Carbon neutrality pays dividends

Victorian livestock producers Mark Wootton and Eve Kantor set clear criteria for every investment, tool and practice change they’ve committed to: it must deliver more than one benefit and offer significant financial return and market premiums.

The result is a high-input, high-output operation which was one of the first livestock enterprises to achieve carbon neutrality.

Their aptly named ‘Jigsaw Farms’ encompasses 3,500ha across six properties north of Hamilton in western Victoria, where they run 20,000 Merino ewes and 520 cattle.

They’ve developed a series of biodiversity wetlands and planted out 692ha to a combination of high-value hardwood timber and mixed species revegetation plantations.

Despite 20% of the properties being revegetated, Jigsaw Farms runs at double the region’s average stocking rate.

Carbon neutrality

Jigsaw Farms’s focus on grazing management that maximises animal performance and production has seen the business double food and fibre production annually since 1996, delivering a 10%+ profit or return on investment (ROI) in 23 of the past 26 years.

They were one of the first livestock enterprises to achieve carbon neutrality in 2011. Mark defines this as ‘sustainable intensification’ farming.

“I would argue that most best-practice producers tend to be really good environmental farmers as well,” Mark said.

“There’s no silver bullet and reducing greenhouse gas emissions needs to be multi-layered, but it’s possible to achieve carbon neutrality without compromising productivity.”

Improved production

Mark and Eve started their journey in 1996 with basically a blank canvas.

They undertook mass shelter belt plantings, which not only provided shelter for livestock from extreme weather, but also improved their lambing and calving percentages and increased the amount of vegetation available to sequester carbon. Around half of their planting is agroforestry or high value saw logs and half is permanent revegetation.

The resulting high soil carbon contributes to high productivity, and the improved shelter – along with better feed management and continual condition scoring of stock – has driven continually improving lambing and calving percentages.

“Our cattle now achieve 95% weaned calves to mature cows joined and the sheep have gone from mid-70% to 112% of weaned lambs to ewes joined. We now also have more than 80% foetal survival,” Mark said.

Mark and Eve moved to a perennial-based pasture system and changed grazing management to work with the seasons, by rotating livestock to match pasture growth in line with the rainfall and season. They lamb and calve in spring to align with feed availability, so they can run more stock.

They’ve invested in laneways for more efficient livestock management and now operate at about 13,000 DSE per labour unit.

Mark and Eve have also increased deep water storage and invested in a fully reticulated water system to ensure constant stock water supply through dry periods.

High animal welfare

Mark and Eve are committed to best practice animal welfare and have rigorously researched the science to ensure their management strategies are fit for purpose.

They ceased mulesing – using freeze branding as an interim step before completely transitioning to a plainer-bodied,low fly strike sheep – and use pain relief during animal husbandry practices.

To meet accreditation for welfare standards, their practices are checked by third parties to verify they’re using products regularly and correctly.

Economic resilience

The sustainability actions at Jigsaw Farm support an economically resilient business model.

“From a financial point of view, we’re debt free, we’ve got the highest returns we’ve ever had, and we’re virtually drought-proof because of the deep water storage.

“We know the financial model works, it’s a high return business and we have become a preferred employee business – it’s just a lovely place to work,” Mark said.

“To be able to do the environmental works that we’ve done, we need to have good market signals, that meant we’re going to be rewarded for the work that we’ve done – to be green, you’ve got to be in the black.”

Changing practice to achieve carbon neutrality

Achieving carbon neutrality requires a commitment to a changed management practice that’s recognised as reducing carbon impact.

At Jigsaw Farms, Mark investigated the following four management options:

  • a change in management practices to improve animal performance, such as higher fertility and fecundity. Higher lamb and calving survival and a smaller maternal unit reduced the business’s carbon footprint due to fewer unproductive animals and improved productivity.
  • a commitment to planting trees on-farm – providing shelter for livestock to support lamb and calf survival enables producers to sequester carbon in vegetation and counter methane emissions. It also provides an alternate income source through high value agroforestry.
  • a shift to a perennial-based pasture system and rotational grazing management – this improves soil health and increases the level of soil carbon, nutrients and microbes.
  • opportunities to change ruminant behaviour and reduce methane emissions through feed additives are currently being investigated.

Mark and Eve measure the carbon emissions and sequestrations impacts both before and after the practice changes using accredited greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting tools, verified with third party auditing.

They’ve demonstrated the integrity and traceability of their commitments, as is required to achieve carbon neutrality status.

Keeping credits on-farm

Mark and Eve are keeping their carbon credits on-farm, rather than selling them as offsets to a third party – or what they refer to as ‘insetting’ rather than offsetting carbon credits.

They believe the market premiums accessible from carbon neutral branded products and pathways are far more attractive than the returns offered for offsets and less risky as it doesn’t require a long term guarantee to maintaining carbon in soils and vegetation, which can be difficult to demonstrate during extreme drought and weather events.

“The market premiums we can get come with a serious commitment to have integrity in your system and through that, you need to have traceability.”

This traceability for Jigsaw Farms includes accreditation schemes such as the Responsible Wool Standard, and verification from third parties about the carbon neutrality of their meat – all which require thorough record-keeping.

Data is essential

Mark’s advice for other producers involves careful record taking and communicating with others about what integrity and traceability requirements they have.

“For someone entering this space now, the tools are immense. Go and get the MLA GHG calculators and go and do a hypothetical on your farm plan,” he said.

“You need to measure to be able to manage and you have to have a plan to know how you’re going forward.”

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