Days to the General Election: 38
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.

Regenerative agriculture is in vogue as a concept but what does it really mean?

Regenerative agriculture is in vogue as a concept but what does it really mean?

I often get asked my opinion about regenerative agriculture. My standard rejoinder is to ask what does the questioner mean by ‘regenerative agriculture’? That typically gets a response that it is somewhat of a mystery to them, but it is a term they keep hearing, and supposedly it is the way we need to act to save the planet. My next rejoinder is that I too am struggling to know what it means.

Then some two weeks ago I was asked to join a focus group for a research project looking into what regenerative agriculture means specifically in the New Zealand context. The project has considerable backing, including from the Government-funded ‘Our Land & Water National Science Challenge’.

I was unable to participate in the focus group on account of another commitment. But it did make me think it was time for me to do my own research and find out what the term actually stood for.

Some ferreting around led me to a paper by Dr Charles Merfield, widely known as ‘Merf’, who is well known in organic agriculture and sustainable farming circles in New Zealand and beyond. I thought if anyone knows what it means then it will be Merf. 

I quickly found that Merf has also found it challenging to get a clear definition of regenerative agriculture. Aha, I said, so it is not only me who is struggling.

Merf quoted from a paper published by Terra Genesis International (TGA), who are promoting the concept. The TGA paper says at the outset “that Regenerative Agriculture cannot be defined." Apparently, this is because regenerative agriculture is an evolving concept and it is expected that it will continue to evolve. 

Both from Merf’s paper and the TTGA paper I quickly learned that, in contrast to organic agriculture which has prescribed rules, regenerative agriculture has no specific rules. That is why it can mean different things to different people. However, one point of agreement seems to be that ‘regenerative agriculture’ goes beyond ‘sustainable agriculture’ in setting a higher bar.

I then went to Wikipedia to see what it had to say. One has to be cautious with Wikipedia on matters that are still evolving, but at least it would provide a perspective.

Wikipedia said that regenerative agriculture “is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing biodiversity, enhancing ecosystem services, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.”

Some further ferreting around led me to the conclusion that regenerative agriculture is really a value system largely coming from the USA and then spreading out from there. It is built on a belief that says that we are depleting our soils and we need to do a lot better.  

Then it was back to Merf’s paper to see what he had to say about the underlying science. To my initial surprise, Merf said that there was minimal peer-reviewed literature on the topic. His own search using the combined terms ‘regenerative’ and ‘agriculture’ only found two such papers in science journals, whereas a search using the terms ‘resilient’ and ‘agriculture’ produced many thousands.

Instead, almost all of the literature on regenerative farming is in what is called the ‘grey literature’ of reports that are not peer reviewed and also articles in popular non-scientific magazines. Nevertheless, there are some principles that are generally agreed to.

The four most commonly agreed principles according to Merf are:

  • minimising or eliminating tillage (through no-till);
  • avoiding bare soil / keeping the soil covered at all times with living plants or residues;
  • increasing plant biodiversity (both pasture and crops); and
  • integrating livestock and cropping (mixed /rotational farming).

Another key insight is that many of the promoters of regenerative agriculture do not themselves have a background in science. This makes it particularly challenging to link the value systems to explicit practices that align with the beliefs.

By now I was aware that at least some of the principles of this regenerative agriculture movement have been around for a long time, including back in the 1960s at Lincoln University when I was a student. For example, Professor Walker never allowed us to forget the fundamental importance of clover within the nitrogen cycle on our pastoral lands. Similarly, all of the cropping rotations that we were taught by Jim White, Bruce Ryde and others had an animal phase within them.

Back in those distant times we had neither the tillage machinery nor the weedicides, in particular glyphosate, that would make no-till systems feasible. However, those systems are now very much part of mainstream agriculture.  Glyphosate is currently acceptable to most followers of regenerative agriculture as the lesser evil relative to alternatives.

As for plant diversity, that was always a key part of New Zealand’s pastoral systems until around 20 years ago when it became evident that on dairy farms the combination of ryegrass and nitrogen fertiliser was the way to maximise profits. Currently, there is a modest movement back towards more plant diversity using species such as plantain, although it is not all straight sailing.

Searching a little further, I found that use of compost is another favoured technique for regenerative farming, including importing compost from outside the farm. There is no doubt that compost contains valuable nutrients and can help to increase organic matter in soils. The challenge is that, at regional and national scale, importing compost is not really feasible. Where would it come from?

This leads us back to one of the fundamental aspects of nutrient cycling that underpins sustainable farming systems. Unless human excrement is returned to farms then there will always be a need for non-organic fertilisers.

Clover and other legume species can fix nitrogen from the air with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Other plants can then obtain necessary nitrogen from the nitrogen released by these crops into the soil, although growth is typically less than achieved with fertiliser nitrogen. As for phosphorus, sulphur, potassium and micro nutrients, they have to come from somewhere else, and that means fertiliser.

Digging deeper again, I find that many of the current mainstream scientists are highly frustrated by the regenerative agriculture movement. They find it exasperating to have to deal with people who have political sway but have no understanding of fundamental scientific principles. Indeed, they find it insulting. And so, the scene is set for tribal shouting matches.

So, where do we go from here?

The answer has to be that an ongoing move to higher levels of sustainability has to be supported. We do still have farming practices, particularly in the dairy industry, that are non-sustainable. However, the other side also needs to learn some science and understand something of what is already being achieved and the nature of the constraints.

Ironically, although I would not consider myself part of the regenerative agriculture movement, I do have an involvement with a transformational pasture-based dairy system through incorporation of ‘composting moo-tels’. Dairy systems with composting moo-tels fit very nicely within the regenerative philosophy. It is an example of how we can bring sustainability, cow welfare, human welfare and economics together within a scientific framework. The first step is to get everyone to understand what we are talking about and to dispel uninformed perspectives on both sides that are getting in the way.  


*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. . He can be contacted at kbwoodford@gmail.com.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

80 Comments

Given that every other alternative is a one-way conveyor-belt to oblivion.....

YES.

And as for your 'mainstream scientists', show me a gravy-train and I'll show you a mantra-chanter. The whole agribusiness thing is linear, is already beyond some boundaries, and we need to be addressing what comes next. There is, of course, no research money; all the funding comes from the current money-stream. What I'd like to see, is for some of them to be inter-disciplinary - add Cant'y's Susan Krumdieck to your in-house cogitations, for instance.

Yes, I am aware of that stream of work.
Urban agriculture works best with the high volume and low energy-density green crops.
KeithW

"show me a gravy-train and I'll show you a mantra-chanter."

For a moment I thought you were talking about the IPCC.

Keith,

have you read the article in NZ Geographic? To someone like me with no farming background, it looks to offer some/many? benefits to many farmers as well as to the environment.

I enjoyed that article too;

https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/regeneration/

linklater01,
Yes, it is a nice article. There are a number of practices there such as no-till and use of legumes (such as vetch and lupins) that all scientists would agree with. Also, there is no argument about the role of animals in cycling of nutrients. The Brix level measures the sugars in the plant - anything with high Brix is going to be tasty because nearly all of us have a sweet tooth. But linking Brix levels to mineral and other nutrient levels would need evidence - I would be very doubtful of there being a simple relationship. Soil compaction is a widely recognised issue in mainstream agriculture - some of my colleagues at University of Queensland were working on that 30 years ago with systems such as controlled traffic systems and precision agriculture. For the Tarras property, the paddocks close to the river are likely to be of high natural fertility (alluvial influence and possibly wind-blown loess) but low carbon levels, particularly if there has been a history of cropping these. So rebuilding those levels should improve the soils. I am certainly not going to argue about anything that this farmer seems to be doing, but from the article there is not enough information to analyse the overall system. I have been working in farming systems for much of my career - both in NZ and overseas - and the first step is to analyse the system including the flow of nutrients through that system. I say again that in this case I don't have enough information to analyse the system, and that is somewhat frustrating to me.
KeithW

Keith, I'm not sure how many people link brix to mineral. The measure itself is very variable with often 6 people getting 6 different results depending upon how much they mash the sample before pressing out the plant sap. However we use brix to give us a real time indication of photosynthetic rate. The higher the rate the more carbon captured for the whole system, more sugars pumped into the soil to feed soil microbes. The principle mechanism for soil carbon sequestration. Yes at 150mm our soils might be relatively carbon rich (we are 15%OM) but we find our soils are darkening at ever increasing depths (600mm so far). We have found plenty of peer-reviewed information from abroad which informs our decision-making and the results make farming fun and profitable again. I do not want to wait for our research institutions to have peer reviewed studies. It works. Here's a link we find helpful
https://www.advancingecoag.com/plant-health-pyramid

"Unless human excrement is returned to farms then there will always be a need for non-organic fertilisers."

Won't it take more than this? We also need to include human remains to be "returned" to the farm to make sure there is no net loss of essential elements.

I can sell you a plot, needs to be shallow, you will need to arrange a dog proof fence.

Or we could simply substitute some of our farm-supplied food intake with Soylent Green.....and disintermediate the food chain thereby.....unless, but of course, China's bought Soylent Corporation....

I still recall watching the film Soylent Green in March 1974.
KeithW

I have been trying multi species planting for two years, always one or two species becomes dominate. I also get my feed at the wrong time of year when there is not much money in trading.
I can see a lot of merit in parts of it but it's expensive, you get lots of failures and it's not guaranteed you get feed when you need it. This Autumn I went back to short term italian grasses and oats because the drought destroyed pasture, very little of my multi species survived to get eaten this winter but my oats and italian rye have been winners.
If it's going to work all of us will need to tweak grazing systems and philosophies around animals, in the back of my mind i feel regenerative requires putting soils first when I have always put animals first.

I am looking at cover crops for my lighter soils and some type of shade plant, no luck yet but have spent thousands so far. This is not a cheap option.

Andrewj,

I wish you well. It seems clear that you are trying to both run a profitable business and look after the environment. That said, as an outsider, the two things cannot be separated. You will also have no choice but to factor in climate change to your farming operation-more extreme events more often.
I was in business for almost 30 years and one thing that strikes me forcibly is that farmers are in the main, price takers. That, coupled with a generally poor return on capital would not attract me. I have no idea where you farm, but is there no part of it that you could repurpose to add value?

11
up

Linklater. Your last sentence in the form if a question is frustrating. Have you not read Aj's previous posts? I wont answer for him but for myself and other farmers. Firstly dont buy into the bullshit that we dont make money. That we have poor return on capital. I put 90k into this little block initially. It raised my family and has kept me in work for 30 years. If I can be bothered it would also keep me in my old age. The sale of it would. My income is pretty steady. I can do (could do)...a couple of overseas holidays a year. But I will never be rich. In monetary terms.
Farmers are rich in other ways. Clean air. Everyday. No lengthy drive to work. A bunch of unruly dogs for company rather than crazy humans. Plenty of vitamin d. The time to be alone (vastly undervalued in my opinion) The seasons really mean something. Spring has the delight of newborns and thankfully lots of rain and grass. Summer brings warmth and a slowdown in work. Autumn brings calm weather, rains and a return to black on the bank statement. Winter the weeds are gone and the cold is welcome.
As for your repurposing to add value. Hmm. Ajs posts have been telling us all through this drought how he was trying to figure a way to make money. Different crops, mixing crops. Lambs or cattle. What age/ sex/breed of cattle. Trading stock is usually a repurposing each year. What to buy, when. What to sell and when. Trading stock to make money is littered with failure. (Which is why many stick with breeding stock)There are many farmers with bigger acreages that cant help but make money as they have big numbers. But with the likes of Aj and myself we have less land which requires a more imaginative brain to stay solvent. So suggesting repurposing is a bit of a kick in the guts.
To try to be less harsh to the land, and survive fiscally all that nature, the markets and governments throw at us, repurposing our businesses is a constant.

Well said, Belle. It's a viewpoint quite alien to urbanites or lifestyle block dabblers....

Hi Belle, what are you farming at the moment? I grabbed 200 R1 bulls averaged around the $500 a head. I am thinking talking to friends on the other coast I should be getting into heifers for export, perhaps going into a share arrangement with the dairy farmer. Someone on here mentioned it and talking to a guy selling white face heifers to the live export trade. Don't know about this US market and who knows what goes on in China.
I am making a conscious decision to keep away from sheep, friend down the road got over 80k for wool just over ten years ago and this year minus $8k.

Fielding sheep sale is crazy stuff, $130 for 27 lambs, I got offered a lot of very poor condition stock. Still dry around here, bores are low, spring could be doubtful if it stays like this.

I got some cheap bulls too Aj. I have been watching the purebred angus and simmy heifers snapped up for export but the thought appalls me. I once took part in Fonterras exercise in exporting heifers. The money was good but it stuck in my craw. Never again.
As for sheep, hmm, early lambs that wont need shearing before killing would be good. Or late lambs that are already shorn. Keep thru to winter. They should be reasonably priced. A lot of people will turn tail on them. I once heard one of the big buyers around here say they make more money on low lamb prices than high lamb prices. I sort of agree. Those $30 lambs are easier on the pocket when they die unfortuitously. As they seem to do. Less competition in a bad year too.
I am keeping in mind La Nina could be on her way. Thats not good for us. Of course if both the Hawkes Bay and the Waikato/central plateau are dry going into spring/summer cheap calves will be the order of the day. And we are missing a full 600ml of rain for the season to date. Eek.

Belle,

Thank you for that. However, according to Stats NZ, the return on total assets for dairy farming was 2% in 2019. I think that's unimpressive, don't you? I will also quote briefly from an article in the NZ Journal of Social Sciences Online. "It might be thought land has been a good investment for it is often said that Farmers' capital gains offset the low return on capital experienced relative to returns in other urban industries and investments."

Please don't think I am anti farmers. I enjoy our excellent lamb, beef and venison-in small quantities. I want our farming to be world class both as successful businesses and environmental champions.

"the return on total assets for dairy farming was 2% in 2019. I think that's unimpressive, don't you?"
Total asset values are obviously set by the returns, if the returns were higher the asset values would increase. They can afford to be low because of the leverage (mortgages) farmers employ to increase the value of assets they are beneficiaries to.

linklater - our accountant summarised all client stats for return on total dairy assets 2019: Average of of lower quartile is first figure, average of top 10% is second in all cases:
Farm owners:3.09%; 5.79%
Sharemilkers 50/50: 10.15%; 26.13%
Farm owners with sharemilkers (50/50) - farm owners get 50% of milk sales and min/no income from livestock sales as they don't own the cows : 1.85%; 3.77%

Last year QV issued new valuations for our farm which will come in to our 2019/20 financial year. It had come down but our payout for our that season will be higher so this year our return on assets will be higher than the previous year. Swings and roundabouts.

I can imagine there are a lot of farmers that have not seen capital gain for 10 years now. But that is another story and the white gold thing brought riches to many a land trader. I think you missed the main theme of my post. For the little funds that we had at the time, my return has been massive. A longterm stable income. A life of self sufficiency and freedom. A sturdy asset to borrow off. The 2% return has never been my return.

Great post, thanks Belle!

Regen ag was a term coined by William Rodale in the states, It originally was a holistic vision statement with social, environmental and financial elements, In the future how do we want our communities, farm and wildlife ecologies and collective wealth to look like? Then what do we need to get there? This is not a science question. Science is needed to advise the how.
It subsequently has been reduced to soil health which does need definition and is open to scientific research.
Regen ag ideally also recognises that farms are complex systems liable to unintended consequences. Too much research has been about technology and chemistry in a profit context. Our environmental problems are classic unintended consequences which more technology and chemistry will not fix as they do not address the cause.

Rodale nailed it! He even has a regenerative organic certification system ready to use See https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/regenerative-orga...

I think it shows how little we know about soil microbes, bacteria etc. Easy enough for a scientist to measure the result of putting Nitrogen on a pasture, not so easy to measure the result of no tillage etc. Surprised there's no mention of increasing the carbon content of soil, which I thought was part of it . Then there's the definition of soil itself . Is clay with grass growing in it soil ?What % of humus etc makes it soil ?.My own block hasnt had fertiliser (organic or chemical ) put on in the 10 years I've owned it . We do bring in some silage in some years.A soil test showed it lacking in sulphur , average to high in evreything else. a phonecall to a fertiliser company , and they laughed at the idea of just putting sulphur on, so I ended up doing nothing .

It is reasonably common place to add just sulphur. Ravensdown have a product called Maxi Sulphur which is around 90% sulphur.

thanks , yes they had the product , just tried to steer me to the more expensive multi ferts. I will trial a patch with sulphur this spring.

Depending on where you are, you are likely to get big responses to sulfur. That was a big insight that came from trials in the 1950s and thereabouts.
Keith W

Thanks Keith. Yes , i read about the sulphur use in the 50's etc , and wondered why it went out of fashion.
I am in the Hauraki district , Waihi ash soil type.

solardb
On some soils there is enough sulfur in superphosphate. Being close to the ocean with incoming showers from the sea can help.
I don't know the specifics of the Waihi ash soils but I do know from some work in Colombia that I was associated with that specific ash showers can lead to big differences over small distances. Hence the importance of soil tests. Also, when farmers pull back on superphosphate it is often the sulfur that first becomes deficient.
Keith W

In the 90's Ruapehu erupted and we got over 2" of ash on the farm, it was thick enough to hide the lines on the road and all the vehicles needed new air cleaners. We grew some grass for the next 2 years, amazing surprised me, keep sulphur in the mix now.

The Waihi eruptions were thousands of years ago . I think the term Waihi ash is more to describe the texture of the soil (for building footings purposes ) , than the chemical / biological composition. My bit is alluvial beside a major river, and quite likely had a lot of chicken shit dumped on it from the nearby sheds 20 -30 years ago. Maybe that is why some elements are way above average, and sulphur was low , I do not know .

Volcanic soils (think central north island, Taranaki and Waikato) hold large amounts of sulphur and do not need additional sulphur for optimal pasture growth, however these soils often have high levels of aluminium oxides with occlude the phosphate molecule making it unavailable to the plant for uptake (also known as phosphate retention) - lime can help this as it reduces the effect of the aluminium. Sedimentary soils (East Coast of the North Island - ENI) leach a high amount of sulphur as it does not bind to the soil and must be replaced almost annually (depending on rainfall) sulphur fortified products such as sulphur superphosphate provide the two key nutrients that are missing in these soils for clover growth - sulphur and phosphate. These products have underpinned the success of farming operations on the ENI - farmers will try alternatives, but time will tell that the ones that stay apply sulphur and phospahte to the soil to feed the clovers - which then feed the grasses. Its simple applied science, proven to work over time..... simple as that!

Sorry Stevell I must disagree. I farm on the Central Plateau and sulphur is a must have. Yes we would have had some good doses over the years from the mountains (and that big lake) but we need more like there is no tomorrow. Elemental sulphur over winter is a must must must have. Magnesium is another on that list. In fact Balance make a special brew for us lot. Pasturemag pumice I think they call it. Lets face it, to farm on these soils we need lots of everything.
(I do hear from a friend over close to Rotas that they hardly need any fert though. He is in the hills east of Waitapu. )

Yep I was being very general with the comments, and some of those pumice soils will need lots of everything - including organic matter - just look at how Pamu is going with its China owned dairy farms that its leasing, converted out of forestry - ash soils can be quite different from light pumice soils for sure

solardb, I had experience many years ago of a neighbour who set up a poultry operation and used the shed cleanings in lieu of conventional fertiliser. Soil tests revealed that the poultry manure maintained all the necessary mineral levels except for sulphur. The solution was to apply sulphur fortified lime which we got from Hatuma Lime Co in Waipukerau.

Thanks, Will give it a go .

Solardb,
Carbon content increases with organic matter. Most NZ pastoral soils are reasonably high in carbon, and this has been building over time. Cropping then reduces it. Organic content tends to be much lower on many American soils which are cropped year after year. This is possible in the US because of high natural fertility but it won't last forever.
Keith W

Keith,re compost. Canterbury has a source of compost from the company known as " Living Earth" , which composts Christchurch's green and food waste. We were very enthusiastic about the possibilities of using it to revitalise ex forestry land, but in the end we decided that the cost of cartage was too great. We would have needed 20-50 tonnes/ha @ 40% moisture. The actual product cost is quite reasonable, it being subsidised by the CCC as an alternative to trucking the waste to Kate Valley. A year or so ago I enquired of the Selwyn District Council , they then had a fairly crude version available free, but cartage was still an issue. The tendency for the potential user is to compare agronomic benefits and costs with conventional fertiliser which always wins hands down because of lower moisture content and therefor cartage cost. The real benefit is the addition of humus and possibly carbon, which in today's terms are not readily financially quantifiable. Perhaps if in future farmers were to receive an ETS payment for carbon sequestered in soil then the concept might have greater attraction - after all, every town and city has compostable waste to dispose of.

If only we had not junked the extensive rail system that provided affordable cartage right to every farm in the land........

The reason that it was dumped is that it was not affordable!

Perhaps I should've added the /sarc tag. Rail never got within coo-ee of a substantial part of farm areas: Karamea, Tasman, the Mackenzie Basin, anywhere south of Ross or north of Gisborne or Waitara - it's a very long list. The now-vintage Quall maps (3rd and last edition, 1985) of NZ railways and tramways show the extent, or lack of it.....

Yes . Living Earth is an interesting case study on multiple grounds. It has recently been confirmed as a central issue to the infamous Bromley smells. Transport costs - which include an energy component - are often a big constraint with recycling. I have just this week been investigating a sustainability project where transport costs are a major constraint. The same applies to a lot of bio-energy projects -transport becomes the killer.
KeithW

Keith - what NRP are you seeing the composting dairy production systems produce? We are currently at 46 running a system 2 production system with all replacements now reared & finished on farm (we were 54 with more cows and no replacements) and using 125kgN/ha/year.

Grumpy
I assume you are referring to the nitrogen reference point (N leaching number) from Overseer analyses.
A composting barn should reduce the leaching from cow urine to very low numbers. Calculations for the Lincoln University dairy farm showed it would drop from 42 kg down to 5 kg. The 42 kg was with all of the farm in pasture and no cows on the farm in winter. Changing the system to grow fodder beet and maize silage on the dairy platform to feed the cows in the composting mootel gave an Overseer reading of 29kg. This illustrates the importance of the 'whole system'. But it also reflects that Overseer gives inadequate consideration for deep rooting plants like maize. In the Waikato - where I assume you are - if you had a properly constructed composting mootel you would not be growing fodder beet and the cows would still be going out each day for grazing and with a few other tweaks to the system you should be able to get the N leaching very low - it can be totally transformational. Overseer does not understand composting systems, so you have to tell Overseer you are exporting manure and importing compost via the bunker sub-module. Note that it is critical that the composting mootel is correctly built to ensure that the composting process works efficiently and remains dry for the cows to lie on. There are some very poorly designed shelters being built and it is hard to solve the problems except with a bulldozer,
KeithW

Clearly one research avenue worth pursuing, given that transport costs seem to be the showstopper, is teleportation using Tiwai electrons.....

On the ETS payment for soil carbon sequestration, I can't figure out why Fed Farmers haven't taken up this point as part of their lobbying.

Yes, I quote the last two paragraphs from that link. It is a generalisation, and hence there are exceptions (both ways) but it does tell the big picture story.
"The development of agriculture in New Zealand differed from most other countries: forest clearing after Polynesian and European arrival resulted mainly in pastoral farming rather than arable cropping. New Zealand soils already had high carbon contents under forest, and the introduction of pastures tended to increase mineral soil carbon, so that opportunities for sequestering more carbon in pasture soils are very limited. New Zealand soils already have higher soil carbon levels than the world average. This historic build up in soil carbon is partly due to the predominance of pastoral use, which conserved and even increased carbon, and partly due to the relatively slow decomposition of the soil carbon stored during millennia under forest.
At the national level, our pastoral systems are therefore unlikely to sequester more carbon into soils, and the scope for cropping soils is also negligible. Hence opportunities for increasing soil carbon stocks, at the national level, through changes in land use and land management are small."

That paper is dated 2001. A lot of new research is underway;

https://www.nzagrc.org.nz/soil-carbon.html

I share concerns within the pastoral sector about the emphasis on converting pasture to forest. And as I understand it, exotic forest depletes soil carbon as well. It just seems such a backwards move. I think the direction we are going in has a terrible potential to change the social fabric of many of our small rural towns.

Kate,
Yes, some of that carbon research is old but it has not been refuted and hence AgResearch still uses it on its website. New Zealand is currently a long way from being able to argue for international credits for increasing levels of soil carbon. In the process we would also need to accept some large liabilities for peat soils.
I agree tht current forestry investment policies are distortionary and I wrote about that several times last year.
KeithW

hmm, i wonder if solar drying , and compaction would alter the economics.? Or just using the same process they use for woodfire pellets with compost.

Drying and compaction would certainly alter the microbiota.....

interesting overview, thanks Keith

Nice article Keith. The issue of imported heavy metals like cadmium seems relevant here. I was shocked when the timid environment court judge knocked back the Chatham Rise Rock Phosphate project as it addressed what appears to be a really serious issue. The judge appeared to make a political personal career choice rather than a common sense or scientific one that would have had real environmental benefits.

Roger
I believe in time the Chatham Rise rock phosphate will need to be looked at again. Phosphorus is a critical resource - perhaps the most critical - that threatens global food systems. Rock phosphate is a natural product that can work well in most and perhaps all NZ soils. Very high pH soils are the exceptions, but I cannot think of anywhere in NZ where high pH soil types play a key role on our agriculture.
KeithW

That is an incoherent statement, Kieth.

If you're down to scraping the benthic community for the next-best-left of a finite resource, you are in a short-term, stop-gap mode.

And the only question to be asked of you is: "What then"?

Your tone is not conducive to a productive debate
KeithW

Unfortunately the pH needs to be less than 5.5 for the rock to be made plant available, high rainfall can help. Sulphuric acid does a better job.....

Stevell
I am reasonably sure that rock phosphate will work on soils higher than pH 5.5 although the release will be slower. Bert Quinn has been the key scientific proponent. But the fertiliser companies have not been keen on it.
On a recent overseas project we were looking for a 'natural source' of phosphorus that satisfied organic criteria but alas, the pH was around 8 and that was considered too high for rock phosphate to work.
KeithW

https://www.nzgajournal.org.nz/index.php/ProNZGA/article/download/1925/1553

You are possibly right, but your search follows the path of many others that has drawn a blank. You may find the rock that you seek, but the cost of extraction and transportation, combined with the well recognised value in such a product may make your intentions futile.....

The best you can get is Sechura, if you can get it....and it has it's issues

oceanographer Oscar Eduardo Díaz Mendoza, an official of the Fisheries Bureau of the Ministry of Production, “large scale mining of phosphates generates particulate material that is brought towards the coastal area, where it acts as a fertilizer and increases primary productivity. Excess of nutrients creates a super ecosystem which can later end up as an anoxic aquatic environment.”

http://upsidedownworld.org/archives/peru-archives/phosphates-mining-rock...

Good luck!

Meaning you don't want to know and will avoid same by shooting the messenger?

You have the academic background to do better than that. And you put yourself out there, making such statements. Or are PhD's no longer defended?

The reality is that phosphate is a finite resource. The fact is that we have hoed into it exponentially. The fact is that we took the closest, best, easiest first. The fact is that we use energy to extract, transport and apply it (the fact is that that energy is in the same boat as phosphate). And it compounds; the harder-to-get energy leaves less net energy, from which to triage enough to supply the ever-more energy required for the ever-worse/further/harder extraction of the remaining stock.

So trawling the benthic community on the Chatham Rise (trashing yet another habitat on behalf of one overshot species - have you seen the u/w footage of bluff oyster-dredging, for instance?) is (a) the dregs of a finite resource (b) the last 'doubling time' (c) further away, worse, harder to get (d) uses even more of the finite energy-source you wrere already using unsustainably.

And you are seriously suggesting that is a logical proposition? I call it kicking the can down the road. Future generations will call it worse. Sorry, but agribusinness as practiced is unsustainable, in the real sense of the word. Phosphate is indeed a problem, and a real concern at that. But your comment is like Robin William's 'the caribou will just have to wait', re the pipeline. Come on Keith, we need to be better than this. Time is not on our side. Regenerative agriculture is an interesting phrase, and given farming's draw-down, probably appropriate. I'd be happy with a first-phase target of no draw-down; no count going backwards. But you folk are hell-and-gone short of that yardstick.

We also need to have a discussion about biodiversity (allowing evolution/resilience) rather than breeding extreme monocultural racehorses.

Good luck with it. I appreciate there are pressures :)

Hi Keith if the Resource Management Act is scrapped, any chance we revisit the Chathams?

It is being revisited.
The same company is preparing a second application for consent.

Cheers Finite. I dont know a lot about it. Other than it seems a bad look for us to dig into everyone elses phosphate and leave ours untouched.

Have a look at the Savory Institute which focuses on pastoral.

The five second explanation is:
- instead of tillage they use herd grazing with lots of cattle packed together moving through each area quickly.
- pasture biomass is kept at a high level the herd eats some and tramples some.
- stocking levels are kept higher than normal.

non of which is applicable to my farm.

The Savory system comes from Africa. It has relevance elsewhere but not everywhere. There are horses for courses.
In New Zealand our main grassland systems , particularly for dairy systems, focus on high utilisation and grazing down to about 1500 kg dry matter and then grazing again at between 3000 and 3500 kg dry matter. This is to maximise the metabolisable energy content of the grass.
I lived in Queensland for close on 20 years where beef raising is the dominant pastoral system. One of the experiential and scientific lessons from their low rainfall environments is that it is best to only utilise about 30 percent of the mature standing feed.
In high rainfall area of Queensland I supervised a farm where we grew Kikuyu grass and grazed it heavily using short rotations. Then when I went to Colombia I saw farmers grazing Kikuyu laxly on a 120 day rotation. I knew there had to be a reason why the Colombian peasant farmers were using it that way - and there was. And before making any suggestions about change, I first had to figure out the reason for their current practice. It was all about risk management. All of which illustrates that the systems are situation dependent. And it also illustrates, as Dwight Eisenhower once said, that farming can look very easy from 1000 miles away and with a pen as your main weapon.
Keith W

Indeed. Keith. Everything about farming is context-dependent: site, systems, markets, neighbors, financial and other metrics, extent of debt/equity, personal predilections as to lifestyle and effort. It's complicated, and this very thread bears out Dwight Eisenhower only too well. Lotsa well-meant but useless suggestions, lotsa mantra-chanting, and little substantive input except from your good self and from the real farmers.

Conventionally I sort of understand and I've done a bit with selling irrigation equipment. To achieve maximum pasture requires timely soil moisture and nutrients aimed at the best performing grass variety for the season or location. All designed to maximise grass production and requiring quite expensive equipment.

Savory says instead to operate higher dry matter with wider range of grass varieties, promote greater soil depth and allow more moisture to be retained from rainfall (eliminating a lot of irrigation requirements - worryingly). And when cattle are packed in herds they will energetically stomp dead grass/seeds/their waste into the soils (eliminating tillage and some fertilizer costs).

Comparing the two is a matter of cost versus profit.

But then Savory also hints that if cattle are maintained in tight herds there is a dynamic to cattle that will cause them to be more efficient in how they produce mass and can allow a higher stocking ratio. Which throws the calculation out a bit, but seems to good to be true.

Last six words of this post says it all......thanks

In my younger days Unaha closp (interesting monika there) we were fervent in our electric fencing the stock through winter. Back fencing as well. The farm had gone backwards with ratstail, fern, fog and browntop everywhere. Big mobs, made to clean up in small areas. Moved most days. Worked a treat. Fed hay over shite areas. The farm picked up quickly. The bulls came out of winter a bit hard though. These days the farm is fenced into a million paddocks and I dont bother. (Old n lazy) the pasture has become dense. Poor species are creeping back in. Breakfencing is as old school in NZ as number 8 wire. Every dairy farmer I know uses this method every winter. Is this the regenerative ag being discussed? I am rather lost in this whole discussion. It seems NZ farmers already do a lot of what is talked about. Only I am not sure a lot of pasture species survive this method of grazing. Just rye and clover. They love it.

Think you are right, pretty much back fencing and dense mobs (Savory was using herding and dense mobs in Africa, same principle). Think instead of grazing all the way down the animals are moved sooner and the practice is carried through all year.

Keith.. there will neither be a definition, it is very broad. It starts with deletion/reduction of chemical inputs.
The outcomes looked for are SOMs of 7%+ and PH of 6ish.
BUT as you know ,no farm is the same. Slope/soil/water/climate/etc

Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) is undertaking a significant global study into regenerative agriculture to understand its similarities and differences to New Zealand farming practices, the opportunities for farmers, and a global consumer perspective to understand what potential there is for New Zealand’s red meat exports to extract more value from sheep and beef products.
https://beeflambnz.com/news-views/beef-lamb-new-zealand-research-regener...

in their search for relevance

Is B+LNZ irrelevant in your eyes Andrewj? Or do you consider their actions the search for the relevance of regen ag?

almost all the farmers I know think B+LNZ is in the pocket of industry and yet getting funded by farmers. They will disappear one day, in the meantime because voting is by stk unit, big players keeps them in the game.

As a marketing tool it will have limited relevance unless there are certifiable defined practices. But at a political level it may have some value. I would prefer that the money goes into scientifically documented systems research. But systems research is hard work and expensive.
Keiith W

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2009-10-22/sustainable-agriculture-wh...

'2) Consume and deplete non-renewable resources such as ancient aquifers, natural gas and petroleum-based fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and use mined minerals such as rock phosphate to promote productivity'.

Your access to our unique content is free - always has been. But ad revenues are under pressure so we need your direct support.

Become a supporter

Thanks, I'm already a supporter.

Days to the General Election: 38
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.