At the February Prairie Organic conference in Brandon, a number of speakers spoke about the principles of regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health compared to sustainable agriculture which only maintains the soil as is. Since our soils have degenerated considerably over the last 150 years, regeneration is a good strategy. The principles of regenerative agriculture are:
Unfortunately the dominant cropping systems in Manitoba do not follow these principles. 82% of Manitoba’s 10 million acres of crop land is dedicated to 3 annual crops; canola, wheat and soybeans. These crops only cover the soil for 70-90 days out of 365. This annual cropping system uses a non-diverse mono-crop practise (one crop on a field at a time) and 80% of the land is tilled.
Ryan Boyd, an innovative, “aspiring” organic farmer north of Brandon explained his cropping system at the conference. Ryan integrates crops and livestock by first growing one or two cash crops, some of which are inter-crops, like oats and peas together. He then plants a cover crop mix of at least 4-5 species. This is then grazed by his cow herd. If the perennials in that mix survive the winter he may graze that land for a second year. Ryan then returns to a series of cash crops. The reason this works well is that the two year cover crop grazing introduces significant nutrients into the system allowing him to grow the cash crops with reduced purchased fertilizers and the grazing and trampling action of the cows reduces the weed problems for subsequent years. The overall result is lower input costs and higher profits per acre compared to cash crops only.
Ryan is practising the principles of regenerative agriculture through zero tillage, keeping the soil covered by incorporating the cover crops into his system and by adding diversity of crops and livestock.
Not only is Ryan innovative in his integration of crops and livestock, Ryan is experimenting with growing two or more crops in a field at the same time and relay cropping. Relay cropping is just like a relay race. Winter wheat is planted in September, and then in the spring a legume like clover is planted into the established winter wheat in April. The winter wheat is then harvested in July or August allowing the clover to thrive for the rest of the season giving considerable grazing opportunities for the cows and keeping the soil covered.
Ryan has been able, with this cropping system, to build his soil organic matter levels. That is, he is sequestering carbon. Blain Hjertaas, a grazier in south-eastern Saskatchewan told the conference that he has sequestered 6.2 tonnes of carbon per year per hectare. The equivalent amount of carbon dioxide is 22.8 tonnes of CO2 per hectare or 9.2 tonnes of CO2 per acre. If Blain received even $25/tonne as an off set to the Manitoba carbon tax he would be earning $230/acre for his contribution to reducing carbon.
According to the Made-in-Manitoba Green Plan, 30% of the Greenhouse Gas emissions in Manitoba come from agriculture. These farmers are demonstrating that with the correct incentives and public policy this could change completely. Agriculture, practised regeneratively, could be instrumental in reducing Manitoba GHG emissions.