Are you regen-curious? The term regenerative agriculture is getting thrown around a lot these days, but what does it really mean?
To some, regenerative agriculture represents the future of how we farm. To others, it means cover crops and organic farming.
The reality is, that regenerative agriculture (regen ag) doesn’t have a simple, broadly accepted, clear definition yet, but the agriculture sector is recognizing the benefits of an approach that works with nature instead of against it.
At a high level, there are a few key principles that are common to most definitions of regenerative agriculture.
- Minimize Disturbance
- Keep living roots
- Keep soil covered
- Maximize diversity
- Integrate livestock, where appropriate
General Mills, also has a 6th
principle included in their core regenerative ag principles
, and that is “understand context,” which is an important component and is arguably the umbrella under which all other principles fall.
Like all aspects of farming, regen ag cannot simply be applied the same way across all geographies. Since farming (and regen ag practices) ultimately depend on soil, the approaches that work rely on understanding how the inherent differences in soil (parent material and climate) interact with different crops and management practices.
Take Western Canada, for example. It can be somewhat frustrating to hear that farmers should be adopting regenerative agriculture practices when a lot of the talk is on no-till and cover crops. This approach isn’t effective since most Western Canadian farmers, especially those in Saskatchewan, have been minimal or no-till for years. And telling someone in Saskatchewan to grow a cover crop in fall when they are trying to get their crop off before (or while) the snow flies, often doesn’t seem feasible.
That is why the principle of ‘Understand Context’
is so important when we look at implementing regen ag principles. In fact, if we take a closer look at those key regenerative agriculture principles, we might see that a lot of Western Canadian farmers are already implementing these practices.
As mentioned above, Western Canadian farmers have been implementing reduced tillage practices for decades because there are numerous benefits to soil health and crop production associated with it.
Based on the latest agriculture statistics
, almost 80% of Saskatchewan farmland is under no-till management and in Alberta it is about 66% and about 61% in Canada overall.
Of course, there are always continuous improvements to be made, but it’s clear that no-till is well adopted and implemented here.
Keep Living Roots
In most of the prairie provinces, we’ve got a winter season that has our soils in a deep freeze for 5 to 6 months of the year. But as soon as those soils thaw, farmers are out there getting seeds in the ground because we need all the growing season we can get. We’re usually racing against the elements to get crops harvested before the deep freeze sets in again, so most farmers are already maximizing living roots for a significant length of time.
However, something to consider, as crop varieties continue to improve and climate change potentially lengthens our growing seasons, there may be an opportunity to incorporate more living roots in our farming operations or grow longer-season crops. Intercropping may start to make more logistical sense for more farmers as well.
We need to keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to regenerative ag. It is about stepwise, continuous improvement such as converting marginal land to a perennial forage cover as a way to keep living roots longer on land that isn’t particularly productive.
Keep Soil Covered
This is typically where the conversation around cover crops comes up. It’s also where we might start to lose a prairie farmer. As mentioned previously, prairie farming is typically short on moisture and short on time. There are only a handful of growing days available and trying to get an extra crop planted in that time can feel daunting, so let’s set cover crops aside for a moment.
By the grace of where we live in Western Canada, Mother Nature does a great job of keeping our soils covered with snow for about half the year. The snowpack is very beneficial, and farmers can optimize the impact by managing their stubble. As Dr. Phillip Harder at the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan has studied, leaving stubble taller can have a significant and measurable impact on improving soil moisture while also leveraging the benefits of keeping soils covered. That snowpack protects prairie soils from erosion during the non-growing months as does the crop residue left on the surface.
Now back to cover crops – this is actually an exciting frontier in Western Canadian agriculture. There is new research happening for cover crops on the Prairies. This is also a chance to redefine what is considered cover cropping. We all have the concept in our mind that a cover crop is planted in the shoulder season after the main crop has been harvested and is then terminated or harvested after some growing period. That is one type of cover cropping. But cover cropping can be a lot more.
A 2021 CAPI
report written by Callum Morrison is the largest survey to date on cover cropping in the Canadian Prairies. Some of the key findings were around the innovative ways farmers are incorporating cover cropping into their operations. Some are growing cover crops in the traditional sense; over the shoulder season when the soil would otherwise be bare, but some are also taking different approaches such as:
- intercropping a cover crop with the primary cash crop,
- growing a full season cover crops in place of summer fallow possibly to use as green manure or forage, and
- using cover crops to address a soil problem such as salinity or compaction
This space will likely see more research and focus in the coming years, but what is important is that practices are tailored to fit the context of Western Canadian farming. In the meantime, thank Mother Nature for the snow during the winter.
Western Canadian farmers are already pretty good at growing a variety of crops in rotation, the typical 3-year cereal-oilseed-pulse rotation is known for a number of benefits including reducing harmful insect pressure and reducing disease pressure.
More diverse crop rotation cycles are one way to incorporate more plant diversity into cropping systems. Other ways of increasing biodiversity include incorporating shelterbelts or hedgerows along field perimeters, maintaining watershed buffers, converting marginal land to perennial cover, and intercropping – to name a few. The theory behind increasing biodiversity isn’t just about reducing pests and diseases, but encouraging beneficial insect and microbial activity, building resilient ecosystems, and providing ecosystem services such as wildlife corridors, water filtration, and erosion control.
Integrate livestock, appropriately
Many farms on the prairies are one or the other – grain farms or livestock farms. The reason that integrating livestock is part of regenerative ag principles, is that many grassland soils, especially in Western Canada, evolved and developed under grazing animals like bison. A number of studies
focused on Western Canada have found that frequently rotating livestock between fields builds drought resistance, improves carbon balance, and creates more resilient landscapes.
Integrating livestock isn’t going to work for all farms, but where it does work, there can be benefits to the livestock, soil, and biodiversity.
Practices compatible with Regenerative Ag
It is important to remember that regenerative agriculture is a set of principles, not a specific set of practices, and it’s not an all-or-nothing approach; it’s about continuous improvement. What we don’t want is for regenerative agriculture to become a set of prescriptive practices that ignore the inherent differences in soil, climate, crops, and management practices in different geographies.
There are practices that align and support regenerative ag principles, but the degree to which they support soil health and sustainable crop production is often regional and still not fully understood. These practices include, but are not limited to:
- minimal or no till farming
- increasing diversity of crop rotations
- including perennial forage in rotation
- applying cover crops
- planting shelterbelts and hedgerows
- using wetland buffers
- integrating rotational grazing
- applying organic amendments such as compost, humates, or manure
Many of the practices listed above often support more than one regenerative ag principle. How many principles are you applying already? Is there a new practice that might fit with your operations? Understanding context is critical, which is why prairie farmers need to be part of the conversation. As global leaders in the development and implementation of conservation farming, we have a story to tell.
Author: Morgan Sather, PAg, Sustainability Manager – WinField United Canada