What Have We Done With Our Crop Production?

Regardless of our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

One of the most common questions asked by farmers is – have you had rain? If yes, how much? As all countries do – South Africa has unique geographical, ecological and meteorological challenges. For example, the levels of rainfall received in South Africa can be sporadic and unpredictable. 

Too often we move from being in a drought to experiencing flooding and returning to drought status within a period of days. 

What is at risk here is the health and quality of our topsoil which is essential to agricultural and ecological successes. Topsoil is where all plants grow, it is the foundation for agricultural life as it contains the nutrients, minerals and microbes necessary for life to grow.

If your soil doesn’t have microbe and nutrient-rich topsoil, or cannot absorb water quickly enough and/or retain the water for longer usage, you’re in trouble. 

All topsoils are a living system, that must be fed daily for it to function optimally. This is a natural process, and it does so at a rate and scale that allows for healthy soils to replenish in time for plant life growth in ecosystems to not be halted to the ecosystems detriment.

The loss of protective vegetation through overgrazing, ploughing and fire makes soil vulnerable to being swept away by wind and water.

Plants provide protective cover on the land and prevent soil erosion because plant roots hold the soil in position and prevent it from being blown or washed away.

All business relies on predictability and sustainability, and so does farming – we need to be wary of practices that result in topsoil degradation and erosion that happens too quickly and unpredictably.

One thing is clear – it takes much longer to grow healthy topsoil than it does for it to disappear if mismanaged. (some say 1000 years for 1cm – using the five principles of soil health this can be done faster) 

What good is it if our topsoil washes away? All you will be able to look forward to is a thank you note every Christmas from your neighbouring farmer for your topsoil that is now on his land.

We reiterate that everything in farming revolves around the soil we have!

Let’s look at some of the consequences of using modern-day agricultural methods on the health of our topsoils.

  • Tillage
  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • GMO Crops

The above-mentioned management practices, that large agricultural companies have sold over the last couple of decades have achieved:

  • Poor water penetration
  • Poor water retention
  • Poor soil microbiology
  • Compaction
  • Dysfunctional mineral and water cycle
  • Decreased insect population (pollinators)
  • Mineral depleted food (empty food)

The story that has been told is that we must use chemicals and large seed companies seeds to be able to feed the world population. The truth is that these management practices work for the purpose of mass production, but they are not sustainable over a long period of time. One-third of the world food production is wasted or lost, and less than 1 Billion people are starving. We are producing enough food already, the distribution is just distorted.

We cannot reduce the health and nutrition needs of humans down to: ‘We need to produce as much food as possible, as quickly as possible’. We are causing more damage by farming according to this perception – to the point where the land we farm will be too damaged to use. An example of this is  the washing away and/or degeneration of our life-critical topsoils. 

To try and put it simply, many farming practices created to mass-produce food, for example using chemicals, do more harm than good. Pesticides may kill parasites and life forms that are damaging crops quickly, but the same chemicals and pesticides kill the microbial life and the various insects and pollinators that are crucial for the whole production system as a whole. We must not always think of killing everything. 

Furthermore, the quality of the food we produce will be a poor excuse for sustenance, high in chemical influence and low in nutrition. This produce will, in turn, be consumed by the livestock that becomes the meat we eat.

The effects of unsustainable farming practices are already clear; Discovery paid out R3.4bn rand for Oncology treatments during 2018, and the incidence of cancer has doubled since 2010. 

Obviously, not all cancers can be attributed to agriculture, but more and more scientific papers are linking various pesticides and herbicides to various cancers. Another obvious point is that the food that we as humans and production animals are eating is mineral deficient, because of the use of chemical agricultural practices, including the use of synthetic fertilisers.

Our world is complex, and of course, our health and survival does not rely on agriculture alone. We live in a society with many challenges – pollution, over-population and mental health issues arising for many reasons, to name a few. With so many contributors to a society that is becoming more unhealthy, we cannot avoid taking responsibility for solving the problems we can.

We have to ask: How many of our chronic diseases can be linked to the food we eat? 

How many farmers, farmworkers and their families suffer from cancer or chronic diseases that are now linked to various agricultural chemicals? What can we do to begin solving these problems?

Globally $100 Billion is spent on Nitrogen fertiliser per year. This is for both crop and pasture production. Between 10 – 40% is taken up by plants, meaning that between 60 – 90% is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilised in the soil.

The USDA estimates that the cost of removing nitrate from US drinking water is more than $4.8 billion/year. 

Nitrogen run-off from farmland is the single largest source of nutrient pollution contributing to the massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (Ceres 2014)

We don’t need to have all the answers, we need only look at the clear information we already have to know where and how to start improving our farming practices.

Mineral depletion in Vegetables (1940 – 1991)

Average of 27 kinds of vegetables:

  • Copper – declined by 76%
  • Calcium – declined by 46%
  • Iron – declined by 27%
  • Magnesium – declined by 24%
  • Potassium – declined by 16%

Mineral depletion in meat (1940 – 1991)

  • Copper – declined by 24%
  • Calcium – declined by 41
  • Iron – declined by 54%
  • Magnesium – declined by 10%
  • Potassium – declined by 16%
  • Phosphors – declined by 28%

Source: Thomas, D.E (2003). A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 – 1991. Nutrition and Health, 17: 85 – 115.

Large agricultural companies have sold and marketed the belief that we cannot produce food without the use of chemicals and have ignored the soil biology that has sustained the earth for millions of years. 

If you think that you only need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to get a harvest to know that a plant needs more than 42 elements to produce healthy, nutrient-dense food.

In his book “Growing a Revolution”, David Montgomery describes how history has repeated itself – empires have fallen because they have not looked after their soil.

We must change our agricultural practices if we want our children to farm our land for the future of agriculture and the people who will need to eat the food produced to survive.

Biology Trumps Chemistry

Vigorous biology can overcome imbalanced chemistry

Perfect Chemistry cannot deliver optimal results in the absence of biology

What Must Happen?

In Freiburg – Germany, there is a bench in front of the old town hall with a clear message inscribed on a plaque. The message is: our Great-Grandfathers planted the trees that are currently being chopped down, and the trees that are planted by this generation will only be chopped down by the Great-Grandson.

 The idea instilled in the citizens of Freiburg is that the fruits of efforts made today, whether they like it or not, will only be experienced fully by future generations – regardless of whether those fruits are rotten or ripe.

This is a complete mind-shift from a current attitude of instant gratification. 

I suppose it is the same mind-shift that must be taken by beef farmers to change the way profits are calculated – we must calculate profit per hectare of land and not profit per animal.

Have you as a farmer ever considered – what the effects of today’s actions are going to be on your descendant’s ability to farm this land?

Interestingly – the fourth verse of the old national anthem is: 

Skenk ook ons die krag, o Here!
Om te handhaaf en te hou.
Dat die erwe van ons Vadere
Vir ons kinders erwe bly:”

In his book “Dirt to Soil”, Gabe Brown describes five principles that we must follow to improve and sustain soil health. They are:

  1. Limited Disturbance
    • Mechanical and Chemical
      • Tillage destroys soil structure and kills microbes, specifically mycorrhizal fungi
      • Chemicals are harmful to the soil biology
  2. Armour
    • Always keep your soils covered
      • Cover Crops
      • Green planting
      • Crop residue
  3. Diversity
    • Strive for diversity in both plant and animal species 
  4. Living Roots
    • Maintain a living root system in the soil if possible
      • Without photosynthesis there would be no soil
  5. Integrate animals
    • Nature does not function without animals

How often do you hear that farmers are the custodians of the land? This privilege of being classed a custodian can only be given to those who use these principles.

Climate change is a reality and the seasons have changed.  Our dry season is longer and temperatures are on the rise. The first rains in the summer of 2018 were only recorded in January of 2019, already they were about half of the average levels of rainfall received over the previous 10-20 year period.

Farmers in South Africa had to plant so late in the 2018 – 2019 season that the risk of the crops getting frost is a reality.

How often must we assess our situation and really consider whether it is worthwhile planting cash crops in now nearly semi-arid areas? What is the risk of planting a cash crop? 

Remember the bank does not bank yields (for the beef farmers – weaning weights)

Is it not every business’s role to assess the threats to its business continuously?

Climate change and the state of the ecosystems we farm in must be more part of this equation now – we ignore it at our peril.

James Blignaut mentioned at the Landbou Weekblad regenerative conference in Reitz – that only Natal and Mpumalanga can carry on with conventional cash cropping and stay profitable, the rest of the country will have to change to regenerative agriculture to either become profitable or stay profitable.

How many failed harvests must we have before we realise that planting cash crops is not viable?

Is it not time that we have a complete mind shift and start looking at what used to be in the west of the country, namely savanna?

Ruminants have converted grass and lignified grass into protein, for centuries, it is only humans who think we must plough the land and plant something, at a higher risk, and then transport the product to the feed mills to feed animals in confinement. Do we really think that we can improve a system that nature has refined over thousands of years? 

It is obvious that every farmer must monitor his own situation and the area where he farms to determine how he can become sustainable. Sustainability is superseded by the more important need for regeneration. 

Farmers must ask: how can I improve my soil and, in doing so, also become regenerative in my farming methods? It is not enough to be sustainable, we must improve constantly, remembering that good is the enemy of best. Consistency is the answer to success.

The rejuvenation of your soil does not start with the implementation of principles but rather with the commitment to understanding ecological functions. You must know the why before you know the how.

Why do we have to improve our soil health regarding cash crops? 

Reducing your input costs is probably the main reason why any farmer should start with the implementation of the 5 principles of soil health. 

The other reason is that we must optimally use our natural systems and, specifically, our rainwater. It must penetrate the soil as quickly as possible and it must be retained in the soil for as long as possible. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere – Nitrogen is not the limiting factor in planting cash crops, Carbon is. We are ignoring the fact that with healthy robust soil biology, we don’t need chemical fertiliser.

There is no recipe to improve your specific soil in the area that you farm. There are, however, the 5 principles that should be implemented.

The farmers who have implemented the 5 principles have substantially lower input costs, and also have a higher drought resilience than farmers that use conventional cash cropping practices.

Dr. Elaine Ingham mentions in her talks that clients, who have implemented the soil health principles and where the micro-organism life is optimal in the soil, have a 70% water saving on their farms.

We must implement farming management practices where we restore the soil, for the future of our farm and for our children.

“Overwhelmingly the evidence suggests that restoration does pay” (Crooks & Blignaut – Investing in natural capital and national security)

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Improving Soil Health for Maximum Long-Term Profitability in Beef Farming

When it comes to breeding cattle and management – everything revolves around body condition. All of the breeding and management decisions will affect body condition and vice versa.

Any natural food production system, where nutritional natural food is produced relies on soil health. It therefore goes without saying that a beef farm is not exempt from building up their soil, if they want to stay or become profitable, and especially if they want to increase profits while building the soil health.

In beef farming, as with so many farming operations such as vegetables, cash crops, and other animal operations – the input costs, chemical usage, and use of antibiotics must be reduced. This improves profitability, but it must also be done before the consumer demands it.

What are the profit drivers for beef farming?

  • Stocking rate
  • Fertility
  • Growth
  • Carcass quality

If Carcass quality has a score of 1, then the other drivers have the following scores:

  • Stocking rate – 8
  • Fertility – 4
  • Growth – 2
  • Carcass quality – 1

Having a natural resource that regrows even if the conditions are sometimes sub-optimal, and not using this resource fully is a waste. We must start using our natural resources to their full potential. Grasslands are probably the most under-utilised resource in animal production, and we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we can improve a production system, that has evolved over centuries, where a ruminate makes protein from dry lignified poor-quality grass.

A healthy grassland, be it prairie or savanna, is arguably the largest living system that can sequestrate carbon into the soil. It can hold more water than all the river systems combined and supports a diversity of life that we have destroyed through the finite thinking of man, who believes in understocking and overgrazing our grasslands for beef and sheep production.

How can we correct beef production so that we create healthy, living and diverse grasslands, that not only supports ruminant animal production, but also improves the whole food web? There is an unstoppable movement where farmers are using non-selective grazing – through Ultra High-Density Grazing (UHDG) methods. The production animals are confined to a small area, where the area depends on the amount of feed available and the number of moves the farmer does per day.

What is crucial regarding UHDG is the rest period that the grassland has to recover, and this rest period is normally longer than any conventional grazing method. With the conventional grazing method, the animals are in the camp for so long that they start eating the regrowth again, and this causes the overgrazing. Your resultant utilisation of the veld is poor.

Why in cattle ranching have we become accustomed to measuring our profit per animal?

This has resulted in the following:

  • Bragging rights – heaviest calf weaned
    • What was the input cost to achieve the heaviest weight?
    • What was the mothers ICP before and after weaning the heaviest calves?
  • Calving out of sync with nature
  • You must feed to breed

What is the ability of a beef cow to produce a calf every year from the age of 24 months off the veld with minimal input costs? Probably a weaning weight of between 40 – 50% of the mother’s weight at 7-month weaning.

To wean the heaviest calf we have also adapted our grazing management accordingly, that the breeding herd can always graze selectively. This has resulted in a situation where the veld is understocked but overgrazed

The quality of the veld has diminished, the poorer quality grasses dominate, and the diversity of the veld is also negatively affected. Our input costs are rising, and beef farming is not as profitable as it can be.

We are underutilising the resources that we get for free.

The fact that we must feed to breed has necessitated that extra feed is produced for the beef herd.

Hay is cut baled and stored, or silage is made so that we can feed the animals during the periods where the natural veld cannot sustain the mother animal and her calf. We are however not utilising the veld effectively, or we are reading nature wrong and calving during periods where no wildlife has got baby animals.

What effect has the above-mentioned grazing management had on the soil?

  • Poor water penetration
  • Poor water retention
  • Poor soil microbiology
  • Compaction
  • Poor plant diversity – favours the less palatable grasses and poorer grass types.
  • Poor insect diversity.
  • Increases chemical parasite control, both internal and external.
  • Poor animal condition, the soil does not contribute to animal production.

What Must Change?

Beef farmers must have a fundamental mind shift and start calculating profit per hectare and not profit per animal.

It is often said the fertility has low heritability. How can a trait that has to do with the survival of a species be low heritable?

Fertility

  • Determined by hormonal balance and body condition
  • Body condition is determined by nutrition and genetics (Relative Intake/Inherent body condition)
  • Body condition (fertility) can be increased by feeding or breeding (or a combination of both)
  • Nutrition (Body condition) can also be increased cheaply by calving and weaning on or close to the period of green grass.
  • The components of fertility (hormones and inherent body condition) are highly heritable – therefore, fertility is highly heritable.
  • There are super fertile individuals in most herds. They must be identified.
  • The most fertile heifers are identified by early mating. Those that reconceive and exhibit a short corrected ICP are the most fertile.
  • Bulls from the most fertile cows and those with a fast 12-month maturity rate are multi-sired at an early age. Those producing the most calves are the most fertile.
  • Accelerate this process of natural selection for fertility with AI
  • Exploit the fact that there are fertile heifers in most herds. Buying young heifers, breed them early (with appropriate bulls) and keep the small percentage that are pregnant.
  • Use common sense, heifers that don’t breed young can be retained for herd expansion. The important thing is to identify the most fertile for bull breeding and herd improvement

Source: Johan Zietsman

Stocking Rate

Overgrazing is a factor of time, not animal numbers.

With current practices where the veld is so underutilised most beef herds can be doubled immediately without any detrimental effect on the veld. The most important management requirement with any grazing system is the amount of time the grazed grass must recover. The lower the rainfall, the longer the recovery period.

Here, once again, all farms differ, and every farmer must determine his own recovery period.

There are farmers that have doubled their stocking rate over the last 6 years, in a period when we have probably gone through the worst drought in 100 years, and they have improved the quality of their grazing while doing so. The neighbours have decreased their stocking rate, and by doing so are aggravating their problem, both financially and in terms of veld condition.

Remember that the stocking rate has the biggest influence on profitability.

Time-Controlled High Animal Impact and Non-Selective grazing or Ultra High-Density grazing.

What are we trying to achieve by using the above-mentioned grazing practices? The primary goal is improved grass utilisation: using all the grass by either having it eaten or it must be trampled so that it is flat on the ground so that it can create soil cover and a seed bed and finally food for the various bacteria in the soil.

When done correctly the grass quantity and quality improves and this again improves the carbon sequestration from the air. This increases the carbon quantity in the soil, which ultimately improves soil health.

The cattle must graze non-selectively, or the herding effect must be so great that they trample the unpalatable grasses. The camp must also be small enough so that the soiling of the grass is minimised, the dung and urine distribution must be evenly distributed over the paddock. This again has a benefit for the soil microbiology and the diversity of life.

With the better veld utilisation, our grazing days also increase, there are farmers that at any given time have 180 – 240 grazing days left with triple the stocking rate compared to their neighbours.

What will improve through UHDG:

  • Improved water penetration
  • Improved water retention
  • Improved root stimulation
  • Improved soil biology
  • Improved grass brix values.
  • Improved grass and legume diversity
  • Improved insect diversity
  • Improved soil mineral cycles
  • Increased grazing days
  • Improved drought resistance.

What is very interesting when doing UHDG is that the growing season of the grass extends because of the improved soil biology and improved water retention in the soil.

We must create a herding effect of the animals; the management practice must mimic the predator. Controlling the herd so that they graze in small areas is achieved by using a single strand poly wire with an effective energiser (a single strand works for cows, sheep need more).  The energisers can also be charged with solar panels, making this grazing practice very easy to achieve.

Farmers that have done it for years already will always say that the more moves a day there are, the more beneficial. Having smaller areas grazed more quickly has the most positive effect on the soil and the veld. There are farmers that do up to 10 moves a day, with between 650 – 850 animals in a herd.

The mind shift to moving the cattle daily from either weekly, monthly or even yearly out of a camp is huge, and is probably the biggest stumbling block for a beef farmer.

The biggest challenge is that nobody can give you a recipe and tell you how to do it. The farmer must manage it, and the farmer must make it work on his farm and in their environment.

The biggest challenge when changing over to UHDG is the conception drop in the first season. It is also probably the biggest reason why farmers have started with the UHDG and then say it does not work.

The genetics of the animal must be adapted so that the mother animals give you a calf at the age of 2 years and then reconceive again, to give you a calf at 3 years, and every year after that. To achieve this the individual animal is more important than the breed.

There are farmers that have done this without changing their breed, using Bonsmara cattle or Drankensberger stud animals. Other farmers have used cross breeds, where they have used African genetics to improve the fertility of their animals, and the inherent body condition of the animals.

To change your genetics takes time, but the wait is worth it. We must adapt our animals so that we don’t feed to breed. Feeding is a management tool; it must not be a crutch that we cannot do without.

We must produce veld adapted animals that can breed you a calf off the veld at two and three years, with minimal input costs.

When starting with UHDG you will have to supplement the feed of your animals. The competition for feed is raised and you are now grazing non-selectively. The animals will lose condition if they are not adapted to this management style. It is not the animal’s fault – we have used the wrong criteria for the mother animal where she had to produce a heavy weaner.

The interaction between genotype and environment is always at play. Therefore, a certain genetic size (frame/weight) is, phenotype wise, larger in a better nutritional environment (higher energy, protein and minerals). The better nutrition is usually allied to lower rainfall and higher soil pH. A better nutritional environment will allow a larger (frame) genotype to be “productive “(growth, reproduction) in other words better nutrition is forgiving in terms of frame size. Regardless of nutritional status, higher productive efficiency (profit/hectare) is positively related to a smaller frame size (higher relative intake, inherent body condition, practical fertility). Select for productive efficiency which will result in the optimum frame size for your environment. The smaller and heavier the better.

Source: Johan Zietsman

The advantages of UHDG in relation to soil health, cannot be disputed.

Jay Fuhrer a soil health specialist says – “If you take more carbon out of the soil than what you add, your children will not farm your land”

With UHDG there are movements already that are talking about carbon negative cows. Through this grazing management, more Carbon is added to the soil through photosynthesis (this is the only way carbon is added to the soil) than what is lost.

“I applied high-density grazing (not UHDG) with some of my sheep and cattle this year (3 days to 2 weeks in a paddock) this was caused by probably one of the most severe droughts in history. To say I’m happy with the result is an understatement. I would not have made it with the available grass and continues grazing.

I only did it with ewes with lambs. At the end, there were almost 6000 sheep in one paddock.

Two things happened that amazed me.

I have three breeding seasons per year. Breeding young ewes at 12 months and then lambing every 8 months till my normal season which is October.

Last year I only bred the mature ewes to lamb from 1 November (as advised by Johan Zietsman) to lamb on green grass. In the past I tried to breed these ewes 45 days after lambing, without success.

Predator loss was high this year, so I decided to put 1,5% rams with the ewes to service the ewes without lambs.

84% of the ewes conceived within 21 days.

I credit it to 4 factors.

  • Feeding was more consistent due to high-density grazing
  • Grass was more nutritious due to drought
  • Selecting rams primarily on condition for many years.
  • Most importantly – the condition of the ewes when lambing

I have shifted my calving season with 50 days – to calve closer on green grass and my lambing season for 30 days.

The financial benefit in the first year have been massive already.”

Source: Pikkie Uys

“Our goal is max sustainable profit per hectare.

You achieve that by:

  • Breeding an early maturing, inherently fat animal with a high relative grass intake.
  • You manage them under UHDG to graze non-selectively with enough recovery time, improving your soil, microbes, species composition and overall plant health and production.

Second to stocking rate, the biggest contributor to our goal is fertility. Fertility is a function of hormonal balance and BCS.

And this is the reason why you have a breeding season, so that you calve on green grass and match your peak natural grazing with the cows peak nutritional needs”

Source: DF Fyfer

CONCLUSION

Using UHDG to improve your soil biology and all the advantages that this brings will become a necessity. Climate change, and it is happening, will outperform any of the current conventional agricultural system that relies on chemical input costs. The Input cost will skyrocket, and the soil will be left bare.

We must start changing our farming practices so that we farm with nature and not against her. We must use management practices that build carbon in the soil that is directly proportional to soil health.

UHDG is one of the tools that can be used to build soil health.

The reality is we don’t have to change – But we will have to compete with those who do – Gerrit van Zyl

I would like to thank the Profitable Ranching group of Johan Zietsman for all their inputs, and observations in regards to Regenerative Beef production.

If you’d like a PDF version of this article to read later, just click on this link.

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The Future of Agriculture

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it” – Verdas, Sanskrit Scripture 1500 B.C.

Where Are We Now?

As professionals in the agriculture industry, we need our thinking to go further than sustainability when considering the future generations of farmers and consumers alike.

We need to look towards regenerative practices that nourish our land and society while at the same time develop more profitable and long-lasting agricultural business models. Having a short-sighted approach leaves us with inefficient practices that are detrimental to both the soil and the crops we yield.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

It all becomes quite simple when we look at the core building blocks of our land – the first being the soil that allows for life to grow. We are a planet that is comprised of carbon-based life, the simple idea, is; the more carbon we retain in our soil, the more life we get from it. The regeneration of land and producing higher yield crops begins when we do everything we can to nurture our soil.

One example of the resulting damage of unsustainable farming methods is desertification, defined as the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or inappropriate agriculture – we can really see the harsh realities that await us if we don’t change this.

Photo by Martin Dörsch on Unsplash

This is the unfortunate reality that we are living in right now, with much of our fertile land being used unsustainably.

The use of tillage equipment, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and GMO crops have degraded our soils to such an extent that some experts predict another mass extinction of life on the planet.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about organic farming, as they use tillage for weed control. Tillage breaks the topsoil and disturbs the bacteria cultures that are critical to nurturing healthy soil and increasing the amount of carbon retained in our soils, this defeats the object of the practice and is not sustainable.

If a farmer increases the amount of carbon per hectare of land by 1%, that hectare of land is capable of holding 250 000 more litres of water. Why are we not promoting practices that encourage the strengthening of the foundations of healthy agriculture?

The conventional farming practice of planting cash crops is probably one of the biggest reasons for desertification. Cash crops are where the lands are prepared using ploughs and disks, spraying with herbicides and pesticides before planting to eliminate all the competition that might compete for moisture. In the process, many of the life forms that increase water retention and soil nutrition are killed at the same time.

There is no blunt object solution to farming – that much is clear. Agriculture is a commercial activity but the success of farming does not rely on a commercial mindset, we are not developing a product, we are working within systems that nature has developed over millions of years.

We cannot control nature, which is something big agriculture companies fail to understand as they continue to destroy soil in the name of science. The only way forward is to farm with nature.

The effects of this are starting to show up more and more often. For example, in the United States alone, 1 in 4 people have 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid – a systemic herbicide) in their bodies.

This side effects of which can be:

  • Reproductive system
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Endocrine system
  • Immune system

How much money is spent annually in marketing to convince the consumer that the food that is produced is healthy and wholesome? Are we starting to believe our own lies for the sake of profits?

Do we really want to use management practices that are detrimental to our whole being, from soil, animal, insect and human health?

Regardless of all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

What We Can Change

Regenerative agriculture is probably a term which is currently being used to describe many farming practices that build up topsoil and improve various aspects that are destroyed using conventional farming management practices.

The question to ask here is –  can I do something better than yesterday that will improve the changes of my dependence to farm my land, without inheriting a farm that has such poor degraded soils that they don’t want to come back to the farm?

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

According to Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil, he lists the 5 principles of soil health as being:

  1. Limited disturbance
    • Mechanical and Chemical
      • Tillage destroys soil structure and kills microbes, specifically mycorrhizal fungi
  2. Armour
    • Always keep your soils covered
      • Cover crops
      • Green planting
  3. Diversity
    • Strive for diversity in both plant and animal species
  4. Living Roots
    • Maintain a living root system in the soil as long as possible
  5. Integrate animals
    • Nature does not function without animals

There is no recipe for regenerative agriculture – we’ve tried to do it in the past with conventional methods and have failed dismally.

The fact that we don’t have a recipe for regenerative agriculture, is probably the main reason why farmers say it won’t work on their farm. Change is the only constant and all change is hard.

But what happens if you start applying the 5 principles of soil health on your farm?

  • Your soil biology improves
    • Water penetration
    • Water retention
    • Improved mineral cycle
    • Improved pest resistance
    • Improved weed control
  • Your soil carbon increases
    • This is especially true when animals are integrated.
  • Your soil organic matter increases
    • Every 1% increase on organic matter you store between 160 000 – 233 000 litres of water more per hectare.
Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

The living root is vital for the soil biology – as the sugars excreted by the plant on the root tip, are used by the various bacteria to multiply. The larger the diversity of the plants, the larger the diversity of bacteria in the soil.

The healthier the soil the more resilient the plants are against pests, and because of the improved water retention of the soil, the plants also become more drought resistant.

Improving the diversity and getting a living root in the soil for as long as possible, is a program. This must be a rotational planting program over a period of 4 – 6 years and depends on where the farm is situated and the climate of the farm.

Adding animals to harvest the cover crops is fundamental to the success of improving soil health. If you treat your cover crop like a cash crop you can harvest twice in a year instead of once.

Depending on the meat price – the returns with beef and sheep on cover crops equals the return of a cash crop, with less risk, and you are improving your soil health.

Stacking, which is to diversify the animals on the cover crop or the veld, also helps with parasite control, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, beef etc, all have a positive effect on the soil biology.

Photo by Peppe Ragusa on Unsplash

Farmers that are already using the 5 principles of soil health can cut back on the use of synthetic fertiliser – one farmer has decreased his input costs by R 1000.00/hectare, on 2000 hectares, this is when it starts making sense.

If we look at the benefits of regenerative agriculture, from human health to soil health, it is only a matter of when rather than if I must change. We have to start producing food that is beneficial to the consumer before they start demanding it.

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