Pitfalls of regenerative agriculture
Wed 17 Jan 2024
Brown&Co has recently welcomed Ellis Gordon to its Agricultural Business Consultancy department at King’s Lynn. Ellis was formerly an agronomist who serviced a number of arable and mixed farming businesses across Kent and Sussex. In that role, he specialised in advising clients who were interested in ‘regenerative agriculture’ and were looking for ways to improve their soil health whilst maintaining profitability.
Ellis offers some insights into the common problems that may arise for businesses when adopting regenerative practices on their farm, and what they should consider before embarking on the transition.
Regenerative agriculture has seen a huge increase in interest as farmers seek to reduce variable and fixed costs in their production systems. The headline cost savings, such as less fuel consumption through direct drilling and producing high yielding wheat crops with reduced artificial fertiliser, no insecticide and fewer fungicide applications, can easily tempt farmers to consider changing their system.
Furthermore, grants that help meet the cost of direct drills have increased enthusiasm among farmers to adopt no-till techniques.
While it is very encouraging to see that farmers are looking to farm in a more environmentally-focused way while capturing the associated cost savings, it is important to understand that achieving any benefits takes time, particularly increasing soil organic matter content and improving soil structure. Depending on the biological, physical and chemical state of farm soils, it may take several years, possibly a decade or more, to get soils to perform in a way that can facilitate the use of a direct drill.
A common problem when adopting direct drilling is tight and compacted soils - this is a situation that farmers comes across when they have bought a direct drill and attempt to use it before their soil is in the correct condition for a no-till approach.
The aim of cultivation is to produce a fluffy seedbed with plenty of air to facilitate good soil-to-seed contact, the growth of roots and to ensure good crop establishment. In the absence of cultivation, farmers must rely on nature’s ploughmen, in the form of earthworms, and roots from cover crops to improve the soil aggregates into a friable tilth that can structure itself, to allow the soil to respond positively to direct drilling.
Cover crops need to be well established and have had the time to develop both above and below ground biomass to facilitate the dynamic system change required to really improve the soil.
Often, a late drilled, poorly established cover crop with only two species, such as mustard, would not be able to achieve this, despite still providing some environmental benefit by keeping the ground covered and satisfying Countryside Stewardship (CS) and Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) requirements.
Even businesses who are 20-30 years into their regenerative journey could still have tight and compacted soils that may need mechanical remediation; this may be done through using a low disturbance subsoiler that only disrupts the top five to six inches and moves less soil than a conventional subsoiler.
It is important to still have cultivation as a tool in the armoury as tight soils can lead to poor root growth and establishment, which can then result in yield reductions. This is particularly true of spring barley, which typically does not favour direct drilling. Therefore, instead of a blanket no-till system, consider the approach of doing as minimal cultivation as possible but as much as necessary. Do so while taking into account situations such as compaction, which may require remedial action and grass weeds, in which case ploughing might be required to supress the weed burden.
For businesses wishing to adopt direct drilling, it may be prudent to start with a strip tillage/minimum tillage approach, with the aim of increasing the soil organic matter content and improving soil structure. This could be achieved through reduced tillage, cover crops and, if livestock are part of your system, including them in a way which reduces the possibility of compaction and poaching.
The opening of the application window for SFI in September 2023 has prompted many clients to approach Brown&Co to discuss how adopting more regenerative farming practices could unlock additional income through the current SFI actions offered. SFI could be the incentive that helps farmers in the transition period to a more environmentally sympathetic farming practice.
The SFI offer is encouraging insofar as it provides a financial incentive to farmers who are actively trying to improve their soils. For example, with SAM1 farmers will be paid £6/ha for testing soil organic matter, along with producing a soil management plan. If the management plan is carried out effectively, this can help assess the soil health status and identify areas to improve, which would be beneficial if farmers are interested in implementing direct drilling.
It’s pleasing to see that SFI 2023 is less prescriptive than CS and Entry Level Stewardship/Higher Level Stewardship, resulting in more flexibility in how farmers can achieve the action aims, such as rotating legume fallow and grazing cover crops.
For more advice on how to adopt regenerative agriculture principles in your system or to understand how the SFI can work from an agronomic perspective, please contact the Agricultural Consultancy team at your local Brown&Co office.
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