Commentary: Savory’s herding instinct

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A revolutionary take on livestock production may prove to be the ultimate weapon for ranchers and producers in their fight to reverse the ecological negativity now attached to meat production.

In a succinct and well-stated commentary Wednesday, Drovers/CattleNetwork Editor Greg Henderson laid out the specifics of a remarkable presentation by an equally remarkable advocate of livestock production, Allan Savory.

Allan Savory Savory’s speech to the prestigious recently concluded TED conference outlined a radical idea: Not only should we sustain cattle and livestock production, we should increase it—dramatically—across millions of acres of grasslands worldwide.

If we wish to forestall the ravages of climate change, ensure food security for billions of people around the world and restore agricultural productivity across two-thirds of the planet’s land mass, that is.

Otherwise, never mind.

The genius of Savory’s research, which as Henderson noted, has been proven on five continents over the course of several decades, is that it provides the industry with an argument—and a philosophical position—that is inextricably linked to the most powerful force activists constantly call upon in their attempts to demonize meat production: Nature.

Pin down an activist who opposes beef production—not literally, tempting as that might be, but figuratively—as to why humanity shouldn’t continue raising cattle as has been done for the previous 20,000 years, and ultimately you’ll arrive at his or her preferred destination: It’s not “natural,” it’s not ecological, it’s not something that’s environmentally sustainable.

By raising farm animals, so the argument goes, we’re wasting non-renewable resources, expending unnecessary energy growing feed instead of food crops and indulging in top-of-the-food-chain dietary practices that are nether sustainable nor desirable from a personal or planetary health perspective.

Oh, and by the way? Meat is murder and animal husbandry’s abusive and anyone who participates in the process or consumes the products resulting from raising livestock is stupid and selfish.

Do as Nature does, not as activists say

But those are secondary arguments.

The current meme anti-industry activists have embraced is less about the horrors of slaughtering—since that was never an issue people could stay focused on—nor the dietary downside of meat-eating—since that’s far less capable of generating traction—nor even the looming threat of food-safety—since mountains of polling data show that people care when there’s an incident, then forget all about it afterwards.

No, the most powerful and promising tactic for activists to pursue these days involves flogging the notion that raising livestock equals environmental destruction. That so-called “industrial agriculture” is ruining the global ecosystem. That every time somebody eats some beef, a little piece of the environment is sentenced to death.

That’s why Savory’s research, which demonstrates that running large herds of grazing animals on acreage that is either too arid to support row cropping or that endures seasonal dry months precluding the survival of year-round vegetative cover, is the best—and only—way to prevent habitat destruction, soil erosion and massively negative impacts on agricultural productivity and climate change.

But the best part of that scenario is that the reason having cattle, sheep or goats roaming the land is a good thing is that it mimics what Nature established millennia ago: Massive, nomadic herds of bison, caribou and other grazing animals that fertilized the soil, cropped the vegetation to prevent shrubs and woody plants from replacing grasses and broke up the “scale” that tends to form on untrammeled soil, such that the often meager rainfall that does occur fails to penetrate the soil.

The key, Savory explained, is large herds and constant movement, the closest approximation humans can deploy to substitute for what Nature originally put in place to maintain environmental sustainability.

That means not only that the notion of vegetarianism itself is as dead as some of the barren landscapes in Africa, Asia and right here in the United States, areas where livestock have been specifically excluded to “preserve” the land, but that in order to make herding economically feasible, meat needs to regain its position at the top of the food chain and in the center of the plate.

If you care about the environment, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re concerned as to how we’re going to feed another three billion people by 2050, now you have the solution: Start running livestock across as much of the world’s semi-arid grasslands as possible, using the eminently workable model Savory has perfected.

That will improve millions of acres of currently denuded land areas, add billions of nutritious calories to some of the world’s neediest populations and create a powerful counter-effect to the continued problem of excessive greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the future viability of global agriculture.

And it once and for all puts an end to the foolish supposition that soybeans will save us, if only we would stop eating meat and embrace vegetable proteins as our primary food.

From a scientifically sound, ecologically aware, globally conscious perspective, that idea is now officially D.O.A.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Kansas  |  March, 06, 2013 at 06:57 PM

I can't believe Savory singlehandedly invented the idea of grazing semi-arid regions. How did this suddenly become a new breakthrough concept? Judging from your sickly sweet gushing praise of the man we must conclude the idea is somehow original with him. If we grudgingly give you that, what does this mean for conventional beef production in traditional agricultural regions of the world? Are we livestock producers still to be bashed and slandered for it? Does your hero Savory endorse it? I have a sneaking suspicion this fawning report of Alan Savory's sales pitch amounts to little more than an end run for anti-agriculture cultists. How long after being embedded in our ranks does our new BFF begin suddenly firing on our flanks? It is reckless behavior on our part to casually team with environmental zealots. They have not, do not and never will share our practical view of food production -- it is no part of their long term agenda. Any means to the desired end is their credo. I'm skeptical now and always will be.

zambia  |  March, 07, 2013 at 09:13 AM

The graveyard of hunger cattle and criminal actions civil and criminal that the Savory clan leave behind in countries as they are hopping from continent to continent are by far not contributing to saving the earth or cattle farmers. They are talking and farmers are paying their walk. Be forewarn.

Julia Winter    
March, 07, 2013 at 09:01 AM

Don't forget the key difference between Alan Savory's techniques and current cattle raising - he's not wasting land, fuel and other resources on corn. Anybody who is raising cattle should also check out Greg Judy, a very successful cattleman in Missouri. Mr. Judy came to using Allan Savory's techniques out of necessity: he was dead broke, running cattle on rented land and he had no money for the usual inputs. He tried Savory's techniques, and they worked brilliantly. Watch: This is a long video, of a talk he gave 2 years ago to a farming conference. If you are just a little curious, grab the dot and scroll through to see the before and after pictures. It's as amazing as Allan Savory's results. If you are interested in raising more beef, of higher quality and for a pricier market, with fewer inputs and all the while continually improving your land, I recommend watching the whole thing.

Manhattan, KS  |  March, 07, 2013 at 09:22 AM

Where is the peer-reviewed literature that backs Mr. Savory's claims? He has built a career on "case-studies", which are not true research articles. I have yet to find work in mainstream peer-reviewed range management journals that back Mr. Savory's theories on range management. In my opinion, it is unwise for the beef industry to get in bed with someone who cannot (or will not) published his work in recognized scientific journals.

Calvin A.    
Texas  |  March, 07, 2013 at 09:36 AM

Just what we suspected. This guy Savory has the simple solution to problems we don't really even have. But follow his advice anyway and see how you make out on a commercial scale. Spoiler alert: expect thin cattle with inferior carcasses and none too many of them; expect sometimes spectacular losses to parasites, predators and starvation due to drought, blizzards, etc.; expect to graze wide swaths of free/cheap land and see how much of that you have given to you; expect a few diehard elitists to pay you handsomely for a very few of your scrawny carcasses while the remainder are ground into hamburger at a loss; in short, expect to earn a real fast, real memorable education in farming and environmentalism. You will have to learn the hard way because old timers who've had real market experience with range finished beef don't know nothin' and can't tell you anything anyway, right?

SD  |  March, 07, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Well, Mr. Murphy, you kicked a hornets nest this time! Looks like your very general and brief commentary on Mr. Savory's work hit some nerves. Too bad that some people just so quickly put down that which they do not fully understand. With a little searching, it may be possible to learn something beneficial for people who raise cattle, especally those of us who have marginal lands in arid areas of the country, any country, in fact. Then there are the anti-meat animal activists who take advantage of anything they can twist to promote their agenda lurking on these ag news site, too. Apparently some people are fortunate enough to have perfect land and to raise perfect cattle at a perfect profit. Good for them. Having occasionally read about Mr. Savory's work for maybe the past 40 years, and reading independent stories about areas in the southwestern USA where his ideas have worked quite well, and even turned at least one Sierra Club advocate into a cattle ranching advocate, I believe people capable of learning from anyone besides themselves just might think he is onto something.

Julia Winter    
March, 07, 2013 at 11:34 AM

You know, sometimes when you break with a long-held paradigm, you find it hard to get published in mainstream peer-reviewed journals. Here's a former "eco-radical," Dan Dagget, who has also learned that you can reclaim degraded land using cattle. This video is part of the "I Am Angus" series from Igenity, so not exactly a bunch of commies. Check it out:

March, 07, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Walt, Calvin, Eric, and Jakes, have any of you actually tried management-intensive grazing? If you have, did you let your land recover after grazing? The land must rest for as long as it needs to rest, appropriate to the terrain, the climate and recent weather. Our herd goes back fifty years to the mid 1960s. We had always used rotational grazing and sold steers to the feedlots for slim margins. When we adopted managed grazing techniques similar to Allan Savory's in 1989, fencing and backfencing to allow our first group of cattle to work like a mob, our stocking rate on that land doubled. The forages improved, undesirable weeds disappeared, and our land no longer needed purchased fertilizer other than a little lime. Parasites are no longer a burden here. Recent weather has been highly unpredictable and variable (Eighty inches of precipitation in 2011; about 27 inches in 2012). Average here is 50 inches of moisture per year. The 2012 drought was devastating: five months with a total of less than 2 inches of rain, long stretches of temperatures ranging from 90 to 108 degrees. After more than two decades of MIG, high humus and organic content has made the soil so responsive that one small rain from a hurricane brought spring-like growth to our pastures in September. We and our cattle were very grateful for that mercy. As long as the supposed caretakers of the land stubbornly refuse to observe nature's ways, respond appropriately and adapt our ways to fit nature’s, we will fail to replenish the land that feeds us all. Machines, technology and unbridled science haven't saved us, but God’s nature, plants and animals will, as they have been doing for 10,000 years, when we observe, respond and adapt with a modicum of humility.

March, 07, 2013 at 12:55 PM

Calvin, we are old-timers who had to learn to observe nature's ways or perish. Thanks to management-intensive grazing (with emphasis on management), our cattle can and do finish and marble on pasture in about 30 months because they have been selected and adapted to do so. With lower inputs, we can sell beeves as shares for prices that middle class families with children can afford. This beef producer is a practicing environmentalist. Here in our area, farmers have eliminated fences, cleared streambanks and bulldozed wooded land to grow more and more soybeans and corn. Erosion is rampant. Tornadoes sweep through our county every year now instead of once each decade as when I was a child. The land, climate, and human health will improve if farmers return fragile land to pasture, restore windbreaks, keep soil covered year round, take cattle out of feedlots, grow them on well-managed pastures where they belong, and reduce grain production. You're a Texan, I see. There are several very successful practitioners of MIG in Texas. Visit a few of them and be ready to adapt your viewpoint. Look them up at

Oklahoma  |  March, 07, 2013 at 01:13 PM

Maybe you could have spun this mess as a prescription for doctoring up marginal semi-arid land. Definitely you should make clear Savory advises using livestock to reclaim a parcel or two of sub-prime real estate by managing intensively. That intensity includes moving animals on and off the land, moving fences around and around and around and sometimes stepping away from the land and just letting it sit idle when it can't produce anything. Sure, you need some productive place to put those spare cows for those times when your reclamation project can't hack it. This is a fine rich man's pass time to fool with a few cows on a few marginal acres. Not much of a business for anyone who is not independently wealthy and content to absorb the occasional loss. A hobby really. What makes anyone think us old farts have never grazed cattle? Who the hell are they to think we have done it wrong? Let those armchair experts raise a big family and put all the kids through college dragging polywire amongst a handful of skinny cows several times a day for 25 years. Then come back and tell us how its really done, pardner.

Dan MUrphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 07, 2013 at 01:44 PM

It was clear from Savory's TED talk that his technique of "mimicking" the movement of large nomadic herds of bovines was anything but a panacea. Truthfully, it's likely to produce far better incremental benefits in sub-Saharan Africa than Midwestern USA. But those who dismiss his concept need to take a long, hard look at the dozens of before-and-after slides he shows where livestock have indeed helped rejuvenate the vegetation in formerly desolate, barren areas. Closer to home the Nature Conservancy has been running a similar program to restore sage grouse habitat in semi-arid regions of eastern Washington state by running cattle on the land. Same results: Improved soil health, more abundant vegetation (and thus better cover for the grouse) and an overall improvement in the local ecosystem. Again, they have before-and-after photos to prove their case. You don't necessarily need peer-reviewed studies when you can see with your own eyes that this concept can --and does -- make a difference. Yes, it's best suited for trying to reclaim marginal land; no doubt. But my point was not that everyone should rush out and do exactly as Savory suggests. However, since his methods do produce results -- not just in terms of environmental impact, but directly on greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change -- his success effectively undercuts the activist argument that raising beef will destroy the environment and hasten the onset of irreversible climate change. It's that argument where I find Savory's success to be such a powerful antidote. Are his methods appropriate for the entire U.S. beef industry? Obviously not. Can they make a difference that matters in Africa, Latin America and Asia? I believe they can.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 07, 2013 at 01:48 PM

With all due respect to your considerable expertise, W.E., I feel we need both: A systematic adoption of techniques that mimic Nature AND judicious application of sound science and cutting-edge technology. Your description of the changed conditions following implementation of a managed, rotational grazing protocol speaks for itself.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 07, 2013 at 01:56 PM

Walt and Jakes: I think you missed the point of the commentary. Nobody's endorsing a wholesale conversion for current livestock production methods to a system based on Savory's methods -- at least not in North America. My point wasn't that he's some sort of saint (although I greatly admire what he's chosen to do with his life and career), but that his success in running cattle and sheep on formerly unproductive land --and producing positive environmental and climate change-mitigating results -- is a huge counterpunch to the current activist meme, as I stated. The opponents of meat production no longer rely so heavily on the animal abuse, overly fat, dangerously contaminated arguments that used to gain them all kinds of traction. Instead, they're focusing on selling the idea that raising beef harms the environment; thus, if we all go vegetarian, we can sidestep the looming disaster of climate change. Go read up on Meatless Mondays and see for yourself how they're positioning such campaigns. So if running cattle across unproductive, marginal lands where the expanse of bare soil is significantly contributing to a host of ecological problems can REVERSE those trends, that to me is the best way to counter the activists who are trying to claim exactly the opposite.

Alberta & Montana  |  March, 07, 2013 at 04:19 PM

My experience is that Savory system does work in our area. And his system is grounded on sound pasture management principles. I don’t need a peer-review or scientific journal to tell me if it works or not. The grass and cows will. We have utilized the Savory system since the 60’s and it has added to our AUM’s and demisted shrubby cinquefoil.

Texas  |  March, 11, 2013 at 11:45 AM

I am 6th generation beef rancher. Don't think we'll be taking any urban wisdom from a bunch of "experts" on how to make money. Results and techniques vary from region to region. When it all boils down, G-d is in control and we trust him.

mudcreek okie    
Oklahoma  |  March, 11, 2013 at 01:31 PM

Unless u have tried mig u have no idea how it works and papers and books will not tell u if it will work for u. U naysayers don't have a clue and sounds like ur ranch has more oil than cattle. Just so u know fourth generation rancher fifteen year practitioner mig.

March, 20, 2013 at 09:56 AM

When the push to feedlots accelerated after WWII, much that’s now known was unknown, from effects of managed grazing on the soil to effects of CLA on the human body. We don't mean to slam cattlemen in the vicinity of the feedlots; here in the southeast and lower Midwest, we need to keep our cattle at home on grass. Eventually, cattlemen will understand that feedlots depend on petroleum. Well-managed grazing herds are a better alternative for the health of soils, cattle, and people: therefore for profitability of independent cattlemen. We sent calves to feedlots until the mid 90s, when we discovered that cows from feedlot-oriented genetics couldn’t survive and thrive in our pastures on grass. To keep from "messing up" the survivor DNA in our herd, we started with excellent stock from a continental breed (feedlot-oriented) in 1989 breeding them alongside our grass cattle for ten years. Forage-oriented cattle invariably out-performed feedlot-oriented cattle. Also in 1989, we began Savory’s management-intensive grazing system, doubling the stocking rate of our farm, improving soil and forage profiles, offering better nutrition for the cattle. We learned more about MIG from practicing graziers like Jim Gerrish at the Univ of MO FSRC during the 1980s. MIG systems continue to evolve here. Each year, more of our cattle make it through winter with little or no hay & no other supplements. The more days they strip-graze fescue paddocks, the healthier they are, and the better the soil at the end of winter. Keeping all-grassfed calves at home and selling them direct to local consumers beats shipping them 1000 miles to a feedlot. Our farm grows more fertile, its forages more resilient and drought-resistant, profits better each year.

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