Regenerative & Conservation Agriculture
What is 'Regenerative Agriculture'?
MFL's 'East' herd moving across the hills after being released from a previous paddock.
Regenerative Agriculture describes a variety of agricultural practices that focus on soil health and biodiversity. In focussing on soil health, regenerative agriculture aims to produce higher quality and more nutrient dense foods.
The traditional European agricultural model, which dominates around the world, came out of the 'Agricultural Revolution' of the 18th and early 19th centuries. A number of changes in British agricultural technology and practices resulted in greater production efficiency, reduced labour costs and a change to larger scale farms. While this freed up talent and labour for the growing industrial revolution, it left us with a legacy of degrading soils, degrading ecosystems, reducing nutrient density and degrading human health. Not since the dawn of the Neolithic or farming era, had such a large step change in food production, quality and human health occurred.
Modern industrialised monoculture agriculture is highly dependent on pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, diesel and iron. Much of the focus of industrialised ag is on 'yield'. You'll often hear the claim that these yields must increase further if we are to feed the earth's growing human population.
Unfortunately, all this 'yield' comes at a cost. Industrialised monoculture agriculture is the single most destructive human activity with regard to natural ecosystems and wildlife habitat loss. Rice and cotton are the most destructive crops, closely followed by soybeans and a multitude of other grains and pulses (beans, peas and lentils) and oilseed crops. A cotton coat results in over 10 times as many animal deaths as a fur coat due to habitat loss.
In addition, while produced in large volumes, these modern agricultural products tend to be high in carbohydrates, low in usable proteins and low in essential micronutrients. In addition, pesticide and herbicide residues are being found in increasing quantities in these products.
In addition, the soils we depend on are degrading at a terrible rate. Each human requires about 1/2 ton of food per year to live a healthy life. To produce that 1/2 ton of food, we currently lose about 10 tons of topsoil per year through erosion and degradation of mineral and biological resources. Soil organic carbon, the cornerstone of healthy soils, has been falling steadily for nearly a century across North America, a pattern that matches much of the world. Clearly, this is not a sustainable situation.
A few key points are worth noting:
1. Removing the grain from a crop removes about 1/3 of the carbon stored by a crop during a year's growing season.
2. Removing the straw removes another 1/3 of the annual carbon storage.
3. Tilling the soil once releases about 1/3 the annual carbon storage back into the atmosphere. Assuming the straw was removed, tilling twice puts the field into a 1/3 deficit.
4. Synthetic fertilizer application causes localised 'burning' of soil biology with a resultant additional release of soil carbon. In addition, this burn kills the biology, slowly sterilising the soil over time.
5. A monoculture crop will support, in general, less than 10 insect species and even fewer birds/rodents etc.
6. A monoculture crop reduces the nutrient quality and diversity needed for pollinator (bees etc) health and survival.
7. I could go on, but that's a fair flavour to be starting with.
All this has been accompanied by an epidemic of autoimmune disease, obesity and a plethora of other diet related human health problems. Logically, it can be inferred that, as the old saying goes, 'all is not well in the State of Denmark'.
Unfortunately, both the public and government policy makers have settled on 'sustainable agriculture' as their goal. This is unfortunate because sustaining a degraded soil resource, habitat loss and poor nutrient density in foods is not a positive move. Sustainable agriculture does nothing to reverse the long term degradation of the soil or trap atmospheric carbon back in the soil where it's a net positive for the ecosystem. We need to rebuild soil health, improve and expand wildlife habitat and raise nutrient density in our foods. To do this we need a revolution.
A wise man once said:
'If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make big changes, change the way you see things.'
This is where regenerative agriculture comes into play. By concentrating on soil health, regenerative agriculture aims to build topsoil by encouraging the return of essential soil biology, minimising disturbance and using diverse polycultures to return atmospheric carbon back into the ecological 'carbon cycle' where it belongs. In a properly functioning ecosystem, the slow loss of soil carbon and soil nutrients can be reversed.
Carbon storage in agricultural soils can vary between 1 and 5 tons per acre per annum, depending on available precipitation, type/diversity of vegetation and length of growing season. In Alberta alone, the potential carbon storage capacity of agricultural lands approaches a billion tons of CO2 per year!
In essence, to reverse the degradation of our ecosystems, we need to learn how those ecosystems function, learn to mimic them in our agricultural practices. This all starts and ends with soil health.
The five tenants of soil health are:
1. Minimise soil disturbance; no-till if possible. Key soil organisms like arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) are damaged or destroyed by tillage.
2. No bare soil. Plant litter on the surface, the 'detritusphere' in technical terms, or 'armour' as most practitioners call it, protects soil from extremes in temperature and weather. It stimulates soil fungi to stabilise the surface, prevents the erosion of sediment and provides a living space for other soil organisms.
3. Diversity. Nature is abhorrent of monocultures. Prairie grasslands ecosystems can support over 140 species of plant. In monoculture agriculture, multi-species mixes of 8+ species are common, and some are using up to 25 species mixes. In it's simplest form, a polyculture crop containing a mix of warm and cool season grasses and warm and cool season broadleaves seems to produce the greatest improvement.
4. Keep a living root in the soil for as long as possible. Soil health means soil that is ALIVE. Plants excrete soil exudates to feed the biology in the soil, which return the favour and provide nutrients to the plants. The longer this can be sustained in each growing season, the greater the soil health. Polyculture cropping systems have proven they can extend the growing season by at least two weeks at either end of the season, sometimes longer. Biology heats up the soil and stimulates growth in the spring and sustains it in the autumn.
5. Integration of grazing herbivores. 38% of the world's land surface was once covered by a grasslands ecosystem and these ecosystems are highly dependent on the influence of mob grazing herbivores, particularly ruminants acting and moving under predator pressure. Studies over the last 60 years have demonstrated that these herbivores are 'keystone' species, meaning that the ecosystem cannot survive without them. In agriculture, domestic livestock can be used to simulate the effects of these wild herds. In 'conservation agriculture', we take the additional step of returning to wild species.
It is interesting to note that a significant percentage of plant species in native grassland ecosystems rely on animal hooves to re-seed the plant. The plants and animals are co-dependent with the plants feeding the animals and the animals re-seeding the plants. This brings us to two more points:
1. Removing grazing herbivores from the ecosystem results in a loss of biodiversity and a loss in carbon sequestration in top soil. The 'science' that labels grazing animals as bad for the environment is not just poor science, but it's totally wrong. Our grassland ecosystems depend on grazing herbivores for full system function and health.
2. In brittle and semi-brittle environments (most grasslands), dead plant matter will simply oxidize if not mechanically trampled into the surface. Hoof action is required to continually regenerate the detritusphere and keep 'armour' on the soil surface.
3. Removing predator pressure allows grazing herbivores to develop 'lazy' herding habits. Wild bison grazed and moved in a density that varied between 25 and 60 animals per acre (75 to 150 animals per hectare). When multiplied over thousands and hundreds of thousands of animals, the animal hoof action replanted many species and trampled most of the plant matter into the surface of the soil where it could break down biologically. This 'mob' herding instinct was a defensive mechanism in response to predators.
4. Where predators are no longer present, modern regenerative farmers and holistic rangeland managers use fencing to force animals to 'mob' up and act in a more wild fashion. Herds are kept bunched up and moved from one paddock to another fairly rapidly, preventing overgrazing and mimicking the effects of nomadic wild herds. Electric fence is particularly effective in this effort as it 'bites'. Animals instinctively treat an electric fence as a predator and they don't 'pressure' the fence the way they'll pressure a barbed-wire or plank fence. This instinct helps the farmer or rancher to simulate wild herd interactions with the soil ecosystem.
Holistic Rangeland Management
What is 'Conservation Agriculture'?
'Montgomery' - one of MFL's Plains Bison bulls, and one of our favourite animals on the ranch.
'Conservation Agriculture' describes a combination of 'Regenerative Agriculture' and wildlife conservation. Generally, conservation ag would tend toward a rangeland agriculture model, rather than a crop farming model. Regenerative rangeland agriculture tends to be livestock focused and uses Holistic or Regenerative Rangeland Management to build and maintain soil health and ecosystem biodiversity.
The true origin of conservation ag come out of Zimbabwe's predecessor, Rhodesia. The first 'Game Reserve' was formed in 1928 and updated with the passage of the 1949 National Parks Act. Managed by the Rhodesia's 'Game Section', which became the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in 1964, Rhodesian Parks marked the epicentre for a revolution in conservation.
With the formation of the first parks in Rhodesia, later to become Zaire and Zimbabwe, local residents and their villages were resettled outside park boundaries. Within a few years, the river systems in the parks, until then healthy and stable, began to fail. Vegetation that stabilised the river banks began to die off and serious erosion began to take place. Biodiversity in the areas close to the rivers began to reduce due to wildlife overgrazing and regions further from the rivers began to lose biodiversity due to what is now known as 'over-rest'. Many park biologists and staff began to question the efficacy of their park management strategies.
Meanwhile, outside the parks, wildlife were viewed by the general population as competing for food and space with economically valuable livestock. Rather than being seen as a precious resource, wildlife was seen as a pest to be eradicated and/or a quick meal.
In 1975, this antagonistic relationship with wildlife began to change. Under the Parks and Wildlife Act of 1975, ownership of wildlife shifted from the state, to the owners of the land on which the wildlife lived. Almost immediately a shift in attitude toward wildlife began. Instead of being seen as a pest to be eradicated, or simply a quick meal, wildlife became a valuable resource to be nurtured and preserved for the longer term. Wildlife had been given the economic value previously reserved for domestic livestock.
Meanwhile, a number of biologists and other scientists began to understand the problem with western park management strategies. The path of discovery is a very long one that has filled several books, but in simple terms, they began to understand the vital importance of grazing herbivores to grasslands ecosystems, combined with the vital influence of predator pressure on the herding behaviour of these herds of keystone grazing species.
Grazing experiments carried out by Zimbabwean and South African ranchers revealed discoveries made a generation before by Andre Voisin in France. In summary, it was found that the impact of mob grazing herbivores was essential in renewing grasslands ecosystems. Through cycles of grazing and trampling, these animals contributed to the biological decay and recycling of plant matter, building topsoil and stimulating new waves of growth. In addition, the pressure of predators, keeping the herds bunched up, combined with the constant fouling of their food source through trampling, urination and defecation, kept these herds on the move constantly.
Rarely did animals spend too long in one area, killing off plant species through overgrazing. Also rarely did any land area escape their passing for more than a couple of seasons. This constant cycle of short term animal impact, followed by longer periods of rest and regrowth, sustained the biodiversity that represents a natural grasslands ecosystem.
In brittle and semi-brittle environments, this animal impact is essential for sustained ecosystem health. Many plant species cannot survive for long without the regenerative process driven by the impact of large herds of mob grazing herbivores.
When the people were removed from the parks of Rhodesia (and other African countries), the predator pressure that drove grazing wildlife to keep moving was removed. They adopted a sedentary lifestyle close to available water and the result was ecosystem failure. Nature's cycle of regeneration had been interrupted, with tragic results.
Quite famously, the same problem occurred in Yellowstone National Park in the US. River systems became very unhealthy and unstable, parts of the park were seriously overgrazed and suffering serious biodiversity loss while other parts of the park were relatively untouched by wildlife and failed to regenerate, also resulting in biodiversity loss.
However, having studied the experiences of African parks, US park managers tried a new plan and, in 1995, began the reintroduction of timber wolves into the park. The short video 'The Wolves that Changed Rivers', found on YouTube, is a great summary of the amazing positive result on the entire Yellowstone Park ecosystem.
Prior to the formation of the first Game Reserves in Rhodesia, humans and other predators had performed much of the same function as the wolves of Yellowstone National Park. They kept the grazing herbivores moving and regenerating the plant and soil ecosystems. When most of the predators had been eradicated by people protecting their villages and livestock, humans still provided the predator pressure to keep the grazing herds moving naturally. Unfortunately, when humans were removed from the ecosystem, it the last predators were removed and the ecosystem fell apart.
With these discoveries in mind and the ownership of wild animals being legalized, Zimbabwean ranchers began to create private game reserves, often with some domestic livestock mixed in. With revenue generated from tourism, safaris and hunting, more and more land was dedicated to wildlife and greater employment for local people was realised. The wildlife provided food and financial security for local people and valuable revenue to maintain the game preserves. Conservation agriculture was born.
Conservation ag really began to gain wider acceptance when, in 1991, the South African Government deregulated the private ownership of wildlife. Traditional western conservation efforts, developed in Europe and North America, but spread to Africa, tended to be highly reductionist in their scientific focus. This narrow focus tended to inhibit whole system management and the result can be seen by reading National Geographic from the 1950s to the 1980s. Simply put, western conservation efforts were disastrous and wildlife park ecosystems were failing terribly with huge losses in biodiversity and multiple species ending up extinct or on the brink of extinction.
Having seen the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean successes to their north, South Africa abandoned the western conservation model and joined the revolution. Since deregulating the ownership of wildlife in 1991, the following has happened:
1. By 2018, 10000+ wildlife preserves were managed by 2000+ game ranches in South Africa.
2. Wildlife preserves resulted in 3x the employment of the livestock ranches they replaced.
3. Over 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of private land has been dedicated to wildlife, a substantially greater area than all of South Africa's public parks.
4. Game ranches now provide valuable migratory corridors between South Africa's national parks, facilitating much needed genetic flow within wildlife populations.
5. Large scale recovery of biodiversity and soil health has been realised in natural polyculture game preserves.
6. Game ranching now provides the South African economy with a R20 billion industry.
7. Bontesbok, Blesbok, Roan & Sable Antelope, Tsessebe, Black Wildebeest and Leopard Tortoise have all been rescued from the brink of extinction.
In Canada and the US, a growing number of farmers and ranchers are joining the African conservation revolution. They've adopted or are in the process of adopting regenerative agricultural processes and integrating the keystone species of the Great Plains, the North American Bison. Like the Wildebeest, Antelope and Zebra of Africa, Bison were the keystone ecosystem regenerators of the North American Great Plains and many members of the Canadian Bison Association and the National Bison Association are dedicated to returning them to their rightful place in the grasslands ecosystems of North America and returning them to a prominent position in the food chain.
The Africans may be 20 years ahead of the west in wildlife conservation, but a revolution is occurring in our back yard.
MFL's 'North' herd in native Northern Parkland pasture. Prior to settlement, the Northern Parkland would have provided year around grazing for a small resident population of Plains Bison and winter grazing for a much larger nomadic herd that spent the summers on the open prairie grasslands.
Holistic Rangeland Management is a term used to describe a holistically planned grazing system. Andre Voisin called it a 'Rational Grazing System'.
Planned grazing differs from other 'rotational grazing' systems in that it focusses on monitoring key soil ecosystem health markers and a number of wider contextual factors (human resources, financial resources, technology, biological resources, etc) and adjusting grazing patterns to maximise ecosystem performance. A few principles of planned grazing are as follows:
1. Limited exposure of plants to animals - 'overgrazing' describes the effect that occurs when a plant is bitten off more than once before being given the chance to return to 'full expression'. During the growing season, plants do not store extra energy in the root system so replacing lost above-ground foliage requires the plant to sacrifice root mass. If the plant is grazed again before the root mass is rebuilt, the plant's ability to regenerate is reduced and it is progressively weakened. Depending on climate, species of plant or season, exposure times of 3-5 days will prevent a 'second bite' of a grazed plant.
2. Sufficient 'rest' of plants - After grazing, a plant needs to sacrifice root mass to send up new foliage. Once these leaves are collecting sunlight through photosynthesis, the plant can dedicate energy toward rebuilding lost root mass. Only once both the above-ground foliage and the below ground root mass are completely regenerated, is the plant at 'full expression' and capable of withstanding another animal grazing it. Again, the rest required may vary, 45-60 days in a Northern Parkland grassland but once per year in some very low rainfall grasslands. In addition, a few species may require longer rest periods, so many planners will double the rest of a few selected paddocks, giving these species the chance to recover and regenerate.
3. Trampling / animal impact - often referred to as 'gardening with their hooves', grazing herbivores press seeds into the soil surface, break up hardened soil surfaces and trample dead plant material down into contact with the soil surface, where biological mechanisms can break down the plant matter and recycle it through the soil.
4. Dunging / urinating - Animals, particularly ruminants, conduct a vital role in digesting plant material and turning it into rich nutrients for new plant growth. Aided by insects and other organisms, the dung and urine of grazing animals provide valuable nutrients to the soil ecosystem, resulting in healthier and more nutrient dense plants for the animals. About 4/5 of the biomass consumed by a ruminant returns to the soil through urination and defecation.
5. Protecting and enabling efficient Ecosystem Processes
Water Cycle - the movement of water from the atmosphere to soil and back and how that movement affects plant and animal life.
By helping maintain a healthy soil ecosystem, grazing herbivores help improve water infiltration into the soil. With an effective detritusphere on the surface of the soil, runoff and erosion are minimised and the maximum amount of precipitation is made 'effective' by making it available for soil biology and plants. In an ideal system, the only two ways that water would leave the soil are through plant transpiration or through percolation down into subsurface aquifers.
The Mineral Cycle - The movement of minerals and nutrients and how that movement affects plant and animal life.
Biological Community - The ongoing development of biological communities.
This refers to both above and below ground biology. Plants, with both root systems and above ground foliage, provide much of the interface between the soil and the ecology above ground. Traditional science and agriculture focussed too heavily on how plant life was supported, and did not place enough emphasis on the role plant life played on sustaining soil biology.
Energy Flow - The movement of energy from the sun through all things.
Most of the world's ecology is solar powered (deep ocean ecologies surviving around hot vents may be the only significant exceptions). Plants create carbohydrates through photosynthesis, storing energy in carbon compounds which then can be burned for fuel by both soil biology and animal life. The solar powered 'Carbon Cycle' is the foundation of complex life on earth, so must be managed carefully to achieve a regenerative agricultural model.
Rather than monitoring a few factors, or using a strict time based rotation, planned grazing involves predicting an exposure and rest time plan and then uses an OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) style system to adjust grazing patterns to respond to a broad range of signs of ecological heath.
1. Observe - monitor the effects of grazing exposure and adjust to maximise animal impact while minimising overgrazing.
2. Orient - combine observed effects with past experience to inform future predictions of ecosystem performance.
3. Decide - Adjust planning based on observed results.
4. Act - put revised plan into action and return to observing results (Step 1).
In Holistic Management, this cycle is described as 'Plan (assume wrong), Monitor, Control and Replan.' I use OODA because of my military background, but the principle is the same.