In our current debate on the impact of our eating habits on the planet, beef is getting a pretty bad rap.
From the water required to raise livestock, the land degradation and biodiversity loss caused by overgrazing and deforestation to the direct emissions from the sector and chemical pollution from fertilisers. The list of environmental impacts caused by some farmers in the beef and livestock industry is long.
But to Tasmanian farmers Sam and Steph Trethewey the cows are not really the issue. To them, and a growing number of regenerative agriculturalists, the problems we have come to associate with meat consumption are the result of industrial agricultural practices, not the meat and dairy producing animals themselves.
Or as Steph puts it: “It’s not about the cow, but the how.”
In 2019, Sam and Steph gave up their corporate careers in Melbourne and bought some land near Deloraine in Central North Tasmania to found the Tasmanian Agricultural Company (Tas Ag Co). The pair is now on a mission to prove that it’s not only possible to farm beef sustainably, but also to make beef farming part of the solution to fight the climate crisis.
Industrial agriculture and soil quality
To understand the problems Sam and Steph are trying to solve with their grass fed Wagyu beef farming business, it pays to take a closer look at the – quite literally – underlying issues of intensive farming practices.
In the industrial agricultural system we grow crops to feed humans, and some to feed grain-fed cattle which are then turned into meat and dairy products. How much cattle farmers are relying on grain to feed their animals varies greatly by country. While grain tends to be the dominant form of feed for cattle in the US and Europe for most of their life, in Australia less than 40% are finished on grain. In these cases they usually only spend about 70 days of their two year life being supplementary fed.
To increase crop yield the plants are grown in monocultures (only one plant species at a time) and the soil isn’t given much fallow time to recover nutrients naturally.
As a result, soils are becoming increasingly nutrient depleted and are heavily reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to maintain this high level of productivity. And while the output may be high in quantity, it is causing many of the above mentioned issues.
What’s more, crops grown under these conditions are proven to have much lower nutrient density than plants grown under less intensive circumstances. “It’s probably not surprising that this approach also leads to meat containing fewer nutrients,” says Sam.
How regenerative farming captures carbon
In environmental terms these practices mean that we are missing out on the opportunity to actively leverage nature’s capability to capture carbon dioxide – also called carbon sequestration – and to grow much more nutritious plants. Which is exactly what Sam and Steph are looking to achieve with their regenerative farming approach. This is also where the cows re-enter the picture.
Plants require carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to perform photosynthesis. Over time this process builds up deeper and richer carbon stores in the soil which serve as nutrients for the plants and encourage roots to reach deeper into the ground. This also helps the soil to store more water and make it more drought resistant. Plants can be stimulated in this process if you keep cutting them – or by having cows munching it off at the top.
The amount of carbon that can be stored this way is measured through soil sample tests. Sam and Steph’s 600 acre Wagyu beef farm alone is capable of storing up to 7000 tonnes of carbon every year.
Earlier this month, Tas Ag Co has become the first farm in the state to register a soil carbon project under the Australian Government’s $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund. The business has baselined its property through AgriProve, Australia’s leading soil carbon developer.
In time, as Tas Ag Co continues to build its soil carbon levels through regenerative farming, the property will be re-tested, with all carbon credits counting towards Australia’s emissions reduction target under the United Nations Paris agreement. “We are excited to get some real data around this,” says Steph.
Changing our conversation around farming and emissions
At the same time, the couple is also keen to set the record straight on the kind of emissions beef farming is actually causing.
“There are a lot of misconceptions circulating around cows and greenhouse gases,” says Sam. “Cows emit methane when they burp. And the amount of burping is actually reduced as the quality of the soil and food improves.”
While methane does have an impact on global warming, it stays in the atmosphere for about 6 to 8 years compared to carbon, which lasts for 100-120 years. Scientists estimate that grazing animals account for 40% of the annual global methane budget.
Overall, the Tas Ag Co team are big supporters of reducing emissions and are frustrated by the political inactivity in this area. But they also believe that it’s nowhere near enough to simply reduce our current global warming trajectory.
“Focussing on emission reduction alone is the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” says Sam. “If we don’t start to look more actively at capturing carbon to reverse climate change, we will fail. In this scenario we have about 60 harvests left before things are starting to get ugly.”
“What is exciting though is that we actually have the opportunity to achieve this without the need for any expensive high tech. From an agricultural and diet point of view it’s actually the opposite and looks a lot more like we used to do things in the 19th century.”
For their property this begins with rejuvenating their soil by reintroducing multiple species of plants and refraining from using fungicides and synthetic fertilisers.
Traditional farming techniques with a 21st century twist
Even though Sam is a third generation farmer, starting their own farming business has had its challenges and required the pair to get innovative in their approach. “We didn’t have the capital lying around, so we looked at the tech sector to see what we could learn to reduce our upfront investment,” says Steph.
One big issue was the relatively high cost of acquiring female livestock. That’s why Sam and Steph looked for ways to get around actually having to own them. “We have found a way to partner with Tasmanian dairy farmers on their breeding program,” explains Sam. “We offer our Wagyu bulls and their semen to them and then buy the Wagyu calves off them when they are 3-4 months old.”
The result is a unique cross that is 50% Wagyu which is meatier and more muscular than dairy cattle. It also still marbles very well and meets the premium standard of the Wagyu industry. At the same time, the approach helps alleviate the bobby calf issue in the dairy industry.
And while Sam and Steph are still due to get their first product to market later in the year, they are already getting a lot of positive response from the market. “We are spending a lot of time educating consumers on our approach to sustainable beef and regenerative farming practices and are getting a lot of support,” says former TV journalist Steph. “It just feels great going to work every day and making a difference.”
Follow Tas Ag Co
Sam and Steph are expecting their first sustainable Wagyu beef product to be ready for consumers in October 2020. They are planning to make it available through retailers , butchers and restaurants. You can follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook – or get in touch with them directly via their website.
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All images supplied by Tas Ag Co.