Grazing livestock — and especially cattle — have taken the brunt of a lot of criticism in recent years for their impact on our environment. Specifically, many believe, cattle are a primary cause of climate change, and the only remedy is to stop eating meat.
While that theory doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, it hasn’t stopped a parade of bloggers, activists and pseudo-experts from touting silly ideas such as Meatless Mondays. A soft-spoken Zimbabwean biologist, however, has effectively changed the conversation and helped many critics of livestock production re-examine their beliefs.
Allan Savory created the holistic management philosophy and practice and is the founder and president of the Savory Institute. The Savory Institute claims deep expertise in land management, livestock management, business development, social entrepreneurship and environmental issues. Savory has spent a lifetime studying and practicing techniques that combat desertification around the globe. In fact, he’s built a career and a business challenging what many think they know about grazing livestock — that they’re destructive to grazing land and bad for the planet.
An idea ‘worth spreading’
On the contrary, Savory says, livestock are a solution to climate change and an effective means by which to fight hunger, poverty and violence across much of the third world. That message gained high visibility in February when Savory spoke at the 2013 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference, a global set of conferences owned by the private, non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.” Founded in 1984, TED now sponsors an annual conference in which speakers are given 18 minutes to address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture. Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Gordon Brown, Bono and many Nobel Prize winners. Savory’s idea “worth spreading” is that removing grazing animals from an ecosystem promotes desertification. Indeed, he argues, the cause of desertification is the absence of grazing animals. To heal the land and slow climate change, he says, grazing animals must be returned to areas in peril of desertification, which may include two-thirds of the world’s grasslands.
Those ideas are not just a hunch, an unproven theory that Savory promotes. He has proof, compiled over a lifetime of study and practice around the world. Specifically, Savory suggests that grazing animals be used in a management-intensive or rotational grazing system
Rotational grazing is a system where livestock graze one portion (a paddock) of a pasture that has been divided into several paddocks. Livestock are systematically moved from paddock to paddock based on the stage of growth of the forages and on the objectives of the grazing system. While one paddock is being grazed, the remaining pasture rests. This rest and recovery time maintains forage plants in a healthy and vigorous condition.
Range- and pasture-management specialists identify the following advantages to management-intensive or rotational grazing: improved forage production, improved rainfall infiltration, reduced runoff, improved soil health, reduced soil erosion, diverse wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, reduced costs of production, reduced fuel use, reduced machinery use, reduced fertilizer and pesticide use, reduced labor and improved animal health.
“Grazing management is an art, but it is based in science,” says Jim Gerrish, American Grazing Lands Services, LLC, May, Idaho. “Livestock intensively graze by nature; only people can intensively manage.”
Gerrish says he “concurs to a large degree” with the theories put forth by Savory in the TED presentation, and he believes ranchers will find many benefits from adopting Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) practices.
Gerrish, who earned a B.S. in agronomy from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in crop science from the University of Kentucky, spent 22 years in “pasture, grazing and beef cattle research” at the University of Missouri’s Forage Systems Research Center, Linneus, Mo. For the past nine years he has operated American Grazing Lands Services where he offers his services as a consultant, author and speaker.
Savory’s TED speech is not without critics, and finding such comments, many of which come from ranchers, is common on the Internet. Throughout his career, Gerrish has also met ranchers and stockmen who have their doubts about MiG.
“Usually when someone says this won’t work, they have never done it,” Gerrish says. “I am not sure I have met a rancher in the last 20-plus years who actually made a bona-fide attempt to implement either Holistic Planned Grazing, or MiG as I describe it, who failed in implementation. There are plenty of ranchers around who took less than 50 percent of the concept and tried to do something and failed miserably. I think those are the individuals (who are claiming MiG doesn’t work). I have yet to travel to any environment where managed grazing was not being successfully implemented.”
One specific criticism of Savory’s claim that MiG can help stop desertification is that cattle are not natural herbivores, that somehow grazing cattle rather than buffalo or deer will produce different results. Gerrish says that’s “nonsense.”
“As long as time of exposure of the pasture or range unit to grazing is a key component of the management, any class of domestic livestock can be used as an effective tool for ecosystem enhancement,” Gerrish says. “Ted Turner learned pretty quickly that fenced-in bison without management were no better for the environment than were beef cattle.”
Gerrish says there are many examples of ranchers in a variety of environments who have implemented Holistic Planned Grazing successfully. He suggests criticism of the practice from some is based on a lack of knowledge.
“Most of the radical environmental groups don’t even understand the concept of functional ecosystems and really don’t have landscape or ecosystem goals,” Gerrish says. “I have seen too many examples of managed ranchland with well-functioning ecosystems next door to ‘protected land’ that are wildlife deserts and exhibit declining ecosystem function. Good examples from other areas in the West would be the Borderland Malpai group in New Mexico-Arizona, several Quivira Coalition projects in the Southwest, and The Nature Conservancy Red Canyon Ranch at Lander, Wyo. The list goes on and on.”