By David McKenzie and Brent Swails, CNN
Updated 6:16 AM ET, Sat March 7, 2020
How regenerative agriculture could help save the planet 03:34
Reitz, South Africa (CNN)Danie Slabbert points toward the cattle that brought his farm back to life. Down the slope ahead of him, 500 black Drakensberger and mottled Nguni cows graze cheek by jowl.
The Free State farmer gestures with his giant shepherd’s crook.
"If cattle are part of nature, like they are now, then my cows are keeping the system alive," he says. "How could you think that meat is the problem?"
Calls for plant-based diets to save the planet from the climate crisis are growing louder. But there is another, quieter, revolution reshaping the agricultural world. Farmers like Slabbert and their supporters say that what people eat is not as important as how they farm. They believe cattle and cropland could help save the planet.
"I have become a steward of this land and the cows are the key," Slabbert says.
Mimicking the migration
Before settlers arrived with their guns and wagons, this part of what is now South Africa’s Free State province was an immense grassland. More than 30 species of grass anchored the rolling plains; fodder for millions of migrating antelope.
Danie Slabbert walks along a low voltage wire that keeps 500 cattle grazing in a dense herd to replicate bison or antelope herds. The high-intensity grazing helps with natural fertilizing and grass health.
Over time, the wild herds were shot out and much of the plains became corn and potato fields.
There is still plenty of grassland here, or veld, as South Africans call it. Farmers such as Slabbert are looking back to those immense herds to recreate the natural cycle.
"What we are doing is trying to mimic nature," he says, explaining that 200 years ago, huge herds of animals would have moved over this veld, avoiding predators in their tightly packed groups."