Feedlots may be key to the Australian beef industry achieving its goal of zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Research scientist Stephen Wiedemann claims beef from intensive feedlots produces up to 20 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than grass-fed cattle.
Dr Wiedemann has been gathering data on Australia’s beef herd since 1980.
“This is a really interesting and to a lot of people a counterintuitive type of point, but our research has consistently shown lower emissions from feedlot finished cattle than from grass-finished cattle,” Dr Wiedemann said.
“There’s one simple reason for that — at the end of the day … you’re turning off those cattle sooner at the same weight or even heavier weights than they would have been off the grass. So, you’re reducing their lifetime and you’re reducing their lifetime emissions.”
Dr Wiedemann said enteric methane produced when cattle burp was the biggest source of carbon for the beef industry, accounting for 80 to 90 per cent of emissions.
The balance of carbon came from fossil fuels burned for transport and energy, and manure, which was also high in methane.
Understanding where the carbon is
Dr Wiedemann is conducting a supply chain audit of the carbon footprint of mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s Western Australia-based Harvest Road group. It owns seven cattle stations in the north of the state as well as farms in the southern agricultural region and Harvey Beef, the state’s biggest processor.
Harvest Road’s general manager of agriculture, Kim McDougall, said the company believed it was crucial to understand where the carbon was in its supply chain.
Harvey Beef processes more than half of the cattle grown in WA, and its suppliers range from Kununurra in the Kimberley to Esperance in the south of the state.
He said the company was serious about carbon neutrality even though he admitted the industry’s 2030 goal might be ambitious.
“It’s time to do something about it, and as a business, we’re taking it quite seriously.
“We want to be ready because it’s not only for our benefit and welfare as a business, but it’s also the right thing to do.”
Mr McDougall said he believed the market would eventually demand carbon-neutral beef.
“We’re starting to see customers both at home and abroad asking questions about sustainable production, ethical production.
“Some of the major retailers and food-service chains are getting very, very interested in this because community sentiment around how we manage our food systems is at an all-time high.”
Harvest Road’s strategy for reducing carbon includes a recent $6 million investment in a covered effluent lagoon at the Harvey Beef abattoir, which is converting methane into carbon dioxide and replacing about 30 per cent of the plant’s natural-gas needs.
The processor’s general manager Wayne Shaw said it would reduce Harvey Beef’s greenhouse gas emissions by 14,000 tonnes.
“So just the process of taking that methane and burning it is environmentally a great thing and then getting that energy as well to help power the plant is like the cherry on top,” Mr Shaw said.
Feedlots have a story to tell
Harvest Road is also building a $70 million feedlot at Moora in the mid-west of WA to help get animals to slaughter sooner with fewer lifetime greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the Australian Lot Feeders Association, only about 4 per cent of Australia’s cattle herd is intensively fed at any one time, but between 30 and 40 per cent of beef was grain-fed for at least 100 days.
Unless otherwise labelled, the beef sold by the two major domestic supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths is generally finished in feedlots for an average of 60 to 70 days.
WA-based feedlot owner Ivan Rogers, whose family company runs a 6,000-head facility near Tammin in the Wheatbelt, said the favourable carbon outlook for the lot-feeding industry was a story worth promoting in Australia.
“I think we’ve got a story which we can tell where we influence a lot of the value chain from conception to consumption,” Mr Rogers said.
“If we can package that story, so it is actually in a format that is understandable, I think we’ll get strong support from the consumer.”