about 10 per cent but we risk animal health issues,” Mr Sawyer said.

“No other feed additives yet have the Federal Government tick within the Clean Energy Regulator (CER). This is sad because around the world there are other products certified for production use and methane abatement offering significant potential.

“We need a method to be approved by the CER for other feed additives, when that occurs various products can fall under that method and be used in official systems.

“It then becomes a commercial decision for someone to do something or not, based on commercial pressure, rewards and costs.”

Once a method is established, farmers will be able to measure reductions and potentially accrue methane abatement value via Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCU).

“An ACCU is worth about $37/tonne currently but no method exists for most practical products yet so that value is moot until we have a set of tools that is more practical,” Mr Sawyer said.

“Should you take any steps on farm to reduce methane load or other carbon footprint, my advice is to hold on to your carbon savings in your business – don’t trade them. You can’t make a claim on carbon savings if you on sell the savings you make to others.

“Getting methane action is important, but we will need some productivity gains to make it all work – the methane is almost a free set of steak knives to the main article of productivity.”

Mr Sawyer said a reduction in methane was no guarantee of productivity in liveweight gains or milk.

Looking to the future we may see several other options emerge for cow and sheep methane management.

A commonly quoted product is seaweed. The active ingredient Bromoform in asparagopsis seaweed, which reduces methane by 80 per cent, is not commercially available in large scale yet.

Research data does not support an increase in milk, and mixed responses in meat yield. Combined with an expensive input price, it results in a questionable payback in current situations.

There are also questions about the usability of the product as it doesn’t like heat, sunlight, moisture or air. Animal welfare issues also remain unresolved at this stage.

“A commonly used tool overseas is the product Agolin. It is already widely used in USA and EU markets,” Mr Sawyer said.

“For Agolin, there are no animal health and welfare or food chain safety issues and the published milk and meat data response ensures payback. It is a robust product which can handle all production and delivery systems in practice.

“Agolin is in use by nearly two million head globally already and is proven safe and productive. The price point is low at around 5c/head/day.”

Past chairman of Australian Lot Feeders Association and Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, Tess Herbert, told the conference there were less carbon emissions in feedlots as animals reached carcase weight more quickly.

“Despite a substantial herd rebuild, the Australian beef industry has halved its carbon dioxide emissions since 2005, recording a reduction of 51.46 percent in 2018,” Mrs Herbert said.

“The processing sector reduced the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per tonne hot standard carcase weight by 8.1 per cent when processing beef, and further reduced water usage by 7.9 per cent.

“We are already getting the market signals on methane abatement down through the supply chain but we are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“It won’t be just feed additives – it will be vegetation management, genetics and integrated farm management and there are pathways for industry to achieve that.

“It is still very new and confusing for a lot of producers and what will it look like on farm? We are still in that space.

“Reducing carbon footprint will be your ticket to play and there are supply chain drivers for the carbon neutral target.

“In our feedlots we are already using feed additives and hormonal growth promotants to promote better productivity broadly, and thus reduce methane emissions per kilo of liveweight, but we are probably going to have to do something extra to get our steak knives in further methane reduction.”