Friday, July 8, 2022

Top-notch beef, zero carbon

Ben Ensor knew he had indigenous vegetation that sequestered carbon that was not recognised, so to have the opportunity to produce beef for a net carbon zero by nature programme is an exciting venture. He talked with Annette Scott.

New Zealand-grown beef with a net carbon zero footprint has hit the supermarket shelves in the United States and Ben Ensor’s Angus beef is part of the programme.

The launch last month of the Silver Fern Farms (SFF) USDA-approved Net Carbon Zero by Nature marks the culmination of a two-year pilot to prove contributing farms sequester more carbon than they emit. 

The partnership is seen as a key part of future-proofing nature-positive food production.

Ensor, who runs a sheep and beef farming operation at Cheviot in North Canterbury, says aligning partnerships between consumers and farmers through products like Net Carbon Zero beef are important in addressing collective climate and environmental challenges.

Ensor and his wife Jane have been farming the family farm since 2008.

The hill country breeding operation, Jedburgh, takes in 1300 hectares of mainly hill country complemented by Willow Grove, a 120ha flat irrigated property on the south bank of the Waiau River.

The Ensors run 300 Angus cows plus replacement heifers alongside a 4500-breeding ewe flock.

Calves are normally weaned to the finishing block in February with the yearling cattle wintered on fodder beet, finished and off the property by the following February.

In recent years Ensor has transitioned the sheep flock from 50-50 Romney and half-bred to the quarter-bred to capture the better returns in the fine-wool market.

“The biggest challenge is the weather but that’s what I really enjoy – making a system that’s adaptable enough to cope both climatically and economically with ever-changing challenges.

The Ensors invested in irrigation on their 120ha finishing block.

“That’s been a big investment but a good investment. 

“It’s given us certainty in our planning and guarantee of what we can do and what we can produce and with that we have been able to build relationships with meat companies and contract supply.”

With a lot of good heavy soil and a number of spring-fed creeks, Ensor is acutely mindful of the farm’s environmental impact.

“We have actually got a very light environmental footprint and water quality coming out of here is very, very good. 

He has been instrumental in leading the way to achieve practical and sensible environmental planning regimes.

“The environment is always a big part of what we do on farm but the wider, environmental aspect with new regulations has been a big part of what I have been doing off-farm too.

In 2016 he led the establishment of the Hurunui District Landcare Group HDLG), a collective of 300 farmers established to demonstrate and promote good farming practice.

“The HDLG employs three full time catchment farm advisers that work alongside our members to assist them with their environmental management, as well as helping them to deal with the tsunami of new regulation coming their way.”

Ensor was well aware his hill country property had significant areas of indigenous vegetation, which he knew sequestered carbon, but it was not being recognised.

He was also aware that more and more consumers are demanding assurances that environmental and social concerns, such as the biodiversity linked to Net Carbon Zero project, are addressed.

As a sheep and beef farmer with areas of indigenous vegetation sequestering carbon Ensor realised the opportunity to respond to consumer demand for carbon neutral food.

“This carbon zero scheme gives recognition in the native regeneration we have that is hard to get recognition for or a return from.

“In our higher hill country we have got quite a bit of regeneration fenced off so it is nice to get both recognition and a return for the action we are taking.

“Returns for us is being able to sell carbon credits from regeneration into the scheme rather than the premium on the beef itself, that is where the value is in it for farmers.

“SFF have processes in place to measure vegetation through remote sensing so for us it’s continuing management practices we already have in place.

“It has allowed us to be recognised for a class of vegetation that didn’t previously have a value,” Ensor said.

Three Angus cattle stand on a hilltop.
The Ensors run 300 Angus cows plus replacement heifers alongside a 4500-breeding ewe flock.

While he supplies up to 200 prime Angus beef animals to SFF each year it is not clear on just how much of that is in the Net Carbon Zero programme.

“However, it is really positive for the future to have a programme like this that is creating value at the consumer end.

“It gives a lot of confidence in the industry when we can turn around and show a product is positive and we can put programmes like this in place.

“It’s a good news story for all sheep and beef farmers,” Ensor said.

SFF chief executive Simon Limmer says the transition to a low carbon economy is an important opportunity to create new forms of value for NZ and position farmers as climate innovators.

“We have worked alongside a group of farmer suppliers from across the country to better understand their own carbon footprint and opportunities to optimise carbon stored on their farms.”

The Net Carbon Zero beef programme incentivises farmers to invest in and maintain on-farm carbon sequestration including native and riparian planting.

The product is fully certified and has USDA approval.

“What is unique about the Net Carbon Zero beef is that the certification is achieved by what our farmers do on their own farms to balance out emissions rather than by simply purchasing carbon offsets as is the case for many other carbon zero products.”

While the size of the premium payment is still to be calculated, it will be “meaningful,” Limmer said.

SFF intends adding zero carbon lamb and venison later in the year. 

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