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Regenerative Practices: A New Approach for Sustainable Farming

By Dunling Wang, PhD, PAg, Provincial Specialist, Alternative Cropping Systems, Regina

August 2020

Cattle grazing on cover crop pasture
Intensive livestock grazing on cover crops can
increase soil organic matter, diversify a farm’s
income and improve farming resilience.

Regenerative agriculture was first introduced by the Rodale Institute - Pioneers of Organic Agriculture Research in the United States in 2014. Their goal was to enhance carbon sequestration and reverse the effects of climate change. In 2018, the Regenerative Organic Alliance created the regenerative organic certification program to improve current organic management standards and practices. The program focuses on increasing organic matter in soil over time as a tool for climate change mitigation, further developing animal welfare and creating economic stability and fairness to producers and workers. Regenerative practices emphasize on building soil health, restoring biodiversity and reinstating the soil’s functionality in the ecosystem.

In March 2019, General Mills announced its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland in the United States and Canada by 2030. The company encourages both organic and conventional producers to join in the program to adopt regenerative practices, which focus mainly in four areas:

  1. No-till to reduce soil organic carbon loss;
  2. Use of cover crops, mulches and composts to improve soil fertility;
  3. Incorporation of agroforestry and perennials in crop rotation to increase biodiversity; and,
  4. Managed grazing to reinstate soil health.

Several other companies, like Danone, Kellogg and Nestlé have also invested in regenerative farming to boost biodiversity on cultivated lands, eliminate deforestation, restore natural ecosystems and promote diets through their supply chains and product portfolios. 

Regenerative agriculture allows for flexibility and tailoring to individual farm situations and environments. In dark brown soil zones, producers who adopted regenerative practices with cover crops and intensive animal grazing have seen their soil organic matter level increased by about one per cent in five years. Common regenerative practices include:

Minimize soil disturbance: Tillage leads to soil structure destruction, reduces soil water infiltration, storage and causes soil erosion and compaction. After adopting no-till practices, soil organic matter increases over time creating healthier and more resilient environments for plants to thrive.

Keep soil covered: Mulch reduces soil moisture evaporation and cover crops prevent soil erosion. Growing cover crops and terminating with crimpers keeps soil covered and also returns organic matter to soil and improves the environment for soil microbial diversity.

Maintain living roots in the soil as long as possible: Living roots feed soil microbes by exuding organic compounds into the soil. Root exudation can release up to 20 per cent of carbon fixed by photosynthesis. The living roots eventually become part of soil organic matter.

Maximize crop diversity: Crop diversity is key to farming resilience and stability. Diverse crop rotation, incorporation of intercrops and adding cover crops in the rotation can improve nutrient use efficiency, reduce the pressures from weeds, pests and diseases. It increases crop yield, decreases risks and reduces the use of chemicals in the meantime.

Integrate livestock: Incorporating livestock into crop production diversifies the farm’s income and also provides farming resilience. Animal grazing turns cover crops and crop residue into dollars and nutrient cycling helps build soil health. A healthy soil nutrient cycle help grows a robust crop and reduces chemical inputs, both fertilizers and pest control products.

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