A WESTERN District beef producer plans to turn its knowledge of its cattle's carbon footprint into a marketing advantage, KATE DOWLER reports
Hopkins River Beef is a Victorian name synonymous with high-quality food and fine dining.
The family behind the business, Sandy and Claire Maconochie and their sons David and Sam, also plan to become known for responsible environmental management.
Hopkins River feedlot cattle and sell branded beef to high-end restaurants and supermarkets.
While supermarkets are often criticised, Sandy said through his dealings with Coles he had found the retail giant progressive and conciliatory.
David, who manages the beef side of the business, said their customers were switched on to the carbon-emission costs of beef production, and would soon want to know more.
And while the Maconochies believe agriculture should be included in any emissions trading scheme, they are taking steps now to enable them to answer the questions their consumers would want answered.
Two such questions are: what is the carbon cost of producing your beef, and what are you doing to mitigate it?
Later this year, to help answer these questions, they will launch the trademarked name Carbon Hoofprint for their beef.
According to David, the concept will underpin work the Maconochies are doing to estimate and manage the carbon in their production cycle.
They aim to be prepared to answer these questions posed in the marketplace, regardless of whether agriculture is included in an ETS or whether soil-carbon sequestration and storage is acknowledged in legislation.
"For our business, the politics of the climate change debate is not as important as communicating direct with customers," David said.
"Obviously the science isn't keeping up, and we don't have all the answers yet, but we have to look at what information is available now and work with it - customers don't want excuses, so we have to be a step ahead."
The Maconochies plan to estimate the emissions of the cattle they feed, with either grass or grain, and then use the feedlot waste to create microbial humus.
The humus will be spread over the farm to increase the carbon content of their soil.
Eventually they aim to be able to label their products with the amount of carbon emissions released in the production per kilogram of beef.
However, the family acknowledges the science is not yet available to enable them confidently put figures on it.
The machine to convert the feedlot manure and straw into humus is called Midwest Biosystems Aeromaster, and was imported from the US.
David said once humus was applied, "the process of building soil carbon would dramatically increase at a faster rate than the cattle emissions".
"One tonne of this aerobic product will have concentrated the equivalent of around 10 tonnes of anaerobic raw manure," he said.
It takes 80-90 days to process from raw manure to humus, which contains living microbes and a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1.
Each day the product will require monitoring for heat, CO2 and moisture levels.
The process requires water to be added to create the living environment for the microbes.
The humus helps breakdown organic matter, build soil structure and carbon and water-storage capacity.
"We aren't looking for a silver-bullet fix for our soils," David said.
"The process will help as it builds up carbon levels over coming years and enhance the effectiveness of fertilisers, whilst drastically reducing dependence on chemicals."
The Maconochies will test soil-carbon levels annually to monitor progress.
For every 1 per cent of soil organic carbon in the top 30cm of soil, 88 tonnes per hectare of carbon was sequestered, David said. "We know that cattle being grain-fed are more efficient than those on pasture, and whilst on feed produce a third as much methane," David said.
Their customers were excited by the Carbon Hoofprint concept, he said.
"It will help us tell customers a bit about what we do and how we are looking after the environment, regardless of what the rest of the industry does, we have to be responsible for talking to our customers about this, because they will want to know," he said.