4 Reasons to Employ Regenerative Ag on Your Small Farm
Bottom Line Up Front: Small farms and homesteads can use regenerative agriculture methods to improve their soil, better utilize rain water, reduce use of chemical applications, improve animal health, and increase profit margins.
Regenerative agriculture is one of those terms we hear more and more frequently when it comes to farming. It may be tempting to dismiss it as a trend, like the Adkins Diet of farming, but doing so would close you off to a potentially powerful set of tools for making your farm more productive and profitable. I believe there are several reasons you should consider adopting regenerative farming principles for your small farm.
What is Regenerative Farming?
First, let's discuss what it is in case you're not familiar with it. The term "regenerative agriculture" was first used by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s and is used to describe an approach to farming that focuses on improving soil health and biodiversity through certain practices. These practices generally include planting numerous varieties of plants and crops (avoiding monoculture fields), use of cover crops, rotational grazing of livestock using multiple species, no tillage or otherwise not allowing bare ground. The idea is over time the biodiversity within the soil will grow which will in turn lead to better ability to retain moisture and nutrients, which leads to improved crop and forage yields. It doesn't necessarily have to be organic in nature, but often it is. Regenerative agriculture methods are found in philosophies such as permaculture and holistic farm management.
There are numerous websites out there with lots and lots of information about regenerative agriculture that go into great detail about how it works, so I don't want to attempt to re-explain what they already describe so well. (For in-depth information, check out the Rodale Institute, Savory Institute, Polyface Farms, Gabe Brown - among others - on the web for more information and examples of its use.) What I aim to do here is discuss reasons you should consider implementing regenerative practices.
1. Improved Drought Resistance.
I thought about listing healthier soils as the #1 reason, but the foundation of regenerative agriculture is improving the soils; all the benefits come from that central concept. In my mind one of the biggest rewards of having healthy soils is the ability to better retain and efficiently use moisture. As you research regenerative farming you will see advocates describing how well healthy soil captures water and holds on to it. Alternatively unhealthy soils experience runoff during rain events, inability to effectively capture rain water, and in many cases suffer from erosion.
2. Reduced Dependence on Chemicals.
Allow me to be transparent - I'm not opposed to chemical applications such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and so on. That said, I'd rather not use them. They're an added expense in both resources and time, and through regenerative agriculture we see holistic systems that are regulated through the biodiversity present in that area. Here are some simple examples.
Weeds are controlled through multi-species grazing. Sheep and goats will eat broadleaf weeds that cattle will not.
Nitrogen is fixed in the ground by planting legumes in a cover crop.
Chickens placed in pasture behind cattle in pasture rotation results in them scratching and spreading cow manure and eating fly larvae from that manure.
Diverse plant life attracts predator insects that are not pests to humans but prey upon those insects that are harmful to our operations.
3. Healthier Animals.
When we started out with our goats we had just one fenced off area for them. We eventually fenced off the neighboring land and opened it up to the goats. We started flipping them from one paddock to another - what is sometimes called a switchback system - and that simple move improved the goats' health immediately. You could see it in their coats and body condition.
Even those who do not prescribe to regenerative agriculture employ this method. Think about it, the animals move out of an area where they have grazed all the good forage, also where they have been defecating and urinating. They move to an area that has fresh forage with higher nutrient availability, and less parasite load than where they've been. In turn, the area where they had been grazing has a chance to recover and the parasite population dwindles as there are no hosts for them.
Now, start taking it up a notch. Rather than giving that previous paddock a few weeks to recover, how about giving it a few months. Animals continuously moving onto fresh ground gives them access to the best nutrition and keeps them ahead of parasites.
4. Increased Profits.
At the end of the day, we want to make a living in farming. At least earn some nice spending money. Gabe Brown discusses in his book Dirt to Soil the importance of evaluating your operation on profit per acre, not yield. He employs regenerative agriculture and sees nice yields in his commodity crops. As he says, though, they're not nearly as high of yields as other farmers in his area. The difference is those other farmers spend a significant amount more money in fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and labor, thus their profit margin is much smaller than Brown's, who in contrast has very little input because he leverages the natural systems around him to bring out the best in his crops.
For small farm operators and homesteaders, using regenerative techniques makes sense in helping us make a profit. We can't afford lots of inputs to our crops and herds. Likewise, think about your marketing and potential customers. Like it or not, most consumers who would purchase food from a local farm would not want to eat food that was treated with chemicals. I'm not arguing they are right or wrong, just indicating what the trends are.
If you're not familiar with regenerative farming, I highly recommend you research the topic and consider it for your farm or homestead. If you need a starting place I suggest Gabe Brown's book, Dirt to Soil. In it he describes his transition from conventional farming to using regenerative practices and why he sees so much value in them. Good luck, and leave a comment on what you think.
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