There are many terms floating about to define various types of farming of late.

Many of these methods have been around for a long time but maybe never had a specific term or category associated with them and some are regaining popularity.

Biological, regenerative, zero-till, organic, conventional – the list goes on. It seems that there are more and more terms for different types of farming practices coming on stream.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference. Other times, there is a clear difference in methodology and not all systems suit all farms. However, one thing is for sure – a sustainable farming system suits everyone.

Farms must be sustainable. Meaning that they must turn profits and protect the environment, not forgetting to ensure the farmer has a good work-life balance and a safe and healthy environment to carry out that work.

A sustainable farm, without ever saying it, probably involves a mix of all of the farming types listed. So, what do they mean? And what practices can we take from them to make farms more sustainable?

Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring and improving soil health and increasing soil biodiversity in a bid to produce nutrient-dense food. Through the use of direct-drill, mixed species swards, companion crops, cover cropping, while also avoiding the use of artificial fertiliser and pesticides, regenerative agriculture aims to increase soil health, carbon content and farm income.

Organic farming

Long before the term was used, organic farming was practised widely, but it was officially labelled in the last century as the use of fertilisers and pesticides became a normal part of agriculture.

Organic farmers cannot use artificial fertilisers or chemicals, and organic produce has to be certified by an organic body. While other farming systems may not use artificial fertiliser or pesticides, they cannot sell produce as organic if they are not certified.

Conventional farming

Conventional farming is what most people are familiar with – farms that use artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Within this category, there are different intensities, where farms may follow the high-input, high-output model, or are stocked at high rates, but many are somewhere in the middle.

Biological farming

Biological farming is sometimes described as a mix of conventional and organic agriculture.

Similar to regenerative farming, it focuses on improving soil health and biological activity, which in turn can improve plant health.

Rotation, multi-species grazing swards, cover cropping and non-inversion tillage practices all form part of the biological farming toolbox. Biological farming practices work to reduce artificial fertiliser and pesticide use, but their use is not eliminated. Some farmers also use biological mixes to combat disease and provide nutrition, such as fungi, acids and biological fertilisers.

A little bit of every system

As you read through the brief descriptions of the systems, you’ll see there are many crossovers.

Without knowing it, farmers are practising some of the pillars of regenerative or biological farming and maybe that is what is needed. A little bit of every system can help to improve your overall farming system, and unless you want to sell organic produce, you don’t need to label your method of farming – but it is important to strive for sustainability.

For example, diversity in plants, whether that’s a multi-species sward, a cover crop mix or a crop rotation, can provide diversity in the soil. Different root types can improve structure, while different plants will provide a mixture of feed for a host of microbiology which can help to release nutrients from the soil.

This can then reduce artificial fertiliser use and the amount of mineral supplements supplied to animals, or trace elements to plants.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is one of the EU’s buzzwords at present, but IPM isn’t new and it is widely practised in all systems. Crop rotation can reduce pests, diversity can increase the number of natural predators, healthier soils result in healthier plants and all of these combined can reduce pesticide and fertiliser use, making farms more economically and environmentally sustainable.

Do your own research

It is essential that we remain open-minded to people’s farming techniques. If we all grew organic food, like it or not, we would struggle to feed the planet and the majority of consumers are not willing to pay a premium for the produce. This would not be sustainable.

Buying a direct drill suits some farms. However, yield hits and grass weed problems could render other farms unsustainable. Someone using the plough, till, sow method could also be feeding their soils or applying lower pesticide rates.

Farmers need to be able to listen to each other and share ideas without dismissing other people’s systems. It is clear that there is a change in mindset from many farmers. They are actively seeking alternative methods and trialling different techniques. Research is behind in some cases, but farmer-led research is thriving.

Maybe that is what’s needed – to try something new every year on farms.

Plant a cover crop in half a field and not in another and see the difference. Stitch clover or plantain into a paddock, cut back fertiliser rates in one paddock and compare it to the one beside it. It might not be scientific, but what you try might suit your farm. Little changes can make a big difference.