10 Regenerative Agriculture Practices Every Grower Should Follow
Worrying about bad crops due to poor soil should be a thing of the past. Modern farming that uses regenerative agriculture techniques have found greater success through 10 simple, but highly effective, practices. Learn about these practices, along with benefits to soils, crops, the environment, and the positive economic benefits.
Within these practices, PhycoTerra® Soil Microbe Food, developed by Heliae® Agriculture, plays a vital foundational role in bringing out the best in the abundance and diversity of microbes in your soils, driving soil health and regeneration of agricultural lands. We are excited to partner with you on this journey![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
In 2014, a senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official addressed a forum marking World Soil Day. It was announced that if current topsoil degradation rates continue unchecked, all topsoils would be depleted in 60 years. As it takes 1,000 years to generate 3 centimeters of topsoil naturally, action needs to be taken now to avoid this from occurring. This announcement also pointed out that sustaining topsoil is not enough. We need to adopt practices that can regenerate soils to meet the food needs of an ever-growing world population. Regenerative agricultural practices are instrumental in helping us meet these challenges.
At its core, regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach designed not just to sustain soils but also to regenerate them, improving soil health as the central foundation.
Relation to Soil Health
Our recommended practices center around soil health. Soil health starts with adopting regenerative practices that encourage abundance and diversity of soil microbes. It is these soil microbes that drive processes resulting in a rich cascade of beneficial soil health and structure effects including; improved soil aggregation, water penetration, increased water retention, improved nutrient retention, and availability to plants, decreased soil erosion, reduce agricultural run-off, increased CO2 capture from air and sequestration to soil. All these together promote more vigorous and productive crops, while also regenerating rapidly depleted soils. These are not just ideals.
The principles behind regenerative agriculture are sound, and the results are surprisingly strong as outlined in a series of peer-reviewed agriculture journals described by Washington State University’s Natural Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Adopting Regenerative Practices on your Farm
Using the described practices, you will increase biodiversity both above and below the ground. This will serve to enrich your soils, sequester CO2 from the atmosphere into your lands while at the same time increasing crop resilience to climate instability and improving resource utilization, crop quality, and yield.
These positive effects will have a lasting positive environmental, social, and economic impact on farming communities around the world. “The number one priority in regenerative organic agriculture is soil health. Soil health is intrinsically linked to the total health of our food system. Soil health affects everything from plant health to human wellbeing and the future of our planet.” (https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/regenerative-organic-agriculture/). The time to correct the global degradation of soils around the world is now!
10 Best Regenerative Practices
#1 – Reduced or No-till Farming Practices
Key Point: Fewer disruptions to soil allows more diverse soil microbes that provide better soil structure for your plants to grow.
When soils are left undisturbed, abundance and diversity of soil microbes increase, driving improved soil microbiome communities and soil structure. These improvements provide both ecological benefits as well as resiliency to crop stressors, crop quality, and ultimately yield.
Ecologically, these practices improve soil structure, reducing both wind and water erosion of soils, reduce agricultural run-off into watersheds, and aid in soil carbon sequestration. On the farm, as some regenerative agriculture theories suggest, growers adopting reduced or no-till practices may see many changes that will benefit their bottom lines economically while rebuilding their soils for future generations. Changes you will see with reduced or no-till practices include increased water penetration and retention, greater soil nutrient retention and availability to crops, less soil crusting, and increased soil organic matter over time. All of these contribute greatly to crop vigor, resiliency to crop stressors, and ultimately, crop yield. Additionally, there are cost reduction opportunities for growers, including reduced tilling soils, reduced requirements for fertilizers, and more efficient use of water resources. Altogether, reduced or no-till practices are key regenerative agriculture practices that will provide valuable benefits in both the near term as well as rebuilding soils for generations to come.
#2 – Cover Cropping
Key Point: By allowing continual plant and root growth in your soil, you are providing the soil with better nutrients to reinvigorate other plants.
Promoting more continual plant and root growth in soils is also a key to soil health and regenerative agriculture. Cover cropping, as some regenerative agriculture theories state, systems can fix CO2 from the atmosphere, sequestering carbon as organic matter in the soils, feed carbon plant root exudates into the soil that promote soil biology, add nutrients to soils, and reduce soil erosion.
Many crops can be used depending on locations and soil needs. Cover crops can be excellent scavengers of excess nutrients left in the soil after crop harvest. They can incorporate the nutrients into their biomass, store, and then recycle excess nutrients until needed at the beginning of the next planting season. Cover cropping will also reduce potential fertilizer leaching into watersheds and groundwater and help to reduce agricultural run-off. Leguminous cover crops can be used to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers the next season.
In some permanent crop systems, cover crops can be interspersed between rows. Keeping soils covered reduces the risk of possible soil erosion, suppresses weeds, and can even provide pollinator habitat. Cover cropping is a key tool that can help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere into soils, recycle nutrients, reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, reduce agricultural run-off, and promote better soil biology and structure. This is a key tool that can add value to your bottom line while also regenerating your soils for optimal crop productivity and health.
#3 – Composting
Key Point: Using compost to rebuild depleted soils allows for natural and sustainable growth.
Building soil organic is essential for rebuilding depleted soils. Composted biological materials such as crop residue, food waste, and animal waste to build soil organic matter are crucial in regenerative agriculture. These materials contain carbon, that when incorporated into soils breaks down slowly, building stable organic matter. The conversion into stable organic matter takes time.
Compositing can accelerate the decomposition of these materials, creating compost products that can be more immediately available for soil microbes and plants to utilize. Composting processes can be driven by bacteria, fungi, earthworms, nematodes, and other organisms. In addition to adding carbon/organic matter back into soils, composts provide fertilizer value to your soils and crops in forms that are available over more extended periods than conventional fertilizers.
#4 – Increasing Plant Diversity
Key Point: Historically, areas that grew a variety of plants and crops built healthier soil naturally before large scale farming focused more on specialized areas for the same crops year in and year out. Crop rotation plays a critical role in trying to mimic the natural diversity of native plant balances.
Before modern, large scale, intensive agricultural practices, native plant and soil ecosystems co-evolved naturally to achieve a balance that could support a vast diversity of plants grown in the same soil. These perennial crops built stable organic matter in our soils over millennia. This diversity of plants produces a variety of carbon plant exudates that supply carbon to soil biological organisms, as well as a diversity of contributions to soil nutrient profiles.
With the advent of larger-scale annual monoculture, this diversity disappeared, creating imbalances in our soils. The imbalances led to the need for increasing specific nutrients in the form of fertilizers, the degradation of healthy balanced soil biology, degradation of soil structure, and rapid depletion of soil organic matter. Crop rotation plays a critical role in trying to mimic the natural diversity of native plant balances in a way that mimics in part, some of the original benefits that native plant diversity can bring to the soils. When thinking about crop rotations, it is important to consider how one crop can benefit the next rotation from a nutritional standpoint, but also the diversity within a crop type (ex. warm-season grass crops which could include corn, sorghum, Sudan grass).
Crop rotations adding to the diversity of crops, will add to the diversity of soil microorganisms and create soils that assure crop resiliency and optimum yield over time. This practice of incorporating plant diversity also aids in the development of soil microbiome diversity, key to soil health and regenerative agricultural practices.
# 5 – Organic Annual Cropping
Key Point: By focusing less on industrial-scale production, yearly crops can help organically strengthen the soil.
With the advent of industrial-scale agriculture and mass production of inexpensive fertilizers, many connections with sustainable agriculture fundamentals (such as soil health and biodiversity), fell to the wayside. It has since taken on a secondary role in expanding the agricultural product to meet the growing demands of feeding an ever-increasing world population. While these efforts were, and still are, critical, it has become clear our annual cropping systems must change to regenerate soils at the same time we are meeting these significant global challenges. The previous practices are critical to achieving these goals.
There are also other practices developed over the past 30 years with the organic agricultural movement. Throughout this movement, we have learned that industrial-scale organic annual cropping is possible without compromising yield or quality. Many of these now traditional organic practices can play an integral role in annual cropping, reintroducing practices that rebuild soil health and reduce the requirements they need for synthetic fertilizer pesticides. Although the organic industry is rapidly growing and now estimated to be a $43bil market, only 1% (one percent) of all farmland in the United States is in organic production. Overcoming the challenge of adapting organic practices on farmlands has many problems, both economically and politically. Still, as more and more farms adapt organic growing practices that support the regeneration of soils, this represents a considerable opportunity. Often growers have concerns about the 3-year transition period and how they can remain productive and profitable during this period. PhycoTerra® Organic production helps accelerate crop productivity during this transition, reducing economic risk, while accelerating the benefits of healthy biodiverse soils.
#6 – PhycoTerra® Soil Microbe Food
While the core of regenerable agriculture is soil health, carbon, microbial abundance, and diversity play a role in the health and sustainability of our soils. Without these, we would be farming in a soil devoid of all the essential benefits that living soil ecosystems provide. While the previous practices are critical, PhycoTerra® products can assure the maximum benefits of these practices. PhycoTerra® Soil Microbe Food provides a complex carbon food source that is immediately available to soil microbes upon application to fields.
PhycoTerra® products are based on a unique microalgae strain, isolated from soils. Whether from land or the sea, microalgae serve as a foundational carbon food source, fixing CO2 from the atmosphere, to provide the carbon building blocks of the planet’s living organisms. These products are available as very fine suspension of single-celled microalgae that are pasteurized and have a two-year shelf life.
Composition of PhycoTerra® Soil Microbe Food
While PhycoTerra® provides immediately available carbon that is utilized by microbes to increase their abundance in soil, the complex composition of PhycoTerra® Soil Microbe Food also assures a dramatic increase in soil microbial diversity. All the previously described practices have their foundation in sequestering more carbon in oil to drive microbial abundance and diversity. By combining these practices with PhycoTerra®, you can ensure these foundational changes will be optimized to deliver the strongest possible effects on your soil health.
By improving soil health, the resiliency of crops to various stresses is improved. This is important as crops are continually being expected to perform under more and more extreme environmental challenges. Another advantage of healthy soils is with increasing resource limitations with key crop resources, such as water, soils can better retain for more effective crop utilization.
PhycoTerra® products serve a key in the foundational level of regenerative agriculture, a complex food that increases the abundance and diversity of soil microorganisms. With this in mind, PhycoTerra® Products will accelerate the rates of changes that each regenerative agricultural practice is designed to provide.
#7 – Animal Integration
Key Point: As some regenerative agriculture theories claim, reintroducing livestock to agricultural crops, instead of keeping them separate, gives natural opportunities for nutrient cycling.
For as long as time, livestock and agricultural crops have co-existed in mutually beneficial relationships. With the increasing industrialization of agriculture, livestock production has separated physically from crop production in forms such as concentrated animal feed operations. These types of operations can result in many challenges, including treatment and disposal of animal wastes, water quality, animal health, and risk of contaminating watersheds and aquifers.
Integrating animal grazing with crop production makes sense in many ways—animal grazing after annual crop harvest aids in the conversion of high carbon residues to low carbon organic manure. Grazing on cover crops can allow more nutrient cycling from crop to soil and carbon sequestration into your soils. This practice will mitigate many of the challenges and risks associated with concentrated animal feeding operations.
It is believed that these benefits to soil health, animal health, and the environment make animal integration a key practice for regenerative agricultural practices.
#8 – Managed Grazing
Key Point: As some regenerative agriculture theories claim, animals help speed forage growth through carefully selected grazing.
In managed grazing, divisions of a forage field are created. The divisions can be created using portable fences. The animals can then be shifted between the divisions periodically depending on the number of animals, the speed of forage growth, and the size of the divisions. Animals are then shifted between divisions periodically to allow recovery and re-growth of a division prior to animal rotation. This practice will reduce soil erosion, improve water penetration, and reduce run-off, while at the same time provide quality livestock nutrition. Additionally, this practice will provide all the benefits of the continual plant and root growth to soil health and sequester carbon to build organic matter in the soil.
Managed rotational grazing is a critical regenerative agriculture practice that will improve soil health, nutrient and carbon cycling, grazing crop quality, animal health, and water retention while reducing soil erosion and run-off.
#9 – Silvopasture
Key Point: As some regenerative agriculture theories claim, livestock grazing and tree growth create opportunities for accelerated cycling of nutrients.
Silvopasture is the integration of livestock grazing and trees grown on the same land. Essentially, it establishes grazing within a managed tree product operation. Silvopasture creates additional benefits beyond traditionally managed grazing though; this practice creates additional revenues and cost reductions for the tree operations. Native perennial forage crops are often planted between the trees. Animals obtain nutrition from the forage crops and accelerate the cycling of nutrients and carbon to the soils. This practice can also provide shade in hot summer and protection from wind and elements to the animals. The tree operation benefits nutritionally from the manures, from improved soil health and from the additional cash flow of the integrated livestock operation.
This synergistic regenerative agriculture practice improves soil health, provides animal and plant nutrition, and provides an additional revenue stream for tree operations.
#10 – Agroforestry
Key Point: Cropped in between trees, agroforestry allows for a wider variety of crops to be yielded during a season.
While agroforestry includes silvopasture, the practice employs a broader array of tools with the goal of altering large agriculture landscapes in ways that provide broad environmental, social, and economic impacts. In addition to silvopasture, agroforestry incorporates cropping between the rows of trees, forest farming, riparian forest buffers between crops fields watersheds, and windbreaks.
When combined in a deliberate planned and managed fashion, these practices increase plant diversity, soil health, reduce agricultural run-off, guard against soil erosion, and provide habitat for native flora and fauna to thrive. Economically these practices provide additional revenue streams by employing practices such as forest farming, growing a second crop between rows of a tree crop, utilizing wildlife that thrives in riparian forest buffers, and allows for the integration of grazing with tree operations.
Regenerative Agriculture Products for a Diverse Future
Regenerative agriculture is essential to assuring the restoration of our soils. Without regenerative agriculture, global food security and the growing demands of an ever-increasing or world population is at risk for our children and all future generations. The time to start implementing the 10 best practices outlined is now!