Our Friend Helen sent this article to us about regenerative agriculture and it’s loaded with so much information and it was too good not to share around. With her permission, we posted it here as a blog.
This article was printed in SEGments, the quarterly Journal of the Scientific Expedition Group Inc.
You can read the original SEGment PDF article by clicking this link.
Sequestering carbon in the soil is an effective way of lowering greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This article
describes how our soils can be regenerated enabling them to bury and retain over long periods huge amounts of carbon. Soil carbon boosts biological activity, increases soil, crop, and animal nutrients, and improves water infiltration and storage. Soils are regenerated through year-long biodiverse green plant cover; grazing mobs of animals in multi-species forage pastures (with or without crops) using short periods of
grazing; and by switching to organic stimulants away from chemical fertiliser (or using minimal fertiliser).
Regenerated landscapes require little or no poison application, since biological pest control increases (beneficial insects) resulting in fewer or minimal pests. Food from healthy soils is nutrient-rich, to the benefit of human and animal health. All year round plant cover can restore a farm’s biodiversity as well as its soil ecology, and farming can once again become profitable! Carbon sequestration in the soil is a very efficient method of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere since one tonne of buried carbon removes 3.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Healthy soil also retains moisture and helps to cool the earth’s climate.
Coming out of the new organic farming movement in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, one of the important players, Sir Albert Howard (whose knowledge came from the principles of ancient Indian practices) wrote in “An Agricultural Testament” published in 1940, “The main characteristics of Nature’s farming … can be summed up in a few words. Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable
and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.” This expresses rather beautifully the elements of regenerative agriculture.
Globally averaged concentrations of CO₂ reached 407.8 ppm in 2018, and total greenhouse gases are higher when contributions from methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs, and water vapour are included. In 2018 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Secretary-General Mr. Petteri Taalas said, “The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth.
The window of opportunity for action is almost closed”.https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press release/greenhouse-gas concentrations-atmosphere-reach-yet-another-high
Australia’s greenhouse gases and IPCC acceptance of soil carbon as negative emissions.
In 2018 Australia’s total greenhouse gases from electricity production, industry, and fugitive emissions from coal and gas production, agriculture, waste, and transport were 550 Mega tonnes (million tonnes) carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO₂e). In 2012 as part of the Clean Energy Futures package, the Gillard Government introduced the Carbon Farming Initiative as a carbon pricing scheme accounting for emissions in the agricultural and land sector.
The CFI is still operating under the Coalition Government. Since 2012, land use and forestry have been counted as a means of sequestering carbon, the amount stabilizing in 2018 to around 20 MtCO₂e per annum or 3.6% of total emissions, thus reducing total greenhouse gases in 2018 to 530 MtCO₂e. However so much more can be achieved through changed land-use practices to increase the amount of “negative” emissions!
The International Panel on Climate Change has now accepted carbon capture and storage in soils (at least to 30
cm) in estimating emissions reductions. Recent reports from the IPCC estimate that what has become known as ‘natural climate solutions’ can provide 37% of the cost-effective reduction in global carbon emissions needed between now and 2030 for a two-thirds chance of stabilizing warming below
2⁰C. There is still a push by the International Community to have carbon which is stored deeper in soils than 30 cm counted as negative emissions.
Australia’s opportunities to reduce emissions
A decade ago the eminent independent British scientist Professor James Lovelock advised: “The most promising and practical way to take the excess carbon dioxide from the air is to ask [the earth] to do it for us.” “It is much more economic to use the huge and free power of photosynthesis to remove carbon dioxide than to use manufactured energy”. Since, across the planet in order to grow food and fibre we have removed extensive forests to create agricultural land (forests which were regulating the climate), it would now seem sensible to manage that land to again regulate the climate.
Innovative farmers worldwide including Australian farmers have changed their farming methods and have
witnessed astounding transformations in productivity and biodiversity. Based on well-researched and tried
experimentation, it is now well known that the speed at which carbon can be sequestered in the soil through photosynthesis is very fast. There really is no time to waste!
Farmland degradation and simplified landscapes
Research over recent decades has been searching for answers to why we have such degraded, unproductive farms. The organic carbon content of most farmed topsoils is now 50-80% less than the original level before intensive agriculture began. As a result, our soil structure has deteriorated, resulting in poor water infiltration and lower levels of soil moisture. Whole farms have become unproductive, covered in weeds with hard, compacted soil, producing food and animals with low nutritional value.
As a 2020 Keynote Speaker at a Soil Health Conference in South Dakota, USA, Australian Soil Scientist, Dr. Christine Jones, said that what has really changed since the Industrial Revolution is that in much of the world we have hugely simplified landscapes. 30% of the world’s cropland has been abandoned in the last 40 years due to soil decline and soil erosion. 90% of the rain that falls evaporates without going through a green plant; causing rising temperatures and drier summers.
Agriculture occupies 38% of the earth’s land surface. Through practices such as burning vegetation for land clearing, overgrazing, ploughing, fallowing, over-fertilizing, using fossil fuels in fertilizers and chemicals and to power farm machinery, industrial agriculture emits rather than stores carbon. The released carbon oxidizes upon exposure to air escaping as CO₂.
Dr. Jones, who implemented the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme (ASCAS) in 2007, says “carbon is the driver for every aspect of soil health and function – the MASTER KEY to every door.” “Every 2.7 tonnes of carbon sequestered in soil represents 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere”.
A major natural event to affect large global systems occurred in the southern hemisphere in the extremely wet
year of 2010-2011. Millions of square km of central Australia was covered in mulga, spinifex and wildflowers all pumping millions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon into the ground. “In fact, in that wet year Australia took out of the atmosphere and squirreled into the ground one-quarter of all the carbon produced globally through the annual burning of fossil fuels”. The records of global CO₂ emissions show a distinct dip for
that year, but emissions quickly reversed and trended upwards again in the years 2012-2013 when rainfall over
much of the semi-arid zones was half the long-term average, and the vegetation dried out returning carbon to the atmosphere.
The research of Dr.Jones and others has revealed that in the simplified landscapes of the Western world, monocultures have replaced mixed plantings and as a result soil microbe diversity has been reduced to mostly bacteria. Healthy soil is alive, teeming with bacteria, fungi, algae, mites, nematodes, earthworms, ants, spiders, and the roots of plants. Healthy soil has the potential to bury huge amounts of carbon for long periods, depending on the depth in the soil at which the carbon is held; deeper more inert carbon is held for longer (its half-life decomposition can involve centuries to millennia)
“Farmers depend on soil for their livelihoods and all of us depend on soil for clean air and water, yet many people have a limited understanding of the profoundly diverse and interconnected ecosystem that is beneath their feet. When we stand on the soil we’re standing on the rooftop of another world. … Around 95% of life on land is actually in the soil – and most of it is invisible to the naked eye”.
In the 1970s, in an attempt to increase the carbon content of soils there was a change to no-till agriculture in which seeds are directly placed into untilled soil which has retained the previous crop residue. In no-till farming, there is minimal soil disturbance.
However, it turns out that soil disturbance wasn’t the issue and in fact, there has been almost no improvement in soil carbon through no-till practices. The problem was, with almost bare ground between cropping seasons there was no photosynthesis occurring. The bare ground also leads to increased temperatures and increased evaporation. Another issue was that weeds proliferated and so herbicides were applied, damaging soil microbes.
Experiments have shown that bare ground creates a heat-dome effect. Ambient air at 40⁰C in contact with bare ground heats to 60⁰C and rises, forcing more hot air in over the bare ground, which in turn heats and rises, causing a heat-dome. In the same experiment, beneath a summer plant cover, the
ground temperature was measured at 25⁰C. Plants keep cool by evaporating water from their leaves, stems, and roots.7 “On land at temperatures above 24⁰C rainwater evaporates rapidly enough to leave the land dry in between rainstorms.” Meaning that at 25⁰C, evaporation beneath a plant cover will be minimal.
Dr.Jones explains “the length of time water is held in the soils is a factor in the water balance equation that has
changed the most since European settlement.” Better land management can reduce the impacts of droughts (and in fact floods). In the agricultural sector, more and more focus is on the importance of water vapour as a potent greenhouse gas with a significant impact on climate change. “Whenever landscape is bare, that landscape will not be hydrated. How do we restore a hydrated landscape with higher productivity and a more stable climate?”
Dr. Jones argues we need to get more life back in the soil.
Four ecosystems processes provide the means:
- Yearlong green cover to build soil
- Plant diversity
- Biostimulants in place of synthetic fertilizers
- Animal integration
Common appearance of landscapes in southwest WA and semi-arid SA which were once covered in flowers and bushtucker perennial plants, even in summer.
Photograph: Christine Jones
White mycelium penetrating the underside of
bark with the fungal fruiting body above.
Photograph A. C. Robinson
Yearlong green cover leads to soil building
In an article on her website, Dr. Christine Jones poses the question “Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture? Fortunately, there is. It’s called photosynthesis.”
Firstly let’s consider how the free power of photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the air? Photosynthesis is the process by which the energy of sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy in trees and green plants. Photosynthesis provides the energy for plant cells to convert carbon dioxide and water, into sugars and oxygen.
Sugars, the fuel of all life on earth are carbohydrates; molecules of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen used by plants as a source of energy. Crucially twenty to forty percent of the carbon fixed during photosynthesis is channeled through plant roots as “liquid carbon” (primarily in the form of sugars) to feed billions of soil microorganisms. These plant root exudates are the driver of a healthy soil microbiome, which in turn defend the plant against soil pathogens.
One teaspoon of healthy soil is said to contain more microbes than all the humans on earth. Microorganisms,
especially bacteria and fungi, feed off soil carbon (via root exudates) and plant root material, stabilising carbon in the soil. These underground microorganisms (that can weigh many more times the plant bulk above ground) produce their own wastes and exudates which become food for plants. An assembly of bacteria, archaea, protists, and fungi helps with drought and frost tolerance, reduces soil acidity, salinity, and water repellence … and much more. Plant root inputs to the soil build soil carbon 5 to 30 times faster than carbon derived
from above-ground biomass.
“Fungi are an essential part of the ecosystem and may consist of 25% of the total biomass on Earth. They don’t
contain the pigment chlorophyll so they can’t make energy from sunlight as plants do. They obtain their food from the substrate on which they live (e.g. wood [plant roots, leaf litter, etc.])… They are the only organism that can break down wood [and plant roots, etc.] so are essential to the decomposition and recycling of nutrients.” The chemical composition of wood varies from species to species, but is approximately 50% carbon, 42% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, 1% nitrogen, and 1% other elements (mainly calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and manganese) by weight. (Wikipedia) “Most of the fungus grows and spreads throughout the substrate or host (such as within wood or in soil) as microscopic filaments called ‘hypha’ individually and ‘mycelium’ collectively. … Some fungi known as mycorrhyzal fungi form specific mutually beneficial relationships with plants (generally trees) – they provide water and nutrients [derived from decomposed material] directly through hypha
and take up sugars”.
Healthy interaction of soil and plants is self-regulating according to Dr. Jones: the plant can get up to 90% of what it needs through mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi can bring water to a plant from 20m away. There is also a movement of some free-living microbes from the soil into the plant via plant root tips. This is significant for supplying biological nitrogen via nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Specific microbes released into the soil from a germinating seed move back into the plant for its life cycle and go into the next generation of seeds.
Amazingly, actively growing green plants support microorganisms in the creation of well-structured friable topsoil. To maximise soil building requires maximum green surface cover from vegetation throughout the year.
Only soil microbes build soil! The weathering of rock is a very, very slow process. The building of topsoil, which is altogether different, is a very fast process. Most of the ingredients for new topsoil come from the sun and the
atmosphere — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Soil is weathered rock minerals plus life; it is a living system which forms a complex web of organisms and microorganisms: fungi, bacteria, pathogens, and other organisms. Microbes need to be well organised and well-coordinated to build well-structured soil. Plant photosynthesis, plant root exudates, plant diversity, and quorum sensing (explained later) are now recognised as constituting the primary pathway for microbes to build soil.
Microbes in the soil go to a lot of trouble to modify the soil to make it favourable for them and the host plants. Glues and gums produced by the soil microbes from carbon build water-stable aggregates which are essential for good soil structure. According to Dr.Jones the aggregate is the fundamental unit of soil function. These aggregates are full of holes, allowing essential minerals and trace elements released from the soil by microbes to become available to plants making it easier for plant roots to grow and for small invertebrates to move around. To make aggregates soil microbes use quorum sensing. In the microbial world, the term quorum sensing refers to density dependent coordinated behaviour that regulates gene expression. In the human example, microbes in our gut can turn our genes on or off. Microbes are ‘multi-lingual’; i.e. they communicate species to species, but also they use interspecies communication: fungi, archaea, bacteria all ‘talking to each other.
In an interview by ‘The Nation’, ex-CSIRO Australian climate scientist Walter Jehne said, “more than 80 percent of a soil’s biofertility depends on this surface exposure [through aggregates] rather than on the quantity of nutrients we add as fertiliser.”… “As the planet warms, there is more evaporation from the oceans; so we’re getting more rain, but it’s coming down in extreme, damaging storms … not equally distributed, so along with more extreme flooding there are also more severe droughts. How can we ameliorate these extremes? By rebuilding Earth’s soil carbon sponge. About 66 percent of healthy soil is just space, air—nothing—that creates massive capacity for the sponge to hold water.” If farmers cultivate continuously they break up the soil aggregates, making it difficult for things that live in that soil to thrive or even survive. Aggregates will break down unless the soil is alive
with microbes; the soil then becomes compacted, incapable of storing water.
Dr. Jones says “If soil is in good condition, water infiltrates rapidly and is held in the soil profile. Some of this water is used for plant production and some will move downwards
through the soil to replenish the transmissive aquifers that feed springs and small streams, enabling year-round,
moderated baseflow to river systems. If groundcover is poor and soil water-holding capacity is low, then rapid run-off not only leads to flooding in lower landscape positions but also takes a lot of topsoil with it. These days it’s not just soil, but a heap of chemicals too which end up in [the rivers and the
So far nothing that I have described about the soil building process seems to gel with what we dig up from a
healthy part of our garden, which is actually humus. After the soil microbes, especially fungi, working together have broken down the plant roots, leaf litter, fungi spores, decaying animals (insects and other organisms) to a molecular level (releasing nutrients), the dark organic mostly carbon-based spongy material (polymers of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen) that remains is humus. Humus can hold 20 times its weight in water and can remain in the soil for hundreds of years. Christine Jones says that humus is the Holy Grail.
Plants, soil, microbiology, biodiversity, hydrology, and global climate cannot be considered in isolation…all are interconnected. Dr. Jones believes that grassland, crop, and pasture mismanagement … interfere in efficient photosynthesis.
Healthy aggregates in clay soil showing crumbly structure, roots, and a worm. Photograph Conservation Cropping System Initiative, Indiana
How do we get more life into the soil? What supported life in the soil prior to European colonisation in the early
1800’s? Plants! Literally hundreds of different kinds of perennial ground cover plants. Bush tucker plants were all perennial, i.e. they grew all year round: food for people and animals and food for the landscape.
The grasslands of the North American Great Plains once had enormous diversity
with 500 to 700 kinds of plants; 40% grasses, 60% herbaceous flowering plants (forbs), but now grow mostly corn and soybeans. Australian and European grasslands and meadows had similarly diverse plant species. Forbs were much more common than grasses. In Australia in the 1800’s, not surprisingly forbs were more palatable to the introduced sheep and cattle and were eaten out within a very short number of years, leaving only grasses.
In healthy regenerated landscapes, polycultures have replaced monocultures and include many different plant groups mixed in with a cover crop: grasses, forbs, herbs and legumes, not simply annual species like clover and ryegrass. Cash crops can be planted (and harvested) with a mix of forage plants, and crop production increases with plant diversity. In southern Australia’s Mediterranean hot dry summers, there is not enough rainfall to satisfactorily grow a monoculture, meaning summer crops are not grown and the land remains bare for 6 months of the year. Summer crops thrive in polycultures even in hot dry summers.
A high diversity of plants leads to and supports a high diversity of soil microbes. With low diversity of soil microbes plants become susceptible to pests and diseases, there is poor plant productivity with low nutrient status and reduced water infiltration. It is a completely circular process of destruction; or
of rebuilding, which starts with yearlong diverse green plant cover leading to rapid building of stable aggregates and rapid soil building.
In Germany a trial over extended seasons and years, the Jena Experiment, showed that plots with 8 and 16 plant
species produced a greater plant yield with no added Nitrogen than plots with 1 or 2 plant species with 200 kg added N per year. The soil was deeper with 8 or more different plant species and there were more plant root exudates and more carbon in the soil (21.8% more than low species plots). There was also better root mingling underground (plants support each other and root mingling improves microbe diversity), better soil structure and the soil held more water. The planting plots with 8 and 16 species were better in dry and wet years than the lower diversity species plots, and they survived flooding that lasted for weeks. It is thought that the better soil
aggregation in the diverse plots allowed oxygen to infiltrate the soil helping the plants to survive water-logging.
A summer field in Alberta, Canada showing a monoculture plot of Triticale (foreground) and a polyculture plot (background) of Triticale in an 8-way mix of sunflowers, oat, radish, various beans and millets . In the mixed plot Triticale plants are
growing very well, showing no moisture stress and have headed up with seeds. Both plots are grown under the same conditions. The Triticale grown as a single crop is too poor to harvest.
Photograph Christine Jones
Polyculture rather than monoculture is seen by Christine Jones as the most significant breakthrough in modern
agriculture. “I’m starting to see fields of flowers reappearing around the world as farmers recognise the immense soil and animal health benefits of diverse plant communities. According to the writings of the first European settlers, the South Australian and Victorian grasslands were originally ‘carpets of wildflowers’”.
Biostimulants in place of synthetic fertilisers
To support and maintain diverse soil micoorganisms, regenerative farmers are turning away from synthetic
fertilisers (standard purchased NPK plus trace element fertilisers having soluble and insoluble components), or at least very much reducing their use, and are switching to biostimulants. Examples of biostimulants are worm juice,
compost tea (carefully prepared), fish emulsion and seaweed-based liquids, etc. Many are available commercially, but you can make your own.
By applying synthetic fertilisers farmers are interfering with the communication between plants and soil, and soil microbes are being killed. If you pull up a plant and the main root can be seen clearly, then your soil is not healthy. The roots should be surrounded by soil called rhizosheaths containing mycelium (microscopic filaments of myccorhizal fungi). Rhizosheaths help the soil to stick to the roots.
Plants will send signals into the soil to get whatever nutrients they need (nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil as organic N, and organic P, calcium, boron, silicon etc.), and specialised bacteria working in a symbiotic manner with the plant will bring the required nutrients into the plant through the plant root tips. There is a bi-directional flow – carbon going out of the plant, supplying energy to the bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, etc. to source what is needed from the plant root exudates and the soil – and water and nutrients going into the plant. Of all the mineral nutrients, nitrogen contributes most to plant and crop growth. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria get nitrogen from the atmosphere and from the breakdown of organic material. In agriculture, the most important and efficient symbioses of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and plants occur in the legume family where the bacteria live in nodules along with the plant roots. The symbiotic activities of several nitrogen-fixing bacteria allow Acacias to live in some of the most nutrient-poor soils on the planet. An Acacias’ nitrogen-fixing contribution helps to regenerate soils.
Inorganic nitrogen fertilisers destroy soil carbon and inorganic soluble phosphorus suppresses the activity of soil microbes. Plant root exudates are influenced poorly by nutrient deprivation (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus). Similarly, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides interfere with a healthy soil microbiome and can destroy many soil microbes. Once the plant’s natural resistance to pests and diseases has been interfered with, poisons continually need to be applied to defend the plant, and fertiliser needs to be applied because the plant will not be supported by mycorrhizal fungi.
On a Montana ranch, 80 acres were sprayed with a biostimulant (fish-oil emollient, molasses, and a small amount of sea salt) and several things happened. “Horses in another pasture smelled the spray and broke through a barbed-wire fence to get to the site and graze the grasses. Then a squadron of dung beetles flew in and went to work so that the horse dung, instead of drying into hard pellets, was buried in the ground by the next day. This typically doesn’t happen in a climate that averages [250 to 300 mm] of precipitation per
year”. (See Dung Beetle article in this edition
Biostimulants support seed germination, plant health, and a healthy soil microbiome. However, even biostimulants can be harmful if applied at too high a concentration. I learned that if using multiple biostimulants in an application (e.g. worm juice, compost tea, and seaweed extract), each must be applied at
one-third the normal concentration.
Animals are a vitally important part of the soil building process. Soil building is stimulated even further when plants are in contact with animals as this introduces even greater microbial diversity from saliva, manure, urine, shed hair or wool and particles of shed skin. Photosynthesis is optimised in the presence of animals if appropriately managed.
Soils originally formed in the presence of animals. Critically the effect is greater if animals are bunched up and
moving (consider migrating wildebeest in the presence of predators). A revolutionary grazing management system came out of Africa. ‘Ted’ talks by Zimbabwean Alan Savory are available and worth listening to. At first, I could hardly believe what he said, but I am now convinced of the validity of Savory’s method called ‘holistic planned grazing’.
Roots of cereal oats in the presence (left) and absence (right) of nitrogen fertiliser. Can clearly see roots on left, but on the right the roots cannot be seen, only healthy rhizosheaths are visible with lots of fungal mycelium and good aggregation.
Photograph: Phill Lee
In an early international experiment run over 7 years, the Charter Trial, Savory proved by trialling short duration grazing with twice the number of cattle compared with traditional grazing, that it was inappropriate management, rather than too many animals that caused land degradation. The practice of grazing livestock continuously in a particular paddock (usually a very large area) known as set-stock grazing is the traditional approach used by pastoralists in Zimbabwe, as well as in Australia. This leaves the land with minimal plant cover
and reduced photosynthesis. Within Australia and other parts of the world, the approach of regenerative grazing is to create many small paddocks and to move stock off each paddock after a few days with long resting periods (maybe months) between re-grazing. Stock animals graze in diverse plantings and crops are sown in the same paddocks Seminal research in the 1990s by Dr.Jones and native plant botanist Dr. Judi Earl led them to conclude that “the true causes of degradation of landscape function were not cloven hooves but the mouths of livestock”. This grazing of pastures for too long and eating vegetation too low, leads to a cascading effect of destroying too many green leaves, thereby starving the energy production system, and killing too many roots. This degrades the water cycle – infiltration and storage with associated destruction of soil life and the collapse of nutrient cycling. “Grasslands are distinctive in that they require active management. To not act is to fail”.
An amazing success story
On Colin Seis’ regenerative farming property ‘Winona’ in central NSW, sheep are integrated with pasture cropping, optimising production of both while improving soil structure
and fertility. From the ‘Winona’ website https:// soilsforlife.org.au/winona-pasture-cropping-the-way-to-health
“Sheep are managed in two main mobs of 2000 head and rotated around 75 paddocks in a time-control rotational grazing technique. Introducing time-control grazing necessitated a denser pattern of fencing to increase the number of paddocks from 10 to 75. A central laneway provides an efficient way to move sheep around the property. Over 70 small dams supply stock water as there are no creeks or rivers on ‘Winona’. These dams have high water levels and are maintained mainly through lateral underground flow. The combination of the soil type and maintaining a complete groundcover ensures that all rainfall infiltrates”.
In a Meat and Livestock Trial in 2020 on ‘Winona’, 228 Merino lambs raised in a multi-species crop (barley, field peas, Faba beans, forage brassicas, tillage radish, and turnips) yielded twice the lamb weights with double the profits of lambs raised in a barley crop alone.
On ‘Winona’ soil tests have been conducted every 4 years since 2008 to measure soil carbon to a depth of 60cm in the same paddock. The area tested is an average paddock which is managed the same way as the rest of the property, so it can be assumed that the rest of the 800 ha property would average the same results. Results are not yet available for 2020. The management of the paddock from 2008 has been holistic planned grazing with a 3-month plant recovery period. In 2009 and 2011 the paddock was seeded with oats and from 2015 Colin has planted a multi-species pasture crop.
Colin says it is interesting to note that the carbon at 1-10 cm depth has not changed very much, but the deeper levels of 20 to 60 cm have shown a significant increase in carbon. This is most likely due to the deep roots of the native perennial grass species which have come back, and the root exudates from the pasture-cropped cereal and multi-species crops.
The increase in soil carbon over eight years is 33.95 tonnes per hectare, an average of 4.24 tonnes per hectare per annum (although the rate has reduced gradually over the 8 years: average 5.57 t/ha/a in period 2008-2012 and average 2.92 t/ha/a over 2012-2016). Taking the average annual rate of increase of carbon as 4.24 t/ha/a means there has been a reduction of 15.56 tonnes CO₂e per ha per year (using factor 3.67).
At Colin Seis’ rate, to remove 530 Mt CO₂e (Australia’s total greenhouse gases in 2018) using regenerative agriculture would require 34 million hectares. It would take 34,000 properties of 1000 hectares to remove all of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The area of cropping and pasture grazing land in Australia in 2016 was estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to be 66 million hectares.
Oat plants with healthy rhizosheaths have soil sticking to
roots, showing healthy biological activity. Not seen on plant
roots with synthetic fertiliser use.
Photograph Christine Jones
In many parts of the Australia and around the world there is a big move to regenerative agriculture with the
realisation that soil fertility has to be improved. Dr. Jones believes “The potential for reversing the net movement of CO₂ to the atmosphere through improved plant and soil management is immense. Indeed, managing vegetative cover in ways that enhance the capacity of soil to sequester and store large volumes of atmospheric carbon in a stable form offers a practical and almost immediate solution to some of the most challenging issues currently facing humankind. The key to successful sequestration is to get the basics right.”
Although in regenerative agriculture four ecosystem processes are proposed, any one of the four could be the
starting point to drive the other three. Complex adaptive systems will reorganise themselves back to stability and health with minimum intervention once the four ecosystem processes are in place. Dr. William Albrecht, the Father of modern soil sciences made the profound statement “The soil is the point at which the assembly line of life takes off”.
What better way to reduce the planet’s greenhouse gases and a drying climate than to embrace regenerative
agriculture. Healthy soils lead to healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy humans. A bonus is that biodiversity also improves. In Australia and across the world there are farming families transforming their land; one, in particular, can now enjoy the call of the Reed Warbler in their creek, a bird not heard for 130 years in their Australian landscape.
Imagine if we could return our landscapes to something resembling the pre 1800s landscapes! It would take multiple generations, so there is no time to waste. However, we can all take a part in regenerating woodlands. There are planting days/festivals throughout Adelaide and the regions during winter and spring. BioR’s projects Frahn’s Farm near Monarto, Glenthorne Farm and Cygnet Park on Kangaroo Island, all need volunteers. The Friends of Parks website provides further opportunities. Bushfires have led to a big demand for seedling propagation so opportunities exist to volunteer as a grower for ‘Trees for Life’. It will take generations to get the big trees back into woodland habitat, but regrowth of biodiverse habitats doesn’t take many years. After four years, revegetated habitat on Cygnet Park was a sight to behold.
“Australia will need systematic incentives for reducing emissions in agriculture and land, and provide sound reasons that they are here to stay”. Recently, the Prime Minister
announced that the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will receive $1.4 billion over the next ten years and will be allowed to invest in new technologies, including soil carbon sequestration, which the Government says has the potential to lower Australia’s emissions by 17%. Let us hope this further boosts the regenerative agricultural movement in Australia. Globally there is already a strong movement.
1. The Call of the Reed Warbler. A New Agriculture. A New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2018
2. Super-Power. Australia’s low-carbon opportunity, Ross Garnaut, La Trobe University Press, 2019
3. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. A Final Warning, James Lovelock, Penguin Group Australia, 2009
4. Biological Pathways to Carbon Rich Soil, Dr. C. Jones, Soil Health Conference South Dakota, 3 March, 2020
5. Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme, Amazing Carbon website, Dr C. Jones
6. Regenerative Land Management, Biological Farming & Sequestering Atmospheric C02, Interview with Dr. C. Jones, ourplanet.org/greenplanetfm/, New Zealand, 2015.
7. Restoring Farmlands in our Mediterranean Environment, Dr C. Jones, Lower Blackwood Catchment, WA, 23 July 2020
8. Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen, and biodiversity to agricultural soils, Amazing Carbon Website, Dr. C
9. Plant Diversity and Water Cycle, Dr C. Jones, South Dakota Field Day, 9 July 2020
10. Fungi – The Hidden Kingdom, Julia Haska. SEGments Vol. 31 No.3 December, 2015
11, Save our Soils, Dr C. Jones. Interview by Acres USA Magazine, 2015
12. “How Carbon Farming Can Help Stop Climate Change In Its Tracks, New agricultural methods offer hope of restoring
ecological balance, Wilbur Wood, ‘The Nation’, 6 May 2019
13. Email Christine Jones to the author, 7 July 2020
14. ‘Winona’ – Pasture Cropping the Way to Health https://soilsforlife.org.au/winona-pasture-cropping-the-way-to-health
15. Grazing, Pasture, Soils, and Multi-species Crops, Colin Seis, Webinar and Q&A session produced by Murray Mallee Local Action Planning Association Inc., September 2020
16. Email Colin Seis to author, 5 October 2020
“Linking Biodiversity, Soil Microbiomes and Human Health”, Dr Craig Liddicoat, SEGments, Vol 35, No. 3, Dec 2019
I am very grateful to Dr Christine Jones for her generous and expert assistance in the preparation of this article, and for the use of her photographs. I would like to acknowledge the help of Colin Seis for the information on his property ‘Winona’ used in preparing this article.