Looking at the livestock under the ground

 

Soil biology is a largely underrated player within the primary industry. For Canterbury shareholder Paul Ensor, an introduction to the "little guys" under the ground came when the regenerative agriculture concept moved into his eye-line.

 

With a strong track record of producing quality livestock above the ground, Paul became interested in the livestock below — the microbiology of the soil — and how it could improve his carbon footprint. "We started looking into it about 1.5 years ago. I did a lot of research, trying to understand what [regenerative agriculture] meant. Understanding its role on soil biology changed it for me... I went from being highly sceptical that regenerative agriculture had something to offer to being cautiously optimistic that it did."

Farmlands' Head of Future Land and Food, Gaz Ingram has been part of the regenerative agriculture conversation for several years.

"Soil health has quickly risen to the front of people's thinking when it comes to not only producing a quality food offering from your chosen crop system, but also ensuring that your soil is in optimum condition for each year's crop to come," Gaz notes.

"Internationally, New Zealand is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of soil organic matter and banked carbon. But there are ways to improve our businesses and our environment."Regenerative agriculture is based around five key practices; not disturbing the soil, keeping the ground covered, planting diverse species, keeping living roots in the soil and adding animals.

"Many farmers and growers will already be familiar with, or are currently practicing, these rationale and practices. They all contribute to having a healthier soil," Gaz says. Running 6,000 sheep and 200 beef cattle over his high-country property, Paul had always grown mixed-sward species of grasses and legumes but his input costs kept rising and he was having on-going animal health costs. "Instead of using straight urea, we've got a few different [seed and fertiliser] recipes from a few different people that we are now trialling to understand their effects on soil biology and animal production," Paul says.

Gaz highlights that the regenerative agriculture system isn't 'one size fits all' and to not to get lost in the details or hung up on the definition.

"It's a journey, rather than a destination, with multiple paths to choose from. It's about guidelines not regulations, progress not perfection and having the right intentions relative to your surroundings," Gaz affirms.

 

Five practices of regenerative agriculture:

  1. Do not disturb: Avoid working and ploughing the soil. Each time the soil is disturbed, it damages and even kills the complex and symbiotic relationship that has been built between plants, roots, mycorrhizal fungi and other soil biology. Many farmers now use no till / direct drill options as the new normal of crop establishment.
  2. Keep the ground covered: Covered soil (living plants or trampled/dead plant material covering the soil surface) reduces soil erosion from wind and rain and helps keep soil temperatures down.
  3. Diversify: Growing a diverse range of plants ensures different functions, such as nutrient scavenging, different root systems for natural tillage, moisture movement and encourages a wider range of visiting pollination and beneficial insects.
  4. Living roots: Keeping living roots in the ground year-round (or as long as possible) provides a steady source of food for organisms in the soil. In turn, the soil micro-organisms help prevent soil erosion, increase water infiltration rates, and provide the plants with key nutrients.
  5. Add animals: Including animals into the system introduces different organisms and biology from animal back to the soil, in addition to the nutrients from manure. The correct farm animals to use will depend on your ecosystem.