The environmental cost of meat

This is the remainder – and perhaps the more important part – of the article by Diane Alford which I quoted from in my previous post. (Please return to that post for a description of ‘Rainsby’ and her family’s life there if you haven’t already seen it.) I have added a couple of links and some more of the photos I took during our visit but the words are hers.

“Shun meat,” says UN climate chief. The article by BBC Environmental reporter Richard Black raises my hackles while sending a chill of despair through my body. I read further, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming, says the UN’s top climate scientist.” I trawl through the article then, in frustration, pound the keyboard.

Obviously a redneck climate-change sceptic, you think. Well actually, no – at least, I like to think not. Simply a grazier, and one who’s battling to survive in an environmentally sustainable and responsible way at a time when primary production seems to be a dirty word. So … welcome to my world.

Rainsby house and garden
Rainsby house and garden

With my husband Bill, I live and work on Rainsby, a 23 000 hectare beef cattle property in central western Queensland. Rainsby is managed and worked mostly by Bill. He is hard working, determined and persistent. The hours are long and mostly he works alone. In mustering times we employ two men for a month, three times a year. We muster on horseback.

When we purchased Rainsby it was previously droughted and had areas devoid of grass. Fortunately seasons improved, and with Bill’s hard work we now operate a rotatational grazing system, monitoring grass usage and leaving a lot of our country unstocked during the wet season to maximise pasture growth. We neither clear country, fertilise, grow crops for fodder nor dam watercourses.

Cattle in grassland
Rainsby cattle with Black Gidgee in the background

Our cattle are fattened on native pastures alone. We restrict the number we carry – about one beast to 16 hectares (40 acres), maintaining grass cover by stocking at 70% of the recommended rate. Our aim is to pass on our pastures in better condition than when we bought them and, seasons allowing, we believe we will. We have photo monitoring sites that prove the increase in pasture cover and species diversity. Land care is integral to our livelihood. We belong to a local Landcare group, and attend Grazing Land Management Field Days. We believe we are prudent and responsible custodians – in spite of the fact that every media release paints our industry as the very opposite.

Our profit margins are small and in decline – as is our morale, since we are continually painted as environmental vandals.

Concerned citizens are urged to eat less meat and reduce emissions by stopping the clearing of rainforests (which we do not have), and to save the emissions caused in growing, fertilising and harvesting crops to fatten stock (which we do not do). Almost every mainstream media article mentioning the carbon cost of ‘meat production’ does so on the basis of the typical US and European production methods – grain-fed beef on feedlots, factory farming in fact – which are far different from our own rangeland grazing..

If you read far enough into the studies (which no-one does) you find that “Over two-thirds of the energy is spent on producing and moving cattle feed,” which we do not do, and “a Swedish study conducted in 2003 claimed that raising organic beef on grass rather than feed,” as we do, “reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and consumed 85% less energy.”

Furthermore, studies (and headlines) often assume that the land used to feed animals could be used to grow grain instead and feed people directly, producing two to ten times as many calories of food per hectare. That is not true here, either. Right across Western Queensland and the Top End, the soil is too poor and fragile and the rainfall too low and unreliable for any use except grazing. We are, in fact, using the land as productively as possible. And at the same time we are maintaining it far closer to its original condition than agriculture could possibly do.

Yes, our cattle do emit methane, but the science is still incomplete as to how much carbon uptake there is in open rangeland grazing. On Rainsby alone, with 16 hectares of grass and many hundred trees to each beast, it would be fair to assume that there would be at least some uptake. (Why is it that tree planting, elsewhere, is seen as an acceptable form of carbon abatement but existing trees are not considered when calculating carbon emissions from grazing land?)

If grazing is eventually included in Australia’s carbon tax, without allowance for any uptake of carbon, it will be the death of family-owned grazing enterprises, as we couldn’t support the extra taxation burden and have no way of passing on the costs.

Should our grazing industry become totally unviable and people still want to eat beef, it will be up to the overseas investors and the large companies to continue the buy-up of grazing land or to import meat. But I guess the food miles of imported meat will be seen as okay, since only the emissions from fossil fuels used in transportation will be counted on Australia’s ledger, and a whole lot of production practices which the majority of Australian graziers do not incorporate, will be assumed to have been removed. Farcical, I know – but not too far from the truth.

Please think about grass-fed beef more carefully, because there are not the inputs you may have assumed.

Yellow acacia flowers
Black Gidgee in flower

The issue which justifiably concerns Diane is not an easy one to clarify to the general public because, unfortunately, most beef (globally) is indeed produced in environmentally expensive ways. That means any study or article which takes a global perspective (here is another recent one) is reasonably justified in ignoring situations where beef production is actually environmentally cheap and, as Diane says, the most productive use of the land; but ignoring the good producers slams the door not only on the producers but on a more nuanced approach to something we desperately need to do: making the most sensitive possible use of all parts of our environment.

Life in ‘the outback’

My Easter trip to Western Queensland began with a visit to a cattle property, Rainsby, owned and operated by Diane Alford, my cousin-in-law, and her husband Bill. To get there from Townsville, you head inland on the Hughenden and Mt Isa road, turn left after 290 km and head South for another hour and a half on a road that is partly sealed, partly gravel.

Rainsby covers 121 square miles, about 10 miles East-West by 12 miles North-South (about 14 by 17 km), and the road from the gate to the house is no suburban driveway. Drive for a while and you come to Torrens Creek, which at the peak of the Wet can be a kilometre wide and at Easter was still big enough to stop our car though not a 4WD. The house is a couple of kilometres further in, so we were glad that Diane could meet us at the creek.

The road into Rainsby
No suburban driveway: the road into Rainsby

Diane wrote a newspaper article six months ago and in it she introduces her family and the property beautifully:

My name is Diane Alford and, with my husband Bill, I live and work on Rainsby, the 23 000 hectare (230 square kilometre, or 57 000 acres in the old money) beef cattle property we, and the bank, own in central western Queensland. Rainsby is 160 km south of Torrens Creek (pop. 17) and 140 km north of Aramac (pop. 400). Our closest large centre is Longreach (pop. 3000), a three hour drive south west. Here, along with four nearly-grown children, we have raised cattle for domestic consumption for the past 13 years.

Rainsby is wild, sparsely inhabited and, I believe, beautiful. It is predominantly black gidgee country interspersed with sand ridges and a hard Spinifex northern end. Torrens Creek weaves its way through the length of the property, exiting into the Thompson river system and finally reaching Lake Eyre. Our principal pasture is Mitchell grass, with seasonal Flinders grass and various burrs, while the sand ridges support blue grasses and a range of other perennials. The Artesian Basin is close to the surface in Rainsby, and bores flow without pumping. It’s Waltzing Matilda country, complete with billabongs and gilgais, coolabahs and hundreds of thousands of black gidgee trees; and we love it.

Rainsby has a 480 – 500 mm (18 to 20 inch) annual rainfall and, seasons allowing, we aim to run 1500 mixed-aged Brahman cattle. Our temperature ranges from 2 degrees Celsius in Winter, to 42 degrees in Summer. With luck the seasons start out green with the rivers full, and ends golden and waiting for storms. But of course that’s not always the case, and that’s where the management comes in.

The article from which I have quoted was concerned primarily with the negative perceptions of beef production and consumption.  Diane argues (rightly, in my view) that graziers like Bill and herself are unthinkingly blamed for environmentally damaging practices which are common elsewhere but are simply not followed in Western Queensland. That section of her article is now here.

Farm sheds
Farm buildings, seen from the house

Returning to our visit … Easter Saturday was a big day in the area, with a wedding and christening on a neighbouring property. Guests came from miles around. (When you think about it, they had to: no-one lives within miles of their house, just as no-one lives within miles of Diane and Bill. The drive from one house to the next often takes half an hour, even when the roads are good.)

Anyway, guests came from miles around – Aramac and Torrens Creek, Cairns and points beyond. The gardens were beautifully prepared, trestle tables and a dance floor set up, and lanterns were hung in the trees although they were hardly needed with the Easter moon. Everyone dressed up for the occasion of course but the main thing was the rare chance to meet and yarn to rarely-seen neighbours, and the evening went quite late.

Fishing in Torrens Creek
Wetting a line ... and a body

On Sunday we went for a family picnic down at a waterhole on Torrens Creek. I went for a walk along the river bank with my camera, bird-spotting (bird photos will come soon), while some of the younger people threw in fishing lines. All they caught was a turtle, which was released unharmed:

speed-blurred pic of turtle
Escape! The fastest turtle in the West.

On Monday, sadly, we had to leave – some of us to return to Townsville to work on Tuesday, while I went alone a little further North and West to Porcupine Gorge (yet another Green Path post which is still in the pipeline) and White Mountains.