Dairy farmer Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil knows change is coming for her methane-burping cows.
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Seaweed key to Australian climate and methane pledge for agriculture 2
A cow on Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil's dairy farm at Crossley near Warrnambool in Victoria. Picture by Sean McKenna
Australia has committed to a global pledge to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 30 per cent on 2020 levels by the end of the decade.

But it’s ruled out a “burp tax” like the one proposed by New Zealand, which will levy farmers for emissions from their cows – at both ends of the animal.

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Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil on her dairy farm at Crossley near Warrnambool in Victoria. Picture by Sean McKenna

Advocacy group Australian Dairy Farmers is against the methane pledge, but Ms Singh-Mahil, from Crossley near Warrnambool in south west Victoria, said livestock farmers had successfully tackled emissions before.

“We on this farm don’t have a problem with that because we know that our industry has already reduced enteric methane [a natural product of grazing animals’ digestion] intensity by 40 per cent since the 1980s,” she said.

“That’s simply through breeding better cattle, better feed utilisation … by breeding better grasses and feedstuffs.”

Low effort, big impact

Agriculture is responsible for 13 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Climate Council.

About 42 per cent of the industry’s emissions are methane – from cows and other livestock – which is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

But farmers often lead the charge to address and reduce emissions.

Ms Singh-Mahil grows multi-species pastures, using a mix of plants to improve the quality and longevity of her grazing crops.

The system allows more carbon absorption in the soil and makes better business sense, she said.

“You simply can’t afford to keep resowing your pastures year on year, so we decided to try something different,” she said.

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A cow on Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil’s dairy farm at Crossley near Warrnambool in Victoria. Picture by Sean McKenna

She’s been able to cut back on other greenhouse-emitting jobs like feeding, harvesting, and preserving crops as a result.

“It’s a really low maintenance paddock,” Ms Singh-Mahil said.

“[It’s] saving not only the expense, but the time, the stress, the plastic, the fuel, all of that stuff.”

Multi-species pasture growing was just one sustainable agriculture practice of many, including capturing carbon in the ground, avoiding soil disturbance with no-till farming, and limiting pesticide and fertiliser use.

Better burps with seaweed

Portarlington in Victoria’s south-west Bellarine Peninsula is home to the state’s first seaweed farm.

It grows asparagopsis, a species touted as a highly effective methane emission blocker in livestock, including cows.

The red seaweed is cultivated by hanging lines in the water attached to ropes below the surface on which the seaweed grows.

Immersion Group chief executive Scott Elliott heads the project after switching from landcare to aquaculture farming over concerns about the climate future.

“I saw the writing on the wall as a kid. I noticed that rainfall patterns were shifting and changing on the family farm,” he said.

“Now that I’ve had my own child, I look at it from the perspective that I want her to inherit something better.”

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Immersion Grop chief executive Scott Elliott is cultivating seaweed at Portarlington in Victoria to make an additive for livestock feed to reduce methane emissions. Picture supplied

Mr Elliott said asparagopsis would be used as a feed additive for ruminant animals, including cattle, sheep, goats and camels where an ingredient – bromoform – inhibits the production of methane in the animal’s gut.

“We’re only talking about a really small amount of asparagopsis. So for a typical dairy cow, roughly 50 grams per animal per day,” he said.

The seaweed was found to be more than 90 per cent effective in reducing methane emissions, while returning energy to the animal to produce meat, wool or milk.

“If you imagine the energy that’s in the burp and the methane, rather than being excreted into the atmosphere, is actually being absorbed back into the gut of the animal,” Mr Elliott said.

The federal Labor government has backed seaweed science with an $8.1 million budget pledge over three years for producers.

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Asparagopsis seaweed is cultivated at Portarlington in Victoria. Picture supplied

Seaweed not ‘a silver bullet’

But Industry peak body Dairy Australia sustainability leader Elissa McNamara said seaweed was not a cure-all for agricultural emissions.

“There are some questions still to be answered. They are not a silver bullet,” she said.

“We’re hoping to see a significant reduction in methane [with feed additives], but it won’t get us to 100 per cent methane reduction.”

A suite of programs and initiatives was needed, Ms McNamara said.

“There’s a lot of improvements that have been done in the cows that we breed,” she said.

“What we feed them and how we manage those herds have made really significant reductions to their emissions already.”

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The Immersion Group seaweed farm at Portarlington in Victoria. Picture supplied

Federal Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen said he plans to focus on research and development to keep Australia’s methane pledge.

“We want to do that very much in consultation with the agricultural sector,” he said.

Mr Bowen said the government would invest $5 million to assist with seaweed feed additive research and commercialisation, while $3 billion had been allocated to support other methane reduction initiatives in the farming sector.

‘We can’t do this without farmers’

Dairy Australia said farmers, as “stewards and managers” of the land, needed to be key players in the country’s climate action program.

“We all need to eat right? Food security is a big issue,” sustainability leader Elissa McNamara said. “Agriculture is a very big employer and is a big export industry.

“We can’t do this without farmers.”

“Many people want to live in cities and towns, and so farmers are really looking after the land outside of that – using it productively but also making sure that the soils, and the water, and the plants are all healthy,” she said.

 

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Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil’s dairy farm at Crossley near Warrnambool in Victoria. Picture by Sean McKenna

For Crossley dairy farmer Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil, adapting is essential for her children’s future.

“We’ve always looked at this farm as being … a wonderful safe place for our children in a world that is becoming ever less safe,” she said.

“That’s why we do what we do, for our children, and obviously for the globe and for everybody else’s children too.

“We owe it to future generations to leave the place a better place than when we found it.”

Will’s story

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William Huynh, 25, is an ACM reporter at The Standard in Warrnambool Victoria. Picture supplied

I’d be lying if I said the stories gathered for this series hadn’t intensified my anxiety about the future of the planet.

Having moved to a regional Australian city and spent time with people on the climate frontline, there’s no denying that our communities will be feeling the brunt of climate change.

But I’ve also found hope.

Warrnambool in south-west Victoria, is home to arguably the most vital workers for Australia’s food security – farmers.

While they have contributed to human-made climate change, they’re also working tirelessly to address it and be innovators in the climate fight.

This hope is what drives me and what makes this series so special. While we’re responsible for the changing climate, we are also capable of finding answers to solve the crisis.

Globally, consumers can’t get enough of the quality and taste of American dairy products. Foreign exports of American dairy are twice the volume of the nation’s domestic dairy consumption. Last year, about 18% of U.S. dairy production was exported, and economists forecast that percentage to grow more than 25% in 2023.

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