WLJ: Perception shift: Livestock to the rescue

Perception shift: Livestock to the rescue

by Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent

Imagine walking into a room to find 300 people glued to their seats, fixated by a speaker with a microphone and a slideshow. Imagine these hundreds of people have come from four different countries and all over the U.S. Imagine them ranging from hipster naturalists to handlebar-mustached cowboys. After a quick scan of the crowd, one might think, “Were they all drugged? Hypno tized?

Blackmailed?” What lured these culturally at-odds individuals to sit together in one room?

The truth is… they’re not so at odds after all.

At Allan Savory’s recent “Grazing for Change” conference, held at California State University, Chico, the entire crowd seemed to erupt with applause each time certain concepts were brought up—concepts such as liberty, in dependence, decentralization, self-sustaining systems, healthy food, healthy people, vibrant communities, and saving green open spaces.

Perhaps the unlikely cast of characters came together because of a shared suspicion that, despite scientific advances, the nation’s citizens aren’t as healthy as they should be, and many of the nation’s open spaces are either being degraded or just disappearing.

Allan Savory is a Rhodesianborn ecologist who, in the 1970s, realized “only livestock can save us” from what he calls a worldwide “desertification” trend that is changing the climate and threatening our future existence. He has since studied and promoted livestock grazing as a means to heal the earth—primarily by bringing life back to the soil. He is the owner of the Savory Institute, dedicated to teaching people how to use “holistic management” to improve their profits, their quality of life, and the health of their land and livestock.

At the Chico conference, Savory explained how he learned the hard way in Africa that “overgrazing” is not the cause of increasing desertification worldwide. As a government wildlife biologist decades ago, he had overseen the killing of elephant herds, which were thought to be causing range degradation. But with the elephants gone, he found the range only got more sickly.

Then it struck him: 50,000 years ago, massive herds of grass-eaters roamed the world’s grasslands, moved by Mother Nature’s cycles and influenced by predators. He said humans eventually killed off these herds of wild grazers, and now our rangelands are suffering from chronic undergrazing.

“One of the big discoveries of my life,” Savory told attendees in Chico, “was that it was not livestock…causing degradation; rather it was resting the land. So it’s totally counterintuitive and difficult for us to comprehend, when for…years, we’ve believed that too many animals overgrazing was causing the degradation.”

Savory showed pictures of his ranch in Zimbabwe, where he’s used “planned grazing” to improve his soil, and his livestock production. He started by increasing his herd by 400 percent. Now, even after eight years of drought, the ranch is teeming with wildlife and more forage than his cattle can handle. He’s looking to double his herd.

Next, Savory showed the crowd somber pictures of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, located in New Mexico. It is largely “protected” from livestock grazing. Pointing to the bare soil and lifeless terrain, he said, “It’s as bad as almost anything in Africa.” He added that “Aldo Leopold would be rolling in his grave” to be commemorated by this forest-turneddesert.

It’s all about the soil

The land needs grazing. Ranchers and range scientists may be reading and saying, “Duh!” But most producers are likely to admit there’s always room for improvement. Savory’s specialty is teaching livestock producers how to make the land as productive as possible, by understanding plant and animal life cycles and how they can work symbiotically.

Perhaps more important, though, is the message Savory and his disciples are bringing to the general public: To save the planet, grazing is required.

At the conference in Chico, speaker Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, was one of several producers to demonstrate of how grazing can breathe life back into the soil, and one’s business. After several years of crop failure, his farm had been close to going out of business. But he took a class that changed his focus to the soil, and it’s made him more profitable than he’d ever dreamed. He began grazing his cattle and sheep and planting crops with a mind to putting carbon in the soil.

To do it, he broke his ranch into small paddocks so that his livestock could mimic what bison herds might have once done: highdensity herds (685,000 pounds per acre!) moving rapidly over the landscape. Each paddock gets grazed heavily for a short time, then is given several months to recover.

Brown plants “crop cocktails;” mixtures of legumes to add nitrogen to the soil, flowering plants to bring pollinators, high-protein plants for his livestock, and more. Even weeds, if grazed at the right time, add to his forage arsenal. His diverse mixture of plants and “mob grazing” techniques has made his soil carbon-rich and nutrient-dense, which has made his forage more nutritious.

“Soil carbon equals mineral density in animals and people,” he said. Although he’s not certified organic, Brown’s methods have caught the imagination of local consumers. He is highly diversified and markets his products locally. He said demand is high.

Grazing for health

Although constantly moving the herd around to emulate wild herds sounds timeconsuming, the producers who spoke in Chico said they’ve been able to save time in other ways. For example, Oregon rancher Tony Malmberg said he now generates enough winter feed to have sold his haying equipment. He added that, since he started using holistic management, his roping skills have gone to pot. He rarely has to catch cattle anymore to treat for things like pink eye or footrot. And, he rarely has to deworm.

Brown has stopped using synthetic fertilizer and herbicides, coyly calling his cattle—and their natural fertilizing qualities—his “soil health improvement tool.” He no longer tills, and his healthy soil retains water better than before, which is especially important during these times of drought.

And, he adds, his cattle are healthier than ever. He and other ranchers who spoke indicated they’ve been able to increase by at least twofold their livestock numbers, using the same acres they’ve always used.

Fewer pesticides? Less synthetic fertilizer? Fewer antibiotics and dewormers? Local markets? This all seemed to be music to the ears of the foodies and locavores in the room. Presenter Rob Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet, called holistic management “the alternative health care and food model.”

Holistic management: the human side

According to the Savory Institute website, the holistic management model has been put to work by some 10,000 producers on five continents, covering roughly 40 million acres. In order to appeal so widely, Savory has had to tweak his model to reach beyond ecology and into culture. Land management, he said, “is so tied to the culture of the people, they are indivisible.” In other words, any changes to producer practices must be compatible with local economic and cultural requirements.

Savory said there’s so much complexity to any given ranch—from family dynamics, to soil types, to ingrained values—that he has adopted a system used by the military to help families make decisions in light of all the complexity. His process includes first identifying the decision-makers (usually family members), then identifying core values that will guide future decisions.

The process also includes identifying the limits on your time, and how you want to spend your time. Financial planning is another key element: making sure every decision will turn a profit or pay for itself. Altogether, the system seems to encourage self-determination and conscious decision-making versus operating by habit. The producers who spoke in Chico had an air of enthusiasm and excitement versus drudgery or despair.

Getting the message out

The Savory Institute has designed a systematic way of getting the message out. Through new media—such as online videos and courses—the institute can reach more people than ever. There are Savory “hubs” located worldwide, which serve as another distribution tool. The Chico conference was co-hosted by one such hub, which is owned and operated by a young ranching couple, Spencer and Abbey Smith. They will be consulting, using their operation as a demonstration site, and presenting training workshops on holistic management this year in northern California and northern Nevada. Go to jeffersonhub.com to find the workshop calendar for 2015.

“Holistic management is really empowering,” said Abbey Smith in an interview. “You figure out your most deeply-held values, what gets you up in the morning, and then you make sure that you make your life about that.”

Perhaps “holistic management” is just a new name for a timeless reality: All the parts—soil, plants, animals, people—are connected to create the “whole.” But one thing is certain: The Savory Institute is setting a new tone for our era.

Perhaps one day public opinion will align with what Allan Savory told farmers and ranchers in Chico: “You in the room are the most important people in the world.”

[Editor’s note: Check upcoming issues for more on this series, including
the “liquid carbon pathway;” challenges of properly managing public lands; how government agencies and large organizations are slow to change, even in light of undeniable facts; and how modern-day science falls short of guiding the best land management decisions.] — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent