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Regenerative agriculture creates a sprawling road map

Farmers who want to move past ‘sustainability’ have lots of management advice, but they’re also drawn from a wide range of sectors and every practice may not fit every operation

Blain Hjertaas of Redvers, Sask., and David Rourke of Minto, Man., were both well-known faces before their panel at the MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon late last November.

Why it matters: Regenerative agriculture has got lots of time in the headlines, but the movement may look very different for an organic farmer with 3,000 acres of annual crops versus a rancher whose land is mostly pasture.

Both are believers in regenerative agriculture, a movement that, among other things, promises more efficient production, resiliency against drought and flood, and the promise that the farm will not only be sustainable with the environment, but actually help regenerate degraded soil.

A conversation with either may fall towards topics like soil carbon, organic matter or soil structure and water infiltration.

At the same time, the two operations could not be more different.

For Hjertaas, it’s all about livestock. The longtime beef producer and holistic management instructor counts pasture as a good portion of his land base. He has become a passionate advocate for planned grazing, often called to conferences and workshops to share his experiences with high-density rotational grazing and the benefits he’s seen in his soil organic matter, sequestered carbon, forage yields and pasture performance.

David Rourke takes the mike during a producer panel at the MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon in late November.
photo: Alexis Stockford

But high stock density grazing, with its small paddocks and frequent herd movements, also seems like a long reach for farmers like Rourke, whose operation revolves around annual crops and who has no livestock of his own.

Instead, Rourke’s experience with regenerative agriculture slants more towards green manures, field cover and biodiversity.

“Is regenerative agriculture too big an umbrella?” was the question University of Washington professor and keynote speaker David Montgomery posed in Brandon.

“I actually think no,” he said. “I actually think it’s very useful as a big umbrella because I think there’s multiple paths toward regenerative agriculture.”

The author and soil scientist has built a speaking career around his visits to those farmers who are already building up their soils.

Animal oriented?

Is livestock necessary for regenerative agriculture?

According to Pam Iwanchysko, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, the answer is yes.

“I really think that they need to be on the landscape to help recycle the nutrients with the microbes,” she said. “I think it’s an integral part of any operation.”

Rotational grazing is one of the most cited regenerative agriculture practices in Manitoba. At the crux of the argument, experts say the system closely mimics the movements or the original bison herds and supports more forage growth, and therefore far deeper roots, more post-season litter and better water infiltration.

In Manitoba, producers have reported more than doubling their forage production with high stock density grazing, while Hjertaas estimates that he sequesters 22 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year under the system.

Montgomery does not discount those advantages. Livestock are an accelerator in regenerative agriculture, he says, citing examples such as Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer whose name has become almost synonymous with regenerative agriculture in the northern Great Plains.

Brown has become well known for his diverse system of cover crops, intercropping, and mob grazing various types of livestock, a system he developed since the ’90s and that has since jump-started his soil organic matter.

For a soil scientist like Montgomery, a profession where most changes are measured in centuries or millennia, that time frame is a drop in the bucket. A farm may still be regenerative without grazing, he said, although the process will be longer.

“Some people will tell you that you have to have livestock to regenerate your soil,” he said. “I actually think that livestock can be an accelerator of soil rebuilding, but it’s not a necessary condition, and I say that because I have visited farms that have rebuilt their soil without livestock, so I know it can happen. How that gets adapted to different areas is, I think, something that is critically important.”

In fact, he argued, it would be a critical mistake to make blanket agronomic practices, since the soil on every farm and every field will be different.

Larry Wegner, a beef producer and director with both Manitoba Beef Producers and the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, echoed Montgomery, despite his own system being highly based on rotational grazing.

“Livestock make it easier, but you can do it without livestock,” he said. “You just have to be smarter.”

Planning becomes critical, he said, citing his own winter days mapping out a grazing plan for the following year.

Organic, or organic-ish?

Another divide lurks between conventional and organic.

No till has long been hailed as a means to fight erosion, avoid compaction and to preserve the delicate mycorrhizal fungi that help nutrient uptake in plants. For organic producers, however, tillage is the main means of combating weeds.

It’s a conundrum that Rourke is well familiar with. A former champion of no till, Rourke’s farm is midway through transitioning to organic, and tillage has become key.

“From my perspective, you can come from two almost polar opposites, one where it’s zero till with high inputs and the other is organic with lots of tillage. You reduce the inputs on the one, you reduce the tillage on the other and you come pretty close to the ideal in both cases,” he said. It’s a middle ground that Montgomery jokingly describes as “organic-ish.”

Montgomery’s case studies highlight several otherwise conventional farmers who have used diversity and tools like cover crops or seeding rates to cut inputs down to half or 10 per cent of their previous use.

“I knew that those particular producers did not want to be organic farmers. This was not what they did,” he said. “But it was really quite apparent talking to them that they would rather not spend as much money on inputs as they had been spending, and so if you can save them money on that, it moves them closer to the organic end of the spectrum, but not from a philosophical basis, but simply from a cost basis.

“I actually think that the biggest potential for transforming modern agriculture from what we now have as conventional agriculture into regenerative agriculture, and this sort of ‘organic-ish’ style is a way to do that,” he added.

Park the cultivator

Montgomery is still a strong advocate of leaving soil lie. “Ditch the plow,” was one on the speaker’s main messages in Brandon, along with greater diversity and covering the soil.

That last, at least, is common across the various streams of regenerative agriculture.

Both Rourke and Hjertaas want to bolster their organic matter and trap carbon. Rourke hopes to eventually develop a system where he is sequestering carbon two to three times faster than he was before transitioning to organic, while Hjertaas vocally argues that producers should be able to get paid for sequestering carbon.

“I think there’s lots of variations on the theme, but the fundamental is getting more plants growing to support that soil food web,” Rourke said.

Constant green growth will be both a boon for weed control as well as soil health and increased water infiltration for the organic farmer.

“I don’t think it’s bad to have diversity,” Hjertaas said. “Diversity is wonderful. It’s one of the principles of regenerative agriculture. If there’s diverse opinions, that’s fine.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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