Patience and planning pays off for Wilmot Cattle Co’s carbon deal
Wilmot Cattle Co’s pioneering carbon credit deal with global tech giant, Microsoft has caught the attention of farmers, investors, corporates and everyone in between – proving that carbon farming can in fact be profitable, when measured.
“We capture an enormous amount of data, and it’s now effectively paid off,” said Wilmot Cattle Co’s Managing Director, Stuart Austin who earned a $500,000 carbon credit deal with global tech giant, Microsoft in January this year.
Stuart and wife Trisha Cowley’s long-term commitment to regenerative agriculture has been at the core of this sale, coupled with agritech that’s armed the business with the data to prove their position – offering a customisable blueprint for any farming business, anywhere in the world.
The innovative Northern NSW grass-fed beef operation, owned by the Macdoch Group, spans across two properties, Wilmot and Woodburn, nestled in the New England Tablelands, boasting rich volcanic basalt soils, natural springs, waterfalls, and swathes of green grass.
Stuart Austin and his wife Trisha Cowley who manage Wilmot Cattle Company near Ebor, NSW with their daughter Poppy and son Harry. Photography by Mike Terry
Measuring soil carbon for the past ten years, in the same nine locations across both farms, has been their greatest asset, explained Stuart. Since 2011, Wilmot Cattle Co has increased soil organic carbon rates from 2.5% to 4.5% today, with the goal of achieving 6% by 2023.
This extensive data library is what sparked the interest of California-based Regen Network, who brokered the 25-year private-market carbon credit deal with Microsoft, with support from Armidale-based natural capital advisor, ImpactAg Partners.
By monetising 43,338 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, using a conversion of 3.67 tonnes of CO2 equivalent to 1 tonne of soil organic carbon, meant Wilmot Cattle Co had stored approximately 11,809 tonnes of soil carbon – that would have otherwise gone into the atmosphere.
Wilmot Cattle Co is now the first-ever company in Regen Network’s portfolio to sell credits through their CarbonPlus Grassland Credit Scheme, based on soil organic carbon sequestration through rotational grazing.
“Once we sent Regen Network our data of soil carbon, suddenly it changed the game.”
We had a real data set, Stuart said that’s verified using a government-approved LECO soil carbon test measured at 15cm – that’s layered with co-benefits. In fact, the ‘Plus’ represents the significant environmental and agronomic co-benefits achieved in addition to the carbon sequestration.
“It’s really been a co-creation between the Regen Network and Wilmot Cattle Co,” Stuart explained. “It’s fairly customised and now the Regen Network effectively has a blueprint that anyone with a similar data set or database of information can run it through their model’s algorithm and verify it.”
Building resilience: data-driven decision making and lowering risk
Striking the balance between profitability and ecological gains hasn’t been without its challenges, but marrying time-controlled rotational grazing and holistic management techniques has helped Wilmot to weather the perils of climate variability.
In September 2019 half of Wilmot’s Ebor-based farm was ravaged by bushfire decimating months of pasture, coupled with dry periods between 2018 and 2019, then later backed by a good year of rainfall in 2020.
“We were able to maintain and in fact, increase our carbon levels throughout that period,” Stuart added. “All the decisions we make in this business are about beef production and grazing management.”
An example of desirable cattle density, at Wilmot. Stuart explained the positive effects with the example of 20 people in a room eating at a buffet as opposed to all going out to different restaurants. All of the different grasses and vegetation will be consumed when the cattle are in a higher density rather than only the more favourable grasses.
The use of MaiaGrazing technology, an online stocking-rate software coupled with RCS Grazing for Profit training have been valuable tools in the day-to-day management and systems-based approach to measuring the landscape’s health – and planning accordingly.
The foresight to make tough decisions like destocking when there’s less feed, has been the foundation for the business, and MaiaGrazing has helped to inform Stuart on million-dollar decisions. “That invariably maintains our carbon levels, because we’re not overgrazing our country or degrading it.”
Stuart Austin uses the MaiaGrazing app to check capacity and stock levels from his phone.
Stuart gives credit to MaiaGrazing product developer and co-founder, Bart Davidson for helping secure their Microsoft deal. “He’s the guru of data and had the foresight to start gathering all this information and recording it.”
“Notwithstanding the decision-making capacity that MaiaGrazing gives us, they’ve both played a pretty critical part in us being able to monetise this credit.”
“Data is everything. We often talk about you can’t manage what you don’t measure. All of the data that we capture, we consider very carefully why we capture it, what decisions we’re going to make with it, how those decisions impact our business.”
Stuart’s advice to farmers who’ve got soil tests and got them GPS located, “is to go back to those sites and gather a consistent data set and begin to observe trends – consistency is key.”
Wilmot Cattle Co has introduced a diversity of species, including Red clover, a perennial legume pasture that helps to fix soil nitrogen levels and has a high feeding value that’s particularly favourable for cattle pastures.
“Our landscape is far healthier now across every metric. We can look at, not only our soil carbon, but our perennial species composition, tree species in the landscape, our birds and insects. Every aspect across our business is improving in ecological health and that’s only going to have long-term benefits as a beef production business and now as a carbon business.”
Agritech innovation and pushing our thinking
“Being at the forefront of innovation is a really exciting space to be,” said Stuart.
“We’ve always looked at any new innovation or new tech quite proactively. Whenever something comes across the radar, we look at how we can include that in our business and ask ourselves those two key questions: what decision will I make with this tech and what’s the value of that decision?”
Stuart Austin and his son Harry check on water tanks fitted with FarmBot technology. The solar-powered sensor transmits water levels via smartphone.
When shifting to more regenerative farming methods, Stuart said being open-minded as opposed to expecting failure, is critical. “You need to be looking for signs of progress.”
“We’ve only got to go back 18 months, to understand how important it was to minimise any kind of input cost, whether that’s supplementary feed or seed and fertiliser in order to be able to reduce the financial risk in an agricultural business.”
“Our single biggest strength has been our data.”
Employing on-farm data monitoring tools, like FarmBot remote water monitoring, soil probes and annual soil carbon testing has helped to arm the business with the data to prove their position and stay ahead of the game.
This ground-breaking carbon deal confirms there are profitable methods to monetising soil carbon, where Australian beef producers and corporates can both be part of the climate change solution.
Stuart Austin and his team practice low-stress handling techniques with a group of young cattle new to the farm. Over the day the workers will slowly herd them into circles and move them between paddocks to encourage the group to move as a mob.
Corporate social responsibility and carbon trading opportunities
An increasing number of global corporations, are committing to climate action by purchasing carbon credits to offset their emissions. Microsoft’s purchase of the removal of 1.3 million metric tonnes of carbon from 26 projects around the world, including Wilmot Cattle Co, and pledging carbon neutrality by 2030 – is a big move.
“Interestingly the majority of the rhetoric after the announcement, has been, ‘Well all it does is enable Microsoft to continue polluting’ – but I actually think Microsoft deserves full credit for the initiative they’ve taken.”
Not only is Microsoft offsetting its emissions, explained Stuart, but they’ve gone a step further in removing all carbon emissions that the company has either emitted directly or by electrical consumption, since it was founded in 1975.
“It makes a huge statement and to some degree, it’s why this credit has got so much traction.”
“There’s massive demand globally. Every big business in the world is trying to buy carbon credits somewhere.”
It’s estimated that the adoption of carbon-friendly practices, in the farming and grazing context alone, could potentially sequester between 125 Mt and 374 Mt of CO2e per year, representing between 23% and 70% of Australia’s current total annual national greenhouse gas emissions.
“So in terms of opportunity for landholders in Australia – it’s enormous. It means committing to more ecologically friendly farming methods. We see it as a co-benefit of our beef production system, we’re effectively producing another commodity that’s tradeable globally now.”
An example of ‘induced meandering’ along a creek way at Wilmot farm where vegetation grows from the banks inward on a waterway to slow the water down and thereby creates a vegetative habitat for plants, insects and animals.
AgriFutures Australia is seeking to invest in projects that deliver new and innovative approaches to carbon storage and reduced GHGE, with high potential to provide practical benefits to primary producers, across the six identified work areas.
Project proposals will be considered by an expert panel comprising representatives from industry, government, RDCs, and AgriFutures Australia, with up to $2 million available for research activities. The AgriFutures Rural Futures Program Carbon Initiatives open call closes Tuesday, 30 March 2021 at 5pm (AEDT).
Carbon market barriers to entry – what needs to change
Wilmot Cattle Co’s private market transaction has enabled the company to be paid for the soil carbon already sequestered, between 2017-2020. However, the Federal Government’s Climate Solutions Fund, would not count these soil carbon credits toward Australia’s Paris Agreement commitments because they’re being sold in the US as part of a private bilateral deal, which uses a different methodology than Australia.
“Australia is a hugely regulated market,” added Stuart but he’s pleased by the emphasis that the Australian Government has put on refining its soil organic carbon methodology as part of its suite of Emissions Reduction Fund methodologies.
Stuart believes the three main barriers to entry include:
- The administrative burden
- Cost of baselining
- Participation rules, like ‘practice change’ and ‘carbon credit conditionality’
“In order to participate, you must commit to a land management strategy that includes some form of practice change, associated with management prior to management after,” Stuart explained. This means farmers must commit to doing that for the next 10 years, he said having never done it before. “And that’s often associated with an annual cost and it’s basically too much risk.”
The Wilmot team is currently working with the Government’s Clean Energy Regulator to help develop the regulated market for soil carbon credits in Australia.
“We’ve tried to ensure that there’s just as much rigor or enough rigor around this Regen Network deal, that it’s valid and we’re confident that it is.”
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