By Austin Baron, Agri-Environmental Specialist, and Shannon Chant, Crops Extension Specialist, Regional Services Branch, Swift Current
Regenerative agriculture has been used more frequently in recent years and some producers are interested in learning more about it. An internet search of regenerative agriculture will return varying definitions and it’s apparent that the term means different things to different people.
Although the term regenerative agriculture is relatively new, the concepts are not. The six principles that regenerative agriculture focuses on include:
• Minimize soil disturbance;
• Maximize crop diversity;
• Maintain soil cover;
• Maintain living roots year-round where possible;
• Integrate livestock; and,
• Understand the needs of your operation.
Minimizing soil disturbance
In the 1970s, Canadian agriculture began to see increased interest in protecting soil resources, including the adoption of practices such as no-till to minimize soil disturbance. Since then, conservation tillage and zero tillage have spread throughout Western Canada. As of 2016, 93 per cent of cropland acres in Saskatchewan were under conservation tillage. Keeping crop residue on the soil surface improves soil moisture retention, traps snow, protects the land from erosion and moderates soil temperature.
After decades of zero-till in Saskatchewan, soil organic matter and water infiltration have increased, and water retention, nutrient cycling and beneficial microbial populations have improved.
Maximizing crop diversity
Many producers employing regenerative agriculture practices have adopted the term resilience into their working definition. Crop rotations disrupt the life cycles of insects, weeds and residue-borne diseases. A strong crop rotation also increases resiliency. For example, growing crops with different rooting depths can increase soil water use efficiency and storage. Using nitrogen left by the previous pulse crops is another benefit of a diverse crop rotation. Perennial and annual forage crops help manage challenges farmers face with annual grain crops.
Research in western Canada has linked higher soil compaction to more plant stress and higher risk and severity of root rots when compared to non-compacted soil. A crop rotation should include a variety of root systems to help prevent soil compaction and improve water infiltration.
When a new crop is added to a rotation, it is important to consider available moisture, rooting depth, potential risk from herbicide residues, insect, disease and weed pressure, and goals for the field this year and in the future.
Maintaining soil cover and living roots when possible
Using winter annuals and biennial species in rotations can improve farm resiliency for both livestock and annual crop producers. Crops grown for ground cover and increased organic matter can have benefits in all production systems. Plants with alternative lifecycles keep roots growing in the soil longer and can increase water infiltration, improve soil structure and reduce erosion.
There are three plant lifecycles for crops that overwinter:
1. Winter annuals are plants that germinate in the fall and overwinter as rosettes (broadleaves) or seedlings (cereals). The next spring or summer, plants set seed and mature in the summer.
2. Biennials take two years to complete their lifecycle. In year one, the seed will germinate in the spring and the plant has vegetative growth for the summer. Next spring, the plant will set seed and mature in the fall.
3. Perennial plants are typically forage plants (bromes, alfalfa, wheatgrasses) and these plants persist for more than three years.
Annual crop producers need to consider that the seeding date for overwintering plants may overlap with harvest and there can be logistical concerns some years that prevent fall seeding. One way to harvest a crop and seed in the fall is to select fields that have earlier maturing crops like pea or lentil.
Livestock producers can fall and spring graze winter annuals and biennials and possibly bale or ensile the regrowth. Winter hardiness is a big factor when considering winter grazing annuals that overwinter. Fall rye has the greatest winter hardiness, followed by winter wheat and winter triticale. By growing winter annuals, along with biennial plants for expanding grazing options, livestock producers may be able to reduce stress related to feed shortages.
Cows in pasture
Integrating livestock into existing grain farms is another guiding principle of regenerative agriculture. Livestock can terminate crops grown for ground cover and soil improvement, graze unharvested annual crops or help with harvest residue management.
When incorporating livestock or partnering with neighbours for grazing, water availability and quality is key to having livestock on the landscape. The nutritional value of the feed also needs to be considered. Feed and water testing are important for successful livestock production and herd health.
Examples of livestock integration on annually cropped acres are bale grazing, swath grazing and straw-chaff grazing. Cost of production is lower when wintering cattle in-field through reduced yardage and manure handling costs. Nutrient retention and recycling increases when applying manure directly in field. Beef cattle excrete about 90 per cent of the nitrogen they uptake through feed, and 50 per cent in a form that is readily available to plants. Careful site selection is important to minimize runoff and contamination of ground and surface water.
Understand the needs of your operation
The guiding principles of regenerative agriculture can be used to maintain and improve sustainability on your operation. A good first step is determining where you are at and where you want to go. Look at current management practices and recognize successes and where opportunities and changes can be made—keep in mind that improvements or changes resulting from new practices can take numerous growing seasons.