5 mistakes when adopting regen farming and how to avoid them

Regenerative farming can deliver many benefits to soils and balance sheets, but taking early mis-steps can have the opposite effect.

There are stories of yields plummeting when switching to direct-drilling, surface compaction and arable businesses being under unnecessary risk. The fear of making mistakes can also stifle progress.

To help farmers, Nicole Masters draws on her experiences advising farmers in New Zealand, Australia and the US outlining the common mistakes and how to avoid them.

See also: SFI 2023: What’s on offer for arable farmers

1. Not being observant

Nicole’s first tip is to be more observant. “It’s very hard to know if what you have changed is working or not.”

Crops can also be giving you an early warning of problems such as a nutrient deficiency or a pest/disease.

For example, the presence of weeds such as black nightshade, marshmallow, barley grass and stinging nettle can indicate an imbalance in the nitrogen cycle, she says.

“This will enable farmers to be more proactive rather than reactive.”

But it’s not just crops, dig down and know your soils. And remember: “Are you seeing what is happening now or is it historical?”

For example, changes to cultivations could be causing areas of compaction or soils could be losing structure.

Balancing animal health and soil health is critical. “Listen to your animals and avoid pushing soil health outcomes at the cost of animal performance. If they’re bawling to move, move them,” she says.

“If you are not observing, you can be doing harm and making soil health and biology worse.”

2. Banking the whole farm

One common mistake is that farmers see an apparent benefit from using a biostimulant product or changing practices and are tempted to adopt it across the whole farm. Were the results due to weather, timing or some other factor?

This may put the business at unnecessary risk. Instead, Nicole advises trialling a corner of a field or a few tramlines for at least three years before moving out to the rest of the farm.

This allows time to see if it is a real benefit above and below ground rather than a fluke result in that one season.

It means you can afford to make mistakes without putting the farm at risk – what she calls “safe to fail.”

The fear of failing means farmers stay in their comfort zone and don’t advance. “Making mistakes is part of learning and trying new approaches,” Nicole says.

“Consider, when you learned to walk, how much time you spent actually walking. It’s the same when transitioning a system regeneratively.”

When trialling, she advises doing diagnostics and thinking beyond yield.

“If you only measure yield, then you will be looking in the wrong place – success should be measured as profitability.”

This may be the quality of the product produced. “Also consider whether you are improving the value of resources such as soil.”

Examples include the water-holding capacity or the ability to withstand intense rainfall.

3. Going cold turkey

Nicole is not a fan of going full cold turkey, eliminating all inputs, and compromising soil or animal health.

When first starting out, this approach has been successful for observant and proactive farmers. For some, however, it can be a risky first step.

Instead, farmers need to question; if they are cutting something, how can they replace it using biology?

For example, with fertiliser, go for reduced rates rather than eliminate.

Buffering nitrogen fertiliser with carbon, such as molasses, will help maintain the C:N ratio and feed the soil biology.

For herbicides, this may be a case of adding a buffering chemical with the mix to enable lower rates.

4. Getting advice from people with limited experience

A key tip is to get advice from a mentor who understands aspects of what you are doing.

There are many conventional agronomists now offering advice, but have they got the extensive practical experience?

“Does your agronomist really know your land better than you do?”

Nicole says finding those trusted sources is crucial to success.

“Ideally, you want to be 20 steps behind, rather than right behind, other farmers, so they have worked through issues that you may face.”

Some trusted sources could be overseas. She advises looking to New Zealand or South Australia.

New Zealand soils and climate are similar to the UK and some growers have been doing it for 20 years and have ironed out issues.

Nicole mentions one group of 350 regen farmers in New Zealand on a WhatsApp group, all supporting each other and sharing ideas.

In Australia, look to the Victoria No-Till Association, and Soils for Life – an independent, non-profit organisation that works to support Australian farmers to regenerate soils.

In the UK, there is Base – a farmer-led knowledge exchange organisation for those interested in regenerative agriculture. Groundswell Agronomy, a spin-off from the event, also offers independent advice.

Nicole also points to other sectors. “I always encourage arable farmers to talk to a dairy farmer. They may be doing something different, such as a piece of machinery or seed. You always learn something.”

5. Thinking everyone else is wrong

Finally, a common mistake around the world is to become dogmatic and have tunnel vision. “They see everyone else as being wrong,” Nicole says.

There isn’t a single prescription and what works on one farm may not be the right approach on another.

“Be open to other approaches and don’t put yourself in a box,” she adds.

Create Course in UK

For the first time in the UK, Nicole Masters is launching an intensive course in September, aimed at those serious about regen ag.

It could be consultants wanting to advise regen farmers or estates with farms – the aim is to deliver highly trained and capable agroecology consultants and coaches around the world.

The programme runs for eight months online with two in-person classroom weeks, hosted by the Althorp Estate, Northamptonshire. The first will be 3 September and the second week is in spring 2024.

Attendees are expected to commit eight to 12 hours/week of self-directed coursework, reading, and practical work.

For more information about the course, see www.integritysoils.com/pages/create-coaching

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