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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 July Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

Photo by steve-wilson, available under a Creative Commons license.

Doing less damage is no longer good enough when it comes to addressing cascading challenges like climate change, habitat loss and soil loss. To address these issues, many ecological farming practitioners have been touting the idea of “regenerative agriculture.” But what does it really mean? It stands in clear juxtaposition to the more widely used term, sustainable agriculture. There’s no question that the land and water we are now working with has been massively degraded through decades of unscrupulous industrial practices, ignorance of basic ecological principles, and human folly.

Specifically in New England, we have inherited numerous overgrazed pastures, polluted rivers, and de-mineralized hay fields. So, as North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown asks: “Why would we want to sustain a degraded land and soil?”

Let’s explore some of the tools that farmers of the northeast are employing to rebuild their local resources.

Diversifying Cover Crops

Most organic farmers and gardeners already make extensive use of cover crops. The myriad benefits of cover crops, which include erosion control, N fixation (with legumes), and improved soil infiltration, are indisputable and very well documented. In fact, cover crops might well be the most well known agricultural practice in the ecological farming toolkit.

But researchers and practitioners are now recognizing that by seeding diversified stands of cover crops, your soil will reap benefits that a monoculture stand of rye or oats cannot achieve. This technique, often known as cocktail cover cropping, combines the services of a number of different types of cover crops simultaneously. By mixing together grasses, legumes, and other broadleaf plants, the cover crop will, according to SARE, “produce more overall biomass and nitrogen, tolerate adverse conditions, increase winter survival, provide ground cover, improve weed control, attract a wider range of beneficial insects and pollinators, and provide more options for use as forage.” Essentially, this technique mimics natural grasslands, which are never composed of one plant family, much less one or two species.

The above-ground benefits of cocktail cover crops are mirrored by the diversity of microbiology that they support below ground. Each species favors particular relationships with certain bacteria and fungi. A field that includes plants from multiple plant families will maintain a thriving and balanced soil ecosystem. The economic benefits of this diversity are multi-fold: less need for fertilizer and additional compost, and, over the long-term, lower demand for irrigation water (from better water retention).

Granted, the management is trickier than it would be for a single cover crop. The proportion of species, the seeding date, and kill-down strategy all need to be thought through to make optimal use of cocktail cover crops. But the benefits, for your soil, your next crop, or your pastured animals are worth the investment.

For more information about cocktail cover crops join us for a workshop on July 25 with Ray Archuleta and Brandon Smith from NRCS.

Click here for more details.

Biochar

Roughly 6,000 years ago the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin developed a technique that allowed them to sustain intensive agriculture on soils generally considered to be extremely nutrient-poor. By applying biochar made from excess vegetation in an oxygen-less burn, they were able to continuously plant crops on the same land year after year, whereas those that weren’t using biochar generally had to allow land to lie fallow for a decade or more before it was considered ready for agriculture again.

Since the discovery of this Amazonian “Terra Prata” (literally, “dark earth”), research on biochar has found that when biochar is carefully made and integrated into farm systems, the resulting farm system can actually be carbon-positive, meaning that the system captures more carbon that it emits (on a farm, carbon is emitted through tillage, motorized equipment, plastics, etc.). Biochar is reported to have a half-life ranging from decades to millennia, depending on the feedstock used to make it, meaning that once it’s in your soil it will stay in a stable form much longer than other plant material.

Even more impressive, biochar can be made using cheap agricultural or forestry by-products. These materials, which include wood chips, nut shells, manure, bones, and much more, would otherwise be burned or left to oxidize, thus adding carbon to the atmosphere. Through pyrolysis (oxygen-less burning), those by-products become much harder for soil microorganisms to break down, hence why they have a longer half-life.

The pyrolysis process also imbues a spongy, porous structure to the biochar. Those pores then become ideal habitat for bacteria, fungi, and nematodes, which in turn mineralize (make available) the nutrients that crops feed on. Other major advantages that biochar offers farmers and gardeners include…

  • enhanced water retention
  • moderation of soil acidity
  • increased cation exchange capacity
  • less leaching of nitrogen and other water-soluble nutrients

If you would like to explore these questions and see biochar trials first-hand, join us on July 17 at Astarte Farm in Hadley for our Building Long-Term Fertility with Biochar workshop. The workshop features biochar researcher Dr. Emily Cole (see her SARE study on biochar here), Dr. Hugh McLoughlin of NextChar, and Dan Pratt, farm manager of Astarte Farm  

Rotating Livestock Through Pasture

Pastures can either become degraded or regenerated depending on how the livestock are managed. The old “set it and forget it” model of pasture grazing, wherein you put your animals out on pasture and leave them unmanaged until late fall results in drastic overgrazing that can still be witnessed here in New England and worldwide. So many of our northeastern pastures were abandoned after many decades of this type of grazing. In other parts of the world, such as in the Middle East and North Africa, these practices resulted in massive desertification.

The problem with that approach was that, given such free range, the livestock went after their favorite plants while leaving the less tasty plants to thrive. (Imagine going to a lavish buffet dinner... inevitably, certain dishes run out first.) Over a long enough period, this results in those less tasty plants thriving while the more toothsome plants decline.

The alternative to this management strategy is to mimic natural grassland ecosystems. Imagine the Great Plains when bison and wolves still roamed freely. The bison would travel together in closely packed herds often numbering in the hundreds in order to better protect themselves from predation. These herds were constantly on the move; oftentimes, they wouldn’t come back to the same patch of land for an entire season. This co-evolution between ruminant, predator, and grasses resulted in some of the finest agricultural soils in the world.

Using this system as a guide indicates that when ruminants are kept in tight herds and moved on a regular basis the pasture plants are able to fully recover and thrive from the manure and disturbance created by the livestock. This system, which has caught much attention due to Allan Savory, is alternatively called “mob grazing”, “rotational grazing”, or “multi-paddock grazing”. Whatever you call it, the results for soil, plants, animals, and overall ecosystem productivity have been shown to outperform continuous grazing systems according to long-term research studies.

It’s not just cattle or buffalo that can be rotated through these systems. In fact, having several species offers even greater benefits to the entire system, particularly if they fill different ecosystem niches. For example, hens or broilers following cattle through a rotation will help spread manure and be rewarded by the additional insect/grub protein found in cow manure.

Countless options exist for rotating different livestock species through pasture or cropland. However, as with everything, the devil is in the details. It’s essential to know how many animals your land can support, what breeds are most appropriate, how often to move them, and what to supplement their diet with. But, with careful observation, experience and humility we have an opportunity to offer our children land improved and regenerated through our labors.

To learn more about rotational grazing join us for a workshop this summer on Pasture Management and Rotational Grazing(September 18) or Pastured Poultry Production(August 28).

 

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