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Regenerative dairy: Finding what works

25 April 2022

Regenerative dairy can help rebalance Earth’s ecosystems, while producing high quality nutrition, and making farming and food businesses more resilient. Recently, a group of experts introduced a new project ‘Regen Dairy’, outlining the challenges and opportunities of regenerative dairy and discussing how the project will work to co-develop a roadmap.

The Regen Dairy project will define what regenerative dairy looks like – from the bottom up, and throughout dairy supply chains.

The project’s goal is to engage dairy farmers and food businesses around a practical vision for a productive and profitable global dairy sector that also restores its relationship with nature. The vision is intended to be global, but the solutions it aims to provide will be local, reflecting the difference between farm systems and national climates.

The Regen Dairy project has been set up by FAI Farms and Farmwel in collaboration with a number of global food companies, including Unilever, Barry Callebaut, Arla Foods, Woolworth South Africa and Ben & Jerry’s.

Ffinlo Costain, CEO of Farmwel based in the UK and moderator for the event, noted that regenerative agriculture can help to reestablish natural balance by mitigating global warming and creating resilience in the landscape by restoring biodiversity, soil health and the water cycle. It can do this while producing high quality food and ensuring that farming and food businesses become less vulnerable to economic, social and environmental risks, he added.

Reconnecting dairy to the soil

Klass Jans van-Calker, Global Sustainable Sourcing Manager at Unilever, noted that dairy production has become disconnected from how it can contribute to develop a sustainable food system. The cow is an amazing animal that can digest grass and contribute to making arable and vegetable farming systems more sustainable. But somewhere along the line the sector got disconnected from other crops, other farming systems and cost issues. That’s where solutions need to be found, he said.

In the last 20 years, dairy production has focused on sustainability, as well as doing no harm. But the focus of regenerative agriculture is trying to do good, to contribute to biodiversity and save land use by using marginal land, using food waste as regenerative feed, and by adding manure to arable farming systems, van-Calker said. This leads to biodiversity growth, producing clean water, creating carbon sequestration and reducing methane emissions, he added.

This demonstrates that the dairy industry is moving from doing no harm to genuinely doing good, which is a very important change.

Van-Calker said there’s a circularity to regen agriculture, where livestock production — eggs, dairy, meat — is not competing for feed with human food production. By using marginal grasslands for grazing and food waste, regen agriculture becomes complimentary to arable and vegetable systems.

Regen dairy is not something that can be achieved overnight and there is no one size fits all. The solution will be different from farm to farm. However, the goal is to build farming systems that are less dependent on inputs and less dependent on market volatilities by becoming resilient.

Finding what works

Oistein Thorsen, CEO at FAI Farms, spoke about the project that FAI and Farmwel are heading in collaboration with major companies and dairy producers. The goal of the Regen Dairy project is to engage directly with dairy farmers and food businesses around a practical vision for a productive and profitable global dairy sector that also restores its relationship with nature, he said.

“That starts with trying to understand what regen dairying looks like right now,” he said. “What are farmers doing now that is having a regenerative impact on their land and on their farm? We're documenting those stories.”

One of the key aspects of the Regen Dairy project is it’s “user centered design” approach. Thorson explained that this methodology has been developed in the service design sector but is not commonly used in agriculture. The methodology that will be applied will include creating personas and user journeys to really understand the key challenges and opportunities and the support requirements.

“For the dairy farmers embarking on their journey, what do they really need as opposed to what do we think they might need? That’s the bottom-up approach being taken,” he said.

The project aims to facilitate more conversation between farmers in regen dairy. The goal is to facilitate discussion and sharing of practices between people who are doing it every day, he said.

“Farmers start from different places, and contexts, and the pressures and opportunities are different because practices vary in different parts of the world,” he said.

Thorsen mentioned that there is a lot of discussion about defining what exactly regen is. Should it be a focus on practices, principles, or outcomes?

The idea is to understand how regen dairy is currently being measured. Through interviews and case studies, the goal is to highlight the measures and metrics that farmers are already using, Thorson said.

We recognise that there are already a range of initiatives that are focusing on measuring regenerative agriculture, but that won’t be the priority of this project, in fact we are more interested in finding out the challenges associated with these metrics and measures, he added.

“This is about taking stock of where you are, from a whole farm perspective, thinking about which direction you want to be going in. The metrics might help guide you along the way and make sure that you're moving in the right direction, but ultimately this is about a mindset shift,” Thorson said.

The Regen Dairy project information and details can be found at regendairy.org.

Regen dairy farmers

IMAGE NAME/DESCRIPTION
Tom and Sophie Gregory, dairy farmers in England who are practicing Regen Dairy principles

Tom and Sophie Gregory are dairy farmers in southwest England. They are first generation, organic dairy farmers that supply Arla. They’ve been dairy farmers for eight years, seven of those in organic production. They are now part of the Arla regen pilot program, a four-year project, with 24 farmers across their global network. The aim of the project is to give feedback to other farmers.

Sophie Gregory said they are share farming with another organic dairy farmer who's also an Arla member. They raise 360 cows on 900 acres.

“It's a real mixed bag, in terms of soil type. It can be quite a challenge, depending on the climate. We aim to be out nine months of the year, depending on the season. But the biggest aim for us is to turn grass to milk,” she said.

Tom Gregory said, “one of the first lightbulb moments was when we started doing a second round of soil sampling. And it was only basic chemical and organic matter samples, but we were starting to see that even though we were organic…some of the indices weren't improving. Maybe we needed to change some of the methods we were using to improve grass growth and soil health,” he said.

That’s what started their search for different approaches and led them to regen dairy principles.

The Gregory’s are moving away from heavy cultivations and are making changes in hedgerow management to improve the farming-to-environment balance. But at the same time, the business must be profitable, Tom emphasized.

“If you've got the field that looks slightly compact or hungry, why is this field looking this way? We're not going to implement machinery passes, aerating. Let's try and solve that problem by looking at the soil and working out if this is a chemical issue, a biological issue or a fungal/bacterial ratio issue?” Tom queried.

Sophie noted, “my biggest thing would be to emphasize that small changes really add up.”

Start doing things like changing hedgerow management. There's a different sized hedge for different wildlife and you can change your grassland species to help increase infiltration. Even a very small tweak can help along the journey to being regenerative, she said.

“My vision would be to encourage others to get on board by implementing small changes,” she said. “I think it's definitely a mindset. We have a flexible view. We're constantly having to adapt how we do things when the climate changes or when things alter. It's just trying to get people to take that first step into it. And then once you do, it's kind of a rabbit hole, you start one thing and it works or it doesn't work, you try another thing, and it sort of leads on to another change, that is how we’ve found it,” Sophie emphasized.

Tom said, “as tenant farmers, we have a particular amount of fixed costs, we've got bills we need to pay every month, so it has to work.”

“If we were to decide to move away from rye grass-clover leys,” — which represent 80% of their fields — “we couldn't just suddenly decide to reseed the whole farm in one year, that's not going to work. We're not paid on nutrient density, we're paid on volume and fat and protein content,” he concluded.

Commercial perspective

Jo Lawrence, who provides agri-commercial support at Arla Foods, also joined the webinar discussion.

“At Arla, we talk about stronger people and stronger planet. We really feel that dairy has a key role to play in delivering on that mission. And obviously, we talk a lot about the health benefits of milk,” she said. “I think where we really need to use this movement and momentum with farmers around regenerative is to start collecting the data from the practices to be able to deliver those proof points back to our customers and consumers to really demonstrate that dairy farming with our cows is delivering this positive impact on nature and climate. Because we feel it's when you can have that data, we can tell a bigger story.”

Arla is a farmer-owned cooperative with 10,000 farmer owners. She said Arla talks a lot about needing to transform, which is why it's so important to have farmers right at the heart of leading this. However, these are businesses as well, and they need to make money. The way Arla approaches regen dairy has to be aligned with supporting them to continue to be a sustainable business themselves, she said.

“This is a journey, and all farmers are starting from different places and having different contexts. And it's not an overnight thing. We're not going to wake up tomorrow and be regenerative. How can we use the data to demonstrate that we're making that continual improvement, and through that sharing and commercializing with customers, to give the farmers the incentive to take that first step and to start their own journey?” Lawrence asked.

“I think the first challenge is the fact there is no blueprint. There's no tried and tested way of doing this…because of the complexity of regen and the fact it's a systems approach,” she said. “We're going to try and pull together what's already out there, what's already working and start to share that knowledge and what measures are meaningful for farmers.”

She also noted that these collaborative approaches across the supply chain are important because ultimately, the industry is trying to align on what we're trying to achieve together. It wouldn't make sense for Arla to come up with our own approach of what is regenerative, and then other companies come up with their approaches, because from a farmer's point of view, they want clarity, said Lawrence.

The industry should align to make long term decisions and give dairy farmers the direction of travel and not have them worried that, if they're going down a path, that it is suddenly going to change, she concluded.

Chris Wright

Chris Wright



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