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The transition to regenerative agriculture, how this can benefit future farming resilience

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

You may have heard a lot about regenerative agriculture (regen ag) recently. It’s enjoying a huge surge of scientific, political and grassroots interest as a practice which reduces overheads and replenishes the soil. Let’s explore regenerative agriculture and see how this can benefit farmers and increase resilience to businesses and the environment.

What is regenerative agriculture?


Regenerative agriculture is the practice of farming in a way that:

  • Has positive impacts from agricultural practices on soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture and biodiversity

  • Enables local communities to protect and improve their environment and wellbeing

  • Produces crops with sufficient yield and nutritional quality to meet existing and future needs, while keeping resource inputs as low as possible.

  • Optimises the use of renewable resources while minimising the use of non-renewable resources.

When we talk about increasing resilience, we are referencing the ability to recover from setbacks and difficulties quickly and smoothly, whether these are environmental, financial or wellbeing related. This is becoming increasingly important with climate change, a volatile global market and the stresses associated with these. Therefore, it is important to invest in practices which provide you with the tools to create a stable and diverse farm for the future. Agriculture is currently undergoing a significant transition away from the basic payment scheme, and what is for certain is that farmer businesses will benefit from being more ecologically and economically resilient.

Although a large area of research encompassing many types of adaptions, the regenerative agriculture principles, adopted by Groundswell Agronomy (https://groundswellag.com/) provide a good foundation for actions which are considered regenerative:

  1. Minimise soil disturbance

  2. Protect the soil surface by keeping it covered

  3. Maintain living roots in the soil

  4. Grow a diverse range of crops

  5. Integrate grazing animals into the rotation

  6. Context: Keep in mind that your farm is unique, so work in the context of your unique soil and farm

By implementing these regenerative agriculture principles farming is returning nutrients and value back to the earth and to the environmental system. This differs from sustainable farming as it aims to improve the land, not just sustain it.


Why are farm businesses moving towards regen ag?


Regenerative agriculture tends to focus on soils, and with good reason; according to the FAO 33% of our global soils are degraded because of tillage, loss of soil organic carbon, water logging and soil sealing.

 

What is soil sealing?

Soil sealing refers to changing the nature of the soil such that it behaves as an impermeable medium (for example, compaction by agricultural machinery).

 

There is little food production that is not dependent upon soil. In fact, it is estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils (FAO 2015) and as such it should be remembered that the soil is your greatest resource, and it needs to be protected. Other factors such as rising production costs, the fight against climate change and the need to diversify farm income all feed into the increasing interest in regenerative agriculture.

Benefits of regen ag:


A no-till (or greatly reduced till) system combined with adding cover crops and active roots supply a whole host of benefits to the soil. These practices increase soil carbon, aerate the soil by roots pushing into the earth and protect the soil from sealing by the cover crop foliage sheltering bare soil from the full kinetic energy of wind and rain.

Having healthier soil increases the soil porosity which in turn prevents flooding as water can percolate through the air pockets in the soil. It also increases the water holding capacity, which is particularly beneficial for areas in drought and since it is expected that climate change will increase the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, a more stable soil will have greater potential to mitigate any negative impact.

Adding animal manure to the soil contributes to reducing soil bulk density and compaction, increasing soil aggregate stability, water infiltration and retention and may also be used to increase soil fertility by increasing nutrient availability. In a similar way, nutrient availability can be increased by adding legumes to the rotation either as a crop, as a single species cover crop or part of a cover crop mixture or ley. The legumes can fix nitrogen in the soil increasing the amount of nutrients available to crops and reducing the amount of bagged fertiliser required, making better use of nutrients on the farm. It is also important to remember that in general, your soil will have leftover nutrients within the top 60cm from previous applications which are going to be vulnerable to leaching through groundwater and runoff which will be detrimental to water quality and biodiversity. Some cover crops (such as radish, annual ryegrass, cereal rye) grown within the rotation forage these nutrients and turn them into biomass, locking them up when they could otherwise be lost, and then these can be released more effectively later on when your next cash crop needs it.


NIAB researchers have been confirming these benefits through the ‘Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations’ project in collaboration with multiple organisations and universities within the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Club (SARIC) https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=BB%2FR021716%2F1#/tabOverview


What’s the catch?


As the costs of crop production continue to increase, and the number of plant protection products available continues to decrease, it seems that developing a system of crop production that requires less inputs and has lower costs seems to be the port within a storm, but what is the catch?


Regen ag so far sounds like a silver bullet. However, according to a study in the United States, when following these principles yield reduces by around 29% due to changes in tilling practices and fertiliser use (LaCanne and Lundgren, 2018). Although they do report a 78% rise in profits, as the profits are positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil and not yield, with several costs such as fuel and fertilisers being suppressed by reduction of machinery use and input requirements. NIAB are currently building on this research, linking soil health and yield data in partnership with AHDB as part of the Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership, including development of a soil health card https://ahdb.org.uk/soil-biology-and-soil-health-partnership. More details of this will be published on this site later.


There is often confusion over best practice with regenerative agriculture, with several ways of implementation incorporating a mix of companion crops, herbal leys, livestock grazing and more. FixOurFood regenerative agriculture programme (https://fixourfood.org/what-we-do/our-activities/regenerative-farming/ ) is led by Dr Ruth Wade at the University of Leeds and measures the impact of seven different approaches.

Before any changes were made to the approaches being used, baseline measurements were taken of the land used. Then seven different farming practices were undertaken to see the effect of each on yield and soil quality, compared to the baseline measurements. The seven different practices are shown above and range from conventional (intensive) farming which uses ploughing, monoculture and inorganic fertiliser to more regenerative principles which involve organic fertiliser (manure), livestock grazing and mixed species. This will help inform what is best practice and which combination of practices provide the best results.

When thinking about regenerative agriculture it is also important to think about context. As said above your farm is unique, so work in the context of your unique soil and farm. Degraded soils will have more of a dramatic improvement to this style of farming, and different crops will be better suited to different soil types. However, the principles of regenerative agriculture have aspects which can have universal application.


Conclusion


Regen ag has positive impacts from agricultural practices on soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture and biodiversity. As a consequence of less intense farming practices, crop yields may decrease, however research shows that it can increases profitability by reducing overheads and increasing the quality of the soil. With the transition away from BPS these are important factors to consider for the future of your business.

NIAB are leading research into implementation of regen ag and as part of the Future Farming Resilience Fund Scale-up programme we will be holding workshops on this topic and if you would like more specific discussions about how it could benefit your business, it could be the focus of your tailored business support package.


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