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Supporting evidence-based practice and knowledge transfer for farmers

By Ruth Wade, Research Fellow, University of Leeds

As part of the FixOurFood programme, the University of Leeds is researching the impact of regenerative farming systems in Yorkshire. For many farmers, the main aim of regenerative agriculture is to improve soil quality and fertility, and those who have successfully transitioned report significant changes in soil structure and biology through following six principles: 1. Understand the context of your farm, 2. Minimise soil disturbance, 3. Maximise crop diversity, 4. Keep the soil covered, 5. Maintain living roots all year round, 6. Integrate livestock. Many regenerative farmers report using practices such as cover crops, direct drilling, reducing agrichemicals, and retaining crop residues. There are significant opportunities associated with regenerative agriculture such as reduced inputs, increased business resilience and carbon sequestration, but there are also many challenges and uncertainties especially during the transition phase such as reduced yield, requirement of new skills and initial financial input. We asked farmers how the University can support regenerative farming and they highlighted three key areas

  1. Spreading a positive message about the work farmers are already doing
  2. Provide unbiased evidence-based practice
  3. Support farmer-led knowledge transfer

The regenerative farming system researchers on FixOurFood are implementing activities to support these three areas. One such activity is a large research trial at the University of Leeds farm, in collaboration with NIAB, to support evidence-based practice and knowledge transfer. The trial is designed to test the regenerative farming principles and gain a greater understanding of how to transition from conventional to regenerative management, identifying practices that are likely to have the biggest impacts. It comprises replicated large plots (12 m x 40 m) in a field that has historically been managed conventionally, comparing conventional practice including ploughing, single wheat variety and inorganic fertiliser, with minimal cultivation, inputs of farmyard manure, mixed varieties, clover understories, grazing and changes in the rotation incorporating herbal leys. Those treatments that include applications of farmyard manure have received an application of pig manure supplied by the University of Leeds National Pig Centre.

Throughout the trial researchers at the University of Leeds are measuring the impacts of different practices on soil chemical, physical and biological properties including soil carbon, aggregates, water holding capacity and numbers of earthworms, at detailed temporal and spatial scales (within plots and down to soil depths of 50 cm). Throughout the year, the team are monitoring greenhouse gas emissions using automated flux chambers and have installed soil moisture sensors throughout the trial for real-time high frequency data collection. Crop disease, growth, yield and profit will be evaluated to provide information on the economics of transitioning. All this information and data will be shared with the research collaborators at Cranfield University who will be modelling the impact of changing farm management practices on global warming.

The trial is not only intended to measure the impacts of transitioning to regenerative agriculture, it is also designed as a demonstration trial, where visitors can view and discuss the opportunities and challenges of regenerative farming. We hope that this project is the start of a significant effort to support farmers in the region and the rest of the UK.