Iain Graham is a ‘thinking’ farmer who has increasingly become aware of the role that regenerative farming practices will play in the long term prosperity of our dwindling land resources. With extensive beef and sheep grazing farms in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde, and a more intensive grazing and arable farm near Perth, he’s well-placed to sell the story of how regenerative farming can play a role in the long-term sustainability of Scottish agriculture.
In this article, he puts forward his views on changes that will be needed to ensure the longevity of soil, in particular the role that livestock can play in soil health:
There is no doubt that agriculture practices have had a major role in the build up of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere.
Depletion of grassland leading to desertification, the turning soil to dirt has brought us to the current situation where it is now forecasted by some doomsayers that, globally, we have only 60 harvests left.
Although the problem has been with us for centuries, the recent increase is mechanisation allowing more tillage; the overuse of pesticides and the increasing use of artificial fertilisers have all contributed to bringing us to this situation.
Over-grazing and under-grazing of livestock have also played their part in soil depletion and soil run off with perhaps the most obvious example being the deforestation of the Amazon’s clay soils allowing the now unstable thin organic matter to run off, leaving behind a dirt so devoid of life that it may never recover.
But perhaps, world wide, it has been the movement away from mixed farms to the development of industrial farming that is causing the most damage.
Industrial farming separates the raising of livestock from their feed source and houses cattle in feedlots at densities that make it impossible to safely deal with their effluent. They then import grain, often from developing countries – grain that could have been consumed by humans. Some 50% of the world’s crop goes to feed livestock.
I believe this type of farming is one of the main causes of human migration, where large areas are ploughed up for monocultures causing desertification and displacing people from the land.
The negative press that cattle farmers and ranchers have suffered is beginning to be better understood as not being the problem of the cattle, but the way in which they are raised. In Scotland, we start from a good position with some of the lowest CO2 outputs in the world from our suckler cattle.
However, we have the opportunity to improve from simply being carbon neutral to actually decreasing the legacy load of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Recommendations (Ref: ‘Dirt to soil’, by Gabe Brown.)
Principle one: Limit disturbance
The first principle is to limit mechanical, chemical and physical disturbance of the soil. Where in nature do we find mechanical tillage? Nowhere of course!
Humans have been tilling the soil for thousands of years and as modern technology has increased our ability to till more acreage faster, and deeper, the damage done has become more serious.
Widespread tillage may make certain tasks easier for the operator, but it destroys soil structure and function. In his book ‘Dirt: The erosion of civilisations’, Dr David Montgomery noted that the demise of civilisations throughout history has been tied to the degradation of their soil resources. The principle contributor to that degradation was, of course, tillage.
Principle two: Armour the soil surface
The second principle is to maintain the armour (of plant residues) on the soil surface. Where in a healthy ecosystem to you see bare soil?
Your response might be: “There are plenty places where the soil is bare!” Sadly, yes, but is it healthy soil? If the bare soil was normal in nature, then why do weeds grow whenever we till an area? Nature is trying to cover the soil!
The truth is there should not be many expanses of bare soil, because bare soil is a sure sign of a dysfunctional ecosystem. I often hear producers who live in drier environments claim that their area has always had some areas of bare soil. But historical records, including old journals, show us that even areas we consider deserts were once covered with vast grasslands.
Principle three: Build diversity
The third principle is to promote crop diversity on as many fronts as possible. If you want to improve your soils, you must add diversity either by diversifying your crop rotation or by adding cover crops.
Gabe’s good friend, David Brant, told everyone who would listen that the biggest improvement to his soil occurred when he added winter wheat to his corn/soyabean rotation. The benefit wasn’t just from adding wheat – Brant also planted a diverse cover crop immediately into the wheat stubble after harvest.
The cover crop is what made the biggest difference. Instead of the soil biology feeding on root exudates from only two species (corn and soyabeans), it feasted on well over dozen species. Think of the amount of carbon cycled due to all these living plants.
Principle four: Keep living roots in the soil
The fourth principle is to maintain living roots in the soil as long as possible throughout the year. I am always disappointed when producers harvest a grain crop and then leave the land sitting idle without and living roots until the following year – other growers had not learned the importance of pumping liquid carbon into the soil to sustain soil biology.
Here’s an analogy: A farmer would never leave their livestock unfed for months at a time. Why, then, do farmers not think to feed their ‘underground livestock’ throughout the winter?
Principle five: Integrate animals
The fifth principle is to keep animals present in the agricultural landscape.
Another tragic flaw of the current production model is the removal of animals from the landscape. Take a look back at how our grandparents farmed a century ago. Nearly every farm had beef or dairy, along with hogs and poultry. Horses were used as draft animals.
Today, we have moved the poultry and pigs into confinement buildings, the beef into feedlots and the dairy into very confined operations. In many parts of the world, one can drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a fence, let alone an animal.
What difference does it make? To answer that we must understand how soils were formed.
Centuries ago, tens of millions of bison, elk, deer and other ruminants roamed the North American continent. These ruminants took a bit of a plant here and another there, causing these plants to release root exudates in order to attract biology that supplied the nutrients needed for regrowth.
The presence of predators kept the ruminants on the move and they did not return to the same spot for long periods of time. The plants thus had ample time to fully recover, all while pumping massive amounts of carbon into the soil (a plant that has been grazed will photosynthesize more and pump more liquid carbon into the soil compared to a plant that has not been grazed.)
Add to this the myriad of insects, birds and other wildlife that also lived in these environments, and it all added up to a very healthy, optimally functioning ecosystem.
Today, with grazing animals almost entirely removed from the world’s grasslands, there is much less carbon cycled through the system.
There are those who blame cattle for climate change. The viewpoint is too simplistic; it does not take into consideration the larger picture of how the ecosystems function.
The best-proven way to transfer massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the soil is by maintaining a landscape that includes grazing animals. It is not the cattle that are the problem, it is our management of them!
I thoroughly enjoy debating with vegetarians and vegans as to the importance of animals on the landscape. My contention is that if they are truly concerned about the health of the ecosystems, they have to recognize the benefits grazing ruminants provide, even if they choose not to partake in eating meat.
One of the best presentations of this argument is put forward in the book ‘Defending beef’, by Nicolette Hahn Miman.
“Integrating multiple species of animals throughout Brown’s Ranch had led to much larger amounts of carbon in our ecosystem. This not only improved soil health, it has also a significantly increased our profitability.
“I speak to hundreds of farm families every year who lament that they are not making a profit. When I ask them about their model of production, I usually discover that they do not run livestock on their land. I encourage all operators to take advantage of the many benefits animals offer,” pointed out Gabe Brown.
Iain’s note: I make no apologies for plagiarising Gabe Brown as his five principles give as an excellent start to understand how we can capitalize on the profitability of suckler cow farming and at the same time capture vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
The challenge is to look at his principles and determine where they are relevant to Scottish beef production and determine best practice taking into account our climate and varying land resource.