While once we rode on the sheep's back, we are now trying to reduce its burps.
Agriculture emissions represent about 15 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions and are expected to increase over the next decade due to improved crop and livestock production.
Livestock emissions account for 70 per cent of Australia's agriculture emissions and three of 10 big UWA research grants, part of the Federal Government's Carbon Farming Initiative, are devoted to reducing the amount of methane gas produced by grazing animals.
The 10 new grants awarded to UWA and its collaborators seek to understand and introduce new sustainable farming practices to reduce greenhouse gases and build up soil carbon. New government funding has brought $6.7 million into the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
"This program really shows our strengths in research across plants, soils and animals," said Winthrop Professor Tony O'Donnell, Dean of the Science Faculties.
Two projects will identify plants that could reduce methane emissions: one will concentrate on pasture species, the other on shrubs and other plants that may produce less methane in grazing systems. Animal biologists will continue their work on finding out how certain plants and products may reduce methane production in the rumen, the ‘first' stomach of sheep and cows.
Carbon sequestration is an important way of reducing carbon in the atmosphere by storing it in soil, but will increasing the carbon in the soil increase nitrous oxide emissions, affect crop production or alter the amount of nitrogen fertiliser needed to produce a profitable crop? Soil scientists hope to understand how increasing soil carbon affects emissions and crop production and to be able to assess the potential for soil carbon sequestration in greenhouse gas abatement.
One of three related projects will examine mitigating greenhouse gases with nitrification inhibitors and biochar (carbon-rich materials) in fallow land. Trials are being run using these amendments to understand how they interact with fertiliser applications on farms across WA's wheatbelt.
Another study in the wheatbelt is looking at building soil health and carbon using perennial pasture and intensive grazing to increase sequestration of soil carbon.
A common approach to increasing soil carbon is to add animal manures and one project is investigating the effectiveness of adding pig, poultry and feedlot manure to soils. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions from manured soils will be measured in field and laboratory trials.
More than a million dollars has been allocated for collaborative projects with the WA No-Tillage Farmers' Association and the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre. They include research into carbon amendments in no-tillage cropping systems and assessing the role of perennial forage plants in improving the management of soil carbon.
Another million dollar joint project, investigating the stability of soil carbon under variable climate and management practices, is with the Department of Agriculture and Food WA .
"Much of the work done will be in collaboration with industry and I'm confident that our agricultural scientists will make important contributions to the development of low-carbon farming methods of benefit to all West Australians and provide models for farming into the future," Professor O'Donnell said.
Published in UWA News, 6 August 2012