April 14, 2024

Principles, rules of regenerative ag work in any location

Allen Williams

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Soil tells the story of what has happened in a field for decades.

“Our management is written on the tapestry of the land,” said Allen Williams, founding partner of Understanding Ag LLC.

“We’re in the mind transformation business,” said Williams during a presentation at the 2024 Grazing Conference, “The Hidden Benefits and Profitability of Illinois Grazing Operations,” hosted by the Illinois Grazing Lands Coalition.

“In agriculture, there are two principle types of compaction — the compaction of the soil beneath our feet and the compaction between our ears,” Williams said. “We have to overcome the compaction between our ears to be able to understand how to properly apply the basic principles and rules of regenerative ag.”

The principles and rules of regenerative ag work anywhere.

“We’ve worked in practically every conceivable environment and we’ve worked across practically every type of agricultural enterprise you can imagine and the principles and rules are the same,” Williams said.

“The only thing that changes in the context and adapting the principles and rules to your context is critical to allow them to work for you,” he said.

It’s all about creating, facilitating and growing more life.

“It’s also about reproducing a fully functioning carbon cycle,” said Williams, who is a sixth-generation farmer. “A lot of carbon is meant to cycle, and if we stop that, life on this earth ceases to exist.”

“Our problems are not solved by finding something to suck carbon out of the atmosphere,” he said. “Our problems are solved by figuring out how we reinitiate the fully functioning carbon cycle.”

As farmers move from continuous grazing pastures to regenerative grazing systems life starts exploding both beneath and above the soil surface.

To accomplish this transformation, Williams said, graziers need to follow the six principles of soil health, the three rules of adaptive stewardship and the four ecosystem processes.

In addition to knowing your context, the six principles of soil health include minimizing disturbance, keeping the soil armored and protected at all times and diversity.

“We’re lacking diversity in modern agriculture in both cropping and livestock agriculture,” Williams said. “We want diversity in plant species and diversity in the soil microbial species and we want diversity in beneficial insects, pollinators and birds.”

Soil health principles also include living roots in the soil at all times and integrating animals whenever possible.

“We’ve found when we reintegrate animals into a system, we rapidly speed up the rate of progress we can make in improving soil health, our ecosystems and their function,” Williams said.

The three rules of adaptive stewardship are compound, diversity and disruption.

“In nature and the biology of our farms, there are never any singular effects because everything we do creates a series of compounding and cascading effects,” Williams said. “These effects are never neutral. They’re either positive or negative.”

“We implement the six principles and three rules to optimize the four ecosystem processes, which are energy flow, water cycle, mineral cycle and diversity,” he said. “Over the last few years input costs have gone up a lot, but there are still things that are free to us every day, including sunlight that creates energy flow through photosynthesis.”

The water and mineral cycle are broken right now, Williams said.

“That’s not just in North America, but wherever we go in the world, but we can restore those,” he said.

Understanding Ag, which consults in all 50 states and several countries around the world, collects a lot of data from the farms.

“We’ve found there is a definitive time table to the rate of progress of regenerative ag,” Williams said. “If we are intentional about the six principles and three rules we can hit our timeline of four years over and over again.”

Williams talked about how making changes in a grazing system builds the soil aggregate.

In year one, the average aggregate depth was 2.3 inches deep, by year 2 it increases to 4.5 inches on average and the following year to 6.2 inches deep on average.

“That’s pretty good linier progress,” Williams said.

“By year four, that average is 14.7 inches which is exponential progress,” he said. “In addition, the total fungal population increased 176%, the mycorrhizal fungal population increased 153% and the saprophytic fungi increased 199%.”

During the four years, the plant species diversity increased 123% and farmers noted several other benefits including significantly enhanced water infiltration and retention rates, greater forage biomass production, better animal health, enhanced animal performance and better nutrient cycling in the soil.

Williams talked about farmers that he has worked with that have utilized regenerative ag practices on their farm including an operation in the Central Valley of California that features an almond and walnut orchard.

When Williams first visited the farm, there was nothing growing under the trees.

“You could not stick a shade more than 2 inches deep without pounding on it,” he said. “They sprayed the orchard with some type of pesticide an average of 15 times per year and they used lots of synthetic fertility and lots of irrigation.”

There were significant nematode issues on this farm and in late 2018, the farmer started utilizing regenerative practices.

“Today, you see no bare ground, he planted cover crops that solved his nematode problem because the cover crops produced natural nematicides that worked to control the nematodes,” Williams said.

The farmer added a flock of 1,000 ewes that graze in the orchard.

“He moves them daily and now on the exact same acres he has another enterprise and revenue stream,” Williams said. “He also added beehives so he has honey revenue coming in.”

Additional benefits include a significant reduction in irrigation and pesticide use.

“He buys no fertility because the sheep are supplying the fertility his trees need and his trees and nuts are healthier,” Williams said. “He was selling his nut crop to a commodity company, but now the nuts have so much nutrition he markets all of them through direct marketing.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor