SOILS MASTERCLASSES & WORKSHOP – Dig deeper into regenerative ag

January 14, 2019

This article was written by Nicole Masters for Vic No-Till’s member magazine From the Ground Up, and appears in Issue 56 (Spring 2018). Follow us on Facebook or Twitter and check our What’s On page for workshop details.

Profitable transitions in Regenerative Ag

By Nicole Masters

Regenerative Agriculture has become a catch cry for producers passionate about leaving their land in better shape for future generations. With growing concerns around degenerating resources, climate, water and food safety while feeding the world, regenerative is coming to the forefront of farm and political discussions.

Firstly, I’d like to clarify what I mean by Regenerative Ag. My definition is a broad-brush, and intentionally so. For me Regenerative Ag is an approach which enhances natural cycles, repairs ‘disturbance’ events, minimises harmful inputs and focuses on building resilience, microbial life and organic matter. I love that it’s not a scripted list of what you can’t do. As a farmer-led approach, the system encourages local innovation.

At the end of the day Regenerative Ag is output focused. Say you benchmarked your farm five years ago; is it now producing higher quality food, increased water infiltration and water-holding capacities with more carbon and deeper topsoils? If not, you’re not regenerating your land, or your farm business.

The question is, how do we profitably build our soil bank so that we can buffer ourselves in an uncertain future?

Much of the research happening right now is not asking the questions that make the long-term difference on-farm; they ask yield, not profit; use isolated plot trials, not whole systems; ask is this short term or long term? Regenerative Ag is a system, not an input. Unfortunately, both nature and farming provide confounded data, which makes for long-term, large-scale and very expensive studies. Hence small plot, short-term research which will never answer the question ‘does regenerative agriculture work?’ until they can find a way to effectively capture this kind of data.

Tipping point

A recent global analysis of sustainable intensification found that 29% of farms have crossed ‘the redesign threshold’. These redesigns included cover crops, integrated pest management, silvopasture and soil health measures. Overall these practices now cover 9% of agricultural lands; this means the redesign is happening on more of the smaller landholdings, than the large-scale operations.

This research is fascinating to us at Integrity Soils, where we provide coaching services predominantly to large-scale, progressive operations. Typically, we see input costs drop by 30% in their first year, while soil and plant health improves. Transitioning broadacre crops towards low-input, increased efficiency systems offers one of the largest opportunities for farmers, land, communities and profits.

Recently I did a presentation to 30 ‘conventional’ cropping operators. One topic raised was; ‘who wants to see their kids take over the farm?’ The resounding response was silence. Into this void one farmer finally spoke up, ‘I’m sick of the stress, the debt, and increasing inputs. Why would I want to hand this over to my kids?’

Debt and stress is an everyday occurrence for many working on the land. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is clear; modern farming has increased the risks for food producers, with market volatility and increasing climactic unpredictability. Many food producers are no more profitable/ac than they were 100 years ago, leaving many producers ‘get big or go home’, and their kids move to the cities. The Green Revolution may not have delivered on all its promises to producers. It is however delivering for the banks, supply and chemical companies; they come out laughing however the dice land.

One plus one equals…?

Just like the studies on the human gut system, new microbial research is revealing that 60-80% of nutrient function is through biology. The advice and information to farmers is gravely flawed if it does not consider how to promote and support microbial activity. The resulting soil losses, pest pressures, declines in food quality and water quality issues are a testament to this failure to provide whole systems advice.

I once had the privilege to hear a powerful presentation by soil scientist and World Food Prize winner, Dr Daniel Hillel. He shared his story of camping with Bedouin in the Arabian desert, he overheard an elder asking his students what 1+1 equals. Their answers were more varied than the standard ‘2’ most western children are raised to answer. One child replied thoughtfully; ‘well, if it’s one nanny goat and one billy, then 1 plus 1 could be 3 or 4.

When working with biological systems, 1+1 often does not equal 2.

We often see surprising results as soil system start to function again, as they flocculate (open-up), roots penetrate deeper, nutrient cycles start to turn, water-holding capacities and the carbon buffer builds.

There are multiple factors involved in building topsoil, one driver happens from the top down, with biological activity, and the other happens bottom-up through chemical and microbial mineralisation. These soil building processes can be dramatically sped up, making previously unavailable ‘locked-up’ raw mineral materials available to crops.

One NZ high country station we’ve worked with saw the equivalent lifts of 1500 kg/ha/ya in Ca across treated areas on the station. With no additions of calcium. Dr David Johnson (NMSU), Col Seis, the Haggerty’s, Gabe Brown (and many others) are measuring plant available nutrient increases from 200 to over 1000% higher, just through stimulating this microbial mineralisation process. It is how soils are meant to function; all without the need for external inputs. Consider, did a fertiliser truck grow the rich grasslands that greeted the early colonisers?

I’m not saying the natural cycles are closed, however, they are not. We live in an interconnected world. Encouraging biodiversity brings increased nutrients from outside the farm gate. Just consider one small aspect of this; the loss of insect biodiversity potentially costs the average farmer 45kg/ha/yr in bioavailable nitrogen. That’s a significant amount, considering 65-95% of the N applied in a bag is lost to the air and water.

Healthy soil, healthy plants

In 1943 Sir Albert Howard, the father of modern organic movement proposed that a healthy soil will produce healthier crops. His statement has been rigorously refuted by chemical advocates for 80 years. However, many researchers are now backing up what producers have been observing in the field; that many fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides create conditions conducive to insects and diseases.

It’s a fantastic business model for a chemical company, ‘here, use my product, O and now you’ll need this chemical to control this new problem’…the unintended (or possibly intended) consequences of focusing on working against nature.

Insects are attracted to a range of factors in plants, from mineral imbalances, high N (amino acids), low brix (photosynthesates), metabolic issues and plant stress. These stresses may be climactic, low soil carbon, soil mineral imbalances or high soluble fertiliser. Insect bodies contain 7-14% nitrogen, while non-legume plants only contain 2-4%. Theses insects are ‘nitrogen thieves’ and there is a ‘recognised’ trade-off in science, that an increase in nitrogen leads to increase in insect attacks. Just as it’s ‘widely established that plant nutrition is an important determinant of herbivore development’. (It’s interesting to me that researchers use terms like ‘recognised’ and ‘widely established’, when this is not the story that is told to producers.)

Utah Professor Larry Phelan and others have revealed that insects prefer to eat simpler amino acids, which are easier to process than structural sugars or protein. When they were fed on complete protein foods, insects ate less, grew stunted, laid less eggs, and larval survival dropped. Dr Phelan’s work revealed that minerally imbalanced plants increased free amino acids 10-fold and reduced the amount of proteinase inhibitors; essential for insect defense. Sir Howard was correct. Insects are not attracted to healthy plants.

It is accepted that a pesticide will knock out predatory insects creating a boom of pests after application, for every one bad guy there may be 1200 good guys. A 2018 study in the US corn belt compared regenerative to farms using insecticides and found ten times more insect pests in the conventional. Yes, you read that right, 10 times more pests where insecticides are being used. Field trials showed neonicotinoid pesticides increased spider mite populations by 200%. Pesticides disrupt plant physiology, reducing natural plant immune responses and root exudates for signaling to biology. Again, a perfect sales pitch for someone… not the farmer. The other interesting conclusion from this research? These regenerative operations used far less water and were 78% more profitable.

Drink it in

We all know water is critical to grow crops. Yet the global breakdown of water cycles is becoming more and more evident. Impacts upon people and on food production is not solely due to climate change and deforestation; our soils are degraded, they are no longer acting like a sponge. We are creating water shedding catchments across the planet.

Surely you say, these are natural events and with climate variability increasing there’s nothing we can do? Not so. I’d like you visualise your soil as an apartment building, containing hallways, stairwells and living rooms. It’s these spaces which enable a soil to drink in any rainfall.

A poorly structured soil will tend to collapse, blocking soil pores and leading to water run-off. And worst-case scenario, if a soil is hydrophobic, water will not absorb at all.

Regions around Australia may be experiencing half their average rainfall, however, most are only harvesting a percentage of that. The rest evaporates from the top layer, or runs off. These issues are biological in nature. In response, producers are putting on more inputs, instead of addressing the underlying cause. We need to be feeding our microbes and building the house.

Benchmarking for success

Start to quantify results for yourself. Set up a large enough trial area to collect meaningful results. Do this trial for a minimum of three years. Take photographs. Dig holes in your soil. How deep are those roots going? How quickly is water infiltrating? Collect information on profitability/ha. Look at the whole value of what you’re producing. For instance, USDA research shows that 1% increase in carbon is worth $2200 AUD/ha in stored nutrients; N,P,K,S and holds 432,000 litres of water in a season (down to 30cm). It’s not just the lack of rainfall, it’s a storage issue, and most Australian operations have turned what was once a sponge into a tarmac.

Simple transitions

Maybe you can see your soil is minerally and microbially imbalanced, poor water efficiencies and you’ve got weeds and pest pressures right now to address. What to do next? Swinging from one branch to the next can be tricky if you don’t want to risk profitability.

This approach is being driven by farmers in responses to local needs: If you’re walking through a minefield, follow in the footsteps of the person before you. There are producers who have been doing these practices for over a decade. Many are happy to share their stories and guide you in taking the first steps. There are now hundreds of companies in Australia looking to cash in on the biological economy.

My advice? First; don’t just pull the rug out. You will crash your system.

Secondly, every company will have the best product. If you’re looking to use a product, ask to talk to one of their farming clients who has been using their product for at least three years.

At Integrity Soils our approach focuses on measuring microbial activity, soil and plant mineral balances. We buffer all inputs with carbon-based products to feed biology and increase nutrient uptake. In transition we substitute to more ‘soil friendly’ inputs and address nutritional imbalances. Every operation differs in what’s putting a drag on their system; we call this the 5 M’s; minerals, microbes, management, mindset and OM (Organic Matter). We start with a triage of what needs to be critically addressed to reduce the drag.

Regenerative Ag does not offer a silver bullet or some utopian dream. The success and length of time it takes to transition from high input to a profitable low input biological system is dependent on many factors. How degraded is your soil now, what is the main drag on performance?

What’s the main risk in transitioning to regenerative Ag? For me, it’s clear the biggest risk is not shifting gears by staying in the current farming model.


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