As suppliers to what is one of the world's most successful carbon neutral beef brands, Coles Finest, the key message Victorian cattle and sheep producers Mark and Fenella Ritchie have for fellow graziers is that their carbon account is likely in better shape than they realise.
"We were a bit reluctant when Coles first came to us on this because we thought we wouldn't rate highly in a carbon assessment and we'd have to change our system a lot to meet the requirements," Mr Ritchie said.
"We didn't appreciate that we naturally fell into the lower end of emissions per kilogram of beef produced due to the production decisions we were making anyway.
"If you are efficient to start with, you're in a good position on carbon."
It's practices like maximising growth and reproduction, genetic selection to improve herd health, optimum pasture utilisation, using renewable energy and tree planting that also deliver carbon outcomes.
The Ritchies operate Delatite Station at Mansfield - 2600 hectares of undulating, highly productive country at the foot of the Great Dividing Range that receives an average of 800mm of rain annually.
It's covered in perennial pastures, mainly ryegrass and phalaris, and runs 10,000 Merino ewes and 8000 wethers for meat and fine wool production, plus 1200 Angus breeders.
Steers and cull heifers are grown out to 16 months of age and then finished to the Coles specification. Between 500 and 600 head are sold to Coles each year, most now going to the Coles Finest Certified Carbon Neutral Beef brand.
Delatite Station has been supplying Coles for more than 10 years. The CN program started three years ago, building on the initial Coles Finest premium 100-day Angus offering.
Right now, the benefits of being involved in a specialty supply program have never been more obvious, Mr Ritchie said.
"It's really hard work to get cattle in to be processed at the moment," he said.
"But we know where all our cattle are going next autumn. To have a guaranteed buyer at a good rate is invaluable to planning at a time when there's so much volatility and the cattle market is dropping.
"We're not necessarily looking for a premium; rather certainty."
For that reason, Mr Ritchie says he's not interested in selling carbon credits.
"We'd rather use them to qualify for programs like this and get a direct benefit through being a preferred supplier," he said.
"Preferred supplier status to a growing brand is a good position for a beef producer to be in today."
The Ritchies partnered with Coles and consultants Integrity Ag to establish their carbon footprint, based on factors such as number, age and weights of animals turned off, fertiliser and fuel use and tree coverage. The result was an emissions intensity at the low end of the range for Australian beef production systems.
"Now, our challenge is how to go further down that path to find ways to reduce our footprint," Mr Ritchie said.
"Firstly, we will continue to ensure we have a very efficient herd. No unproductive animals is a big driver of a positive carbon account.
"Then, we are hoping to use a methane-reducing feed additive when they become commercially available.
"And we have now replaced 90pc of our chemical fertilisers with chicken compost. It's no cheaper and more labour intensive but we are keen to see where that takes us."
Next, Delatite's tree planting program will be fine-tuned. Already, in excess of 20,000 natives have gone in for biodiversity reasons but the Ritchies will now look at changing species to include better carbon-storing trees.
Meanwhile, soil carbon measuring is about to kick off at Delatite.
"Our carbon work is certified by Climate Active and part of the deal is actions to achieve ongoing meaningful reductions," Mr Ritchie explained.
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