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The Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

By Spencer Smith

Cattle graze a diverse field at Springs Ranch near Fort Bidwell, California. Photo by Abbey Smith.

Regenerative agriculture is a hot topic. Presidential candidates discuss it, there are several documentaries released recently about it, universities across the world hold space for conversations about the potential for regenerative ag to reverse climate change, undo the global biodiversity crisis, as well as bring nutrient density back to our food supply. I certainly want to be among those farmers who are increasing profitability while building a farming business, and helping to create a landscape that is healthier and more resilient. 


Regenerative ag, recently defined by Terra Genesis International as,“ a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in the soil and above-ground biomass (plants), reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation and climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.”

To boil this definition down to its most basic elements, we must farm in a way that not only protects our soil, but also enhances it. Five simple soil health principles will transform your farm into a regenerative business regardless of the production model you are in, from large scale livestock running across thousands of acres to the market gardeners producing fresh food for their local farmers market to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. Using these core principles will enhance your soil, while storing carbon, and increasing health and productivity.

Principle 1: Soil Armor

The first step to improving soil health is keeping litter on the soil. The benefits of this are so grand it is hard to capture them all. Covered soil increases habitat for soil biology that will cycle nutrients better, builds aggregate structure that will accept and hold greater quantities of water, as well as mitigates soil temps, and protects against erosion.

Principle 2: Diversity  

Manage for maximum diversity in your fields, pastures, fencelines or wherever you can increase diversity on your farm. Nature abhors a monoculture. Plants have the capacity to mineralize nutrients.  In order to see the true benefits of this, you must have as much diversity as possible because different plants mineralize different nutrients.  Like a diverse diet for yourself, where diversity in foods increases your health and well being,  he more diversity of plants and rooting structures in the soil, the healthier the farm, and everything that you harvest from it, will be. 

Principle 3: Continual Live Plant/Root

As long as you have green, photosynthesizing plants in your fields, you are capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and using it to grow your products, and feed the soil. A principle of every regenerative farmer is to maximize the amount of time in a year that you can have a living root interacting with the rhizosphere, building soil aggregates, and mobilizing nutrients for the current, and subsequent crops. The benefits to the soil that you bank this year will be there to use in years to come. Every year it gets better and easier.

Principle 4: Livestock Integration

Managing for covered soil, diversity and green growing plants long into the year will get you on your way to regenerating soils, but the real benefits start to appear when you add livestock. For several reasons, livestock create compounding and cascading benefits. For example, you can use your livestock to break capped soils and lay armor on top of the soil. This increases gaseous exchange in the soil, and allows for the soil biology to flourish. Livestock function as a walking composter; dispersing seeds, bringing biology and fertility back to soils that are otherwise poorly functioning. Research published in 2012 titled “Plants Can Benefit from Herbivory: Stimulatory Effects of Sheep Saliva on Growth of Leymus chinensisfound health and growth benefits in plants are achieved when enzymes in saliva are left on the plants. 

Principle 5: Minimizing Soil Disturbance

To maintain the benefits to the land from the work of photosynthesizing plants, animals and your management efforts outlined above, do not till. If you are working to shift your farm to regenerative, all the efforts you do to get there can be undone with heavy tillage, combined with a fallow period. Disturbance comes in more ways than just tilling, disturbances caused by synthetic fertilizers are also devastating to soil biology.  

Regenerative agriculture is about outcomes and farmers asking the question: “is my land improving in ecosystem function as a result of my management? And can that improvement be measured and quantified?” Measuring and quantifying the improved functionality of the ecosystem process is important when assessing landscape health. As a manager we need to track the effects of our management associated with decisions that we make. The Savory Institute offers holistic ecological monitoring training, as well as monitoring services that will track the outcomes of your management decisions in terms of creating a regenerating landscape, and open up marketing channels for your farm products. Keeping the feedback loop as short as possible is key when using monitoring information to inform future management decisions. Monitoring makes sure that our farms continue to improve.

Where do I begin?  What are the five simplest steps to shift my production system to regenerative?  The most common methods to move toward regenerative agriculture are:

Holistic Planned Grazing of Livestock

I have been using livestock to improve ecosystem processes for more than a decade, the first method for moving toward regenerative ag is using livestock within the Holistic Planned Grazing framework. Holistic Planned Grazing gets livestock to the right place, at the right time with the correct behavior to stimulate soils and plants to improve ecosystem function. Whether it is using cattle to terminate a cover crop in a farming system, or using large herds across arid landscapes to spread and plant seeds while stimulating perennial growth. Properly planned livestock grazing selections will increase effectiveness of rainfall and irrigation by creating a soil profile that can more quickly infiltrate water, and hold that water in the rhizosphere. It removes old vegetation, and stimulates regrowth while stimulating plant root exudation and the soil microbiology. Once you integrate properly managed livestock into your system, you will see the landscape improve rapidly, and in a way that brings back more revenue and profit. If you would like help integrating livestock or monitoring the outcomes of your management, I suggest that you reach out to the Savory Institute at Savory.global. The Savory Institute has people all over the world who can assist you with integrating livestock in your farming operation.

Moving to a no-till farming system

For many conventional tillage producers one way to go from an eroded simplified system to a more complex regenerative system, is selling off the old tillage equipment and using no-till practices instead. Benefits of shifting to a no till method are:

 1. No-till farming requires less passes over the field with the tractor, which results in lowered input expenses.

2. By stopping the tillage, you are slowing down erosion exponentially, and contributing to a more complex soil microbiome. 

3. Year after year of no-till farming increases water infiltration rates, and builds soil structure. This contributes to better crop performance every year on you farm.

Planting cover crops or interseeding more diverse grasses and forbs

This is a frequently used first step for many farmers who want to move in a regenerative direction.  Typically this is a go-to for commodity tillage crop producers who already have the equipment needed to incorporate plant species diversity that add nutrients instead of using synthetics. An example is a farmer who plants a legume cover crop for nitrogen fixation prior to the planting of the cash crop. I have seen this work for farmers who historically used a fallow season between cropping to “bank water,” and for weed control. By planting a cover crop that is complementary to the subsequent crop, you increase the length of time during the year when you have a green and growing crop, which feeds the soil, and adds armor. It increases the amount of water captured for the next crop, while mineralizing nutrients for the cash crops. For help looking into cover crops, or beginning with no-till farming, the Soil Health Academy and Green Cover Seed Company are helpful resources.

Feeding underground livestock

Compost applications or other organic inoculants used to stimulate soil biology are some of the first tools that farmers reach for when transitioning. Careful with this action, though, as it can be extremely expensive, and only gives mediocre results back to you, if you are not combining this action with the previous three methods listed above. Incorporating biological inoculants when planting cover crops, and cash crops, can be a good way to incorporate new biology that will increase mineralized nutrients to your current and subsequent crops. This method falls short, however, when you still incorporate tillage into your protocol. If you are disturbing the soil following the use of an inoculant, you will likely see little benefit to your system. In market gardens, or high value crops, compost can be an effective way to increase soil fertility or health. Carbon accumulation in the soil is increased with the addition of compost, but at a high price to the producer. Many people suggest that compost be added to rangeland. It does increase fertility, but it will typically not do so in a cost effective way, unless you get a grant to pay for it. 

Silvopasture or other woody vegetation

A hot trend in regenerative ag is planting trees and shrubs in your fields, or along the field borders. Incorporating trees and shrubs is a good way to attract pollinators, and create habitat for birds, and other diversity while adding intermittent shade to your fields. Any diversity is good diversity, and many farmers are benefitting from incorporating tree crops, or shelterbelts, in cropping or grazing areas. The benefit here is several fold as well, it adds:

Shade

Most plants that we produce will benefit from some shade during the day. In fact, the most productive and biologically active state for our fields is a savanna, where the trees and bushes contribute to 25 percent scattered shade on the understory. This shade will contribute to longer and more robust growth of understory crops. 

Habitat

The trees and shrubs create habitat for all sorts of pollinators and birds. This includes birds of prey that will help in rodent control. 

Carbon sequestration

Fast growing tree crops sequester a lot of carbon in their structural material, i.e. the wood. The diversity that the rooting structure adds to soil building, as well as the decomposition of the leaves in the fall and winter, can increase fertility and tilth. Potentially, the trees provide another cash crop. Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm is a great resource for learning about the addition of trees and shrubs to your farm.

All biological systems, including agricultural ones, want to flourish. Mother Nature will incorporate weeds in a monoculture to increase benefits from diversity, or to cover exposed soils. She will incorporate animals in all landscapes to spread seeds, stimulate plants and soil, while bringing biology and fertility in the manure. And Mother Nature will always move toward more complexity. Regenerative agriculture works because it mimics nature, and works to increase the speed at which a natural system can improve itself. Remember, when selecting or adding these techniques to your farm, that first and foremost your farm must stay profitable. Enhancing ecosystem function to the detriment of the bottom line is not sustainable, and if you cannot stay or become profitable, whatever improvements that you make will be short lived if you cannot stay in business. Be creative. As we discussed here, are many ways to improve ecosystem function that can stay within your farm’s financial plan.

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional. He lives in Fort Bidwell, California on Springs Ranch where he produces grass-fed beef, provides Holistic Management training, consulting, and holistically manages the ranch.