What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving topsoil and increasing farm biodiversity, and in the process increasing farm resilience to climatic impacts while lowering reliance upon conventional synthetic inputs. Minimal soil disturbance, a diverse crop range and integrated livestock are all features of a regenerative agricultural system.
With its roots in the United States, regenerative agriculture is spreading as a new approach to improving soil + water quality, reducing nutrient losses, sequestering carbon and softening farming’s environmental footprint.
Why have a regenerative project at Align?
Regenerative agriculture is gaining more attention from beyond just farming communities, and even the government sees it as a potential means of helping New Zealand agriculture to improve its environmental sustainability.
However, to date there has been little empirical data specific to New Zealand that gives a clear sense of how much the system will benefit New Zealand farmers, both economically and environmentally.
Align’s company mission is to advance human health and environmental outcomes by producing nutrient dense foods, in a resilient, diverse and productive environment all can enjoy.
It is a natural step then for Align to look to regenerative agriculture as a potential means of fulfilling these goals. Being science based in our approach to making decisions that affect our business’s sustainability, it makes sense for Align Farms to take a hard, logical look at regenerative farming.
The information and knowledge we gain will be shared with New Zealand dairy farmers, both about how regenerative farming impacts upon Align’s environmental footprint, and how the practice may help dairy farmers meet their Paris Accord agreements on helping reduce green-house gas emissions. We will also provide our dairying colleagues with full, transparent figures on the financial gains and costs that go with regenerative farming.
What will Align’s regenerative agriculture project consist of?
Align has five dairy operations totalling 1131ha and a support block of 500ha.
Two of our five dairy operations, Clareview and Longfield and our support block Hinterlands are being transitioned to a regenerative system.
The transitioning dairy farms will be run half and half- 50% regenerative and 50% conventional for two seasons to make comparison more accurate and limiting variation between farms.
Clareview’s transition started last season with 20% of grazed area already converted to regenerative paddocks, with another 30% to be transitioned early in spring this year.
We intend to run two herds, one conventional, one regenerative, each on their respective pasture type.
Until the remaining 30% is converted to regenerative pasture the herd will graze half on regen pasture, and half on conventional. This 50:50 split will run through the 2021-22 season and by 2022-23 the farm will completely transition to a regenerative model.
Hinterlands, our support block has already largely been transitioned to regenerative practices and from this spring 2020 will be 100%.
Longfield will begin the transition this season and be at 50:50 for 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. It will be operating a 100% regenerative from the 2023-24 season.
Meanwhile our other two properties, Emilius and Jacawanada will keep running as conventional farms. Our recently purchased property, Align Normac dairy farm will remain operating under the current sharemilker through the 2020-21 season.
Our regenerative project will also bring another research spin off with it. We are looking at how we can reduce our wintering footprint, and purchased Align Normac for this purpose. This will run as a dairy unit for one more season through to June 2021, but will begin to winter cows on it from winter 2021. We plan to lift the dairy shed to Hinterlands and convert 203 ha of the property into a dryland regenerative dairy unit. The rest of the farm will remain as a support block. Align Normac will then have transitioned fully to an irrigated regenerative support block for wintering dry cows and young stock.
What do we hope to achieve with the project?
By committing to run the farms 50:50 conventional versus regeneratively we have an accurate means of comparison between the systems.
We will be taking the average of our four previous seasons’ base line figures on production, profit and environment, and from this we can quantify the differences between our conventional and regenerative approaches, allowing for seasonal variations.
This information means we can give the New Zealand dairy farming community realistic, unbiased and informed data on how successful our regenerative project has been, and some approaches other farmers may wish to adopt within their own farm system.
What are we going to measure?
Our key parameters to collect data on and compare are Financial, Environmental, Human Health, Animal Health and Social impacts.
Financial – milk solids production per hectare, farm working expenses (per kilo milk solids), item expenses, pasture quantity consumed.
Environmental – water quality, organic matter changes, water holding capacity of soil, bacterial activity in soil.
Human Health – macro and micro-nutrient content of milk, nitrogen levels, Omega levels, linoleic acid levels in milk.
Animal Health – incidence of health issues, in-calf outcomes, milk production, production efficiency per kg of dry matter.
Social – survey response from team and community on switch to regenerative farming. Industry response will be measured by surveying uptake of practices prompted by Align trial.
Data collected on each of these parameters will help us demonstrate whether a regenerative dairy farming system can be as profitable as a conventional dairy system, whether the practices will reduce the environmental impact of dairying, result in healthier animals and milk, and generate a positive community response.