Balance of tree and grass cover

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Definition: Beef production is considered compatible with well-managed landscapes. This priority looks at industry’s care of natural resources and biodiversity, by measuring area of land managed for environmental outcomes and changes in vegetation.

Indicators


The context

In Australia, beef is produced from land that is often unable to support other food production. Looking at Australia’s landmass, 45% is used for grazing on natural vegetation with 9% used for grazing on modified pastures. As the largest steward of the Australian landscape, the beef industry has an important role in maintaining, protecting and enhancing the land. As a food producer, managing the land productively and sustainably is critical to feeding a growing world population.

Overwhelmingly, positive production and environmental outcomes are aligned. In some areas production and environment need to be managed independently, but generally grazing can be undertaken in the natural environment, assisting the cycling of nutrients through the system and providing other environmental benefits.

The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report identified a huge global risk of biodiversity loss. The report identified global beef production as a risk factor. Specifically in Australia, well-managed beef production systems are sustainably integrated with biodiverse ecosystems. This differs from some other systems and agriculture sectors that operate in artificial mono-culture ecosystems. Improving management across Australia is an opportunity to stem global biodiversity loss.

Many of our stakeholders have strong interests around this priority. Inside the industry, producers in Queensland are challenged with onerous regulation with new vegetation laws. These laws make it challenging for producers in parts of Queensland who, due to the climate, face the challenge of significant tree regrowth or thickening on certain soil types that negatively impact pasture production; and can also have negative environmental impacts with soil run-off due to lack of ground cover. Outside the industry, deforestation is a key customer and investor focus area due to the approaching global deforestation targets in the New York Declaration on Forests and the Sustainable Development Goals.

At least 14 of Australian beef’s biggest customers, including McDonald’s, are committed to reducing, and in some cases eliminating, deforestation in their beef supply chains. Through the Framework process, industry has been working closely with key customers and stakeholders in this area.

Vegetation change is an extremely complex issue in Australia. Negative environmental impacts are attributable to clearing as well as regrowth and encroachment in some northern regions. There are competing sustainability priorities at play and land use needs to be considered as a balance of food production and environmental benefits.

In response to this contentious issue, the Framework convened the first multi-disciplinary Expert Working Group in June 2018 to develop practical and evidence-based measures for this priority.

From the industry’s perspective, balancing tree and grass cover in a sustainable way is critical for the short and long-term viability of beef production. Ultimately, farmers need healthy soils, water and pastures to provide a feedbase and hydration for the animals in their care. Good grazing and natural resource management on-farm leads to positive outcomes for both business and environment.

Caring for the land is becoming more difficult for farmers. Climate is becoming more variable, and extreme weather events more frequent. In addition, changing regulations and market requirements as well as community concerns demand that livestock producers be ever more adaptable and agile in this dynamic landscape.

The red meat industry’s long-term prosperity requires taking a proactive and precautionary approach to environmental sustainability. A reactive approach that only deals with the symptoms of resource degradation will not be enough to ensure the industry’s longevity.


Industry position

The industry believes well-managed landscapes and livestock production are not mutually exclusive when looking at the whole farm system. In many landscapes, cattle can be grazed across the property, while others require a mosaic style of management where some areas are protected to preserve the ecological value on the farm, while other areas are used for production.

The industry is committed to:

  • Responsibly managing vegetation within the landscapes that it operates for the dual benefits of food production and ecosystem services
  • At a minimum, abiding by all federal and state laws to protect and enhance areas of high conservation value
  • Managing landscapes in a manner that is regionally appropriate with consideration to farm planning with an appropriate balance of tree and grass for:
    • Grazing livestock
    • Conserving and where possible enhancing biodiversity
    • Focussing on maintaining ground cover to prevent soil run-off into waterways
    • Actively managing re-growth to protect existing pastures and grasslands
    • Actively managing vegetation when required for fire breaks, weed and pest control


What the data is telling us

The Framework has spent a year working with an expert advisory group and consulting stakeholders and six months working with Cibo Labs to develop the nation’s first measures for vegetation change for the beef industry. Following advice from stakeholders, this data looks at both vegetation loss and gain across regions. This has been an incredibly complicated exercise and while the Framework reports at a national level, this can be very misleading if the regional context is not considered. For this reason the Framework has outlined trends across the 56 NRM regions on the website.

A key challenge at looking at national data and trends in Australian vegetation is the constant movement between vegetation classes, especially in northern regions. For example, a decrease in forest can be a decrease in density or a loss in forest. Current technology does not allow for distinction between the two. For this reason, below is a class for ‘woody’ which combines both forest and woodlands. Due to the continual two-way transition between forest and woodland, the loss and gains in sub-categories won’t always equal the total woody change.

Looking at ground cover trends at a national level without agreed regional thresholds is misleading and not overly useful. As such over the next 12 months the Framework will work with NRM regions to establish regional baselines and enable reporting in future of the percentage of regions achieving ground cover threshold levels. Ground cover levels are highly dynamic and vary across the landscape. These levels also vary considerably depending on seasonal conditions.

View a comprehensive regional breakdown of ground cover levels.


Snapshot of activity

MLA’s environmental sustainability and feedbase programs both create opportunities for producers to efficiently and effectively manage soil health, weeds, invasive animals, water, methane emissions, biodiversity and climate variability. This includes researching, designing and demonstrating new grazing systems that manage ground cover, encourage retention of desirable species, new species (grasses, legumes), exploring climate adaptation actions, and plants suited to hotter and drier future climates. Some of the major initiatives to tackle this key priority include:

Weed and pest management programs
Pest animals (rabbits, kangaroos and pigs) and weeds impact on feedbase production and ecosystems. Work at a large scale across multiple organisations (public and private) is required for adoption of best management practices, and in turn the reduction of pest and weed populations.

Collaboration with NRM Regions Australia
There are 56 NRM regional organisations across Australia that act as delivery agents under the regional stream of the National Landcare Program.

NRM groups have a focus on:

  • Loss of vegetation
  • Soil degradation
  • Pests and weeds
  • Changes in water and water flows
  • Changes in fire regimes

Sustainable agriculture. MLA is working with NRM Australia to share satellite data on vegetation trends. The groups are exploring future opportunities to partner on delivering positive environmental and production outcomes.

Measuring what matters through real farm data

A project with the ANU Sustainable Farm Institute has been established to demonstrate the practicality of populating the Framework with environment indicators based on real farm data. This data will test the robustness of remotely sensed measures through ground-truthing.

Completing this project will enable the trialling of the Framework measures within south-east Australia. If this trial is successful, the measures will be scaled to a national level. The project will provide recommendations on the suitability of indicators within the Framework, and propose alternative measures where appropriate.

Best Management Practice programs

A case study on Queensland’s Grazing BMP program was showcased in last year’s report. The program was initially established to focus on reducing soil and nutrient run-off to the Great Barrier Reef. In 2019, data from this program was deleted due to a change in legislation that resulted in concerns for landholders’ privacy.

The previous BMP tool used a practice change approach. There are a number of other approaches being explored for a national tool to enable producers and beef customers to measure and demonstrate their progress with beef sustainability. As the tool will be linked to practice change pathways, users will be able to continuously improve on their performance.

Definition: Beef production is considered compatible with well-managed landscapes. This priority looks at industry’s care of natural resources and biodiversity, by measuring area of land managed for environmental outcomes and changes in vegetation.

Indicators


The context

In Australia, beef is produced from land that is often unable to support other food production. Looking at Australia’s landmass, 45% is used for grazing on natural vegetation with 9% used for grazing on modified pastures. As the largest steward of the Australian landscape, the beef industry has an important role in maintaining, protecting and enhancing the land. As a food producer, managing the land productively and sustainably is critical to feeding a growing world population.

Overwhelmingly, positive production and environmental outcomes are aligned. In some areas production and environment need to be managed independently, but generally grazing can be undertaken in the natural environment, assisting the cycling of nutrients through the system and providing other environmental benefits.

The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report identified a huge global risk of biodiversity loss. The report identified global beef production as a risk factor. Specifically in Australia, well-managed beef production systems are sustainably integrated with biodiverse ecosystems. This differs from some other systems and agriculture sectors that operate in artificial mono-culture ecosystems. Improving management across Australia is an opportunity to stem global biodiversity loss.

Many of our stakeholders have strong interests around this priority. Inside the industry, producers in Queensland are challenged with onerous regulation with new vegetation laws. These laws make it challenging for producers in parts of Queensland who, due to the climate, face the challenge of significant tree regrowth or thickening on certain soil types that negatively impact pasture production; and can also have negative environmental impacts with soil run-off due to lack of ground cover. Outside the industry, deforestation is a key customer and investor focus area due to the approaching global deforestation targets in the New York Declaration on Forests and the Sustainable Development Goals.

At least 14 of Australian beef’s biggest customers, including McDonald’s, are committed to reducing, and in some cases eliminating, deforestation in their beef supply chains. Through the Framework process, industry has been working closely with key customers and stakeholders in this area.

Vegetation change is an extremely complex issue in Australia. Negative environmental impacts are attributable to clearing as well as regrowth and encroachment in some northern regions. There are competing sustainability priorities at play and land use needs to be considered as a balance of food production and environmental benefits.

In response to this contentious issue, the Framework convened the first multi-disciplinary Expert Working Group in June 2018 to develop practical and evidence-based measures for this priority.

From the industry’s perspective, balancing tree and grass cover in a sustainable way is critical for the short and long-term viability of beef production. Ultimately, farmers need healthy soils, water and pastures to provide a feedbase and hydration for the animals in their care. Good grazing and natural resource management on-farm leads to positive outcomes for both business and environment.

Caring for the land is becoming more difficult for farmers. Climate is becoming more variable, and extreme weather events more frequent. In addition, changing regulations and market requirements as well as community concerns demand that livestock producers be ever more adaptable and agile in this dynamic landscape.

The red meat industry’s long-term prosperity requires taking a proactive and precautionary approach to environmental sustainability. A reactive approach that only deals with the symptoms of resource degradation will not be enough to ensure the industry’s longevity.


Industry position

The industry believes well-managed landscapes and livestock production are not mutually exclusive when looking at the whole farm system. In many landscapes, cattle can be grazed across the property, while others require a mosaic style of management where some areas are protected to preserve the ecological value on the farm, while other areas are used for production.

The industry is committed to:

  • Responsibly managing vegetation within the landscapes that it operates for the dual benefits of food production and ecosystem services
  • At a minimum, abiding by all federal and state laws to protect and enhance areas of high conservation value
  • Managing landscapes in a manner that is regionally appropriate with consideration to farm planning with an appropriate balance of tree and grass for:
    • Grazing livestock
    • Conserving and where possible enhancing biodiversity
    • Focussing on maintaining ground cover to prevent soil run-off into waterways
    • Actively managing re-growth to protect existing pastures and grasslands
    • Actively managing vegetation when required for fire breaks, weed and pest control


What the data is telling us

The Framework has spent a year working with an expert advisory group and consulting stakeholders and six months working with Cibo Labs to develop the nation’s first measures for vegetation change for the beef industry. Following advice from stakeholders, this data looks at both vegetation loss and gain across regions. This has been an incredibly complicated exercise and while the Framework reports at a national level, this can be very misleading if the regional context is not considered. For this reason the Framework has outlined trends across the 56 NRM regions on the website.

A key challenge at looking at national data and trends in Australian vegetation is the constant movement between vegetation classes, especially in northern regions. For example, a decrease in forest can be a decrease in density or a loss in forest. Current technology does not allow for distinction between the two. For this reason, below is a class for ‘woody’ which combines both forest and woodlands. Due to the continual two-way transition between forest and woodland, the loss and gains in sub-categories won’t always equal the total woody change.

Looking at ground cover trends at a national level without agreed regional thresholds is misleading and not overly useful. As such over the next 12 months the Framework will work with NRM regions to establish regional baselines and enable reporting in future of the percentage of regions achieving ground cover threshold levels. Ground cover levels are highly dynamic and vary across the landscape. These levels also vary considerably depending on seasonal conditions.

View a comprehensive regional breakdown of ground cover levels.


Snapshot of activity

MLA’s environmental sustainability and feedbase programs both create opportunities for producers to efficiently and effectively manage soil health, weeds, invasive animals, water, methane emissions, biodiversity and climate variability. This includes researching, designing and demonstrating new grazing systems that manage ground cover, encourage retention of desirable species, new species (grasses, legumes), exploring climate adaptation actions, and plants suited to hotter and drier future climates. Some of the major initiatives to tackle this key priority include:

Weed and pest management programs
Pest animals (rabbits, kangaroos and pigs) and weeds impact on feedbase production and ecosystems. Work at a large scale across multiple organisations (public and private) is required for adoption of best management practices, and in turn the reduction of pest and weed populations.

Collaboration with NRM Regions Australia
There are 56 NRM regional organisations across Australia that act as delivery agents under the regional stream of the National Landcare Program.

NRM groups have a focus on:

  • Loss of vegetation
  • Soil degradation
  • Pests and weeds
  • Changes in water and water flows
  • Changes in fire regimes

Sustainable agriculture. MLA is working with NRM Australia to share satellite data on vegetation trends. The groups are exploring future opportunities to partner on delivering positive environmental and production outcomes.

Measuring what matters through real farm data

A project with the ANU Sustainable Farm Institute has been established to demonstrate the practicality of populating the Framework with environment indicators based on real farm data. This data will test the robustness of remotely sensed measures through ground-truthing.

Completing this project will enable the trialling of the Framework measures within south-east Australia. If this trial is successful, the measures will be scaled to a national level. The project will provide recommendations on the suitability of indicators within the Framework, and propose alternative measures where appropriate.

Best Management Practice programs

A case study on Queensland’s Grazing BMP program was showcased in last year’s report. The program was initially established to focus on reducing soil and nutrient run-off to the Great Barrier Reef. In 2019, data from this program was deleted due to a change in legislation that resulted in concerns for landholders’ privacy.

The previous BMP tool used a practice change approach. There are a number of other approaches being explored for a national tool to enable producers and beef customers to measure and demonstrate their progress with beef sustainability. As the tool will be linked to practice change pathways, users will be able to continuously improve on their performance.