March 15, 2013 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Key to slowing/stalling/reversal of desertification and climate change? More cows (sort of). Holistic Management advocate and biologist Allan Savory, co-founder of the Savory Institute, discusses the counterintuitive tactic of allowing large herds of animals to free-roam marginal lands.

This controversial theory has been put into use in regions where marginal land that is unable to support tilled crops can yield more nutritional and economic worth to the resident population under holistic management by using dense, properly herded livestock populations.
posted by lonefrontranger (23 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The last URL is broken. :(
posted by GuyZero at 2:27 PM on March 15, 2013

dammit! Try this (I really did preview...)
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:30 PM on March 15, 2013

His techniques are being put into practice in southern Patagonia already with promising results. (I'm writing an article about it as we speak - just interviewed Savory this week, actually.) A huge chunk of the region's grasslands is turning into desert from land mismanagement.

The problem there is a grazing system imported from Northern Europe, where constant low-level grazing works in the wetter climate. In drier Patagonia, though, the land never has time to recover. Plus, the usual response - graze less and less sheep, albeit still for long periods or year-round - doesn't work either.

Savory's advice: more intensive grazing but for short periods of time, with long rest times in between to let the land recover. This mimics the natural movement of herds of native grazing animals--guanacos, etc--that the sheep have replaced. It can even mean more sheep in some cases, which is pretty mind-blowing to ranchers who have always been told the problem is too many sheep.

This group is spearheading the effort. Cool stuff.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:40 PM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Chris Clarke disagrees.
posted by Splunge at 2:46 PM on March 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

gottabefunky, thank you for the additional info. I actually ran across this stuff while researching where in Boulder we can find local, responsibly-sourced eggs, beef and dairy. This article (which I probably should have linked in the FPP) was what sent me down the rabbithole.

I grew up with cattle, horses and cereal crops on a midsize farm in Ohio. I have seen firsthand the damage that irresponsible tillage and grazing practices can do. I am... cautiously optimistic about this methodology, with the caveat that, at least the farmers and ranchers I've lived with and around are bone deep stubborn and potentially too set in their ways to change.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:47 PM on March 15, 2013

From Splunge's link I got to: South Africa's Experience with Intensive Short Duration Grazing by Jon Skovlin published in Rangelands which looks to be a solid refutation if I could read the whole thing. I wish open access were more prevalent so that junk science was easier to debunk.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:16 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chris Clarke also wrote a more detailed disagreement here that details the problem with Savory's methodology. A FB friend of Chris's also posted this: "As one South African scientist pointed out, when in Africa, Savory talks about how well it works in America, and in the U.S. he talks about how well it works in Africa."

The conflation of desert with desertification is dangerous to a very fragile ecosystem. Some moron is going to get a heard of cattle and run them over land that will take centuries to recover.
posted by BillW at 3:25 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

hmm. Chris Clarke's history indicates he is possibly not the most neutral dissenter in this case, as from what I can glean from his blog and past publishing, he seems to be a rather militant "fence-it-all-off-FOREVAR" wilderness advocate, which also may not be the most effective and economically viable land management tactic ever.

Like I said, as someone who was raised as a farmer, I remain skeptical to cautiously optimistic, although there is some evidence being gathered in favor of holistic management in brittle environments in Colorado.

I think the main caveat here is that holistic management doesn't mean "turn the animals loose to do whatever". It seems you have to herd them in dense groups, and move them across large areas before they strip the grass to the roots, plus you have to chase them around a bit. I don't think conflating "actual deserts" with "arid grasslands that have been mismanaged and expanding for the past X centuries" is helpful either.

Ultimately lazy grazing practices are lazy grazing practices, whether it's feedlotting or just turning a bunch of stock loose on open rangeland and/or keeping them constrained to "best acreage" and doing nothing to let the land recover.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:34 PM on March 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

lonefrontranger: "co-founder of the Savory Institute,"

There's a bizarro world supervillain group version of this called the Unsavory Institute, right?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:03 PM on March 15, 2013

My time has come at last.
posted by Interrupting Cow at 5:33 PM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think I'm with Savory and lonefrontranger. One of the problems with agriculture is surely intensive farming. If you can take grasslands, arid or not, and mow and manure them, you can make them productive carbon sinks. Intensive farming concentrates nutrients in worthless and dangerous tanks and pools. Some land might benefit from livestock that would otherwise be raised under those conditions and both the livestock and the land could benefit. Isn't this Polyface and Salaton's approach? This is also what an Amish neighbor does. This doesn't work everywhere, but it can reverse damage.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:34 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

mow graze
posted by Toekneesan at 5:42 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chris Clarke's history indicates he is possibly not the most neutral dissenter in this case

Read Chris's articles. He is an advocate for the desert (how many are?) but he is also pretty scrupulously fair as he is a trained biologist. Chris suggests (and cites) scientists about how dubious Mr. Savory's claims are. Moreover, the assertion that even longtime deserts are due to human 'desertification' is prima facia ridiculous - paleo-climate changes are why Death Valley (for instance) no longer has a lake in it.

Even assume Mr. Savory's assertions about recovering desertified land is correct, the assumption that all deserts can be converted to grasslands is ridiculous.
posted by BillW at 8:24 PM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Okay, we understand Chris Clarke loves the desert and that there may some confusion over terms. How about if we agreed to limit the goal to reclaiming land that has been damaged or to prevent more land from becoming damaged? Does managed grazing really work is the question. I am sure there will still be more than enough desert to go around, but if we could reclaim and protect farmland and grazing land that would be hugely important.

Of course actual desert should be left as the natural ecosystem it is (as if we could really change it anyway), but Chris Clarke seems to think deserts are endangered. The real question is, can we save the soil on the rest of the world's productive or formerly productive agricultural land through this seemingly relatively easy method?
posted by blue shadows at 10:52 PM on March 15, 2013

This post brought me, as one naturally does on a Friday night, to start googling into the current research of the problem of bovine flatulence. Most research seems to be focusing on the diet and how it can be altered, or a kind of 'Beano' compound as a grain additive, but since the gut bacteria is responsible for the actual creation of the methane, why not find some other bacteria that can metabolize the methane into something else?

So I didn't find much on methane-hungry gut bacteria, but I did find a kind of bacteria that does - Methanotrophs. They live near methane vents under the sea, and feed off the methane, but require oxygen to combine with it, and as a cow's intestines are the one of the least likely places to find a breath of oxygen, may not be a good candidate. However, there has been a recent finding of a type of Methanotroph called Candidatus Methylomirabilis oxyfera, who needs only methane for fuel, and its byproducts of methane feeding are simply nitrogen and oxygen.

If it turns out that if they can survive, or me modified to survive, in the gut of a cow, it is possible that the bacteria could be 'installed' by fecal transplant in pill form, thus solving the problem.

Of course, this doesn't take into account all sorts of things that may end up making this idea not entirely feasible, like some out of balance bacteria feeding frenzy and ensuing chemical reaction that may cause the cows to randomly explode or whatnot, but it's worth a try. I would assume something like this is already being done, but I just missed it.
posted by chambers at 11:25 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just spent an hour following tangents from the links in this FPP and thread. What a fascinating subject!
posted by Kevin Street at 2:00 AM on March 16, 2013

Very impressive results. Would this require less work by herders if they used native livestock-ish species adapted to heavy predation rather than imported European species?
posted by jeffburdges at 6:19 AM on March 16, 2013

One of Savory's main points is that herbivores have always been a critical part of grassland ecosystems, as much as the plants themselves - they stir up the soil, help cycle nutrients, etc. So when people come and remove most of the native herbivores, something has to take their place.

That's why simply removing cows and sheep - the typical conservation move - may not be the best idea to restore degraded grasslands. Maybe (he says) it's better to keep them and make them act as much as like the animals they replaced, on a large scale at least.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:10 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Would this require less work by herders if they used native livestock-ish species adapted to heavy predation rather than imported European species?"

Doesn't look like it, unfortunately. His best case scenario is pure nature - herds of grazers wandering about, packed tightly to defend against predators, moving on when they've grazed out an area. When there's no wolves or lions to do the job, and you only have a few hundred animals instead of a hundred thousand, you have to make sure the grazers are packed together and move them from spot to spot so they trample all the brown, dead vegetation into the muck. At low population densities and left to themselves, even native animals like bison and elk will eat the best grass and leave the brown stuff alone.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:24 PM on March 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

chambers, some of the papers I read as a result of the tangents I went on led me to understand that properly grassfed ruminants produce less methane than grain-fed. Also if pastures are restored to healthy soils and vegetative cover which act as natural filters and nitrogen sponges, and cattle are given watering stations to keep them out of sensitive riparian wetlands, then it apparently reduces the problems from the manure runoff into water systems as well.

Kevin Street, I agree, I have spent hours the past week poring over tangents on this subject; it hits close to home for someone who has both raised cattle in the past and now lives in a brittle arid high plateau grassland ecosystem - in the past decade it seems ranchers all over Colorado have been picking up the ball on this methodology and rolling with it.

not to mention I'm currently a firsthand witness to the slow motion trainwreck that is the montane forest ecology in Colorado's high country. Which, as it turns out, owes itself almost entirely to draconian conservation and fire suppression techniques; it seems that when you completely suppress fires for a century you wind up with zero tree biodiversity and what is (well, was; it's nearly 75-80% dead now) in effect a monoculture of Ponderosa Pine... which is now in collapse owing to the pine beetle epidemic. So I'm not willing to agree that we learned everything there is to know about ecology over the past 50-100 years and that there aren't new discoveries to be made.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:38 PM on March 16, 2013

oh and of all places, that BEEF article about the rancher in the Colorado Springs area (oh go on, you know you want to read an article from something called BEEF MAGAZINE) is one of the most thorough and well written from the point of explaining the methodology to the layman that I found. The rancher explains very well that this is not a lazy-man's solution. They herd the cows old-skool, using horses that they ride from point-to-point, they don't trailer or use ATVs. They move the cows A LOT and keep them tightly bunched.

He also mentioned something in the article that to me is pretty encouraging - when he loses a calf to a coyote, he doesn't shoot the coyote, he gets rid of the cow, because she's not doing her job in protecting her offspring. By the same token, he doesn't use wormers or chemical insecticides - if he has animals that aren't thriving owing to anemia from worms or what have you, he gets rid of them because they're not contributing the genes he wants to perpetuate in his herd. THAT is what a real steward of the land should be attempting - to work in harmony with the environment, not bend it to their will. It's a slower solution, and requires more work and engagement and a deep and wise knowledge of your herd, but the real hope is that ultimately it is more sustainable.
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:06 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I'd like to see more study of these ideas, like maybe a survey of the various ranches that have employed some version of Holistic Management over the years. There are a number of examples here.

It would help a lot if the concept of Holistic Management could be separated from the trustworthiness (or non-trustworthiness) of Allan Savory.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

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