South West Catchments Council applauds launch of ten-year trial to explore regenerative farming

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) has established a ten-year trial at its Merredin facility to explore regenerative farming systems.

DPIRD research scientist Dr David Ferris unveiled the 5.4-hectare site prior to Minister Alannah McTiernan’s Regenerative Agriculture Round Table meeting on 24th July.

The launch follows the release in July of a report by South West Catchments Council (SWCC), commissioned by the Government of Western Australia and funded through State NRM’s Community Stewardship Grants 2018, which interrogated the market barriers discouraging farmers from transitioning to regenerative agriculture.

SWCC’s CEO, Sally Wilkinson, said “Farmers need to run profitable businesses and a key barrier is a lack of evidence and knowledge about the financial performance of regenerative practices. They need this at a local level, relevant to their soil-type and climatic conditions. The trial at Merredin is a fantastic step in the right direction.”

Dr David Ferris speaking at the DPIRD trial site.

DPIRD’s trial will compare a regenerative system, a transformative system, and a district practice baseline.

Treatments will be developed in association with both a grower/consultant reference group and a scientific reference group.

Dr Ferris said “Some of the innovative growers on the reference group consider themselves to be ‘regenerative’ while others don’t. We have used the term ‘transformative’ to refer to innovative growers who don’t consider themselves to be regenerative.

“With the regenerative farmers, clearly there are some underlying principles such as covering the soil, minimum tillage and incorporating livestock and diversity,” Dr Ferris said.  “That emphasis on diversity is one of the reasons we’ve chosen this particular site because a sand over gravel site will enable us to utilise a wider range of crops and pasture seeds than we might not have been able to do on a deep sand or a clay site. We can then test to see whether it is able to perform on more challenging soil types in this same region.”

The incorporation of livestock is seen as an important aspect of regenerative agriculture. However, many farmers interested in regenerative agriculture do not intend to or are yet to integrate livestock.

“So we’ve got the provision to have both a regenerative system where we’ve got a diverse crop only, as well as a (regenerative) crop and livestock treatment. Likewise, the transformative system will be with and without livestock.”

There will also be three variations of the district practice control to represent extremes of that system.

“We know that a continuous cereal can deplete carbon in the soil, and we know that a continuous pasture or more perennials in the system can build up carbon.  So, if we’ve got those extremes from a scientific point of view, we can then couch how these systems stack up.”

Dr Ferris acknowledged the progress made over the past 30 years in WA with minimum till and stubble retention, but said the trial will provide an opportunity to go one step further and test more innovative practices such as a stripper/disc system. However, he pointed out that the trial by itself will not answer all the questions.

“Many of us are working together.  RegenWA, they can provide peer to peer support for those wanting to do regen right now.  We are also developing some long-term case studies that are underway that will be providing the evidence base for some of the economics and so forth within about two or three years.”

“This long-term trial will not be able to provide some information about the soil properties for perhaps five to seven years.  But we’re all working together and collectively we can put the evidence base forward to adopt or otherwise, the various regenerative or sustainable practices.”

SWCC’s report, ‘Supporting Farmers to Make the Transition to Regenerative Agriculture’ recommended six focus areas for Government to increase the adoption of regenerative practices. A summary of the report is available here. To obtain a copy of the full report please email [email protected].

This report is supported by funding from the Western Australian Government’s State NRM Program.

Article updated 4 August 8:20 am

Trial design (click to enlarge).

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