A farmer in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate of New England fears the agriculture industry will “cop a flogging” if a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 is set, and he is urging governments to spell out how climate targets will impact livestock producers.

Key points:

  • The Federal Government is inching towards a net-zero target, but Barnaby Joyce is unconvinced
  • Agriculture accounts for almost 15 percent of Australia’s emissions 
  • Farmers in his own electorate are divided over how the target will affect on them

Hugh Kraefft runs a commercial beef operation with over 2,000 head of cattle on the outskirts of Merriwa, on the western fringe of the New South Wales Upper Hunter.

“We’re just really worried that the whole thing is going to be farmers copping a flogging over having to take responsibility for this whole zero emissions thing,” he said.

According to data from the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, agriculture accounted for 14.6 percent of Australia’s emissions last year.

Barnaby Joyce’s return as deputy prime minister comes off the back of growing unrest in the National Party about a net-zero target.

“I will be guided by my party room. It’s not Barnaby policy, it’s Nationals policy,” Mr Joyce told reporters on the day he succeeded Michael McCormack.

Six bull laying under a tree in a field of oats

Experts say reducing emissions could mean healthier cattle.(

ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham

)

In the electorate of New England, where Mr Joyce received 65 percent of votes at the last election, his return was well received by some.

“I think he’s someone that’s not afraid of representing the people and particularly farmers,” said Mr Kraefft.

“I think the farming community is probably after a lot more information about how we achieve net-zero emissions.

Drought a paradigm shifter

Annie Rodgers owns a 3,000 acre cattle property just over the highway from Mr Kraefft.

She is ready to embrace a net-zero target.

“Why not? It’s nice to have a goal,” she said.

“If we don’t have a goal, if we don’t work towards something, then we’re all going sit in the same boat and stick to the same methods.”

A woman walking alongside bulls in a pen wearing winter clothes

Ms Rodgers hopes her sustainable farming will improve soil structure and carbon absorption.(

ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham

)

The drought prompted Ms Rodgers to embrace sustainable farming practices by cutting chemicals and turning to technology such as phone apps to track the location of their animals.

“Hopefully as the soil structure improves and the roots go down further, you’re absorbing more carbon in the soil and you’re reducing output that way.”

Technology to the rescue

Livestock makes up about 10 percent of Australia’s emissions, mainly due to methane from manure, which has 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

While net-zero would pose challenges for these producers, a research scientist with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Professor Annette Cowie, said there were plenty of ways cattle farmers could reduce their carbon footprint.

A woman holds a gate open while two quad bikes ride through

Emerging technologies are making managing stock more efficient.(

ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham

)

“[By] planting trees, practises that build soil organic matter and then these newer ideas of feeding biochar as a feed additive to enhance animal health, and feeding the algae that reduces methane emissions … we can really increase the sustainability of our livestock production systems,” she said.

Professor Cowie said reducing methane would not only be better for the planet, but also result in healthier cattle.

“The methane that’s released when cattle eat their feed, is a waste of the energy that they’ve consumed,” she said. 

“So if you reduce the amount of methane they emit, they actually grow more per unit of feed.

“Increasing soil carbon means you’re increasing soil organic matter, which increases productivity and resilience under climate change.”

Profit or perish

While some farmers fear a net-zero target will come with increased costs, Professor Cowie believes decarbonising may open new global markets.

“Our agricultural production systems in general, and in particular our livestock production system, have much lower emissions than many of the systems used in the rest of the world.”

Mr Kraefft believes honesty about what net-zero will mean for farmers’ bottom lines will be vital for achieving buy-in from them.

“The bottom line with us is that we’ve got to be sustainably economic, we’ve got to be environmentally sustainable,” he said.

“The number one thing, [is] if we’re not in business, we’re out the back door.”

A man stands in a green field of oats looking at two bulls.

Carbon border tariffs have the potential to have an impact on Australian producers.(

ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham

)

For Ms Rodgers, the switch to sustainability is an economic imperative.

“I think farmers are often scared of change, that’s their biggest fear, and I think hopefully each generation is getting better about that,” she said.

“We need to educate and innovate and take on board what is happening.

“It’s going to affect every generation down the track.”

Barnaby Joyce is back, and so are tensions in his rural seat over climate policy
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