Chris Bennett: Small regen steps make big difference

I hadn’t heard of regenerative agriculture until a few years ago.

As many others will have, I went down the rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos of Gabe Brown and Joel Salatin.

See also: Chris Bennett – learning from the Kiwi subsidy crisis

I learned all about the new generation of farmers preaching the need to switch to no-till, grow cover crops and reintroduce livestock.

I heard the most radical advise selling all cultivation equipment and buying a direct drill so as not to be tempted to revert to “dirty, old ways”.

The arguments for regenerative farming are compelling and a more environmentally focused path is undoubtedly the way the industry is headed.

However, the leap of faith and potential yield drop to begin this journey are hurdles that will deter many.

From my experience in New Zealand, I believe there are smaller steps farmers can take, without risking so much.

To many, the cost of establishing cover crops is too high when it is difficult to see the immediate benefits. In New Zealand, it is rare to see fields left fallow over winter, or at any time of year.

Winter feed

This is not because farmers follow the principles of regen ag, but because they grow feed crops for livestock through winter. What regenerators would call a cover crop, Kiwis would call winter feed.

Livestock have largely been removed from arable areas across the UK. The farm I grew up on in Lincolnshire has a herd of suckler cattle grazing permanent grassland, but most of our cropland there hasn’t seen a ruminant in a generation.

There are opportunities with the uptake of cover cropping to introduce livestock back to the land.

There are many aspects of farming in New Zealand that would not be classed as regenerative; direct drilling is uncommon, stubbles are burned, and fertiliser and pesticides are liberally applied.

In the UK, we can take the positives from the way the Kiwis farm to build a more regenerative industry without facing all the risk associated with an abrupt shift to full regenerative agriculture.

Critics will say small changes are not enough, but isn’t it better to have the whole industry making small changes than only a tiny fraction making big ones?