Case study - Reducing Emissions from Livestock Research Program

​Financial boost and methane reductions from beef cattle in Northern Australia

There is good news on several fronts for beef producers in northern Australia from the Australian Government funded Reducing Emissions from Livestock Research Program (RELRP).

RELRP comprised nearly 40 projects that investigated emission profiles of livestock and the practical on-farm options to significantly reduce emissions and simultaneously increase productivity.

Scientists have found that the real picture on methane emissions has some unexpected and positive news.  The findings could also have significant implications for calculating the emission footprint of the northern cattle industry and Australia’s overall greenhouse gas emissions more broadly.

The research is likely to have specific implications for northern cattle producers, who can already take action to reduce their methane emissions.  On the farming side, the research helped producers.

Changes to herd management can dramatically reduce methane emissions from their properties, while improving financial performance.

Dr Ed Charmley, research program leader with the CSIRO at Landsown Research Station led a key part of the program – measuring methane emissions and looking at ways to reduce emissions in the northern Australian cattle herd.

“Methane emission is a loss of energy that could otherwise have gone into desired weight gain of the animal,” Dr Ed Charmley said.

“A better understanding of methane cycles provides us with the possibility to direct more energy into productivity and less emissions to the atmosphere. Almost any measure that increases productivity will reduce emissions intensity.”

“We’ve been taking methane measurements from custom-built respiration chambers and they show that Brahman cattle fed a wide range of tropical grasses emit up to 30 per cent less methane than previously thought,” Dr Charmley said.

“While you always have to be cautious in extending lab data to the field and across an industry, we have been able to cross-check our findings with high-tech methane detecting laser systems used in the field.”

“Methods used to determine these national greenhouse gas accounts are regularly reviewed and if the new data are confirmed via this review process, future accounts will be adjusted to reflect the lower emissions for the northern beef herd,”

Dr Charmley says RELRP has two key areas of focus, ranging from the microscopic to the landscape-scale.

“We addressed cattle methane emissions from several angles — from up-close examining the gut microbes that produce methane from ingested pasture and alternative diets; to a landscape focus on northern Australia’s extensive grazing systems using state-of-the-art technologies.

“These technologies included lasers and wireless sensor networks, to measure and model cattle methane emissions under tropical conditions,” Dr Chamley said.

At the landscape scale, the researchers refined a technique called ‘open path laser’ to directly measure methane from cattle in extensive grazing systems and validate findings against conventional methane measurements from cattle in enclosed methane chambers.
 
The Lansdown Research Station project also measured the changes in methane emissions from cattle fed a range of commonly used tropical legumes. It has found that northern cattle fed on a diet of predominantly Leucaena, a legume tree, emit less methane than cattle grazing on tropical grasses.

“What this nutrition research is showing is that there can be win-win scenarios for the industry and the environment if we can redirect the breakdown of plant material in a way that reduces the amount of methane produced while improving the amount of energy or weight gain that animals get from their feed,” Dr Charmley said.

The relationship between improved productivity and reduced emissions is clearly evident on farms such as ‘Trafalgar’ in Charters Towers.

Beef producer Roger Landsberg has reduced methane emissions from Trafalgar by nearly half through applying best management practices.

“It’s not really rocket science — we improved almost by accident through the way we manage our herd,” Mr Landsberg said.

In 1987, when Mr Landsberg and his wife Jenny took over management of the family property, Trafalgar was carrying 4 300 head of cattle and experiencing severe drought. They destocked the property by 60 per cent, reducing the herd to around 2 900 head of cattle. 

“It looked like a moonscape,” he said. “There was some short-term pain in making that change.”
“We stock very conservatively and I spell a fifth of our pasture each year, no matter what the weather conditions. That means our pasture is in excellent condition, with very good ground cover and good perennial pastures.

“We’ve managed the herd intensively and increased our weaning rate, which meant we could reduce the number of overall breeders and still produce the same number of weaners.

“Thanks to the improvement in pasture health, we were able to reduce our turn off age from 4-5 year old steers at 550-600kg down to 2.5 year old steers at the same weight.”

“We ran fewer cattle on better pasture and achieved the same outcomes — everything improved: soil condition, biodiversity and pasture quality.

“Under the new management practices we’ve got so much grass that we only sell cattle at the start and finish of the year when the prices are high.

“We can bring in stock on agistment for extra income and buy in steers. When you’re overstocked you just don’t have those options.”

Mr Landsberg said the farm is doing much better financially under the regime of pasture spelling and conservative stocking.

Whilst Roger has been able to increase his herd back to 4 000 head due to good pasture condition and good seasons, it was a visit from Dr Charmley that showed him there were further unseen benefits of conservative stocking and reducing the turn off age of weaners (young steers recently weaned off their mother’s milk).

“Ed Charmley did a back of the envelope calculation on our property based on the reduced stocking rate and the reduced the turn off age,” says Roger. “He estimated that we reduced our methane emissions by 46 per cent during that time and we now still maintain lower inputs and higher productivity.”

The RELRP continued its investigations into gut microbes, alternative diets and methane measurement, to develop practical on-farm options to reduce emissions from livestock while maintaining, and even increasing productivity.

AFF was a program to help farmers adapt and respond to climate change and prepare the primary production sector to manage its greenhouse pollution. It was administered by the Australian Government through the DAFF.