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Exploring the viability of regenerative farming practices in the beef supply chain

 

There is currently much talk about the benefits of regenerative agriculture and a research project is now looking at how the approach could be adopted on large commercial beef farms. Katie Jones and Hannah Park report.

 

Regenerative agriculture is undoubtedly growing in popularity, but until recently it has only really been tried in the UK on a relatively small scale by passionate advocates of the approach.

 

However, the research, data and consultancy business FAI Farms and McDonald’s UK and Ireland, are working together on a project which aims to see what scope there is for scaling up regenerative agriculture across the whole supply chains and transitioning large, commercially focused farms onto this type of system.

 

Funding

 

To do this, FAI Farms, with funding from McDonald’s, is undertaking a four-year research project into the feasibility of adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing, a regenerative farming technique, on its own 486-hectare (1,200-acre) farm in Oxford.

 

Clare Hill, regenerative farming director at FAI Farms, explains that a similar project is already underway in America.

 

She says: McDonald’s in the US is part of a large project looking at AMP on multiple farms. We looked at that project, thought it was exciting and wondered whether if could work in the UK.

 

“So we are putting it into practice to see whether we can get the benefits from regenerative agriculture that have been claimed, such as healthier soils, better carbon lockdown, healthier animals, better daily liveweight gains, more grass and lower input costs.”


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She explains the main practical changes that have been made to the system at FAI Farms is the increased focus on grazing planning, which includes outwintering and bale grazing.

 

Approach

 

The approach focuses on grazing rest periods rather than residuals of grass.

 

The farm supports 90 cows plus followers and cattle have been mobbed into large groups and are moved to a different paddock every one or two days. The aim is for a six-month rest period on most of the grazing.

 

To provide farmers with the information they need when considering the viability of transitioning to this approach, Mrs Hill explains that the project will capture over 60 different measures.

 

These will be around soil health, animal health, farm profitability and environmental benefits.

 

Mrs Hill says: “We want to understand what AMP would look like in the UK, so that we can help other farmers with their own transition.”

Adaptive multi-paddock grazing

 

This regenerative farming technique aims to work with, rather than against nature by mimicking natural processes.

 

AMP grazing involves each farm having a bespoke grazing plan and decisions are made based on regenerative principles rather than prescriptions.

 

Regenerative principles include no bare soil, maximising root depth by leaving grass to grow long and optimising animal impact, through intensive grazing and long periods of rest.

 

It is claimed that adopting this agroecological approach can reduce many of the input costs, prevent disease, and buffer the effects of drought and flood.

 

The project

 

To demonstrate how to transition to an AMP grazing system, the FAI farm in Oxford has been converting to regenerative farming since January 2020.

 

Mrs Hills says they are already starting to see an impact of the transition, but it does require a change in mindset.

 

“We see things differently now. We look for root causes to problems, rather than treating symptoms – like thistle or dock plants.

 

“We are growing more grass and keeping our soil covered helping with flood and drought resilience. Our daily liveweight gains are better than our previous set stocked system.”

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is an approach centred on improving and revitalising soil health.

 

It is defined by advocate Gabe Browne as ‘a renewal of food and farming systems which aims to regenerate the topsoil, increase biodiversity, and improve the mineral carbon and water cycles while improving profitability throughout the supply chain’.

 

William Waterfield, of The Farm Consultancy Group, describes the it as system that is truly sustainable. The key to it, he says, is managing and building a healthy below ground eco-system which requires farmers to incorporate more holistic farming methods that have been shown to increase biodiversity, sequester carbon and improve water management.

 

Some of the key elements to achieving this include minimising soil disturbance, having continuous above ground soil cover, maximising diverse rotations, maintaining a living root all-year-round and integrating livestock where possible.

 

Combined, he says, these have the potential to improve nutrient cycling, diversity and overall soil organic matter.

 

Discussing some of the benefits of regenerative approach, Mr Waterfield points to US research which shows an increase in the water holding capacity of a number of soil types by somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent for every 1 per cent increase in soil organic matter.

 

Work from Mr Browne also shows a positive relationship between good soil organic matter and available nutrients in the soil.

 

The research (see table) pitted a no till, high crop diversity, zero synthetic input system incorporating livestock (Farm 4) with three others varying in cultivation, crop diversity and inputs systems, all without livestock.

 

Over a 20-year period, available nutrients in the Farm 4 system, alongside organic matter were shown to significantly increase, expressed as pounds of available nutrients in the first 30.4cm (12in) of soil.

 

WEOC refers to water extractable organic carbon, which could be considered as available carbon, Mr Waterfield says.

 

Table 1

Farm

Cultivation

Crop diversity

Synthetic inputs

Livestock

Available nutrients

OM

N

P

K

WEOC

1

Tillage

Medium

Zero

No

1.7

2

156

95

233

2

No Till

Low

High

No

1.7

27

244

136

239

3

No Till

Medium

High

No

1.5

37

217

199

262

4

No Till

High

Zero

Yes

6.9

281

1006

1749

1095

Source: Gabe Browne

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