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Regenerative Agriculture Soil Principles

We are taking a whole-systems approach that recognizes the link between plants and soil. This guides agricultural practices with the goal of optimizing soil health to improve the nutritive quality of food, help to manage water, control pests and diseases, and build resilience against climatic uncertainty, as opposed to studying a set list of individual BMPs.

Regenerative agriculture is not synonymous with soil conservation. Although many of the same Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) may form part of the approach to achieve ‘regeneration’ of the soil, in isolation they will not achieve regenerative soil goals.

The following graphic of a regenerative soil pyramid illustrates how all principles must be integrated to maintain the structure and integrity of the soil. As with the structure and integrity of a pyramid, all layers are integral. If we look to regenerative agriculture as a climate solution, all elements must be incorporated to have the maximum climate mitigation effect and serve to ‘regenerate’ or ‘recarbonize’ the soil through carbon sequestration.

Principal 1- Living Roots (Green & Growing)

Maintaining living roots for as many days of the year as possible enables plants to allocate photosynthetically derived carbon to the microbial community. This soil carbon sequestration process mitigates climate change while helping crops to thrive under climatic uncertainty. Improved soil carbon increases or improves biological activity, water infiltration, soil structure, natural fertility, adsorption of pesticides and reduces soil erosion and compaction.

BMPs include​

· ​Cover cropping

· Crop rotation, including integration of pulses and small grains

· Relay/poly/inter cropping

· Perennials in annual production

· Annuals in pasture for cattle feeding strategies

· Strategies for marginal land and wetlands (including prairie potholes); riparian tree planting

· Shelter belts

Principal 2- Diversity

Diversifying and lengthening crop rotations, using carefully chosen cover crops and compost adds diversity to soil. Different plants allow for longer periods of time in the year when carbon can be allocated below ground to increase carbon sequestration and supports a diverse microbial community that plays a significant role in making nutrients available to plants and in soil carbon sequestration.

BMPs include:

· Annual in perennial systems

· Perennial in annual systems

· Diverse crop rotations that include, for example, combinations of grains, legumes, oilseeds

Principal 3- Reduced Synthetic Nutrients

Optimizing soil organisms (especially mycorrhizal fungi) is critical for regeneration of soil due to the role that mycorrhizal fungus plays in making nutrients available to plants and stabilizing carbon in soil aggregates. The application of soluble phosphorus fertilizer removes the need for a symbiotic relationship between plants and mycorrhizae. It is not possible to regenerate soil to its full potential when using conventional rates of synthetic fertilizers.

BMPs include:

· Strategies to increase biological nutrient cycling

· Incorporate more compost/manure

Principle 4- Manage Livestock

Managing livestock and grazing patterns benefit the soil through increased organic matter, rejuvenation of microorganisms, and restoration of water cycles leading to an exponential increase in the land’s ability to sequester carbon. Animals of all types and sizes, including insects, play a crucial role in regenerative agriculture - grasslands evolved out of a symbiotic relationship with large, grazing herbivores.

BMPs include:

· Animal Integration with cropping

· Integrate animals into cropping systems (for example post-harvest or swath grazing)

· Adaptive planned grazing strategies

· Agro-forestry

· Alley grazing

Principle 5- Soil Armor

Crop residue, living plants, mulches, and/or compost on the soil surface are valuable sources of armour or protection, helping to avoid carbon loss from soil.

BMPs include:

· Maintain soil cover, cover cropping

· Mulching

· Compost

· Increased litter, trash, chaff left on field after harvest

· Perennials

· Relay/poly/inter cropping

· Cover cropping

Principle 6- Reduced/No Tillage

Tilling causes the fungal network to be broken up and moves the organic matter that adds richness to the soil to the surface, where the soil carbon is released into the atmosphere. Minimal tillage keeps soils covered, holding carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

BMPs include:

· Reduce frequency of tillage and minimize soil disturbance

· Minimum tillage/no-till cropping

· Use of tools (roller crimper and/or high residue cultivator)


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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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