The Journey into Regenerative Farming

The Journey into Regenerative Farming

Written by William Waterfield from The Farm Consultancy Group

The ending of BPS in 2027 and the knowledge that the income received from BPS will be halved in 2025 is a making a lot of arable farmers review their business. Combine this with the last DEFRA farm income figures that show that most arable farmers are dependent on BPS to make a profit. At the same time, some of the early adopters of regenerative agriculture are emerging with more a profitable and sustainable business. This is tempting some farmers to rush into regenerative agriculture without understanding the journey that they are embarking on.

The journey is not a simple progression down a typical learning curve, more a slow trip down the roller coaster that is typified by the Dunning-Kruger curve of experience or knowledge. One in which earning the right to take the next step is based on the knowledge and experienced gained in the previous phase.

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The downside risk that comes with any change needs to be understood and as best as possible mitigated for. The risks can be removed by understanding your starting point on this journey and having a knowledge of the practices and principles involved in building a regenerative farming system. Whilst it may be tempting to sell the cultivation machinery and join the direct drilling fraternity the business risks associated with this leap into the unknown needs to be quantified.

The key understanding that needs to be accepted at the start of this journey is that the soils are our best friend and that they can help us if we look after them. The biology within the soil has the capacity to support large amounts of crops with very few costly inputs. In essence, it is about turning the three free elements of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into cash by building and managing soil organic matter.



Whilst it is a requirement of Farm Assurance that each field is soil sampled every 5 years, the simple pH, P, K and Mg does little to inform us about the real state of our most important asset: the soil. What we are really interested in is the capacity of and the ability of the soil to hold and transfer nutrients to the plants. A one-off analysis of the textural class will tell if our soils have large or little capacity (i.e. heavy or light soil). Add to this an analysis of the organic matter level in the soil and one can start to understand the potential. The Soil Quality Index as developed by Rothamsted Research, highlights the fact that a 4% organic matter level on a medium loam with 15% the clay would be very good but on a silty clay with 50% clay would be seriously degraded and the management needed for these two soils would be very different. From a nutrient perspective, understanding the capacity of the soil to hold and release nutrients (the cation exchange capacity) adds further to our understanding of the potential of the soil and provides a means to monitor our journey our journey into regenerative agriculture. <insert soil quality index qr code>



Soil structure is critical for root and biological development of the soils and can be a carried out easily with little training and a bit of time when one follows the step by step guide in the Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure chart.

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The five principles of regenerative agriculture are: diversity; maintaining a continuous cover; reduce soil disturbance; eliminating harmful substances and possibly increasing or introducing livestock to the farm this is of course simply another form of diversity.

Of these principles diversity is the key component and takes many different forms starting with extending the rotation and introducing new crop. Alongside this, and to many the starting point, is the introduction of cover crops which not only bring different plant species to a system they can bring deeper rooting plants or nitrogen fixing legumes. Cover crops provide the opportunity to harvest sunlight during the autumn and winter that is often missing from the farm at the moment.

Cover crops which can in some cases be in the ground longer than a main crop are important in building soil organic matter and diversity, but they offer a host of other benefits. Deciding on the priority for each field and crop is important to maximise the benefits which will depend on the circumstance of that field. Is the priority improvement to soil structure, in which case strong rooting options are needed? If the priority is fertility building then legumes need to be added. If livestock are going to be grazed, then some brassica mixes may well be the solution. If it is short-term diversity before an autumn sown crop and rapid green cover is required, then crops like mustard or buckwheat and phaillcea are likely to have a place.

The introduction of more diversity to the cropping, either by a new cash crop or non-cash crops, can bring additional costs and perhaps reduced income and this needs considering when preparing the plans for the introduction of regenerative agriculture and how these factors can be mitigated.

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme offers several options that can help reduce the costs and risks. The most attractive CSS option is AB15 2-year legume ley for the control of blackgrass which pays £522 / ha per year and can be rotated around the farm. Whilst not available to organic farmers and with restriction on its use, this is a good option for someone looking to bring a new break crop to the farm and to reduce the blackgrass pressure.

Option GS 3 Ryegrass seed-set as winter food for birds which pays £331 / ha could be useful on mixed farms where there is a need or market for silage. This option can be left in place for more than one year but care may be needed because of self-sown ryegrass seeds, the mixture can include clover as long as the sward is 50% ryegrass.

Options to help with continuous ground cover or cover crops include SW6 Winter Cover crops which pays £116 / ha and allows grazing. This option is limited to land in an NVZ or land highlighted on the risk map as being at moderate or high risk of runoff.

Dairy farmers and maize growers may be able to benefit from SW5 Enhanced Management of Maize Crops and which pays £133 / ha again suitable only for fields at high risk of soil erosion or surface run off. The crop must be established by the 15th October but can be under sown into a standing maize crop. There is no requirement to destroy the crops in the following spring so this option could be used to establish fast growing forage crops. GS4: Legume and herb-rich swards which pays £309 / ha comes with a number of restrictions but can be rotated around the farm and may be of use on mixed farms or where livestock are being introduced.

There are a number of options that support specific features which will help with the transition to and maintenance of a regenerative approach. These included AB3: Beetle Banks which pays £573 / ha and will create a suitable habitat for predator beetles as well as home for pollinators. More specifically to benefit pollinators is AB8: Flower-rich margins and plots which pays £539 / ha. Another option that can be applied to parts of fields is SW1: 4m to 6m buffer strip on cultivated land which can be used on the edges of cultivated fields, between the productive part of the field and an existing feature or habitat which must be identified on the Farm Environment Record (FER). These features include hedgerows and hedge trees, remnants of trees on former boundary lines, woodlands, ponds, ditches, rivers and streams again this option will provide a home for predator beetles and pollinators. Whilst like most of these options there may be limits to the areas, when located on areas of low productivity they can contribute to the farm business.

Perhaps one of the most important factors when planning this journey is that it’s good to do it with company and forming local groups of likeminded producers will help avoid some of the pit falls and problems that the early adopters have had to learn the hard way.

So, in summary, transitioning to a regenerative agriculture does not need to be very risky as long as the starting position is known and a route map is prepared. It has to be accepted that there will be ups and downs along the way and that you need to earn the right to travel along the road to a more sustainable and less risky business and that there are few short cuts along this endless journey, but a few landmarks monitor the progress, and one is the removal of cultivation. The current grants can help, and it must be hoped that the next round of stewardship schemes (ELMS) will provide greater assistance to farmers adopting a regenerative approach.
 

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Five nature-recovery projects spanning 100,000ha launched

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Written by Michelle Martin from Agriland

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Five nature-recovery projects spanning nearly 100,000ha across the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire, the Peak District, Norfolk and Somerset have been announced by the government and Natural England today (Thursday, May 26).

This is the equivalent in size to all 219 current National Reserves.

The aim of the projects is to deliver nature recovery at a landscape scale, helping to tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and improve public health and well-being.

All five projects will make a significant contribution towards the national delivery of the international commitment to protect at least 30% of land and...
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