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The principles of regenerative agriculture

Date Published: 18/07/2023

Regenerative farming – whether you love or loathe the term – simply refers to farming practices which improve the environment, with soil function taking a key role.

Soils vary enormously, but nearly all soils are improved by increasing carbon. Importantly, stable soil organic matter (humus) can absorb six times its own weight in water. It also supports other microscopic soil dwellers, which help to create a sponge-like soil structure with capacity to absorb rainfall more effectively and help prevent flooding while mitigating the effects of drought.

Regenerative farming practices are not prescriptive or designed for any one type of system or enterprise, which means farmers anywhere in the world can follow the principles of regenerative agriculture and see results as their soil ecosystem function improves. The principles of regenerative agriculture are outlined below.

1. Minimise soil disturbance   

Minimising physical and chemical disturbance to the soil prevents damage to the micro-flora and fauna that form the soil ecosystem. Although cultivations such as ploughing result in a short-term release of nutrients, they also cause a decline in underground life, with microorganisms killed as a direct result of the top few inches of soil being inverted, or rendered homeless and eaten by predators or scavenging arthropods.

Similarly, heavy fertiliser or pesticide use will upset the delicate balance of a healthy soil ecosystem. For example, too much nitrogen will upset the carbon-nitrogen ratio and encourage microbes to eat organic matter, reversing any improvements that have occurred by increasing organic carbon in the soil.  

2. Keep the soil covered   

Covering the soil with living plants or a mulch of crop residue, like chopped straw, protects soil from rain impact. This reduces the damage that high speed raindrops can do to the surface and allows water to percolate gently down. A good soil cover also prevents overheating during periods of hot sunshine or freezing in winter, both of which are antagonistic to healthy soil.

3. Maintain living roots in the soil  

Having living roots present in the soil for as much of the year as possible keeps the underground ecosystem functioning. Plants remove CO2 from the air and turn it, via photosynthesis, into sugars which are the building blocks they need to grow. Up to 70% of these sugars are exuded directly into the soil to feed bacteria and fungi which cluster around the plant root, exchanging other nutrients and water with the exuded carbohydrates.

Use of cover crops is an effective way to ensure soils are covered and living roots are present at times when the soil may otherwise be left bare in a conventional arable system.

4. Maximise plant diversity

Monocultures restrict the variety of soil creatures that can be supported. A diverse population of plants can be grown in companion cropping systems, where two or more crops are grown simultaneously and are harvested together with the seeds being separated post-harvest.

More conventionally, robust crop rotations ensure healthier soil and reduced weed and disease pressure. There is also potential for growing crops through a living mulch of clovers which stay close to the ground and allow the cereal to tower above and be harvested when ripe, leaving the understory to carry on feeding the soil and fixing nitrogen.

5. Reintroduce livestock  

The presence of livestock in a farming system supports the regeneration of soil. The trillions of living creatures present in soil can vastly multiply their numbers when grazing livestock are incorporated into the system. As well as improving soil biodiversity, farm income can also be diversified with the addition of livestock enterprises. A diversity of farm animals (cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and goats) will further boost soil fertility and animal health.

Most agricultural soils are degraded to some extent, but they can be improved by applying the principles above to farming practices. Anecdotal evidence suggests that regeneration to a meaningful degree can be achieved in as little as 5 to 7 years.

To read more about the principles of regenerative agriculture visit pages 21 to 22 of the RASE Farm of the Future report, which were contributed by John Cherry from Weston Park Farms and co-founder of Groundswell. It is also worth checking for upcoming Innovation for Agriculture events in your area to hear from other farmers who have implemented regenerative farming practices and to find out the impact on their farm business.