Climate Science Coalition spokesman endorses 65% cull of dairy herd

I was shocked to learn a few moments ago that Owen McShane, the darling of the Climate Science Coalition, not only endorses low intensity grazing, he believes that the Green’s plan doesn’t go far enough. [Ok, maybe he didn’t endorse it. maybe he implied it, or suggested it. Regardless, he seeks to mislead by his misuse of the science.]

Owen was commenting on my earlier post about Nick Smith’s failure as Climate Change Minister, when he stated that:

Nick is even wrong in his wrongness

Owen then goes on to link to the work of Professor Mark Adams in Australia, claiming that cattle are actually carbon neutral because the soil absorbs methane. This is a common meme used by climate deniers and the Greenhouse Policy Coalition to ‘debunk’ climate change and to try and get agriculture off the hook for their emissions.

Cherry picking the science is one of their favourite tools, and this is a case in point. What Professor Adams really said was:

“Typical methane production by beef cattle is round about 60 kilograms of methane per year, and some of the high country soils are taking more than that out of the atmosphere every day, so one hectare is taking out, or oxidising, more methane than a cow produces in a year” says Professor Mark Adams.

He says low intensity grazing, and sensible fire management, are the keys to success and sustainability for both the environment and farming.

By endorsing Professor Adams, McShane is endorsing a 1 cow per hectare policy to combat climate change, which is a very extreme culling of the herd, to say the least.

Now, we are mixing up beef cattle and dairy cattle here, but their climate change effects are roughly similar.

The Green’s document, Getting There, quotes research showing that farmers can reduce their herd from the average of 2.83 per hectare to 2.3,  still be profitable, and not have to pay anything under the existing ETS until 2018.

In contrast, Owen is suggesting a serious cull, down to 1 cow per hectare.

It’s great that Owen is finally referring to some real science, but in his haste to cherry pick, he has endorsed a pretty extreme view. I’m not sure the economics will stack up in Owen’s favour. That’s a shame, coming from an economist.

44 Comments Posted

  1. Ah, well. I haven’t heard back from Owen McShane. Must be that his argument: ‘we don’t know everything, so we must know nothing’ is just the classic contrarian trope we can expect from him. Cherry picked, pseudo science of the worst order.

  2. Better to be Mr 11% and be right than Mr 84% and be wrong about everything jh.

    Greens are motivated by principle, not by populism. I’ll always stick by what I think is the correct position on an issue (although I’m always open to argument as to whether it is actually the correct position) unless I’m convinced on the evidence I am wrong.

    “On the evidence” is the key term.

    And before you start about GE and cellphone towers, the precautionary principle is part of it. Greens are naturally conservative (in the true sense of the word, rather than the neo-con one). That is, we don’t want to do things that have potential risk to the environment or to human health until the evidence reveals that the risk is minimal.

  3. Aaargh, the perils of using a multiplicty of email addresses! Have now changed the email address in my frogblog profile and the cool little toadoftoadhall avatar magically appears. Thanks rimu.

  4. Yeah it gets pretty skinny!

    If two people haven’t managed to state their cases by the time they get to this many replies, then they’re probably wasting everyone’s time anyway…

  5. The difference is that those which are working already have an account on

    There has been a discussion about the security implications of the old system, and we opted for this instead. I’d never heard of before, but apparently it’s popular.

  6. greenfly said: Frog – can I replace the pattern with an avatar (or similar)?

    I was wondering the same. Sir Henry/Gareth’s seems to have been imported but mine that imports into other Wprdpress sites hasn’t – not sure why. Frog, any thoughts?

  7. Shunda

    They’re upgrading the blog software. The patterns make it easier to pick out threads. I think they still have some hiccups, so bear with us for a little bit.


  8. Emerald – those are good points and I’m generally in agreement with you (especially where you describe the effects of the runny stuff. I think this aspect is generally ‘plastered over’). I’m aware of the humus in warm soils problem, but still maintain the effects of light and oxygen on soil carbon is a major issue. Perhaps I need to do Ecological Engineering 101!
    I’m not sure what you are working towards here. You describe the needed changes very well, but add’ “this isn’t happening and is unlikely to happen”. I’m of the same opinion. You say, ‘Greens, get into action on this!” and I join you in your chorus. How, do you suggest, they/we go about it?

  9. Hi Greenfly, this is turning into Ecological Engineering 101.
    If not caused by worms runny cow pats are usualy nitrogen rich, ideal for helping the rapid breakdown of woody material into humus. I would worry about the health of any cattle that produced this for other than short periods.
    The milk or meat from cows with feed/stress problems to produce long term runny pats is usualy rubbish as well.
    Sorry if you thought I was skimming over erosion control. I agree it is a fundamental. It is a really massive subject with no ‘one size fits all’ answer.
    You mention carbon leaching and sunlight. It is not sunlight as such that is a big problem for soil carbon retention in NZ, rather the soil temperatures. In most NZ soils if the surface temperature goes over 25deg C carbon oxidation starts to rise to problem levels. Even humus which is normaly very stable (tens or hundreds of years) will start to go. Keeping soil temperatures in check is fundamental to high soil carbon levels in NZ. It is doable but not easy and labour intensive enough to currently be beyond the abilities of the majority of NZ farms.
    Actual soil movement is very rare under carbon sequestion managment. The soil is almost always under heavy vegatative cover. Fine partical movement should be controled by trap systems. This is not done presently on most NZ farms. Unfortunately most ‘improvements’ funded and supported by goverment simply trap sediments temporarily and then release it in flood events.

    I’m not a fan of water soluble fertilizers, except in special circumstances. Usually they just allow a higher production of an inferior crop at a higher price.
    I don’t suggest trying to force all farms to be biodynamic either, that would bankrupt NZ in a month.
    What I’m suggesting is to admit that different types of farming have very different effects on climate change gases. That is the first step to putting in place financial incentives to sequester carbon and destroy methane.
    Vague promises are not going to do. That was tried in the nineties and when the promises were broken that game was over.
    The average NZ farm is probably methane neutral but loses carbon at a slow rate, say about 100kg/H/yr.
    To change this to 1000kg/H/yr of methane destruction and 10T /H/yr carbon sequestration would require trebling the farm staff spending $100,000+ on machinery and fundamentally changing all farm practices. This is not going to happen often without the CERTAINTY of big payments over the long term.
    Such a scheme would save NZ billions, cost the govt less than nothing in the long term. The problem is ego, as always.

  10. Emerald – I am in agreement with what you say (above) almost entirely.

    However 🙂

    * Too much of the cow dung I see these days emerges liquified, due to the ‘quality’ of the grass feed they are on. Cow pats? Cow splats!!

    * ‘Erosion control’ – you skim over too easily and it is central to the problem. The erosion of soil and carbon through loss to leaching by water and sunlight is massive under conventional farming methods. It will do no good to sequester carbon only briefly in the soil – it has to stay put.

    *The bacterial ballance you describe is again, central to the process you are promoting. The extensive use of water-soluable, acidic fertilizers is working against the establishment of the needed colonies. You give biodynamics the nod (it seems) but these farms are few and far between and not regarded at all well by most farmers. What do you propose – an obligation to all NZ farmers to farm biodynamically (NOW you’re talking!)

    It does as you say, require fundamental management changes. The Greens have called for changes alomng these lines for a long, long time. I think you will find there is some resistance amongst the other parties (or have you heard that Key is embracing the Organic Way?).
    Do keep us updated if that is the case.

  11. Frog why are you worried about the Dairy farmers in NZ with regards to C02 output. NZ is going to see a reduction in CO2 from Diary farming thanks to all the debt the farmers have piled on them selves. Once the banks stop lending to NZ dairying and the farmers start going belly up then the C02 output will decline. The Greens just need to remember not to vote for any bank/farmer bailout packages.

  12. Frog. I have had some heated debates with various prominent greens (including your recently retired leader) over the last decade and a half on this issue. Not one has ever said that NZ should do (or even have an option for) full carbon accounting.
    I will put you on the spot. Do you believe that either NZ should have universal full carbon accounting or that landowners should be able to opt for that method (obviously retaining the value of carbon sequestered from a 1990 base.).

    Greenfly. Only the easy questions then!
    For most of the NZ north island the key to permanent sequestering of carbon into the soil is rapid humus production. The factors that control this are soil moisture and nitrogen levels. To get a high level of carbon sequestration (over 10 tonnes per H per year) requires a lot of woody debris, some mixing, damp soil and a high nitrogen level.
    The high levels of nitrogen in cow dung help this a lot as any fan of biodynamics knows.
    Making sure soil and humus stays out of the sea is erosion control which is another subject.
    High levels of methane absorption depend on the bacterial balance of the soil and on the actual species of plants and trees present. A lot of research still need to be done on this factor.
    Most types of farm could be run at high sequestration levels but it does require fundamental management changes.

  13. emerald – explain to me where the greens have ever opposed full carbon accounting? We may have said we’re not ready to do it all yet. (Like Owen, we do acknowledge the difficulty, but we don’t deny the necessity)

    I don’t recall any policy statement opposing soil carbon accounting. Please show me and enlighten me.

  14. The Maori Party have well and truely scr*wed again. It seems not to be hurting too much though – they’re keeping a fairly straight face. Guess they’re getting used to it.

  15. Emerald – that’s a green gem. How does a mixed forestry/pastoral farm on NZ’s North island sequester large amounts of carbon into the soil? Where in the NI are you describing? Is your ‘demonstration farm typical? How are you guaranteeing that the soil won’t end up on the plain or in a river or the sea? Does your farm plough? Does you plan extend to the large dairy farms (treeless) elsewhere in NZ?

  16. Frog. The Greens policies have always been against counting total soil carbon.
    Are you saying that this has suddenly changed? Ten years too late with getting sensible if this is so.
    A mixed forestry/pastoral farm on NZ’s north island can easily sequester large amounts of carbon into the soil and be a net methane sink. There is only one problem, the management requires about 3 times the man hours per unit of meat production than a current conventional’ farm.
    There is currently no reason why anybody would manage a farm in this way, they would not be payed for the carbon sequestration or the methane destruction.
    One answer to NZ’s hideous carbon emission problem is to make this type of farm management attractive. Have the Greens got a plan for this, no other party has or is even thinking about it.
    Of course this plan would run into the same problem as some others, there are not many people left in the countryside to actually do the work.

  17. What, a fixed grin and you are speechless?

    Come on Shunda, you’re amongst friends. Spill y’guts!
    Key’s a sod over this issue, isn’t he.
    Actually, I think he can’t do anything because those calling the shots know that to try to pin down the ‘smack’ is going to be a killer.

  18. Here’s last years debate on carbon neutral cows, where Owen claims we know nothing about forest vs pasture vs organic pasture, etc.

    Another great claim by the deniers is that we simply don’t know enough. Well, true, we’ll never know it all, but on a balance of probabilities basis, we know more than enough to start acting on climate change right now.

  19. We would never want to break away from conventional intensive methods and opt for more soil, plant and animal-friendly regimes, would we?

    Maybe we could reduce the average dairy stocking rate from 2.83 to 2.3 per hectare, make farmers more profitable and pay nothing under the existing ETS until 2018?

    Owen needs to make up his mind as to whether the science he quotes is relevant to NZ or not.

    Just what “conclusion”, which you have yet to specify, has NZ jumped to?

  20. I am happy to concede that it is a stretch of what Owen said. That was my point. Owen came out, as he usually does, arguing that the cows don’t matter because soils absorb carbon – backing up the Fed farmer’s myth that farms are carbon neutral. A patently misleading argument that he is fond of.

    As for soil research in NZ Owen, I heartily concur that we should be doing it. We will likely, after all, have to account for all our soil carbon in the post Kyoto agreement. That will be very sobering given the huge erosion problems we face. But this doesn’t mean that research isn’t happening.

    Did you not attend the Soil Carbon conference in July?

    Peter Floyd of Rural News said:

    Research has confirmed that over the last few decades soil depth has increased under long-term pastures – they have gained carbon – but land used for cropping and particularly intensive dairying has lost carbon.

    It gives the lie to the silly idea that New Zealand’s soils are saturated with carbon and can’t sequester any more.

    Brent Clothier, a science leader from Plant & Food Research pointed out that despite New Zealand soils being relatively high in carbon they still have the ability to grow in depth and sequester more under well managed long-term pastures and in some systems of orchard and vineyard management.

    The key is to break away from what in the last 20 years have become conventional intensive methods and opt for more soil, plant and animal-friendly regimes.

    Or LandCare’s research programme?

    Pastoral grazing lands store 51% of the soil carbon in New Zealand. There is an urgent need to develop robust, internationally-defensible methodologies to measure and verify amounts of carbon in these soils and increases or decreases with management or land-use change.

    This research will assist New Zealand to negotiate beneficial terms for the post-2012 Kyoto commitment period, provide credibility for the development of the Emissions Trading Scheme and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources.

    But you wouldn’t want to mention any research that provides credibility for the Emissions Trading Scheme, because you argue that Kyoto is a hoax.

    To imply that NZ is doing nothing is misleading Owen. Just like many of your posts and articles.

  21. We have jumped to a conclusion and the conclusion is at odds with science overseas and in nations which are our competitors.

    Frog… I think you jumped to far too fast with this post.

    Owen linked back to a bit of science, he did NOT explicitly recommend the number, nor did the linked research recommend a number…

    “Typical methane production by beef cattle is round about 60 kilograms of methane per year, and some of the high country soils are taking more than that out of the atmosphere every day, so one hectare is taking out, or oxidising, more methane than a cow produces in a year” says Professor Mark Adams.

    That statement parses as 1 cow does X , the pasture takes out 365 times X. It doesn’t say how many cows to put on the pasture.


  22. frog,
    Please tell me where I have said that ” we shouldn’t worry about it” or even asserted that “cattle farming is somehow carbon neutral”.

    The Australian study has relevance to New Zealand because they are doing the studies along the same lines as the Americans and the Canadians whereas as we have allowed NIWA to have a monopoly on science advice to the Governments and naturally enough they focus on gases.
    We have jumped to a conclusion and the conclusion is at odds with science overseas and in nations which are our competitors. As a result of my arguing this case there is now at last some attempt to get a better balance of science investment which until lately was entirely focused on the bacteria in the rumen.
    Given that the rumen science was assuming genetic modification of the bacteria and that the soil sequestration programmes are about improving the soil through better soil management I thought the Green Party (which opposed genetic modification and supports soil enhancement) would be with me on this one. But I suppose prejudice rules.
    Aanyhow frog I look forward to either your sources or your apology.

  23. No, Owen. the point you were making is the point you like to make again and again, that cattle farming is somehow carbon neutral and that we shouldn’t worry about it. Leave it out of the ETS, or not have an ETS at all.

    If the Australian Study has no relevance to NZ, why on earth did you quote it?

    Despite my misgivings, the amount of genuine research in NZ concerning the real issue faced by our livestock industries is huge and promising.

    Yours is a mission of misinformation.

  24. Dear me.
    You do miss the point.
    The point I have been making in my submissions to the ETS and to the Federated Farmers and others is that we have jumped to a conclusion regarding the biological exchanges on our farms without having done the science.

    I am not saying I know turning a pine forest into a perennial pasture improves overall sequestration but that we actually have no idea. Australian pastures are quite different to ours, and yes they are talking about Beefstock grazing not dairy farming. All I was pointing out was that the Australians are at least examining all the parameters in the equations – and we have locked ourselves into a focus on belching ruminants. How you can conclude from my link to that piece of research that I am recommending some cull of NZ dairy herds is beyond me.
    But that is typical behaviour of zealots. Only an extremist could conclude that I am recommending a cull down to 1 cow per acre, and of course I am doing no such thing. The actual numbers of the Australian study have absolutely no relevance to the New Zealand environment.
    However, this will make wonderful material for my digest today.

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