Dr Richard Teague – Achieving Sustainable Farming Through Regenerative Cropping & Grazing
Traditional intensive farming practices have significant negative consequences for the land and surrounding ecosystems. By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised. Dr Richard Teague in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues around North America, are investigating the costs and benefits of replacing traditional farming practices with regenerative cropping and grazing techniques that restore ecosystem function and soil health as the base for improving profits.
No problem exists in isolation. This is especially true of the multitude of environmental issues we face as a society. Natural systems make up a complex web of interconnecting functions, with nothing operating at full health if parts of the system are damaged. Thus, it is vital that we consider these systems as a whole, examining not only how each component functions, but how they all fit together and interact in the bigger picture.
This is particularly important in agricultural systems. A healthy ecosystem provides valuable ‘ecosystem services’ (benefits humans gain from nature), which increase the sustainability of farming, enhance natural pest control, boost yields, and reduce costs, thereby increasing profitability. However, many traditional agricultural practices damage the very ecosystems they rely on to function optimally. Intensive farming methods, such as extensive soil ploughing, inorganic fertiliser and pesticide use, damage fragile ecosystems over time, reducing yields, and thus often prompting even more intensive farming. This unsustainable vicious circle may ultimately lead to land that is damaged beyond repair and no longer suitable for farming.
This effect is especially pronounced in the health of our soils. Globally, leading soil scientists have given a dire warning that if the current intensive agricultural practices are continued, there will be no functional soil left in around 60 years. In the best-case scenario, this means a change in the food we have available to us; in the worst-case scenario, this would mean insufficient food to go around. With the human population increasing prodigiously, reduced food production would exacerbate the problem.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Globally, increasing numbers of farmers are now adopting agricultural practices aimed at improving and regenerating soil health. Consumers are also becoming more aware of issues surrounding agricultural practices, and choosing food produced sustainably and with less environmental impact.
Dr Richard Teague and his colleagues at institutions throughout North America have been investigating how different grazing and cropping practices influence soil and environmental health, and how this impacts farm profitability, using an approach that synthesises the latest agricultural research into a robust set of findings. By taking this approach, Dr Teague aims to inform agricultural policy and management to ensure long-term sustainability of food production.
‘The problems of many current tillage-based cropping and feedlot-based livestock production systems can be avoided by ecologically sensitive management of livestock in mixed crop and grazing agroecosystems.’
Conventional Versus Regenerative Farming
Conventional methods for farming crops and forages include ploughing or tilling the soil, leaving the ground bare between harvesting and planting, high inorganic fertiliser input, and extensive use of herbicides and pesticides. Livestock are traditionally kept in large open pastures to graze throughout the year, or alternatively, are raised intensively using grain-based feed in dedicated feedlots. When fed on grain, livestock production also inherits the issues associated with traditional crop farming.
These practices lead to a damaged ‘agroecosystem’ (agricultural land and its associated ecosystem) and a diminished provision of ecosystem services. Reduced rain infiltration into the soil and decreased soil nutrients, result in lower soil moisture and the need for more fertiliser input. Carbon storage in the soil – a vital ecosystem function in the fight against climate change – is significantly reduced. Leaving the soil bare encourages the growth of weeds and exacerbates the need for herbicides. Additionally, high tillage and bare fields exhibit more soil erosion, diminished rainfall infiltration and water-storage ability. Using machinery fuelled by fossil-fuels to facilitate these intensive farming practices further amplifies the agricultural carbon footprint. If improperly fed and managed, livestock production increases the carbon footprint further.
Farming in a way that encourages a healthy agroecosystem alleviates many of these issues entirely. ‘The problems of many current tillage-based cropping and feedlot-based livestock production systems can be avoided by ecologically sensitive management of livestock in mixed crop and grazing agroecosystems,’ says Dr Teague.
Early adopters of these eco-friendly farming practices improved ecosystems as well as increased the profitability of their farms. ‘These farmers were using the regenerative grazing practice of adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing and regenerative farming practices that include use of cover crops, no-till, crop diversity, little or no chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and livestock integration to promote healthier ecosystems by rebuilding soil organic matter,’ explains Dr Teague.
AMP grazing uses short grazing periods and gives the grass adequate time to recover between grazing, by controlling the movement of livestock within paddocks. The electric fencing used with AMP grazing is inexpensive to acquire and easy to move within the paddock, giving farmers the opportunity to adopt this practice without great expense or effort. Regarding AMP grazing outcomes specifically, ranchers working with Dr Teague’s team have shown marked improvements in ecological function, productivity, and economic stability.
Improving Carbon Storage
‘Ruminant’ livestock, such as cattle, which digest plant matter within a specialised chambered stomach, have been widely criticised as being a significant source of greenhouse gases, thereby contributing to climate change.
However, Dr Teague’s research demonstrates that by using AMP grazing in tandem with regenerative cropping practices, ruminants actually increase soil carbon sequestration to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, and reduce environmental damage. ‘Permanent cover of forage plants is highly effective in reducing soil erosion, and ruminants consuming only grazed forages under appropriate management result in more carbon sequestration than emissions,’ states Dr Teague.
As carbon storage within soils is a key component of offsetting our carbon footprint, improving this function within agroecosystems will be vital in mitigating climate change impacts. Other benefits of these eco-friendly farming practices include improved nutrient levels within the soil, better watershed function, more nutritious food, and enhanced biodiversity in the surrounding habitats.
However, in complex agroecosystems there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems faced. Farms across the globe exist across a wide range of environments, with different levels of rainfall, soil types, daylight hours and temperature. This means that AMP grazing practices need to be altered to suit the specific agroecosystem and farmer. For example, some areas will require longer recovery periods for grasses after grazing. Dr Teague has been expanding his research to include farmers from different regions, with the aim of quantifying the costs and benefits of AMP grazing and regenerative cropping practices across many landscapes in North America.
A key factor in the adoption of a new farming practice is evidence of its economic advantages. Farmers are often reluctant to change their farming methods because of the high-risk nature of their livelihood; every crop and every group of livestock is essential to a farmer’s income stability. While much research has focused on individual farming practices or small farm plots, Dr Teague and his research partners have synthesised information from many studies across multiple areas to elucidate the bigger picture for a whole-agroecosystem approach.
By quantifying the costs and benefits of regenerative cropping and AMP grazing practices, Dr Teague aims to provide rigorous, unbiased information to farmers and policy-makers, allowing them to make informed agricultural management decisions based on real evidence. ‘We need to develop an understanding of how these agricultural ecosystems respond to different management options, so that the consequences of adopting different management options can be determined,’ he says. ‘In-depth calculations of the full impacts of different agricultural production chains are required.’
Dr Teague works closely with farmers that have already switched to regenerative cropping and AMP grazing and have greatly increased the profitability of their farms. Purchased inputs, such as fertilisers, pesticides and fuel for machinery, have become very expensive. As these inputs do not necessarily equate to higher yields, the profit margins are reduced. In some of the cases Dr Teague investigated, farmers were already seeking increased bank loans to afford the agricultural inputs to keep their traditionally managed farms afloat.
Regenerative cropping and AMP grazing practices require much lower inputs, so profit margins increase even if yields remain the same. By switching to regenerative practices, these farmers were able to reverse the damage within their agroecosystems, restore optimum ecosystem services, and improve the financial stability of their farms.
Through working with these farmers, Dr Teague aimed to create a practical business plan to help other farmers make the switch. He discovered that farmers successfully converting to regenerative practices would start off small. ‘They wouldn’t go from one year of using large quantities of fertilisers and pesticides to using nothing the next year,’ he says. ‘An example that has succeeded is cutting the applications in half the first year, again the next year, and then applying nothing the third year.’
The Future of Farming
Dr Teague and his team have demonstrated that some of the improvements to agroecosystems happen fairly rapidly when the switch is made from conventional farming practices to regenerative cropping and AMP grazing. In less than a decade, the carbon storage in soil increases substantially, soil nutrients improve, and water movement into the soil and water retention is enhanced.
Dr Teague is continuing to expand his research to include more agroecosystems, with the objective of tailoring the suggested practices for different climates, landscapes, and water availability. So far, the environmental and agricultural benefits have been universal across these agroecosystems, offering a promising alternative to current dire predictions for agriculture.
Meet the researcher
Dr W. Richard Teague
Ecosystem Science and Management
Texas A&M University
Dr Richard Teague earned his PhD in Botany and Ecology from the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Following this, he continued his research into grazing management systems and brush control with fire and chemicals on semi-arid rangeland in Africa and North America. He relocated to the USA, where he is currently Professor of Grazing-land Ecology in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests include sustainable management of agroecosystems, ecological restoration, and ecological economics modelling. Dr Teague works with a team of researchers, farmers and policy-makers to help inform best practices in sustainable agriculture, and has been invited to present his work at numerous prestigious conferences across the globe.
USDA National Research Initiative
WR Teague, Forages and pastures symposium: cover crops in livestock production: whole-system approach: managing grazing to restore soil health and farm livelihoods, Journal of Animal Science, 2018, 96, 1519–1530.
WR Teague, S Apfelbaum, R Lal, UP Kreuter, J Rowntree, CA Davies, R Conser, M Rasmussen, J Hatfield, T Wang, F Wang, P Byck, The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 2016, 71, 156–164.
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