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Top end cattle stations fired up over carbon economy

Stockmen muster cattle on ‘Merapah Station’, Cape York. TRAILBLAZING Top End beef operations are proving carbon farming can successfully overlay cattle production and provide a valuable, additional source of income.

The Indigenous Land Corporation’s pastoral arm has been at the forefront of tapping into Australia’s emerging carbon economy with its savanna fire management strategies.

Three years into its early dry season burning project, the ILC is carving out a solid list of lessons learned to make the pathway smoother for other northern cattle operations to follow in its footsteps.

ILC runs six million hectares of cattle country across 13 properties in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland, with a carrying capacity of around 90,000 head.

Along with some backgrounding blocks in Central Queensland brigalow country, the pastures they are dealing with range from sphere and wire grass, through to black soils with Mitchell grass and savanna woodlands made up of annual and perennial grasses and mostly Eucalypts.

Uncontrolled wildfires from July to November have traditionally totally burnt out much of the savanna country year after year.

Those large-scale wildfires, which affect more than a million square kilometres of savanna in the tropical north in total, have been identified as a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) has approved a methodology for strategic savanna burning to reduce methane and nitrous oxide released by fire.

It’s based around the understanding that the traditional August to December savanna fires tend to burn hot and quick, consuming trees along with grass understory, while fires early in the year are cooler and generally contained to the grass.

ILC first started developing early dry season burning strategies on its conservation property ‘Fish River’ in the Northern Territory Daly River area in 2011 under what was then known as the Carbon Farming Initiative.

“That was successful so we sought to move the concept over to our pastoral holdings,” said ILC environment, carbon and heritage manager Emma Pethybridge.

Based on fire history and vegetation type, the 185,000 hectare breeding property ‘Merapah Station’ on Cape York, with 6000-7000 head, lent itself to early season burning.

Last year, the project won a contract with the ERF to deliver a 95,000 tonne reduction in emissions over five years.

“Under the methodology, you have to shift your seasonality of burning,” Ms Pethybridge said.

“We started doing small patchwork burning and gradually increased the amount of burning that happens in the early cool season, so we have more fire breaks in place.”

It has been a steep learning curve and takes a lot of management, said Ray Turton, the Queensland pastoral operations manager of ILC’s agricultural arm.

“We use early season burns as fire breaks but we are finding that even with a cool burn you have leaf litter, so you still have to manage that.”

There is also the need to put in control measures for woody weed because it is more prevalent under cool season burning.

“Station management will spell areas of regrowth in order to use hot fires to kill the woody regrowth,” Mr Turton said.

“These burns are generally conducted after the first storms at the end of the year.”

Last year proved particularly challenging.

“The national parks to the north of us conducted a control burn around July and to the south east of us, there was a neighbour who did a burn,” Mr Turton said.

“So we had fire on two fronts and prevailing winds at the time meant they burnt areas on our property we didn’t want burnt at that time.

“Encroachment from other areas speaks to the importance of whole-of-landscape planning and working in with neighbours to co-ordinate carbon farming.”

Ms Pethybridge said there was a need to be conservative when estimating abatement potential and assessing the feasibility of a project under the ERF.

“Previously we were able to sell the carbon credits to Caltex at a higher rate than what the price of carbon is under the ERF auction,” she said.

“This is still covering costs but it’s not providing the cream on top we achieved under the previous scheme.

“However, projections are the price of carbon will go up as a secondary market for carbon credits develops.

“And there are the other social and cultural benefits of having this type of diversification, which are limited with a pure cattle operation.”

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