Regenerative farming is a term much bandied about of late, but what does it mean?
The venerable Collins English Dictionary tells us that, “To regenerate something means to develop and improve it to make it more active, successful, or important, especially after a period when it has been getting worse”. Not a bad definition when applied to Robert and Mervyn Auchmuty’s farming system, where improving and sustaining soil health are key ambitions.
The Auchmuty’s farm, on the shores of Lough Ree in Co Roscommon, stretches across 400 acres, half of which is used for tillage; the remainder being composed of grassland for cattle and sheep, along with scattered pockets of woodland and mixed lakeshore habitat.
The combination of lake views, tall hedgerows and specimen trees make it a scenic spot, and a haven for wildlife – waders are a feature, while a massive murmuration of starlings provided a wintry welcome during my visit.
Belying the natural tranquillity, this farm is very much a place of industry; the extensive farmyard, in particular, is a hive of activity, with housed sheep and cattle to be cared for, customers for straw to be dealt with and a range of machinery to be serviced.
Mervyn is a fourth-generation farmer: his great granduncle bought the farm in 1903. Mervyn’s father, Robert, took it over in 1968, milking 50 cows and growing sugar beet and cereals.
Dairying ceased in the late 70s, to free up time for other pursuits, including contracting (mostly silage), which continues today.
A 150-cow suckler herd was subsequently built up, but when rented-in land became unavailable, this enterprise pivoted to a dairy calf-to-beef system.
The beef system worked well, but recurring outbreaks of Mycoplasma, which Mervyn attributes to factors relating to stress induced by poor weather conditions, necessitated a rethink and a likely future move to buying-in older cattle.
The sheep, however, remain a constant: 170 Charollais-cross sheep need a lot of care – for sore feet and worm burdens – but one gets the impression they are much-loved as part of the farm’s heritage.
Regenerating degraded soils is a real passion for the father and son team, inspired and informed by their involvement with BASE Ireland.
Progress is already evident, with Mervyn describing “the whole surface alive with earthworms” during a night walk of his tillage fields. He attributes this to direct-drilling of crops (winter wheat, barley, oats and spring barley), diverse cover crops and regular applications of compost.
On the grasslands, getting the stocking rate right is fundamental for avoiding compaction, though their Alstrong aerator provides a highly effective remedy. Slurry – applied using a low-emission system – is carefully diluted to protect soil fauna.
Mervyn has also been working hard to reduce nitrogen-use by using compost, red clovers and foliar-applied fertiliser. He has a formula for this, via his involvement with BASE: “melting down” (dissolving) ordinary urea and adding seaweed, fulvic acid, Epsom salts and boron.
This has allowed him to reduce nitrogen on a recent crop of wheat by one third, without reducing yield.
Beyond the clear economic benefits, Mervyn prefers “learning by doing” rather than simply following generic advice, acquiring valuable knowledge for his ongoing mission to minimise chemical inputs on the farm.
Robert and Mervyn have a keen interest in sustainability and see how cutting costs and enhancing nature are absolutely compatible, but you can sense their frustrations about what they describe as “the industry that has built up” around climate, with the farmer “at the receiving end”.
Restrictions – intended to curb bad practice but often undermining farmers’ ability to do the right thing (for example, around slurry spreading) – are a particular bugbear.
The Auchmuty’s regenerative farming ethos is fuelled by a hunger to learn, particularly from other experienced farmers, so that they can continue to develop, improve and take more control over the decisions made on their farm.
This positive, progressive attitude, even during adversity, will surely be key to sustaining Mervyn, his wife Nicola, children Abby and Tadgh, farming on the shores of Lough Ree for another generation.
All seed, except barley, was home-saved on the Auchmuty farm. Though they have to pay royalties, they feel it’s worthwhile, as it allows for ‘epigenetic progression’ – seeds adapting to their unique farm environment over generations.
Their home-saved wheat seed is a mix of six different varieties to help reduce disease, and they hope to increase this to 10+ varieties over time.
Regenerative farming is a very broad term, wide open to interpretation (and misuse!).
When making changes, Mervyn advocates starting small and observing the impact, while also reaching out to likeminded farmers.