For premium beef farmers in Australia, there are myriad decisions to be made when it comes to preferred land and livestock management practices. Advances in research as well as the continual trial of techniques by farmers themselves, have meant that several systems of pasture, animal and land management have risen in popularity as a consequence of the benefits that they provide. Two of these approaches are organic farming and regenerative agriculture, which are gaining attention not just for their environmental and productivity benefits, but also for their connotations for the consumer. So, should your farm and its produce become certified organic? Or is a regenerative approach actually a better solution to meet your goals, values and productivity requirements as a beef farmer and business owner?
What is organic farming?
Many farms in Australia utilise synthetic chemicals primarily for the purposes of fertilisation (accelerating plant growth) and weed control, as well as to ensure the performance of crops by reducing the number of plant species competing for water and nutrients. In these circumstances, carefully planned spray application is an integral part of maximising productivity.
With crop success largely at the mercy of the elements – including rain (or lack thereof), hail, wind and increasingly in recent years, floods – chemicals use provides some increased surety for the farmer. The primary purpose of chemical use is to maximise return on investment from crop plantings, which can be a resource-intensive exercise. Synthetic chemicals are also often used to control insects, mould and fungus as well as parasites in livestock.
Generally speaking, ‘organic’ relates to those things which are natural, with the absence of chemicals. The Cambridge dictionary defines organic as;
- being or coming from living plants and animals.
- not using artificial chemicals in the growing of plants and animals for food and other products.
So, organic farming requires the use of natural alternatives to aid with crop, pasture, insect and parasite management. Generally, farms and their produce aren’t considered to be organic until a period of time has elapsed since chemical use ceased. While alternative organic products exist in the market and many farmers do employ organic management systems, there is no doubt that organic farming can present additional challenges.
Organic farming and organic certification
There is one key distinction that needs to be made when discussing organic farming and this is in relation to certification vs. everyday practice. While we have discussed what organic farming means, organic certification is another process entirely. Achieving official organic status requires a rigorous application and documentation process to prove the property’s conversion to organic-only practices over a period of time – typically a minimum of three years, subject to soil testing.
In Australia, there are a list of organic-approved certifying bodies with which farmers can work to achieve certified organic status. However, those looking into the process should carefully consider the markets in which they intend to sell their product and whether that particular body is recognised in those markets (such as certain export locations).
A list of approved certifying bodies – with links to more information on each – can be found at https://www.agriculture.gov.au/about/contact/phone/approved-certifying-bodies
What is the advantage of organic farming?
The advantages that come with removing the presence of chemicals in soils as well as the animals that live on them are multi-faceted. Arguably, most consumers would be pleased to know that their food is free from chemicals and most farmers would be content knowing that their soils are healthy. In Australia, many farms and food businesses use organic labelling as an essential marketing tool that speaks to the needs and wants of their target consumer. Often, organic meat and other organic food products seek a higher price because of the real or perceived health and environmental benefits that they deliver to their consumer. So, the benefits of organic farming can be considered to be – at a minimum – threefold; consumer preference, farmer peace of mind and environmental benefit.
The challenges of organic farms
Organic agriculture can deliver a large range of additional challenges beyond those that we will list in this article. However, the most obvious of these are those variables related to environmental factors. Where farmers may have previously been able to rely on chemical sprays to assist management and boost productivity under challenging conditions, this same luxury does not apply to certified organic farms. While alternative strategies do exist, their application in practice requires more careful management and in some cases, additional expense.
Many organic farmers will argue that the answer to manageable and viable organic farming is to take a holistic approach to land and livestock management in order to maximise the health and resilience of the land. Interestingly, this aligns with another farming management ethos that is rising in popularity – regenerative agriculture.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a land and livestock management system which aims to not only maintain the health of the land but to improve it substantially. This process involves paying careful attention to restoring soil biodiversity, rebuilding soil organic matter and improving both water retention and usage efficiency. Some definitions of regenerative agriculture also speak of management systems that work to reverse the impacts of climate change by capturing more carbon dioxide in plants and soils.
In summary, regenerative farming management seeks to create a healthy, biodiverse and nutrient-rich landscape (both above and below the soil surface) with increased water retention capacities. Although far more complex than this article will cover, the key (interconnected) focuses of regenerative farming include the following;
- No-till or minimum tillage to maximise soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, as well as carbon sequestration.
- Increasing biological soil fertility management through utilising cover crops, crop rotation, compost and animal manures while avoiding synthetic fertilisers.
- Building biological ecosystem diversity and soil microbial community population through compost and multispecies crop planting.
- Management of grazing to stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits and overall productivity, fertility, and insect and plant biodiversity.
While sharing the same ideals for land health as organic farming, regenerative practices do not strictly regulate chemical usage to the detriment of productivity or weed control. Sprays can be used where required, however, alternative management systems (such as rotational grazing) are instead utilised where possible and as a priority.
How is regenerative agriculture different from organic farming?
A very simplified response to this question might be;
Organic farming restricts chemical use but does not officially dictate other farming management practices or activities. In contrast, regenerative farming considers a holistic approach to optimum land health and avoids but does not restrict chemical use.
Regenerative agriculture vs. organic farming – which is better?
There is no simple answer as to which regenerative or organic farming is best. From the comparison above it is clear that each has its own focus and, perhaps, limitations. The answer as to which approach should be favoured or focused on is also very much situational. The particulars of each property, each farmer’s capacity to invest in new systems, the present farming model being implemented (e.g. solely cropping, mixed cropping and livestock or solely livestock) as well as the way that property has been managed in the past all influence the practicality of following one particular approach. The decision will primarily rely upon a complex array of factors and some questions that may need to be asked include;
- What are my personal values? How important are these to me?
- What is the history of my property when it comes to land management?
- What is the current health status of my soil?
- What does the journey to organic look like for me?
- Do I have the resources available to invest in changing my farming practices?
- What is the route to market for my product? Is there an advantage to following one particular system from a marketing perspective?
Overall, the best approach to land management is one that looks at the farm environment as an interconnected biological system and considers how best to achieve optimum health and productivity outcomes for that land. Beyond this, decisions, of course, need to be made with consideration to business outcomes and financial viability. However, as a general rule, healthy land invariably creates better products, with better productivity results, increased profitability as well as improved environmental and social outcomes.
For more information on regenerative farming, see our previous articles
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