The definition of regenerative cropping can be vague, leading to the occasional misuse of the term altogether. In this article, Alexandra de Blas drills down on a definition with RCS Chief of Delivery, David McLean, discovering the importance of soil health and systems that spiral upwards.
Regenerative cropping is sometimes dismissed as meaning all things to all people, but to David McLean, our Chief of Delivery here at RCS, the answer is more definitive. “Regenerative cropping is about the outcomes you achieve, not the inputs you use.”
To achieve regenerative outcomes, you must adopt practices that regenerate healthy soil, regenerate animal and human health, regenerate businesses and regenerate plant health. Together, these elements support thriving communities.
“There is no one silver bullet for regenerative cropping. It is about balancing many things, and fundamentally you need to have your agricultural systems spiralling up towards improved biodiversity and health, rather than spiralling down towards degradation,” says McLean.
In the near future, verification will become increasingly important in regenerative cropping, more so than accreditation. “Again, it’s about outcomes. If you can demonstrate that your soil carbon is increasing or that you’re building natural capital, you’ve got evidence that your farm is regenerating,” McLean said.
“Research shows that many plants are only operating at 11% of their photosynthetic potential, so you can have a paddock full of green stuff that isn’t reaching its potential.”
Promoting biodiversity is central to the success of regenerative cropping, and photosynthesis drives biodiversity.
“Research shows that many plants are only operating at 11% of their photosynthetic potential, so you can have a paddock full of green stuff that isn’t reaching its potential. We are finding that as soil health improves, photosynthetic capacity increases, akin to having more solar panels in a solar farm.”
“Under irrigation, where water is not a limiting factor, it is possible to increase photosynthetic capacity fivefold, in turn increasing yield fivefold. But under dryland conditions, our goal would be to double it,” McLean said.
“The plant knows where it needs to direct its energy, and the healthier the soil, the more the plant partitions energy into production. As soil health improves, the plant directs more carbohydrates into above-ground production and shunts less carbohydrates through its roots to drive soil health repair.”
Another benefit of improving soil health is reduced risk. Regenerating soil results in higher Brix measurements in crops – a measurement of dissolved sugar in the leaves. Two of the many benefits of higher Brix readings are improved frost tolerance and reduced insect predation.
Ran Mitchell, a regenerative cropper west of North Star in NSW, has witnessed this first-hand. “For three days, I watched a thick swarm of plague locusts fly right across my healthy cowpea crop to eat a struggling crop on the property next door. It was quite incredible,” Mitchell said.
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