What are some examples of sustainable farming practices?

All this week on Table Talk, we are talking sustainability. We will start to unpack the questions:

Will future generations be able to meet their own needs? 

Is my farming system sustainable?

In this second blog for the week, we ask: What are some specific sustainable farming practices?
(Don’t forget to check out our first post: What is sustainable agriculture? What does it all really mean?

Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work:

  • a healthy environment
  • economic profitability
  • and social and economic equity

Farmers have implemented holistic systems such as integrated pest management and rotational grazing. We have also embraced new technologies such as the use of satellite positioning systems to assist in land management to minimise soil compaction and to help map salinity and other soil properties.

The report “Farm Smarter, Not Harder”, looks at how Australian agricultural industries are already developing and implementing agricultural practices that are better matched to our soils and climate. Some have been widely implemented, such as conservation agriculture, controlled traffic, precision ag and IPM.

In the report, they also provide some background on these sustainable agricultural practices and the potential benefits:

Conservation Agriculture

  • A suite of management processes that reduce soil disturbance through minimum tillage, maintenance of crop residue in the soil following harvest, and crop rotation.
  • Reduces erosion through increased groundcover and minimised damage to soil structure.
  • Improves soil moisture and nutrient retention.
  • Lowers machinery, labour, and maintenance costs

Controlled Traffic Farming

  • A group of management practices that reduce the impact of farm machinery on soils by restricting wheeled equipment to particular routes and maintaining consistent traffic patterns
  • Avoids widespread soil compaction, and allows water to penetrate the soil more easily.
  • Can allow for re-planting right after harvesting and double cropping

Precision Agriculture

  • Using knowledge of differences between paddocks in crop yields, soil surface cover, elevation, and other characteristics to determine most efficient management practices (i.e. selective fertilizer and herbicide application)
  • Reduces input costs as well as fertilizer and chemical use while improving profits and reducing environmental impact
  • One recent study suggests that matching rates of application of nitrogen fertilizer to soil depth could increase gross margins from wheat production by 1 per cent in an ‘average year’, but up to 11 per cent in a year with poor weather (in comparison to applying fertilizer uniformly).

Integrated Pest Management

  • An economically sound group of selective pest management practices that are informed by the life cycle and biology of pests and minimizes environmental damage
  • Reduces the need to use pesticides by promoting natural enemies
  • Slows the development of pesticide resistance
  • Lessens the environmental impact of traditional pest management approaches

These key sustainable farming practices have emerged over decades of science and practice, and have been developed to meet these Sustainable Agricultural principles:

Rotating crops and embracing diversity

  • Planting a variety of crops can have many benefits, including healthier soil and improved pest control.
  • Crop diversity practices include intercropping (growing a mix of crops in the same area) and complex multi-year crop rotations.

Planting of cover crops.

  • Cover crops are planted during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare.   These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients, and keeping weeds in check, reducing the need for herbicides.

Reducing or eliminating tillage.

  • Traditional plowing (tillage) prepares fields for planting and prevents weed problems, but can cause a lot of soil loss.
  • No-till or reduced till methods, which involve inserting seeds directly into undisturbed soil, can reduce erosion and improve soil health.

Applying integrated pest management (IPM).

  • A range of methods, including mechanical and biological controls, can be applied systematically to keep pest populations under control while minimizing use of chemical pesticides.

Integrating livestock and crops.

  • Industrial agriculture tends to keep plant and animal production separate, with animals living far from the areas where their feed is produced, and crops growing far away from abundant manure fertilizers.
  • A growing body of evidence shows that a smart integration of crop and animal production can be a recipe for more efficient, profitable farms.

Adopting agro-forestry practices.

  • By mixing trees or shrubs into their operations, farmers can provide shade and shelter to protect plants, animals, and water resources, while also potentially offering additional income.

Managing whole systems and landscapes.

  • Sustainable farms value uncultivated or less intensively cultivated areas for their role in controlling erosion, reducing nutrient runoff, and supporting pollinators and other bio-diversity

These are just some example of sustainable farming methods. There are countless that exist as well as a number of different sustainable farm production systems approaches, including holistic agriculture, biodynamic, regenerative agriculture, and organic systems of production.

What are you employing on your farm to improve it now and for future generations?

Guest contributor: Krysteen McElroy

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