Farms may be cooling, not warming climate

Rick Burke and Jan Loney of Pukekauri Farm near Katikati are proud that they and many other sheep and beef farmers are reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their farms. Photo: Greenlea Meats.

New Zealand sheep and beef farmers may be contributing to atmospheric cooling, rather than global warming, says Rick Burke of Pukekauri Farms, Katikati.

“It sounds counterintuitive but if farmers get to ‘know their numbers’ for greenhouse gas emissions they may be pleasantly surprised to learn they are actually cooling their farms.”

Pukekauri’s numbers prove it is doing just that. Owners and brothers Rick Burke and John Burke have had the farm’s greenhouse gas (GHG) numbers independently researched and verified by AgFirst Dairy, Sheep & Beef, agricultural economist Philip Journeaux.

“What that showed is that Pukekauri Farm’s footprint has been reduced by 60 per cent since 1999 and that, based on inflation adjusted figures, its profitability has improved by between 20 to 25 per cent overall since 1999.”

Rick, who is Beef + Lamb NZ Mid-Northern Farmer Council member has a hunch the same may be true for many sheep and beef farmers whose land management practices and livestock genetics have improved in the past 20 years to the point where they are farming sustainably and may be even contributing to cooling the climate.

Awesome story

“I urge farmers to do their numbers and not be afraid to do so because our story is awesome.”

Telling the story of the positive climate impacts of sheep and beef farming and backing it with the evidence is vital to help counter the consumer resistance to eating red meat.

“Kanoa Lloyd of the TV3’s The Project said recently she would not eat as much red meat because growing it was contributing to warming the planet. That’s misinformation which I believe has come from big fossil fuel users. They have done well in deflecting the blame for global warming on all agricultural sectors, red meat in particular.

“I acknowledge a big chunk of those in the agricultural industry worldwide, including feedlot, intensive farming and arable farming using high inputs, are not farming sustainably but many sectors are and that needs to be recognised.

“There will be many sheep, beef and dairy farmers across New Zealand who have a great story to tell about their regenerative practices producing high quality nutritious food from grass fed animals.”

That’s why he’s encouraging farmers to get to know their greenhouse gas numbers, and add them to the growing evidence that shows while there is still room for improvement, pastoral farming in New Zealand is not a major contributor to global warming.

Provide evidence

“Your numbers will provide evidence to support the recent study commissioned by B+LNZ, led by Dr Bradley Case of Auckland University of Technology (AUT) which estimates that the woody vegetation on New Zealand sheep and beef farms is offsetting between 63 and 118 per cent of their on-farm agricultural emissions.”

Pukekauri Farm’s impressive numbers, calculated by Philip Journeaux using the Overseer model, are based on the farm figures from 1998-99, 2015 and projected figures for the 2020-2021 year.

“We have good records from 1998 around how we traded stock, the weights of animals when they came on farm and the carcass weight when processed. We also have good records of fertiliser inputs and areas retired on the farm, which 20 years ago wasn’t that much.”  

When assessing the numbers, Phil took into account the soil types on the farm (which has mainly rolling contour), dry matter grown and rainfall, protected wetlands, areas of native plantings and exotic trees.

Marginal land

The approach to farm management began to change in 1998 when a Land Environment Plan was formed in conjunction with Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff. This led to a progressive programme of retiring and fencing out waterways and marginal areas of the farm.

As a result, the farmed effective area has reduced by 25 per cent, but production has gone up.

 “That’s because the areas we retired were marginal and often cost money in terms of fertiliser, weed control and stock management.”

At the same time attention was turned to the livestock. Today Rick says Pukekauri stock are farmed to their best genetic potential. “We were lucky to have got ahead of the curve and if you like Pukekauri is a sort of lighthouse for what can be achieved, but I know many New Zealand farmers are doing similar work on their land.”

Those farmers are returning to the practices which were once a tradition in this country, paying close attention to the health of the soil and livestock – practices which changed largely due to the Livestock Incentive Scheme and Marginal Land Loans of the 1970s which encouraged farmers to carry more stock and to break in marginal land.

Pleasant place

“Farmers slashed and burnt too much marginal land, but today much has been restored to its original state including under the QE2 Trust or retired under regional council schemes.”

Pukekauri Farm is today not only more profitable and sustainable, but says Rick, it’s also a more pleasant place to live and work. “Redesigning the farm system has improved its biodiversity from birdlife to insects, to stream life.

“We also know our soils are healthy which means our animals are too. All this is good for our own health as we are not faced with unwell stock and high vet bills. Many farmers tell me changing from a high input system with a focus on quantity to quality and lower inputs is making just as much money but is far less stressful.”

To find out how to quantify your farm’s GHG numbers contact Beef+Lamb NZ or DairyNZ.

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