By Dunling Wang, PhD, PAg, Provincial Specialist, Alternative Cropping Systems, Regina
Decades of farming practices including summer fallow have resulted in soil degradation over time. As production technology has improved with practices like crop rotation, fertilizer and pesticides, producer have been able to prevent decline of crop yields. Producers have an opportunity to examine the impact of their practices on soil quality and biodiversity, to ensure building a sustainable system that continues to support profitable crop production under a changing climate.
Regenerative agriculture is proposed to rebuild soil health through increased carbon sequestration by plants to reverse climate change. Regenerative practices are designed to increase soil organic matter, enhance biodiversity, restore ecosystems and optimize the hydrological cycle. Eventually, a sustainable farming system with reduced need for synthetic fertilizer and pesticides will be established.
Although regenerative agriculture was first proposed to improve organic farming systems, these easy and inexpensive practices provide flexibility and can be tailored to individual farm situations and all cropping systems. Importantly, these practices enhance crop resilience and improve the financial stability of farming systems.
There are four common core principles of regenerative agriculture:
- Minimize Soil Disturbance:
Tillage leads to soil structure destruction, reduced soil-water holding capacity, infiltration rate, and causes soil erosion and compaction. Reduced tillage also slows down soil organic matter losses and builds soil microbial diversity. Over time, reduced tillage or zero-till will help improve soil health and create a resilient environment for crops to thrive.
- Diversify Crop Rotation:
Crop diversity is considered a key to farming resilience and stability. Planting a wide variety of crops in your crop rotation, incorporating intercrops, perennials or agroforests can improve nutrient use efficiency, reduce weed, insect and disease pressure, increase crop yield and decrease risk while saving on the use of pesticides.
- Keep Soil Covered to Maintain Living Roots:
Use of cover crops or mulch reduces fluctuation of the soil surface temperature, decreases moisture evaporation and prevent soil erosion. Planting cover crops instead of summer fallow keeps soil covered, increases soil organic matter and improves environmental conditions for soil microbial diversity.
Living roots exuding organic compounds feed soil microbes. Research has shown that root exudation can release up to 20% of organic carbon that is fixed by photosynthesis. The living roots will also become part of soil organic matter.
- Add Livestock to a Grain Farm:
Incorporating livestock into a grain farming can diversify farm income as livestock utilize. Nutrient cycling through managed grazing helps to build soil health, grow a robust crop and reduce chemical inputs.