Findings from a longtime new researcher study may allay fears of some farmers: regenerative farming, or farming in a way that benefits soil, water and air quality, does not have to come at the expense of crop yields. cultures.
A team of researchers from the UK to Africa compared data from 30 different long-term experimental agricultural plots to compare ‘ecological intensification’ practices to the use of chemical fertilisers. The study ultimately found that when certain practices are implemented – such as diversifying crop rotations and adding manure or compost on the ground – the need for chemical fertilizers decreases.
“You don’t have to sacrifice yields to make your farming practices more sustainable,” said the study’s lead author. Chloe McLaren.
The study comes at an important time. With the threatens of a global food crisis due to the war in Ukraine, these findings are particularly relevant, MacLaren said.
“People here are saying, well, we just have to produce as much as possible and forget about sustainability for a while,” she said. “But this study really shows that you can do both at the same time.”
None of the 30 experimental farm plots were based in the United States, although researchers looked at effects on winter and spring wheat and corn yields. But the lack of more local data leaves some researchers questioning the applicability of the findings here in the Midwest.
“When it comes to agriculture, there is no one size fits all,” said Fred Below, professor of crop physiology at the University of Illinois.
This is especially true on large conventional farms in the Midwest that can span thousands of acres. Some ecological intensification practices don’t make financial sense on farms like this, Under said.
Take manure spreading, for example. While it might make sense to have livestock producing manure on a smaller-scale farm, it’s much more difficult — financially and physically — to do so on thousands of acres, argues Below.
And some Midwestern farmers agree, arguing that the finances just aren’t there yet to implement these practices on such a large scale.
“Yes, we can move into regenerative agriculture, but you have to do it for profit,” said Ken Dalenberg, who grows corn and soybeans in central Illinois.
Dalenberg puts a lot of thought into the amount of fertilizer he applies, especially given how expensive it was earlier this year. His motivation is above all economic, he says.
“[It’s] not necessarily maximizing profitability from a fertilizer standpoint, but trying to get the highest yield with the least amount of fertilizer,” he said.
As for other ecological intensification practices, such as cover cropping, Dalenberg is not prepared to take on the financial risk.
“After watching how they work for various people in the community and the results that come with it, especially when you get a wet spring, like this year, or you don’t have adequate weed control, it’s going to cost you a lot of time in yield,” he said. “You can’t afford it today unless you’re independently wealthy and your income stream comes from something other than farming.”
Lead author MacLaren said reducing the need for chemical fertilizers is the financial incentive.
“Even though it sounds difficult and can be expensive to set up, maybe in the long run it means your profits will be higher,” she said.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaHCronin
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.