Livestock’s role in regenerative farming remains uncertain

Most supporters of regenerative farming agree on a basic principle: feeding soil microbes is crucial for healthy and productive soil.

The much larger debate is how to do that. How do you foster a healthy community of soil micro-organisms?

Some argue that livestock must be part of the regenerative farming system because they recycle nutrients and add life to the soil

Others aren’t so sure.

“I don’t think you have to have livestock,” said David Montgomery, keynote speaker at the Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association Regenerative Agriculture Conference, held in late November in Brandon.

“Some people will tell you, ‘you have to have livestock to regenerate your soil’…. I think livestock can be an accelerator of soil rebuilding, but it’s not a necessary condition.”

Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist and soil expert, has travelled the world and met with farmers who practice soil husbandry to build organic matter and the community of beneficial microbes in the soil. He has talked to many producers who are successfully improving their soil without cattle and other livestock.

Pam Iwanchysko, Manitoba Agriculture livestock specialist in Dauphin, Man., was one of the people who invited Montgomery to the conference. Nonetheless, she disagrees with him about livestock and soil health.

“I’m a firm believer that having livestock integrated into the (operation) is essential,” she said.

“Our ancestors knew what they were doing. Having mixed farming operations, they were successful with regards to recycling nutrients and not having to have all the inputs.”

Livestock or no livestock is a matter of opinion. What’s less debated in the world of regenerative ag is that tillage is harmful for soil health.

Most believe that soils from regenerative agriculture farms are much healthier and more productive than soils on organic farms.

“The big problem with a lot of organic farming is the over-reliance on tillage,” Montgomery said. “If you look at the large organic farms in California that till far too much, they’re destroying their land just as assuredly as the Greeks and the Romans did.”

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