26 August 2020

The rise of regenerative agriculture

FarmWise® Consultant Regan examines the recent increased discussion around regenerative agriculture due to New Zealand and overseas research into plant species in pasture and grazing management.

One area we’re seeing more discussion around is regenerative agriculture (RA) in New Zealand (and overseas) with research into 10–100 species of plants in pastures and how to manage grazing to ensure persistence of these species while maintaining quality feed. It’s a challenging balance between management and profitability but it is possible?

There are some farms in New Zealand trailing multiple (>8) different plant species in a single “pasture” mix and a regenerative agriculture approach. But why are we hearing so much about it at the moment and is it the future of our industry?

The word regenerate can be defined as, ‘the ability of a living organism to grow after experiencing loss or damage.' Therefore, the title regenerative agriculture is insinuating we, as the New Zealand agricultural industry, are repairing the loss or damage that we have created in our system.

FarmWise rise of regenerative ag

RA origins

The origin of RA stems from North America where there has been intensively cropped land for longer than a century and soils have degenerated – losing some usual or expected property or quality characteristics. The question we then need to ask ourselves is, is it fair to make a direct comparison to a completely different system to that of our own?

The answer is no. Does it mean that we can completely disregard the concept? No. We are in a fortunate position where we can grow pasture sustainably, but there is always room for improvement and lessons to be learnt from those who have ‘degenerated’ their system and are now looking to regenerate.

RA is a holistic approach to managing our resource in what is thought by some to be a more sustainable manner. Soil health, water and air quality are at the forefront of the movement. The concept of RA can be broken down into four main categories. Although there is no real New Zealand-based research around the overall approach, there is quite a bit of research around the individual aspects. We as an industry now require a more defined term that is applicable and replicable to the New Zealand system.

FarmWise regenerative ag flowers and cows

What is the difference between regenerative and organic agriculture??

Organic farming looks at the system as a restriction of inputs and those that are utilised within the system have had strict testing to ensure they meet the legislative requirements to be certified as organic. MPI defines it as, “voiding or excluding the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, antibiotics, growth promotants, genetic modification, and irradiation. Organic handlers, processors, and retailers follow voluntary standards to maintain the integrity of organically produced products."

There is a lot of detail around what fertilisers, disease and pest controls and supplements can meet the needs of the system. RA is a lot less defined and as there is no current certification programme. The objectives are more informal hence the following principles are driving the movement:

Plant Diversity: farmers that are employing an RA approach are growing swards that contain 5-20 different cultivars, sometimes more. Varieties in these mixes include the likes of vetch, perennial and annual ryegrass, a variety of clovers including, red, white, crimson, Persian and others, oats, kale, sorghum and more. You can only imagine what this sward would look like in a commercial system. The key aspect behind the diverse sward are that it allows species to thrive when others are not, and to ensure there is continued production through the season with less exposure to changes in climate.

1) Catch Cropping: the main purpose is to catch excessive nitrates that would otherwise be lost to the system through leaching. Growing crops that are generally winter active to keep the soil covered, increase the annual dry matter production and assist with the restoration of the soil.

2) Tillage Elimination: continuous conventional cultivation slowly degrades the soil, adversely affects the soil biome, and reduces the soils organic matter as well as altering the aggregate size and structure. These lead to a degradation of the soil profile and continuous yields. No till also ensures we can retain moisture as well as prevent the loss of phosphorus, in particular to waterways.

3) Integrating Livestock: RA refers to this as adaptive multiple grazing, which for us as New Zealand farmers is rotational grazing with a slight difference in that the aim is to leave greater residuals of which the stock partially trample into the ground which has the ability to build organic matter. The majority of soils in New Zealand are not low in organic matter. This is the result of our history of rotational grazing with herds around our farms.

FarmWise regenerative ag flowers

Why is it gaining attention?

Consumers are seeking more transparency around the process of how the product they are consuming is produced. As we are an exporting industry we need to continually be aware of where the demand is growing and if the evidence isn’t there to support the movement, then we need to conduct robust research to either prove or disprove the point being made.

This topic doesn’t need to be an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or 'conventional' versus 'holistic'. We need to be open for change that is backed by research and the team at FarmWise® is here to help you on your sustainability journey.

Regan McCorquindale

LIC FarmWise® Consultant