Can ‘Regenerative Farming’ benefit upland farmers around Dartmoor?

Laura White
Laura White
© Mark AC Photos

By Anthony Pope

On Friday, 15th of October, a meeting was held in Endecott House for Chagford farmers to discuss
‘Regenerative Farming’ (RF).

Presentations on the subject were made, followed by questions and a lively discussion about the suitability of the concept for farmers in the area.

There were several younger farmers present who were enthusiastic about the idea and a couple of them had already made a start on the road of RF. UK farming is in crisis and has reached a critical crossroads. Subsidies for farmers are being removed and replaced, in part, with environmental subsidies – the Single Farm Payment will be reduced by
50% in 2024 and removed completely in 2027. Climate change is ever-present and worsening, making the job of farming very much more difficult.

In addition, farm profitability is falling, soil health is collapsing, crop yields are plateauing and pastures are degenerating. Regenerative Farming (RF) represents a path towards a food system that draws down carbon, restores soil quality, increases biodiversity, improves watersheds, enhances ecosystem services and improves farmer resilience. A farmer mindset change is required.

The key goals for RF are to improve the SOIL, which has been badly neglected, but is the farmer’s most important and vulnerable asset. Farmers must concentrate on building soils along with soil fertility, soil organic matter (SOM) and health. WATER management should be improved through increased water percolation and storage, water retention and clean and safe water runoff.

Regenerative Farming should enhance and conserve BIODIVERSITY and provide the capacity for the self-renewal and resiliency of ECOSYSTEM HEALTH. The soil has immense potential for sequestering CARBON and should be given every chance to achieve this.

Regenerative livestock practices have been taken up all over the world in very varied environments, and have shown wonderfully successful results. Grassland productivity has improved, meat output per hectare has increased and profitable livestock enterprises developed.

This has led to the adoption of Holistic/Mob/Rotational/Ecological grazing systems, developed by Alan Savory in Zimbabwe from his study of the grazing system of huge herds in Africa. He advocates a totally different approach which benefits the soil, the animals, the environment and the farmer’s bottom line.

The system is built on small paddocks, which will require substantial fencing and divided fields. Mixed pastures of grasses, legumes and plants with long tap roots (plantain, chicory and dandelion) are developed. These mixed pastures are grazed when mature, allowing cows and sheep to browse selectively for useful digestible and medicinal plants as well as fibre.

Vet bills can be slashed. The small paddocks are grazed for short periods (maybe a couple of days, dependent on the herd size and the size of the paddock) and moved to a fresh field and diet. A big advantage is that the livestock tread down the pasture and dung evenly over the paddock; there is then a long return and recovery period before the stock return to that paddock (30-40 days). This leads to a very resilient system where plant size in the sward is increased, together with a deeper root system to raise SOM levels and the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere.

The fertilizer requirements of these pastures will be greatly reduced and may mean, in time, that only liming is necessary. The pasture and the soil will be in very much better shape as a result of these practices and it should be possible to extend the grazing season in the spring and autumn, which will reduce winter housing costs for the farmer.

Critical to the adoption of ‘Regenerative Farming’ practices is that the farmer has to alter his approach to the management of his farm. Farmers need to change their mindset from ‘stock’ to ‘land’ managers, as well as dispelling their perception of RISK.

Farmer and farm resilience will be greatly improved, allowing both to respond to, and recover from, upsets and still give stable returns.
With the new ‘Regenerative Farming’ approach, farmers may be encouraged to work together more, and this should be encouraged. Farmer Cooperatives and Producer Groups (an example is the Dartmoor beef and lamb farming group) will help to improve marketing and develop supply chains which can reduce costs and avoid the supermarkets. It may also be possible to encourage farmers in close proximity to each other to form machinery rings and share machinery to reduce costs considerably.

Farmers in the UK have become completely used to subsidies supporting their businesses and, in many cases, providing a large proportion of their profits. This is no longer going to be the case going forward, so farmers are going to have to improve their productivity (meat output per hectare) and reduce their direct and variable costs (fertilizer, machinery, fuel, concentrates, straw, reduced winter housing). REGENERATIVE FARMING techniques can achieve all the above, if it is given the time, confidence and perseverance to make the change.

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