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A growing number of innovative farmers are embracing ‘regenerative agriculture’, successfully restoring their farm landscapes while increasing their businesses’ profitability and their own wellbeing.
Since European settlement, many of our land management practices, including agriculture, have unwittingly caused damage to the landscape. While high input pasture improvement practices including superphosphate application has significantly increased productivity on farms across Australia, it has also put the agricultural landscape, and soils in particular, under stress.
The consequence is that the landscapes of conventionally farmed properties are vulnerable to degradation, reliant on high inputs – resulting in low-profit operations and susceptibility to an increasingly variable and dry climate.
Many farmers have laudably undertaken natural resource management initiatives on their properties to make their landscapes more sustainable. But there are a growing number of farmers who have gone one step further and embraced ‘regenerative agriculture’.
What is regenerative agriculture? Put simply, it is a system of farming which actively regenerates, rather than degrades or maintains, the current natural resource base. It works with nature, rather than against it.
Improving soil health is a key priority. Strong, healthy soils (structural and biological) with deep carbon levels retain water, support strong, nutrient rich plants, and promote biodiversity in soil microbes and plants. They also sequester greater amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, which helps combat climate change.
As well as creating a healthier landscape, the benefits to the farmer have been shown to be significantly reduced input costs and improved cash flow, greater profitability and financial resilience, and greater wellness – see the results of the Graziers with better profitability, biodiversity and wellbeing survey.
Regenerative agriculture is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to land management. Its techniques generally focus on integrated management of soil, water, vegetation and biodiversity. Techniques of interest to woolgrowers include:
IMPLEMENTING TIME- CONTROLLED PLANNED GRAZING
By dividing a property into smaller paddocks and rotationally grazing them, the short duration of grazing combined with a longer planned plant recovery period reduces overgrazing of the desirable species. The higher stock density can result in a more even grazing over each paddock. Intestinal parasite cycles can be broken by rotational grazing.
SLOWING THE FLOW OF WATER ON THE PROPERTY
Constructing interventions in the landscape or waterways, such as ‘leaky weirs’, slows down the rate of runoff, especially after rain. This allows time for water to percolate into the soil layers and rehydrate the landscape. Also, sediment is deposited, gradually rebuilding eroded creek beds.
LIFTING AND MAINTAINING GROUND COVER
Good ground cover improves the water cycle of the land so that when it gets rain there’s very little run off. It also helps prevent moisture evaporation, further extending the growing season. Permanent ground cover also protects the soils from wind and water erosion, while providing organic matter for the soil.
Rather than dictating to the land what stock it has to carry, it is better to look after the land, evaluate what it has to offer and then attempt to stock it accordingly. Leaving enough grass in the paddock and maintaining living roots enable the pasture to recover quickly. Living roots feed soil biology. The planned approach to grazing also allows for timely feed budgeting.
ENCOURAGING PERENNIAL NATIVE GRASSLANDS
Native grassland has diverse species (some have shallow roots, some deep etc), with each playing a role in maintaining soil health. They have evolved to suit the soils and climate and are adept at surviving droughts and heavy rains. They also help crowd out weeds. Many of the native perennials can have high feed quality.
REDUCING CHEMICAL INPUTS
As well as being costly, synthetic fertilisers have negative impacts on the natural biological life in the soil that is vital for fuelling the nutrient cycle that feeds plants. Applying organic composts, fertilisers and bio-amendments can be healthy for the soils. Promoting biological activity of soils reduces the reliance on chemical inputs.
AVOIDING TILLAGE OF SOIL
As well as limiting chemical disturbance of the soil, limiting mechanical and physical disturbance of the soil helps improve the structure of the soil, including the aggregates and soil pores that allow water to infiltrate into the soil. Tillage can result in soil erosion.
UTILISING LIVESTOCK AS A FARM TOOL
Stock can be used, in effect, as the farm machinery such as to transfer nutrients off sheep camps, move seed through the farm and reduce weeds and intestinal worm infection. Stock density, the herd effect, and planned rest from grazing are as much tools as is a plough.
Pasture cropping involves sowing crops into living perennial pastures and growing them in combination, so that the cropping and grazing benefit each other. No ground cover vegetation is killed prior to sowing and no tilling occurs, which improves soil structure and fertility.
REVEGETATING THE LANDSCAPE
Supporting a diversity of vegetation, including trees, helps to moderate temperatures, provides habitat and shelter, builds resilience in the landscape (especially to climate extremes) so it is able to recover more quickly, and contributes to the long-term productivity of the land.
Degraded waterways and banks can be improved by fencing off stock and implementing water reticulation for stock, alongside the establishment of a vegetated strip at least 10 metres wide with a mix of native trees, shrubs and grass. These can be appropriately grazed.