Friday 14th January 2022
With the new year comes New Year Resolutions; typically for a healthier way of life, increasingly commonly for a more sustainable one. So, it’s fitting that this January, ‘Regenuary’ is the buzzword for those looking for a more climate-friendly diet. It stands for ‘Regenerative January’ – a campaign to celebrate Regenerative Agriculture: a way of farming that regenerates nature and stores carbon in our soils.
But, at Yeo Valley Organic this is no new-year fad. In fact, they have just concluded a five-year pilot, where data shows that by using regenerative organic farming methods the carbon stored in the soils of the family farm are the equivalent to 150 years’ worth of the farm’s emissions. You can find out more about our new Regenerative Organic Farming Project here.
What exactly is Regenerative Agriculture?
“Regenerative Farming is one step on from sustainable farming,” explains Farm Carbon Toolkit Technical Director, Becky Willson, who has been leading the project at Yeo Valley.
“Sustainable farming is all about not having a negative impact. Now, we want to have a positive impact through the way we farm – we want to regenerate our ecosystems. We want to make our landscapes, our water courses and habitats better.”
Many organic farmers are already well on their way to farming regeneratively, because organic farming is fundamentally about building soil health – and this is the focus of regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative Agriculture and soil health
Whenever people talk about regenerative agriculture, the conversation moves quickly to talking about soil – stick with us here!
Soils store more carbon than the atmosphere, and all of the world’s plants and forests combined. (1)
Healthy soils are also intrinsic to growing healthy food. (2)
As such, our health is fundamentally linked to the health of our soils.
“We’ve always known soil is important. But, it’s only since our agricultural systems have become more intense – we’ve been pushing our soils harder with more cultivation and more fertilisers – that we’ve started to see the adverse impact,” explains Willson.
“We now have fields where the soil is biologically dead. So, that doesn’t allow us to grow good crops. They’re flooding in winter and aren’t anywhere near as resilient to droughts in summer. This has been a wake-up call for farmers.”
What does this mean for Yeo Valley Organic’s dairy farming?
Figures show that farming is directly responsible for 10% of UK national Greenhouse Gas emissions.(3) It’s no secret that cows have been accused of being some of the biggest culprits when it comes to the climate crisis. But, what if farming and cows could be part of the solution?
For many dairy and livestock farmers, the vast majority of their land is grass. Here in Britain, we grow grass really well. Grass, if managed well, is very effective at pumping carbon into the soil.
“Helping to regenerate the world’s soil carbon stocks is one of our greatest opportunities to help combat climate change. The work we’re doing on our own and our supply farms is all about weaponising soil. As farmers and custodians of the soil, it’s time to recognise that our natural ally is right under our feet,” says Yeo Valley Organic owner, Tim Mead.
Willson insists that ruminant animals – such as cows – have a key role to play. We need the action of cows eating the grass to stimulate the roots and support that cycle of storing carbon in the soils.
“Essentially, the focus shifts from being a dairy farmer to a soil farmer,” she explains.
This means regenerative organic dairy farmers are looking at how they can increase the diversity of grass species on their land, which can help increase the activity in the soil. They are also potentially changing the grazing patterns of their cows, grazing them on taller pastures which in turn supports a deeper root system below ground.
Many farmers are growing proteins such as peas, beans and oats to supplement a cow’s diet, in order to reduce their need for imported feeds, which helps reduce their carbon footprint.. As does managing manure more strategically, so it can be a valuable fertiliser.
Rather than use electric fences to separate fields, farmers might plant hedges and trees. This also provides cows with more shade in summer and shelter in winter. Plus, they become habitats for all sorts of animals and insects.
“The fields are alive in summer, they’re a haven for wildlife. You can hardly kneel down to take soil samples because you’re worried you’ll squash the bees,” says Willson.
The future of Regenerative Organic Dairy Farming
Essentially, regenerative organic farming looks a lot like transiting back to the old ways of farming, with the help of technology and data collection to increase knowledge.
During Yeo Valley’s one-year pilot, 1,300 soil samples were taken at three different depths, across 2,000 acres.
The UK has very diverse soils and soil itself is a complex biological system – there’s not one answer to fit all and no-one has all the answers, yet. So, Yeo Valley Organic is extending testing from the family farm to around 100 supplier farms, as part of a 10-year ‘ReGeneration Project’. It’s a potential £2 million programme intended to maximise the impact organic dairy farms can have on the climate crisis across the UK.
Willson explains: “This is the start of vital work which explores the impact of soil health on our climate crisis and guides the actions of farmers in the future.
“It requires a lot of courage for farmers to transition, especially when they already have processes in place for cows that require milking two times a day. This is why at Yeo Valley Organic we’re trying to tell a different story in a way that is scientifically robust.”
The science also increases confidence for consumers looking to support more eco-friendly farming.
“The old adage ‘It’s not the cow, it’s the how’ couldn’t be more relevant here,” says Willson.
“If you are a climate conscious consumer then there is room for you to have dairy and meat in your diet. It’s about finding those producers who are making positive change.
“The challenge is to try to shop more locally and ask more questions, so we can connect with how our food is made and where it’s coming from.”
Written For Yeo Valley Organic by Lizzie Rivera, founder of Live Frankly, an honest and frank guide to sustainability that connects people to genuinely sustainable brands.
(1) Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) ‘Soil Carbon Storage’ Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35