Carbon stocks and flows

Carbon stocks and flows

This page presents the insights of member and former grazier Alan Lauder into the functions of carbon in a pastoral landscape and the dynamics of its interactions with other elements of the production system. Over time Mr Lauder has strengthened his model as a result of  both paddock observations and research readings. He has written material in the following formats, listed in order of length and complexity:

  • a short overview (below, 2017)
  • a summary in 2015 (4 pages, 2015)
  • a series of columns (links below, 2017-18)
  • an update to the original book (17 pages, 2017)
  • an update on, particularly methane (September 2023)
  • the original book (links below, 2008).

He has also published an Opinion Piece in the Society’s peer-reviewed Proceedings – link below.


Difference between stocks and flows

A grazing paddock is a dynamic system, not a static one. To understand how a paddock functions, it is important to understand the role of the element carbon as it flows through different paths after it enters the paddock.

Carbon is a carrier of energy through a natural system. As it moves, carbon takes different forms – such as animals, plant leaves, plant roots, soil organic matter. These different forms contain carbon in different chemical combinations and their individual carbon-containing molecules flow through the system at different rates. Carbon keeps flowing above ground as well as below ground, including through commercial livestock.

Carbon compounds in a paddock can be loosely classified into short-term (labile), medium-term and long-term, though there is a continuum. The dynamic nature of carbon is not revealed by spot measurements taken at a point in time, commonly referred to as ‘stocks’. Considering soil carbon, the technique used for measurement uses a 2mm sieve that removes about a third of grass roots which are labile carbon. Soluble carbon, the fastest flowing carbon, is outside the measurement process.

Short-term carbon, which accounts for the bulk of carbon flows, moves through the landscape by ongoing interchange between plants, animals, soil and atmosphere. This exchange powers the health of the paddock generally and pastoral productivity in particular. The volume of flowing carbon in a paddock reflects recent land management decisions.

On the other hand, the level of long-term carbon is a consequence of past decision-making. Long-term soil carbon is important for paddock health , even though it moves at an extremely slow speed and its level is slow to change. It is not responsible for short-term changes in paddock health or productivity. Short term improvements in paddock health and productivity are driven by the short-term carbon introduced in the first phase of carbon flows. Also, the carbon in long-term soil carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows.

Long-term soil carbon has become prominent in public debate because of climate change policy and carbon trading. Payments to landholders in the form of carbon credit schemes for storing carbon apply only to long-term forms of carbon, because short-term carbon flows cannot be secured. However, payments in the form of stewardship incentives can be justified for management changes that increase the flow of carbon and so improve paddock and catchment condition. The two purposes are distinct and different metrics are needed to assess them.

The concept of carbon flows highlights the ongoing nature of carbon transfers; whereas the alternative concept of carbon stocks (a measurement at one point in time) is a static one and says little about what is driving changes in the health of the landscape or the relative significance of past and current management decisions.

An understanding of carbon flows leads into recognition of the importance of timing when managing stock on a pastoral property. Timing of grazing was central to Alan Lauder’s book Carbon Grazing.

Thinking dynamic ‘carbon flows’ rather than static ‘carbon stocks’ leads to a better understanding of how a paddock functions and needs to be managed.


The model is explained in a short Summary written in 2015 and in a longer Update to the book Carbon Grazing written in 2017.

2023 update

Alan’s insights gained traction in 2022 and 2023, notably through endorsement by Hughes Pastoral Group and Prof. Myles Allen of Oxford:

Opinion: CN30 was a poor decision and should be replaced with Climate Neutral – Beef Central

British physicist behind GWP* addresses Australian cattle sector – Beef Central

Oxford University physicist: Why climate metrics are getting it wrong on methane emissions – Beef Central

Why Hughes Pastoral Group is setting course for “Climate Neutral” beef – Beef Central

How an Aussie sheep and cattle producer helped to drive cutting edge global methane science – Beef Central


Why carbon flows

Alan Lauder has published a series of columns explaining the dynamics of pastoral landscapes.They have appeared first on the website of Soils for Life.

Column 1:  What is the most fundamental thing a producer has to get right?

Column 2:  Has extension focused on the wrong aspect of carbon when discussing decision making?

Column 3:  Restarting carbon flows to repair a degraded claypan.

Column 4:  Why carbon suddenly turned up in extension.

Column 5:  How moving carbon carries energy.

Column 6: Think carbon before nitrogen.

Column 7 : Plant energy reserves are built by carbon flows.

Column 8 : Why we make the decisions we do.

Column 9 : Why paddock carbon needs ongoing replacement.

Column 10 : The different speeds of paddock carbon.

Column 11 : How carbon and nitrogen work together.

Column 12 : Speeding up the faster moving carbon for increased profit and reduced methane.

Column 13 : The structural role of flowing carbon.

Column 14 : Financial analogy.

Column 15 : Edible shrubs supply more reliable carbon flows.


Column 16 : Some of the main points raised in 2017.

Column 17 :  What really is paddock resilience?

Column 18 : Plants don’t just sit there and take it.

Column 19 : The two different processes plants use to generate carbon flows.

Column 20 :  Is pasture rest TIME or TIMING?

Column 21 : Techniques for pasture spelling.

Column 22 : Why short term removal of animals after rain rests all plants.

Column 23 : Small changes can make a big difference.

Column 24 : Methane is the carbon atom taking a detour.

Column 25 : The Carbon Grazing principle relates to managing carbon flows.

Column 26 : Drought in perspective.

Column 27 :  Carbon levels influence rainfall.

Column 28 :  Ongoing stable methane emissions from cattle doesn’t change the climate.

Column 29 : Edible shrubs need management different from perennial grasses.

Column 30 : Wet years are over-emphasised in relation to regeneration.

Column 31 :  Practical facts that provide understanding.

Column 32 : Where carbon resides.

Column 33 :  Why resilience is important.

Column 34 :  Animals can be very selective.

Column 35 :  Short-term carbon is the driver of change.

Column 36 :  ‘Sustainable Beef’ can’t be defined without discussing carbon flows.

This completed the initial  series of columns. The author subsequently wrote another on kangaroos.

Column 37 :  Controlling kangaroos is essential to increase carbon flows.

A video was uploaded by Soils for Life on 9 July 2018: .

 Carbon Grazing – the book

Alan Lauder’s book Carbon Grazing – The Missing Link was published in 2008. As well as endorsement by experienced pasture scientists such as Dr David Freudenberger and those named in the Introduction, the work was comprehensively edited by member of the Society, geographer Michael Gutteridge. The regional catchment body South West NRM Ltd was so impressed with this book at the time that it posted a copy to every rural landholder in its region. Printed copies (second printing) have sold out.

Read the Update first

Alan Lauder advises people to read the Update before reading the book, as it explains how his thinking has evolved since 2008.


Table of Contents and Introduction

1.   Putting carbon into perspective
2.  The carbon debate is here to stay
3.  The carbon cycle
4.  Photosynthesis
5.  The two food chains plants supply
6.  The role of carbon
7.  Energy follows carbon
8.  The structural role of carbon
9.  Water follows carbon
10. Nutrients follow carbon
11. How plants function
12. How ruminant animals function
13. The four types of plants and their role
14. The carbon nitrogen ratio
15. Pasture rest: Is it time or timing
16. The Carbon Grazing principle
17. Techniques for pasture spelling
18. Adapting to climate change
19. Carbon Grazing reduces methane
20. Pasture cropping
21. The role of saltbush in Carbon Grazing
22. Conclusion.

Unsettled Science: Timing the Harvest of Carbon Flows”

Alan Lauder published an Opinion Piece in Volume 119 of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland pointing out the importance of supporting research based on paddock observations by non-credentialled scientists. Copies of this article can be purchased online from Informit (free to Society members).

“The sequence of actions in the conduct of science, and then typically its acceptance and implementation, are referred to as Scientific Method and then objective meritocratic formation of policy. In the modern world it includes evidence – hypothesis – experiment – conclusions – peer review – publication – transfer to policy – and finally its communication to practical managers. However, this sequence does not always proceed in a logical and orderly fashion. For a range of reasons, important evidence can remain un-investigated and even if scientifically validated, conclusions can remain un-implemented.”

Further information?

Alan Lauder is keen to establish an outreach to pastoralists, to share his knowledge of both science and the paddock, but sponsorship funding is lacking. He is also willing to answer genuine inquiries from pastoralists, scientists or extension officers. Sponsors willing to discuss supporting Alan’s research or outreach, or inquirers keen to know more about his methods are invited to contact him by email to alanlauder AT (His former Carbon Grazing website is no longer functioning).

About Alan Lauder

Member Alan Lauder was a successful rural producer with thirty years’ experience of property management in Queensland’s south-western pastoral zone. He built extensive networks in the scientific community to gain a ‘big picture’ understanding of how landscapes function and how different regimes for managing livestock affect landscapes. This understanding extends to greenhouse outcomes and water catchment outcomes.

In 1997, he was funded to conduct a $272,000 Drought Regional Initiative project on his property. The project perfected a method of building the health and resilience of grazing landscapes. While a wool grower, he produced the world’s first guaranteed prickle-free jumper, supplying David Jones and Country Road. While still on the property, the Queensland Government used him as one of ten case studies in their publication, Graziers’ Experiences in Managing Mulga Country. He spoke at the 1999 International Rangeland Congress and was invited to speak at the Grootfontein Research Institute in South Africa. He is lead author of the peer-reviewed paper “Offsetting methane emissions – An alternative to emission equivalence metrics”. Alan was nominated for the McKell National Landcare Award and was a presenter at the Deakin Lecture series in Melbourne in 2010. In 2015 he was invited to speak to ranchers on the five main Hawaiian islands.