Can meat farming be ‘carbon positive’?

Photo: The Tretheweys sell their climate-friendly beef to the local butcher in Tasmania. (Landline: Pip Courtney)

Tasmanian beef producers seek to tackle climate crisis with ‘carbon positive’ farming


Australia’s red meat industry has set a bold goal of being carbon neutral by 2030.

But Tasmanian graziers Sam and Steph Trethewey want to go beyond neutral and sequester more carbon than their beef operation emits.

They call it carbon positive.

“When you look at the enormous task that we have to try and curb climate change, carbon neutral isn’t going to be good enough; we’ve got to be net positive, we’ve got to go that extra mile,” Mr Trethewey said.

The couple moved to Tasmania two years ago after buying a 175-hectare farm at Dunorlan in the state’s north.

Concerns about climate change saw them adopt regenerative farming practices.

The adoption of regenerative farming methods is growing in Australia.

Photo of a family of two adults and two children
The Tretheweys were seen by some as crazy mainlanders when they first changed to regenerative farming practices.(Landline: Peter Curtis)

Carbon positive farming

The Tretheweys are doing it by improving farm ecology, planting trees, not using artificial fertiliser, and by building soil carbon by sowing diverse plants into their pastures.

The Tretheweys call it a “salad bowl” buffet for the cattle.

Photo of cows on a paddock
The plants on the Trethewey paddocks remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and bury it deep in the soil.(Supplied)

Grass pastures have been over-sown with “multi-species” seed mixes containing up to 25 different plants, including legumes to fix nitrogen and deep-rooted plants, brassicas, grains, and grasses.

The plants remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and sequester it through their roots, burying it deep in the soil.

Photo of seed mix
Their seed mix contains up to 25 different plants, including legumes to fix nitrogen and deep rooted plants, brassicas, grains, and grasses.(Landline: Pip Courtney)

The Tretheweys’ farm agronomist Robin Tait said: “When we have monoculture pastures, we’ve got only one level of roots, so they’re only bringing carbon down into one level. When we’ve got the multi-species, we’ve got deep roots, medium roots, short roots, and so we can bring carbon at different layers into our soil profile.”

A Tasmanian first

In 2019, the Tretheweys became the first Tasmanian farmers to register a soil carbon project with the federal government’s emissions reduction fund.

Photo of a cow eating lettuce
The Trethewey farm cattle eat what Steph and Sam call a “salad bowl” of plant species.(Supplied)

Agricultural scientist Matthew Harrison said improved productivity would make more money for the couple than carbon credits.

“The main way farmers can derive income from carbon farming is simply through good practice as carbon farming results in improved sustainability, which results generally in improved productivity,” he said.

Cows part of the solution

The beef industry has been portrayed worldwide as a climate change villain because of the methane cattle emit.

But cattle are central to the Tretheweys’ carbon capture method.

Photo of cows on a paddock
Steph Trethewey says cattle are a key part of the couple’s plan for carbon positive farming.(Landline: Pip Courtney)

The animals are moved to fresh paddocks every few days for short periods of high-intensity grazing.

“We need ruminant grazing animals to store carbon, and that’s what flips the whole ‘beef are bad for the planet’ argument on its head,” Mr Trethewey said.

Photo of a woman and man in a paddock
The Tretheweys say they are committed to restoring the landscape and reintroducing biodiversity to the soil. (Landline: Pip Courtney)
Photo of a adult and a child with a radish
After two years, the family have noticed the soil has improved and organic matter and fertility have increased.(Supplied)

“What we’re seeing now is the industry is starting to talk back and find its feet as to what its answer actually is to those allegations, and I really believe regenerative agriculture is global agriculture’s answer to the climate crisis.”

After two years, the farm’s soil has improved, organic matter and fertility have increased, and so has the number of earthworms.

It is a big change for Brian Morice, who worked on the property for nearly 40 years.

He and quite a few locals thought the couple were crazy mainlanders.

“I probably shouldn’t say that, but I thought they’ll be here for a short time, then they’ll be gone,” he said.

Mr Morice is working for the Tretheweys and is no longer a sceptic.

“It’s interesting to see multi species sown 18 months ago, and you dig around and find roots down half a metre deep,” he said.

Climate-friendly beef

The young couple is now retailing their “climate-friendly” Tas Ag Co beef.

Emma Wills owns an ethical butcher shop in Hobart.

It sells a variety of organic, free-range, sustainably grown meats.

Her customers are asking more questions about the climate impact of the meat they are buying.

“Climate-friendly beef and climate-friendly products across the board in the meat industry are going to become really important as people start to understand the implications of what climate change means and how it’s going to change the way we eat,” Ms Wills said.

Photo of a woman
Butcher Emma Wills says her customers want environmentally friendly meat.(Landline: Pip Courtney)

In a post-Glasgow summit world, Australia’s beef producers fear being penalised by export customers if they cannot prove they are decarbonising their industry.

Which is why key industry figures have visited the Tretheweys.

They might be running a cheeky start-up, processing just three carcases a week, but they say the system can easily be scaled up.

They are on that path, doubling acreage by buying two new farms and building the herd to 2,000 head.

But Ms Trethewey wants more farmers to join them.

“We need to feed the world,” she said.

“We totally get it. We have to do this on scale.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.

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