Regenerative agriculture has become the topic of much conversation in recent years and its early adopters report myriad positive results in improved productivity along with the creation of healthier natural landscapes. For beef producers, the adoption of regenerative practices and grass-finishing as a priority means a significant adjustment to the commonplace beef cattle finishing regimes of years past. In traditional feedlotting or set-stocking management systems, beef cattle are often fattened to their ideal kill weight and condition through energy-dense and predominantly grain-fed diets, along with a restriction to calorie burning activity. However, many farmers are now turning to perennial pastures and carefully managed free-range grazing to fulfill this role. Carefully selected pastures can provide the energy requirements necessary for the final months of optimum prime cattle preparation, whilst being able to be utilised regeneratively with a minimal need for soil tillage and re-sowing, harvesting or hand feeding.
Regenerative agriculture in Australia
Since colonisation, commonplace approaches to farming in Australia were transplanted from Europe along with early settlers and pastoralists. However, the younger, richer and significantly more productive soils of Western Europe are a vastly different proposition to the ancient soils and significantly drier landscape of Australia. While these approaches have enabled Australian farmers to grow seasonal crops and run livestock here for many years, it’s been with the assistance of large-scale land clearing, repetitive soil tillage and seed planting as well as, in more recent times, the heavy application of sprays and fertilisers. Vulnerability to seasonal conditions and – too often – seasonal failures have both been widely accepted as a requisite risk of farming in Australia.
In stark contrast to this widespread early approach, regenerative farming accepts that minimising soil disturbance (reducing tillage) and maximising plant species diversity are key approaches to achieving healthy and productive regenerative pastures and ecological systems. A combination of different root structures and plant varieties is key here, with shallow-rooted ground cover varieties working to support and aerate the top soil while deep-rooted varieties provide pathways for water and oxygen to permeate the earth below, simultaneously supporting the structures of these deeper soils.
Ground cover plant varieties are also important in contributing the organic matter necessary for healthy soils. Maximising water use through the building of the organic matter and root structures within the soil is a key requisite to the maintenance of consistent and reliable fodder. Increasing water holding capacity in turn effects drought resilience, erosion and salinity protection, improved efficiency and increased nutritional value of the plants grown.
Regenerative farming and ecological landscape
The concept of regenerative farming involves analysis and consideration of the entire natural ecological landscape incorporating soils, water, plant species and other biological systems. No one element operates in isolation and – in very short summary – regenerative farming works toward ensuring the optimum health, efficiency and sustainability of each part of this system.
Although regenerative practices are certainly not new, a number of important resources can be accredited to influencing the rise of regenerative practices into the agricultural spotlight in more recent years. One of these is Charles Massey’s The Call of the Reed Warbler, which describes five key landscape processes; 1) the solar-energy function – maximising plant sugars via photosynthesis, 2) the water cycle – focusing on maximisation of water storage and efficiency within the soil, 3) the soil-mineral cycle – maximising soil health and rich, diverse mineral content, 4) dynamic ecosystems – focused on biodiversity and health of integrated ecosystems at all levels and 5) the human-social aspect, which considers the human influence working in harmony with the natural systems.
These processes may sound complex and, should you wish to delve deeper into these complexities, they can be. However, a simpler approach can be to consider that, foremost, each of these systems is directly impacted and supported by the plant species that exist and are allowed to flourish (or regenerate) in these environments. Another way to describe this is with the phrase ‘pasture management’.
Allan Savory, an important spokesperson for the emergence of a regenerative approach to farming, coined the term ‘holistic planned grazing’ as a method of regenerating landscape functions and the earth’s ecological systems. Both the selection of planted species and the systems put in place to manage these are the key factors to ensuring a healthy and productive ecosystem. This can best be achieved with careful consideration to the planting of a diverse selection of species, resulting in the co-habitation of a number of different grasses and multispecies cover crops, as well as careful grazing management.
A well-selected variety of complementary, cohabitating grass and pasture species is a key contributor to soil health, water efficiency and nutritional productivity. While farming practices of years past have focused on one (or at best two) plant species per crop, a selection of different perennial plants can provide significant year-round productivity through a healthy balance of ground cover plants alongside taller growing fodder varieties. Multispecies cover crops produce more biomass and nutrients than single-species monocultures and allowing these pastures to regenerate contributes significantly to organic matter within the soils.
The planting of complementary perennial varieties promotes healthy biodiversity while delivering significant productivity benefits. Resilient year-round grazing pastures and healthy balanced soils are influenced by the different types of root structures (for example, shallow and deep-rooted varieties) of coexisting plant species. These root systems work to support the soil structure necessary to retain moisture while providing a network of pathways for water to permeate. Simultaneously, a variety of perennial grasses that deliver seasonal diversity is important to ensuring that these pastures provide year-round fodder.
Key to successful regenerative pastures is ground cover, which both protects the earth against erosion and assists to maintain moisture in the soils. Allan Savory’s famous quote is both poignant and, to those raised in the traditional school of Australian farming, perhaps a little perplexing; ‘it’s not drought that causes bare ground, it’s bare ground that causes drought’. While of course this sentiment doesn’t consider the contribution of rainfall (and its ever-increasing inconsistency) to the capacity for pasture growth, it is an important reminder of the importance of ground cover in retaining moisture within soils, even in the absence of rainfall.
Pasture cropping is a popular technique for maintaining ground cover whilst integrating higher-yielding annual crops in order to achieve pasture diversity. This can be achieved by sowing winter crops into summer-active perennial pastures to improve year-round production, particularly throughout periods when perennial plants are less active.
Plant species for regenerative pastures
There are several deep-rooted and ground cover species which can be planted together for soil support, water retention and year-round productivity. As with all pastures, over-grazing is the enemy of productivity and rejuvenation – read more at our previous article ‘Optimal Rotational Grazing Patterns for Beef Cattle’.
Ideally, annual pasture varieties will set seed for future years while accompanying perennial varieties will continue to grow. The following plant species are popular choices to provide healthy and diverse year-round fodder growth in the typical temperate southern Australian climate. Although the varieties and potential combinations of plant species are many, one such recipe for regenerative pasture diversity is;
- Ryecorn – has the ability to control soil erosion and suppression of weeds
- Williams Oats
- Early, Mid and Late Maturing Ryegrasses – Ryegrasses provide great ground coverage whilst providing ample feed and grazing capabilities
- Balansa Clover
- Crimson Clover – clovers are renowned for their nitrogen fixation capabilities
- Cocksfoot – has deep, penetrating roots that not only provide forage during dry times but also improve the soil by increasing its organic matter and humus content
- Chicory – has a deep taproot (up to several meters), allowing it to draw on deep soil water reserves. The root acts as a storage organ for the plant, trapping all those helpful nutrients dragged from deep below the ground
- Plantain – a fast establishing perennial herb that is rich in minerals.
When it comes to pasture and plant species selection, each region in Australia has its own unique differences – particularly in relation to soil type and condition. For best results it is recommended to seek the advice of an expert to consult on each property’s specific requirements or to continue to research both the topics of regenerative farming and regenerative pastures.
Some recommended resources include;
Regenerative Farmers https://regenfarmers.com.au/
The Savory Institute – https://savory.global/
The Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massey