Following up with Allan Savory on using cattle to reverse desertification and global warming

A couple weeks back I linked to the video of a lecture given by Allan Savory, on the topic of “Keeping Cattle: Cause or Cure of Climate Change?” Unexpectedly, and to my delight, a reader of the blog who knows Savory put me in touch with him, and Savory generously agreed to answer questions I sent him through email. While I had found his lecture fascinating, there were aspects that weren’t clear to me and so I am pleased to have had the opportunity to dig deeper into the issues. By way of introduction, here’s Savory’s biography as provided by the Savory Institute:

Allan Savory was born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa (University of Natal – BSc Biology and Botany). He pursued an early career as a research biologist and game ranger in the British Colonial Service of what was then Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), and later as a farmer and game rancher in Zimbabwe. In the 1960s he made a significant breakthrough in understanding what was causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems and, as a resource management consultant, worked with numerous managers, eventually on four continents, to develop sustainable solutions. He served as a Member of Parliament in the latter days of Zimbabwe’s civil war and leader of the opposition to the ruling party headed by Ian Smith. Exiled in 1979 as a result of his opposition, he emigrated to the United States where he co-founded the Center for Holistic Management with his wife, Jody Butterfield and in 2009, the Savory Institute. In 1992 they founded the Africa Centre for Holistic Management near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe whose purpose is to enhance food and water security and human livelihoods through training that utilizes livestock to restore degraded watersheds and croplands to health. Their book, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision-Making (Island Press, 1999), describes Savory’s effort to find workable solutions ordinary people could implement to overcome many of the problems besetting communities and businesses today. In 2003, Allan Savory received Australia’s International Banksia Award “for the person or organization doing the most for the environment on a global scale,” joining previous recipients Rachel Carson, and David Attenborough, among others.

To summarize, Savory argues that mainstream understanding of grassland ecology is mistaken. When grasslands in seasonally arid areas of the world shows signs of desertification, the standard response is to reduce the number or eliminate entirely any grazing animals. While it is true that cattle and other grazing animals will induce desertification when managed in traditional ways (which includes contemporary mainstream advice given by extension services), Savory argues that it is not the animals per se that are causing harm, rather their mismanagement. Grasslands co-evolved with large numbers of grazing ruminants and the grasses require interaction with the grazers to maintain healthy populations. So if a former grassland is converting to desert, or has converted to desert (not in the sense of the quantity of precipitation it receives, but in the sense that there is now bare ground between plants and soils are no longer holding water through the dry season), the solution is the opposite of what is usually recommended. Rather than remove grazing animals to “rest” the land, what is needed is more animals, maintained in a way that they behave as wild ruminants behave (i.e., staying in dense, bunched herds that continuously move and so do not graze on any one group of plants for long, but also grazing on all the plants periodically). In his lecture, his answers below, and elsewhere, Savory explains more of the nuances of the ecology to show why this is the case. He includes case study photos that profile land experiencing identical climatic conditions, but the land with few or no grazing animals is terribly desertified whereas the land with large numbers of bunched, mobile grazers is lush and full of a diversity of plant and animal species.

Here’s the video again, in case you’d like the full Monty. It’s about an hour long.

Allan Savory – Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis? from Feasta on Vimeo.

All throughout, Savory emphasizes the importance of the approach he adapted and developed, “holistic management,” which is not a one-dimensional approach focused only on the ecology of the situation. If you want people to act in a way that promotes a healthy ecology, they must also act simultaneously in ways that are in accord with their cultural needs and that satisfy their economic needs. That’s where the holism comes into play. The people involved must make their decisions in such a way that their ecological, economic, and cultural needs are simultaneously fulfilled, and fulfilled in mutually supportive fashion. This distinguishes holistic management from all the many management systems out there. The Q&A below gets much more into this distinction (largely because it took me a while to understand the distinction myself, so I kept asking for more from Savory).

What got me interested in all this in the first place is having heard and read estimates that, if applied throughout the world’s rangelands, holistic management of cattle and other grazing animals has the capacity to promote extremely rapid re-formation of topsoil, much of which has been lost wherever human agriculture has mucked things up. This new topsoil will, of necessity, contain vast quantities of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere, sufficient—when occurring alongside reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion—to bring the atmosphere back to pre-industrial balance. (Other methods for rapid topsoil formation exist to be used either solo or in combination with holistic range management.) That’s hopeful news and something I’m eager to continue learning more about.

On the subjects of holistic management and rapid rebuilding of topsoil, find additional information at Managing Holistically, Managing Wholes, Soil Carbon, and Carbon Farmers of America. A Google search will, of course, lead you to much more. Oh, and while I was getting this post finalized, Laurie Benson at the Savory Institute passed me a link to another interview with Savory, published in the Society for Range Management journal, Rangelands.

1. In your lecture, you criticize a “reductionist” perspective in science for understanding nature and the interaction of human behaviors, human economies, etc, with nature. On the other hand, you make reference to specific aspects of the animal-grass relationship that—while certainly part of a whole relationship—seem to me to be details of that relationship that can only have come to be identified through a certain degree of reductionist investigation. Are there no benefits to scientific approaches that seek to identify and understand “parts” rather than exclusively thinking in terms of “wholes”?

There is nothing wrong with reductionist research. It has taken us far. Nothing in the emerging holistic world view in any way lessens the value of reductionist research—rather it is enhanced making it more relevant to management requirements in agriculture. Where a serious, and dangerous, problem arises we see with for example the Range Management profession in which academic researchers dominate to the exclusion of commonsense. Where reductionist researchers develop and research “management systems” designed to suit research protocols rather than management realities. Where the same “reductionist researcher peers” vet management publications and advise government policy makers. We need our academic institutions (and governments) to recognize that the training and skills required for research are totally different from those required for management. Where researchers need to isolate factors for study, managers have every day to deal with extreme social, environmental and economic complexity whether they be pastoralists, farmers, policy makers or development project designers. In short, reductionism is appropriate for research while it is inappropriate for management. To manage effectively, one must have a holistic approach.

To illustrate this further, successful new management developments and thinking of the last 60 years have been routinely “killed” by the reductionist peer review process for example. Some have been adopted in name, but only after conversion to unsuccessful form to suit researcher paradigms and thus rendered useless. Some of the most successful management approaches and processes are simply ridiculed as anecdotal. This is not unlike putting the finest candle makers in total charge of the development and adoption of the development of electric lighting! So we find humanity facing the current grave danger to global civilization due to desertification/climate change—and the official position paper put out by the international Range Management Society frankly almost criminally negligent. As a consequence, climatologists responsible for advising governments are using information dangerously wrong concerning most of the Earth’s land area. Livestock for example as they have been managed for centuries, and still are managed, are doing far more damage to the environment than climatologists and livestock critics know.

When we use the holistic decision making framework in both management and in what we call the research orientation mode, it increases our need for more targeted, relevant reductionist research in all areas—agriculture, range, wildlife, forestry, fisheries. Let me reemphasize this vital point—research in many instances (not all) needs to be reductionist but management involving natural resources in all instances without exception needs to be holistic to be truly successful short and long term.

A simple example: Say a pastoralist community aiming to reverse desertification was managing their culture, their land and their economy as one indivisible whole, as they have to do to succeed. And they have a particular plant that has assumed problem proportions in the biological community. They need to reduce its dominance, but not eradicate it, because it is a component in the complexity required for stability. Current reductionist researchers simply name it invasive (or noxious) and research what will kill the plants in an attempt to eradicate them—and thus we spend millions annually poisoning plants that inevitably return because no researcher thought of simply addressing what in the management was resulting in those plants dominating the community. US government policy developed (wrongly) by reductionist researchers has resulted in over $300 million being spent every year for at least the last 25 years or more in Federal and State budgets supporting eradication of “noxious” plants. Any business that had invested over $15 billion like that would expect some useful result, or else change their management. Policy based purely on such reductionist research simply keeps spending and taxpayers pay. Managers need to be saying to such researchers “We do not need to know what will kill these adult plants in the toughest part of their life cycle because they will return. We need to know what conditions favour establishment by this plant and not others. We need you to tell us what precise germination and establishment conditions are essential for that plant to establish en mass. That is the most sensitive part of their life cycle—if millions germinate but precise establishment conditions do not prevail they will die of their own accord.” As soon as we have the findings of that reductionist research we can then adjust the “tools” or influences (management) the pastoralists are applying to their land and reduce the numbers of the problem plant by altering the germination/establishment environment.

2. You refer to “management systems” as something undesirable. Why?

The difference between predetermined or prescribed management and management by planning process is profoundly important. Business and military colleges understand this and thus business is always run by various planning processes. Armies fight wars most successfully where the officers are highly trained planners. The days of fighting battles in pre-determined square formations were abandoned centuries ago. Both businesses and armies would fail were they to operate on a prescribed management system designed to avoid the complexity with which they have to deal. More so when the management systems were designed to fit research protocols rather than complex management reality.

I could go on and on about this because it is no exaggeration to say a vast amount of manpower and money is being squandered in utterly useless reductionist research today researching “management systems”—i.e. specified grazing systems, grazing rotations, agricultural systems, cropping systems, forestry systems, etc. Range researchers have been researching such rotational and other grazing systems all of my long life yet no management system or rotational system, no matter how flexible, has ever succeeded in reversing desertification. Natural resource “management systems” are in essence designed to avoid or bypass complexity. Although the motive was good, unfortunately complexity—social, environmental and economic—is the implacable reality for management and thus cannot be bypassed or avoided. It has to be embraced through sound planning processes. This is why, when managing holistically, if it is determined that livestock should be used we then do so using a planning process adapted from hundreds of years of experience in military planning. This planning process fully embraces and deals with the social, environmental and economic complexity inherent is managing the livestock, plants, soils, economy, weather irregularities and social factors. Such planning processes can never be subjected to reductionist research needs, replication, controls, etc. The results can however be monitored using reductionist research techniques and we need more of this.

One final word, because this situation is so profoundly important to the survival of civilization globally—reductionist researchers dominating mainstream agriculture believe they can develop management systems to manage land (cropland, rangeland, forest, etc). This is a mistake. Fundamentally, land alone is not manageable. The culture of any people, their land and their economy are indivisible and thus can only be managed holistically as one whole. This is why Holistic Management is so successful. Many people, influenced by economists, do not understand that land and economy are inseparable. But they are, because the only wealth that can truly sustain any community or nation, or sustain the global economy, comes from the photosynthetic process—ultimately relying on healthy soil.

Having recently read Alan Greenspan’s biography I found no recognition at all of this simple irrefutable fact throughout the professional life of this otherwise no doubt brilliant economist. The US economy can only run into ever deeper trouble as long as the US continues to annually “export” into the atmosphere and oceans a greater weight and value of eroding soil than all other exports combined—grain, beef, timber, commercial products and military hardware.

3. Can you say more about the difference between a management system and the holistic management decision-making process? In common usage, I think of the terms “system” and “process” as nearly synonymous. For your purposes in the context of management, what is the difference between the terms? What is fundamentally flawed in management systems per se such that we cannot devise a comprehensive system that accounts for land, culture, and economy, whereas the holistic management process is capable of leading to consistently successful results?

Let me try to clarify. First let us not confuse decision-making with the management to follow, for example the decision to run livestock. Let us assume we are dealing with a large area of seriously desertifying land, as is most rangeland in Arizona. This area of public rangeland managed, say, by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management is in its present state leading to excessive flooding and siltation of a river and dam and thus endangering city and irrigation water supplies and wildlife is decreasing. The land is heavily invaded with woody plants and weeds, more than 80% of the soil between plants is bare, as is fairly typical in that state.

The first step would be to decide what could be done to reverse such desertification. With the universal decision-making of today, “expert opinion” would be to rest the land and remove what few livestock have been on it. To perhaps reseed with “native grasses” and to eradicate the invasive woody plants. Perhaps even to use machinery such as the Dixon Imprinter (developed in Arizona) to restore the land health. This has been done repeatedly in Arizona and most western States and as a consequence desertification is accelerating. So first we would use the holistic framework to analyse the current management to learn why grassland is dying out and being replaced by bare soil and woody plants. There are only two things in management that lead to such vast areas of land exhibiting a high percentage of bare soil between plants. First, too few large herbivores (wild or domestic) wandering around overgrazing plants while not providing adequate disturbance of soil and old grass plants to lay litter, ensure rapid annual biological decay and break capped soil surfaces (as a gardener would do if desiring to grow plants). The other thing is fire that destroys soil covering litter. If we removed or decreased the livestock the bare soil would increase and woody plants also would strive to fill nature’s vacuum and increase as countless research plots have demonstrated. We would learn that using the machine to mimic animal disturbance of soil and vegetation is costly and fails because machines do not dung and urinate. We would learn that planting grass fails if we have not first dealt with why the original grass is dying out. I am obviously shortening this because to write the full analysis is too long for now, but in the end all would understand that only livestock currently could reverse this desertification and restore a healthy functioning water cycle. We would determine we need to run livestock and to drastically curb fires. So a decision is made to run livestock—now we come to management of that livestock.

Range science (reductionist) designed management would dictate that the livestock numbers be limited to a certain stocking rate to prevent overgrazing. That the animals be run on some form of rest rotation system, rotation every x days, set stocking system or other simple “management system.” The consequence of any of these could be analysed using the holistic framework and we would learn that all of them would lead to further desertification no matter how flexible or adaptable they were. There are several reasons why such simple management systems would fail eventually:

  • Overgrazing has nothing to do with animal numbers and we often need three or four times as many animals to heal the land;
  • These systems saw no need to change animal behaviour and it is the bunching behaviour that largely lays litter, breaks soil surfaces and leads to closer plant spacing and soil cover;
  • These measures did not take into account the economics of the situation, commonly including over-capitalization for too few animals producing;
  • All such simple management systems, if they cater for dry years (drought), do so by reserving an area of land. This increases drought risk by reducing the production of every plant grazed over the bulk of the land, while also decreasing animal performance and it does these things every season including those that were not dry;
  • Such simple management does not cater for the needs of wildlife except by accident, if at all;
  • Such management, if grazing periods are short enough and recovery periods for plants are long enough, will ensure most overgrazing is avoided but ensures that the main influence on the land—partial rest—continues and thus desertification continues. (All research plots in the US demonstrate that the effects of partial and total rest are almost identical regardless of whether plants are grazed, totally rested or overgrazed.)

There are other reasons for failure but that is enough for illustrative purposes.

So, what should we do? The answer is simple. Determine in a holisticgoal1 what the environment has to be like in future, including covered soil, healthy grassland, abundant wildlife, healthy rivers, stable and wealthy families supported by it. And use a planning process to always have the livestock (as tools) in the right place for the right reason at the right time with the right behaviour to produce such a landscape and sound economy. We clearly need to bunch the livestock in as few large herds as possible and this has to be thought out and planned based on the livestock production and financial planning. We need to bunch them to ensure the behaviour change required to break soil surfaces, where bare and capped, and to lay soil-covering litter. And we need to understand that every additional herd changes the graze/trample-to-recovery ratio essential for high forage production for both the livestock and wildlife. We need to plan generally twice each year to cover each season, growing and non-growing, and to always ensure a drought reserve of forage. I emphasise the behaviour because in such seasonally arid/humid environments the plant spacing of perennial grass plants is a function not of rainfall but of animal behaviour. Basically with animals bunched, plants become bunched, and similarly if animals are not bunched perennial grass plants become more widely spaced. Close plant spacing is desirable to hold soil-covering litter in place against wind and water movement and this in turn reduces both flood and drought frequency and severity. The reserve of forage that should always be planned in case of genuine rainfall failure is planned in days not area of land—this is to keep the livestock moving on the best possible graze/trample-to-recovery ratio to increase the production of all plants grazed and to gain the best animal performance for economic reasons. In addition we need information about special requirements of all the species of wildlife we can obtain so that we can build that information into the planning. If some species are ground nesting, or young need a certain amount of cover for instance, the plan must ensure that the livestock avoid some areas at certain times and also leave more cover where required when required.

Again this is enough for illustrative purposes. We cannot do anything but use a very well developed planning process. The holistic planned grazing process unfailingly deals with such complexity and very simply indeed. I did not originate it but adapted it in the 1960’s from the British Sandhurst Military College planning. As a wildlifer and ecologist, realizing I had no option but to use livestock to reverse environmental degradation, I did not want to re-invent the wheel. Clearly I had to deal with livestock, crops, wildlife, economy, weather and more, and only the military as a profession had developed planning processes to deal with ever shifting complex stressful situations. In more than forty years on three continents, holistic planned grazing has never yet failed any rancher using the process.

There is another way of illustrating the difference between management systems and management by process. During many training sessions when training academic range science people I have begun by simply listing many issues—weather, livestock, wildlife, forestry, cropping, drought, etc that would occur on any large ranch intending to manage to optimize all production and reverse desertification. I have provided maps showing the positions of water, fencing, road and facilities on the ranch. Then I have had the students in teams tasked with working out how they would advise that rancher to manage his livestock using all their knowledge of grazing systems, short duration grazing rotation, cell grazing, mob grazing, management intensive grazing or any other way of grazing they can think of. Always the result is the same. Within about an hour they give up in despair and have no idea what to advise to practically handle this normal and average complexity. Then I teach them how to do holistic planned grazing and every issue falls into place neatly. I have had an African farm assistant with only high school education learn to do holistic planned grazing extremely well in an hour and a half.

Let me attempt to summarize this difference more concisely. A management system, no matter how flexible, always boils down to a finite set of prescribed actions and therefore cannot adapt to the infinitely variable and inevitable changes in circumstances. And it normally ignores economic and social/cultural considerations. A management planning and decision-making process, on the other hand, and if holistic, is precisely organized around the assumption of changing circumstances and always is fully integrated with social/cultural and economic considerations. Any management system is always designed to achieve an objective/goal. Holistic Management including its financial and grazing planning (where livestock are involved) should always be ensuring that any objectives and goals and the means to attain them are socially, economically and environmentally aligned with a holisticgoal1.

1“Holisticgoal” is a term used in Holistic Management. As defined by Jody Butterfield of the Savory Institute, “One begins by defining the entity being managed in terms of the people responsible for its management and the resources available to them. These people then form a holisticgoal that describes the quality of life they collectively seek, what they have to produce to create that quality of life, and a description of the resource base they depend upon as it will have to be, far into the future, to sustain what they must produce to create the quality of life they envision.”

4. Chelsea Green has recently published an American edition of James Bruges’ book, The Biochar Debate (originally published by Green Books in the UK). Bruges describes biochar in mostly, though not exclusively, positive terms and advocates for the widespread adoption of biochar production for use as a soil amendment. (To be clear: he advocates for small-scale biochar efforts, at the level of individual farm or community, enacted on a global scale. He strongly opposes the establishment of large, commercial plantations to grow feedstock for biochar production). If you are familiar with the arguments for and against biochar, what is your opinion of its advisability or role in moving atmospheric carbon back into the soil? Do you view it as a high-tech or low-tech approach to carbon sequestration (given that in your lecture you describe high-tech approaches as “highly dangerous”)?

I think biochar, as James Bruges is advocating (small, farm-scale, farm by farm) is an excellent low-tech technique. To try to engage in biochar production on a vast scale would be unwise—as unwise as the ridiculous ethanol-from-corn schemes. Ideally—as farmers can be assisted to learn how to make every significant decision in their lives and on their farms so that they are simultaneously economically, socially and environmentally sound both short and long term—they would use the biochar technology, or not do so, depending on their individual situation. The term “best management practice” so widely accepted is a misnomer. There is no such thing because what may be the right thing to do on a farm this year may not be next year, let alone on a different farm—and this the holistic decision making framework sorts out routinely. There’s a saying I always share with farmers, “you cannot step into the same river twice” because it is flowing.

5. You refer to Egypt as the only place where civilization has maintained itself for a truly long duration—other civilizations having been undermined by “environmental malfunction” and this Egyptian exception being due to the annual rejuvenating influx of soil washed down the Nile River from Ethiopia. What of India or China? What of the indigenous American civilizations that, as I’ve read, seem to have collapsed largely due to widespread death from diseases introduced by Europeans? Were their agricultural bases in the process of failing already, so that the European invasion only hastened the day?

Let’s look at Egypt first—as I point out, only agriculture in it’s broadest sense made civilization possible. However, agriculturalists—farmers, foresters, fishermen, pastoralists, etc have destroyed more civilizations than armies have done. Armies change civilizations, but they continue in changed form; farmers destroy them. The same levels of civilization existed along the Nile but only where the silt flowed by.

Everywhere we look throughout history, environmental degradation occurred for the same reasons as is happening all over the world today. Only at the mouth of the Nile, despite many conquering armies, did civilization persist for a very long time for the reasons stated in the lecture. In the Nile delta the annual silt load from the destruction of vast areas up river was deposited over at least the last fifty or sixty thousand years.

When we look at the large cities elsewhere, some lasting four of five thousand years at least, we find they seem to have existed on major navigable rivers or close to sea shores—like London which took the Royal and Merchant navies and major areas of the world to sustain it.

When we look at the Americas we find the early cities generally inland, and whether in arid New Mexico or wet Yucatan, they failed with no ability to sustain them from a vast area of deteriorating resource base—no navy, no wheel, no domestic draught animals. Had disease, brought by Europeans, alone wiped them out, people would have repopulated them—even today despite Chaco Canyon being in a protected environment managed by the US National Parks Service that environment could not support that past population—yet it was an irrigation-based civilization in an arid brittle environment. We can today do what was previously simply not possible—we can use the holistic decision making framework to analyze this past civilization—anthropologists are mystified as to why the Charcoans abandoned their civilization—there is no mystery. The only thing that could have enabled that civilization to persist was livestock but those arrived too late with the Spaniards—and of course they would not at the time have known how the livestock could reverse the desertification occurring.

The reasoning here—so people can understand—this irrigation-based civilization in a low-rainfall, brittle environment (experiencing long dry periods of low humidity) can only sustain the civilization with a very effective water cycle brought about by permanently covered soil. Because the rainfall is too low to provide soil cover from trees and shrubs this soil cover can only be accomplished with healthy grassland. Healthy grassland, in turn, needs repeated disturbance of herding animals to lay soil-covering litter and to maintain rapid biological decay in annually dying plant material. However these people had only the tools of technology, fire and resting land—none of which can either maintain rapid biological decay or lay soil-covering litter. By settling into irrigation-based agriculture with a large population, they displaced herding animals that sustained the soil’s moisture-holding ability and thus desertification was inevitable as was their downfall. Given livestock and the knowledge to concentrate them and plan grazing, their city could have survived.

6. You seem to imply that the entirety of the problems you list in the lecture (“eroding soil; drying wells, springs, rivers, lakes; droughts & floods; diseases of plants, animals, humans; invasions—noxious plants, insects; poverty—social breakdown—abuse of women & children; drift to cities & slums; petty crime—violence—blaming minorities—victimization—genocide; failing economies local, national, international; wars, breakdown of government, failure of civilizations”) are rooted in environmental malfunction. That’s a bold assertion. Do you mean it that boldly?

Yes most certainly.

None of the things I listed, including increasing frequency and severity of both droughts and floods (even without weather change) is a causal problem—all are symptoms of environmental degradation. One example—in the early 1960’s we had a severe “drought” all over the upper river catchment (“watershed” as Americans call it) of the Limpopo river in Botswana, South Africa and what was then Rhodesia. Our governments mounted measures to assist people to survive the “devastating drought”—but at exactly the same time the International Red Cross was collecting money in the streets of the nearest city Bulawayo for the “flood victims” in Mozambique on the lower stretches of the same river! Many are the similar examples.

7. When you describe the different life cycles in year-round humid vs. seasonally dry environments you say that there is a massive die-off of vegetation each year as the dry season sets in. But isn’t avoiding that die-off part of the value of mimicking the natural system through proper management of large grazing herds? In the photos you show of recovered land in Zimbabwe, the grass appears lush even though the photos are taken after the rainy season has ended; you say that the creeks and rivers now run nearly year round, and have pools in them when they aren’t running, which means that water is remaining in the soils even long after the rains have stopped. Under these conditions, what brings about the massive die-off?

Every year in the bulk of the World’s grasslands/savannas that are brittle environments (erratic humidity whether receiving high or low rainfall) there has to be a massive die off of billions of tons of above ground plant parts. No management should try to prevent this essential process. Most trees and shrubs lose their leaves which then fall to the ground where they can biologically decay, allowing the nutrients to re-enter the mineral or nutrient cycle with the next rainy (growing) season. The mass of above ground perennial and annual grass plant parts also die off—in the case of annual grasses the entire plant dies and in the case of the perennial grasses almost all of the stems and leaves die after nutrients are moved to the base of the plant or roots.

What appears to have been confusing is that the grass in the photo is still standing; that does not mean that the stalks you are seeing are still alive. Whereas the bulk of woody vegetation (trees and shrubs) withdraw most nutrients from the leaves, which they then drop (thus the season called “Fall” for this reason in the US), and store the nutrients in readiness for the next growing season, grasses cannot graze themselves or remove their own dead leaves and stems after withdrawing nutrients to the plant base or roots. They require herds of large herbivores to perform this task, as they did for millions of years—the herbivores have to eat and/or trample the bulk of dead material. That which is eaten breaks down rapidly and biologically in the gut of the animals and that which is trampled helps cover soil, and being on the ground has more opportunity to be biologically broken down rapidly.

In the absence of adequate numbers of large herbivores, the trees and shrubs do well—having removed their own leaves—but the perennial grass plants in particular (vital to soil cover, water and carbon retention in soils) are left with dead standing matter that begins to break down gradually through a combination of chemical oxidation and physical weathering. This results in soil between plants becoming uncovered, losing both water and carbon in the following season’s rains. It also means the old material still standing on the plant filters the sun’s rays getting to the new growth buds that are generally at ground level (so as to avoid damage from the grazing herbivores with which they evolved in harmony). This reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and regrow with full vitality. The result is a vicious cycle of increasing desertification which we have traditionally blamed on too many animals! Anyone living in the more humid areas of the US would not see this oxidation so common in the central regions with poorer distribution of humidity. And I should probably emphasize, since most people live in cities and many cities are on rivers or near seashores, most people don’t realize that arid grasslands make up much more of the Earth’s land area than consistently humid areas. Perhaps some degree of climatic solipsism prevents people from grasping the different ecological dynamics of seasonally arid grassland.

8. You describe grassland fires, intentionally set by pastoralists and supported by a host of environmental groups and international agencies, as being significant sources of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, yet largely ignored by commentators and analysts of climate change. First, you say that the fires are set to “keep the grassland alive [as] there aren’t enough animals to keep it alive… we replace slow oxidation with fast oxidation.” How does fast oxidation help keep the grassland alive? How well does it work? From the narrow perspective of the grassland, can it be maintained long term with use of fire as an alternative to the presence of grazing animals?

Allow me to break in halfway with this question as it is getting too long. When people correctly observed that old moribund gradually oxidizing/weathering grass plants was leading to grasslands dying, and generally being replaced (nature always fills a vacuum) with tap-rooted woody plants or herbaceous plants (often called weeds), they learned that the moribund material could be burned thus preventing the old material prematurely killing the plants. The old material slowly oxidizing tends to kill those grasses that are animal dependent with their growing points at ground level out of harms way, because it filters or blocks the sunlight they need from reaching them. Thus the burning tends to keep adult plants alive for many years by clearing the path of sunlight to reach growth points.

Unfortunately what people did not observe was that fire also destroys soil-covering litter and thus leads to gradual decline of the grassland and desertification. There is more complexity I will not deal with here—the use of fire over many years in place of large herbivores leads to fire-dependent grass plants dominating and animal-dependent grass plants disappearing with grave consequences for pastoralists and wildlife. Like my fellow scientists I got caught as described in my book—as a researcher I used 100-year-old burning plots of the Colonial Office in Zambia to guide me and these showed annual burning had maintained the grassland. When I applied this knowledge on a broader scale it caused terrible erosion. On reviewing my failure to work out how I could have gone so wrong I realized that the research plots had been placed on level ground and I was dealing most often with sloping land hence the bare ground eroded. And I was gradually to learn the importance of the difference between fire dependent plants and animal dependent plants—the latter being far more varied, including vital legumes in the community.

If we are serious about dealing with desertification/climate change we have no option but to begin restoring animal-maintained grasslands over most of the world’s vast rangelands.

9. Continuing from the previous question, as I’ve understood explanations for greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, if the burned grasses regrow to their pre-burn mass, then in principle they are pulling an equivalent amount of carbon out of the atmosphere as was released in their burning. So, as with sustainably produced and utilized biofuels, the net contribution to global warming is roughly zero. (This ignores other issues such as the release of particulate matter that can affect climate in other ways than atmospheric carbon concentrations.) What’s wrong with this stylized picture of carbon circulating from grass to atmosphere and back to grass again? How is it that these grassland fires are producing positive net emissions of carbon?

You answered part of the problem—the other particulate matter. However even if what was released was subsequently all withdrawn from the atmosphere in the following growing season you would have that mass of green house gases in the atmosphere for half the year. We ignore that at our peril. Also, this over simplicity loses sight of the fact that we need to store carbon, methane and water in the soils not the vegetation. And fire leads to the bulk of the soil being exposed even in the following rainy season, thus releasing additional carbon and water as desertification continues. As I write this I am typing on the banks of the Dimbangombe river in Zimbabwe—we are in a very poor rainy season—seriously so. The season is almost over and only 325mm (12.8 inches) instead of an anticipated 700mm (27.6 inches) of rain has fallen by now. And of this, 113mm (4.4 inches) came in one storm, falling where poachers had burnt the catchment area during last dry season—so the driftwood by my home is 3 meters (9.8 feet) above the river level, showing how high the flash flood reached, and showing we lost billions of gallons of water that should have gone into, and stayed in, the soil (along with carbon). The soil-covering litter we had taken 8 years to build up has been destroyed and we cannot even begin to replace it till we can get dry grass trampled down by livestock. The atmospheric pollutants from this one fire have nowhere near been taken back into soil. And tragically, this is going on with over 2 billion acres of Africa’s grasslands every year while we blame developed nations almost entirely for climate change! Frankly Africa due to it’s vast size, desertification and annual grassland/savanna burning is doing far more toward climate change than currently understood.

10. You explain that “partial rest” (a small number of animals allowed to graze at leisure) for dry climate grazing land is, effectively, no different from “full rest” (total removal of all grazing animals)—and that both lead inevitably toward desertification. You seem to imply that resting the land, partially or fully, will also prove harmful to grazing land in humid climates, such as Ireland where you were speaking and where you had observed widespread partial-rest style herd management. It is my impression that in Ireland, as well as in my own region of New England (USA), this style of herd management has predominated for a very long time. Yet I am unaware of anything like desertification occurring in these areas. Have I misunderstood your implication for the effects of resting grazing land in humid climates, am I grossly uninformed about land degradation in these areas, or is the ecological process sufficiently different in humid climates that partial-rest herd management is relatively harmless (even if not as positively beneficial as compared to holistic management)?

Desertification is an unfortunate term that was given to biodiversity loss and consequent environmental degradation in dry areas. It is this which causes some of the confusion to which you refer. Without biodiversity loss (mass and species of animal and plant life) desertification cannot, and does not, occur. So desertification itself is but a symptom of biodiversity loss. If we are looking at grasslands in the environments of erratic humidity distribution (most of the world and the US) and particularly where the rainfall is also low, partial rest (few or many large herbivores on the land but with unbunching behaviour and remaining too long) as many research plots have shown has the same tendency to lead to a very high percentage of the soil between grass plants becoming bare. This loss of soil covering biomass leads to desertification as described.

This is the main reason why flooding is the greatest cause of weather-related deaths in the US and why California suffers such floods and mudslides.

Now if we look at the same management in Ireland or any pasture management situation and there are daily few scattered animals as is so common on the pastures two things are going on—first plants are being overgrazed by too few animals constantly returning to already-grazed plants. And while this is going on other plants are over-resting. Thus we commonly find such pastures shifting to weeds (where most plants are overgrazed) or woody plants where most plants are being over-rested. Because of this deterioration of the pasture we find it is common for farmers to start all over again every few years by replanting a fresh pasture. This leads to high costs, high production for a few years and then gradual deterioration and a repetition of the cycle. Andre Voisin studied and wrote about this better than anyone I know. However in these environments (better annual distribution of humidity whether low or high rainfall) partial rest and overgrazing of plants does not generally lead to an increase in bare soil between plants—this is why people do not quickly see the degradation and it reflects more than anywhere in lower production and higher costs. I am going to attach a slide I did not include in the lecture I gave at Trinity to help people understand this.

Click Image to View Full SizeIn the better distributed humidity areas of the U.S. as in Ireland I see pastures that farmers are happy with and that are often written about as successful pasture management. One such I was asked to look at. I found the farmer leasing some of his neighbour’s land because he was short of grass, which he blamed on the very wet season and slow growth. Actually, the loss of production was not due to slow growth but to his “management intensive grazing system” in which he had four herds and, on the one hand, grazing periods too long for slow growth, and on the other hand recovery periods too short for slow growth. Thus the slow growth did not cause his lack of forage but the fact that his grazing periods were too lengthy for slow growth did. And to compound it his recovery periods were too short for such slow growth especially when combined with overgrazing plants during the grazing periods. Together these resulted in running out of grass and his dependence on leased land.

So not only was his land and soil being damaged but it was costing money to lease land. All he needed to do was amalgamate his animals and plan his grazing to improve the graze/trample-to-recovery ratio to at least double his pasture’s production and improve his land without wasting hard-earned money leasing. If done right, he could have sustained his animals on his own land without leasing additional land.

11. Let me ask a biology trivia question—you show a patch of land on your otherwise restored land in Zimbabwe where you’ve left the ground as bare soil, to allow animals a place to dust themselves and for social behaviors. In pre-disturbed lands where desertification had never occurred, how would bare-ground patches have existed? What would the animals have done without them?

Such bare areas have long existed especially where, as in our case, there are calcarious deposits in the soil that attract animals. Any location to which large herbivores come to repeatedly will become bare. In our case, managing to ensure some dusting, socializing, soil-licking sites is important. So where they exist on sloping erodible land we are healing them by concentrating hundreds of cattle on the spot overnight in lion-proof kraals for about 7 nights while they graze to plan on surrounding areas during the days. These areas—previously bare for many years—then vegetate as you saw in the lecture. Where the desired bare social areas are on flat enough ground that does not erode significantly even over hundreds of years, we leave them to be maintained as bare sites by the zebra, giraffe, buffalo, kudu, impala, guineafowl, francolin, etc coming to them almost daily.

12. As I have learned about holistic management and the ability of properly managed herds to improve soil quality and quantity, I’ve begun to have a fantasy about the U.S. midwest. Approximately one-half of corn grown in the U.S., plus a fraction of other grains and soybeans, are given over to be animal feed. Of course, not all of this is for cattle, but surely a good portion is. My idea is to “cut out the middle man,” so to speak, and see that half of all U.S. corn acreage be converted back to perennial grassland pasture, like the prairies that preceded the westward expansion of modern agriculture. This renewed prairie would then host herds of bison, cattle, or other grazers, or a mix of grazers (cattle and sheep, for example, in the same areas). Is this an absurd fantasy or plausible, at least from a biological and ecological standpoint? Do you have any sense of the number of animals that could be maintained on such land and how it compares to the number of animals currently maintained and fed on feedlots with this Midwestern corn? In other words, what might happen to the supply of food if such a transition were attempted?

Eventually, when the US begins to take climate change seriously, the current damaging practices will be reviewed. Currently the world is estimated to be annually losing 4 tons of soil eroding down the rivers for every human alive. This spells disaster for humanity unless stopped. Significantly the US, with the most mechanistic, fossil-fuel-based agriculture, is focused on massive corn production and the US soil erosion figures are higher than the world average, I am informed. Having said this I must warn that the essence of Holistic Management is to never do what you are doing with your question: Suggesting specified actions such as replacing the corn fields with grazing animals. Doing so can only result in conflict as some people would support that idea while others resist it to their deaths. There is enough conflict in the world almost all caused by different people having different objectives or goals—all using the universal decision making framework I outlined in the lecture. What is required is for the US to make such broad policy decision holistically—the only thing I know to be socially, environmentally, economically and scientifically sound and in the best interests or all citizens. As you saw in the lecture, a large sample of US professional people (2,000) from the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS), Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and land grant universities—after a week of training in how to analyse and formulate natural resource policies using the holistic framework—concluded that “They could now see that unsound resource management was universal in the United States.” Tragically all that training in the use of a holistic decision making framework was stopped by the Reagan Administration and it desperately needs to be restarted if the US is to be serious about climate change, the desertification of the US, and it’s claim to world leadership.

13. Related to that fantasy of mine above, for the other half of the midwest agricultural land I’d hope to see success with the Land Institute’s efforts to develop harvestable mixed-perennial crops producing grain, legumes, and sunflower or other seeds. If you are familiar with their efforts, and given your knowledge of the importance of grazing animals for the health of grassland soil and plants, do you think The Land Institute’s efforts are plausible? Their mixed-perennial prairie crops would be disturbed by harvesting. Would this type of disturbance be sufficient to maintain the health of the land? Would it be possible—or advisable—to develop a hybrid system in which a given piece of land was in mixed-perennial crops for a few years producing yields of grain, legumes, and seeds, then turned over to grazing for a few years, then back to plant production, and so on back and forth, so that on the whole there would always be production of both plant and animal products occurring, all under perennial cover?

Wes Jackson’s work at the Land Institute developing perennial grains is creative and wonderful. I am fully aware of what he is striving for and support him. I bolded part of your question where you suggest a hybrid system. I did this because, as I explained in answering the prior question, that is where the problem would occur if we followed your suggestion. No management system, hybrid or otherwise, will succeed. In the training mentioned of some 2,000 professional people during the Carter Administration I had most groups in training discuss and deal with this matter. All who did concluded that all management systems, by definition, have to fail at some point. All concluded that Holistic Management being a decision-making process combined with a financial planning process and grazing planning process (when livestock are involved) always works by definition. I had very skeptical groups treat Holistic Management as a hypothesis and then gave them unlimited time to work out how to “make it fail” in any manner they could theoretically. My reasoning being that if professional agricultural people could cause Holistic Management to fail in theory then we would be forewarned to anticipate failure in practice. All groups gave up in despair after on average four hours, concluding that the only way they could produce failure even in theory was by not doing it! We have lost years of ground in our major government and university institutions and need to resuscitate such discussions and training, I believe.

The Land Institute work on perennial grains, if successful, will give us a major leap forward. However, such perennial grass plants, as they will be, will still need management as do range grassland grasses/soils and this will still entail building herbivores into how we do it to ensure constant and rapid biological decay in seasonal humidity situations. It would be nice to help work this out with them.

14. Much of our work at Chelsea Green is oriented toward books for home gardeners and/or small-scale commercial growers (of organic crops, mostly plants though we will be branching out into animal husbandry with future books). Among our typical readers are quite a few who have or entertain notions of having a “family cow” or a couple of milk goats. Are the issues of herd management that you study and teach about applicable to these small scales? What resources can you point readers toward that would help them to be more holistic in their management of one or a few grazing animals? (And it’s my duty to ask: if it doesn’t already exists, would you or someone you know want to write such a book and publish it with us?!)

I believe it would be advantageous for small scale farmers, in almost all environments, to include animals of some sort in their management. I am not the first to say this as others have long pointed this out. For home gardeners this could be chickens, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits and for the small-scale commercial growers it could well be pigs, goats or cattle. When it comes to the larger animals like goats and cattle there is however a difficulty that needs to be recognized, and fortunately is fairly easy to address. Remember that overgrazing damages root systems of grasslands and thus damages soil. And that one animal overgrazes as severely as many do—all that varies with animal numbers is the number of plants overgrazed and/or the number of plants not overgrazed. Timing is everything. Remember also that while the dung and urine are assets of great value, anything in excess tends to become a pollutant. So ideally grazing animals must be constantly moving and cannot be “parked” without starting to create problems. And the animal’s movement has to coincide with plant/soil needs. To do so, movement has to be constantly planned so that there is a short time of exposure of the plants to the animals followed by a relatively longer time of plant recovery (that is, the graze/tample-to-recovery ratio needs to be fairly high). That this ratio must vary depending on what management is striving to achieve—provide better quality feed or provide deeper rooting first to restore land health for instance only proves the point about any prescribed system being inadequate. I mention this because it presents increasing problems the smaller the land size as we find with small commercial holdings.

There are two damaging trends in US agriculture governed by faulty economic thinking. Farms are becoming larger and ranches are becoming smaller—much of the farm amalgamation in corporate agriculture is justified by economists on the basis of monoculture crop production and economies of scale. Much of the ranch subdivision is because ranches generally are overcapitalized running too few animals. Ranchers, to save their families, tend to sell to developers, wealthy folk who want a home in the country, etc. Other than a handful of economists like Herman Daly and others affiliated with the Society for Ecological Economists, and other thinkers like Hazel Henderson and Woody Tasch with his recent book An Inquiry into the Nature of Slow Money, what mainstream economists fail to do is recognize reality as they dabble in confusion over wealth and money (medium of exchange). They consistently fail to understand the one thing all scientists are agreed upon, and that is the fact that the ONLY wealth that can sustain any community or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process. That means from healthy soil ultimately. So ever-larger farms are said to be economic when this is simply not true. The US claims to be “feeding the world” when the true position is that the US farmers are “bleeding the world” with their topsoil losses. Mainstream US agriculture, that other nations are emulating, is without question the most destructive agriculture the world has ever known.

For farms to be ecologically viable, and thus viable in true economic terms, they need to be getting smaller while ranches and pastoral areas need to be getting larger. So this desired situation of smaller farms where stabilizing complexity and soil cover can more easily be maintained would seem to be in conflict with what I wrote above regarding incorporating grazing animals into the farm production. This is only conflicting if we confuse ownership with management. Simply put, a large area of land can be owned by one farmer or company and that need not change as that farm could still be managed in an ecologically sound manner by division into small management units. Conversely many small-scale commercial farmers could retain ownership of their farms and crop production but amalgamate for the purposes of livestock management. Thus for example five, ten or more small farms together own the livestock which moves over all the farms—the holistic grazing plan is done over all the farms collectively thus allowing easily for a larger herd and adequate graze/trample-to-recovery ratio for the health of the soil. This sort of new thinking I find is more easily done and more logical to farmers only when they start using the holistic decision making framework in their management. I only advocate that farmers make their own decisions but do so holistically—doing that they will work out when and if collaboration with neighbours, as suggested above, is in their own enlightened self-interest. Humans act in their own self-interest when they determine that interest themselves, rather than when someone like me is telling them what they should do.

I am not the best person to write the book for small scale farmers but might introduce you to others more able than me. I hope my response to your questions is helpful—we have a long road ahead to truly sustainable agriculture, societies and civilization!

Written by Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

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