Properly managed livestock are the solution to our current environmental crisis. The majority of land on our planet requires appropriate animal impact in order to be healthy. In fact, most of the earth’s land cannot support annual agriculture and turns to desert when animals are removed.
Today, a perfect storm is bearing down on us. a process known as desertification is destroying the land supporting that population; and Earth’s climate is changing considerably faster than the scientific community had anticipated.
Over millennia these deserts have been expanding into grasslands and savannas, resulting in failed civilizations.
Human-induced desertification happens when land becomes increasingly dry despite no change in rainfall. Grass and forage for animals, wild and domestic, becomes increasingly sparse. As a result, people who make their living from the land become impoverished. Unremitting poverty leads to social breakdown. Abuse of women and children rises, along with violence, as humans compete for scarce resources and access to land and water. The affected people forsake the land and swarm into cities or emigrate to other countries, creating a host of other social and economic problems.
Early humans blamed desertification on livestock. They believed that livestock numbers were too high and this resulted in their overgrazing grasslands, leading to desertification. This conviction so permeated society that it assumed scientific validity and remained the explanation for desertification for more than two centuries. Nobody questioned this explanation — until recently. It’s now time to examine the antiquated roots of these beliefs to see where the truth lies.
In 1955, after finishing my studies in ecology at the University of Natal in South Africa, I started working in earnest to save the desertifying land in my homeland (which had become part of the Central African Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland). The task before me seemed simple. But during my first year in the Northern Rhodesian Game Department of the British Colonial Service, I began to realize that much of what I had been taught about ecology bore little relationship to what I was experiencing and observing in the field. Almost everywhere I looked, even in the wildest areas, where rainfall was plentiful and livestock absent, the land was deteriorating, or desertifying, as we would call it today.
I soon realized that desertification was not only more widespread than many people recognized, but it was closely linked to our agricultural practices, particularly those in the world’s grasslands —broadly defined, grasslands include all environments in which grasses play a critical role in stabilizing soil, from dry deciduous forests to savanna-woodlands to open grasslands to arid and semiarid rangelands. Those practices were chiefly associated with livestock production, as only about 30 percent of the world’s land is considered arable and suited to crop production.
modern agriculture is a major contributor to desertification and climate change. By degrading soil, we diminish its tremendous ability to capture and contain carbon. This leads to the release of massive amounts of carbon annually from our earth’s soils — a major and underappreciated contributor to climate change.
There are people pushing for serious investment to explore the use of technology to geoengineer the Earth’s climate, given the urgency of the task. If there is one lesson we should have learned, it is that technological “solutions” involving nature’s complexity inevitably lead to unintended consequences, most of them adverse. Many examples come from agriculture: Chemical fertilizers to increase production have killed off microorganisms in soil, decreased soil fertility and water-holding capacity, and increased flooding; pesticides used to treat internal parasites in livestock have led to the destruction of dung beetles, which are vital to soil rejuvenation.
Another idea often promoted to address climate change and desertification is the planting of trees. As the thinking goes, trees will both sequester, or store, carbon and reduce soil erosion.
But in many parts of the world, trees won’t solve either problem. Here’s why
- Desertification cannot be reversed by spending vast amounts of money and labor on the planting of trees and shrubs over billions of hectares of land where rainfall is only sufficient to sustain full soil cover under grasses. Additionally, in many cases, vast sums are spent on fossil-fuel-powered earth-moving techniques to harvest the water needed to keep the trees alive. It is not a commercially viable or scalable solution.
- As for the perception that trees can stabilize soils, create barriers for dust storms, and regreen desertified areas, planting trees where they do not naturally grow cannot address the reason why the land was desertifying; this approach treats the symptoms, not the cause, of desertification. Desertification will continue and many of these trees will die off.
Having spent five decades observing the problem of desertification — with countless hours around campfires discussing the issue with fellow scientists — I now stake my life on just one solution: Use livestock to mimic the formerly vast herds of wild grazing animals. My years of working in the field have made clear that large herbivores, properly managed, can reverse desertification on the scale required.
I realize this is a radical idea. For centuries we have believed that animals — particularly livestock — cause desertification. But my research has shown that livestock are the only tool now available to reverse desertification and return carbon and water to grassland soils.
This idea is counterintuitive to everything ecologist have been taught.
nobody questioned that desertification was caused by too many animals grazing the land until nothing but bare soil remained.
I made some grievous errors on my journey to find the true cause of desertification.
The idea that desertification is caused by too many animals overgrazing plants is frankly as wrong as our one-time belief that the world is flat.
I was involved in managing wildlife areas slated to become national parks. In an effort to protect the land and wildlife, my colleagues and I relocated the hunting peoples who had lived on these lands for centuries (unfortunately, people were moved from their ancestral homes many times in colonial days; the belief at the time was that such things were justified by the greater cause of the nation having a national park). Yet, despite our efforts to provide full protection for the wildlife by removing the hunting peoples (and there being no livestock in such wild areas), within a short time the land began to deteriorate alarmingly, with some species of plants and animals disappearing altogether. When, in 1959, I transferred to the game department in my own country, today’s Zimbabwe, I witnessed a similar plight: Areas set aside for future national parks were in demise. It seemed we were doing everything right but the land was still dying. In the mid-1960s, I studied a severely deteriorating area in Zimbabwe where all the cattle had died in a series of dry years. Some 50,000 head of impala, zebra, wildebeest, and other game met the same fate. With almost no animals left on the land, I was sure it would quickly recover. It didn’t.
So I did more research, this time “proving” that too many elephants, buffalo, and a few other species were preventing these lands from recovering.
The government formed a committee of experts to evaluate my research and recommendations. In the end, it agreed with my findings, and over the following decades the government culled some 40,000 elephants. But the land didn’t improve and the damage still continues unabated in these national parks today.
The tragedy of my misunderstanding of desertification — and the subsequent reduction of the elephant population — had only one good outcome: Once I realized my horrific error, I became obsessed with finding solutions, devoting the rest of my life to doing whatever it would take to reverse the damage.
The effectiveness of precipitation is determined by how much soil between plants is exposed. When raindrops hit the ground directly without vegetation or dead plant material — known as litter — to dissipate their energy, they break the soil particle structure apart at the surface, releasing organic components that get washed away.
More than any other factor, bare soil surfaces result in precipitation becoming less effective, and thus lead to desertification.
if rainfall is to be fully effective, it must penetrate the soil surface. How much water penetrates the surface is dependent on two things: the rate of application and the permeability of the top millimeter of soil. Two variables affect the rate of application: how hard it rains (precipitation intensity) and how quickly that rain flows across the soil (runoff rate). We can’t do anything about precipitation intensity, but we can do a lot about the runoff rate. The faster water flows across the soil surface, the less time it has to soak in. However, if plant litter and closely spaced vegetation covers that surface, runoff is slowed and more water soaks into the soil, even during heavy downpours of rain.
to ensure maximum precipitation effectiveness, it is essential that closely spaced plants and/or litter cover the soil year-round. Doing so reduces both the frequency and severity of man-made floods and droughts. But more important, it maximizes the amount of water the soil can absorb during each rain event. And that is what I mean by precipitation “effectiveness,” a factor usually far more important than the volume of rainfall.
in terms of water loss, runoff pales when compared with evaporation. During evaporation, water is literally sucked from exposed surface soil.
Grasses alone cannot prevent desertification. Litter — the trampled-down dead leaves and stems that make precipitation effective — is essential.
soil’s water-holding capacity is cumulative. Effective rainfall, which by definition remains in the soil, accumulates each year, with ever increasing water flowing through the soil to rivers, wetlands, and aquifers. Excessively exposed soil becomes more drought-prone year after year; land with covered soil becomes increasingly drought-resilient.
In 1960, while I was still a research ecologist in the game department, the governments in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), what would become Botswana, and South Africa were assisting drought-stricken farmers in the headwaters of the Limpopo River system. Meanwhile, the International Red Cross was collecting money for flood victims downriver, in Mozambique. The official line at the time was that the drought in the upper catchment was due to climate change — or as officials put it: “We just don’t get the rain we used to get.” I found myself the odd man out by noting that during the worst drought we’d had in the Limpopo area, we received the sixth-highest rainfall ever recorded. Land conditions upstream did nothing to mitigate runoff. Instead, the water surged downstream. So, in the same river system we had drought in the upper catchment and flooding at the lower end. That is desertification in full swing.
Flooding isn’t always linked to desertification. Atmospheric humidity protects about a third of the world’s land surface from desertification.
Most of the world’s land surface, however, experiences erratic and seasonal atmospheric humidity. In these zones, even when rainfall is high, bare soil does not regreen rapidly — especially, I argue, when animals aren’t there to break up sealed or crusted surfaces with their hooves, and to lay down litter. It is this erratic distribution of humidity — not the amount of precipitation — that is more critical to desertification.
Unraveling the centuries-old mystery of what could be causing desertification was initially a case of groping in the dark and making many mistakes. In hindsight, it’s easy to explain desertification. My work shows that three management practices lead to desertification.
In order of importance, they are:
- Overresting soils and plants.
- Overgrazing plants.
In hindsight, it’s easy to explain desertification. My work shows that three management practices lead to desertification. In order of importance, they are: • Overresting soils and plants. • Overgrazing plants. • Burning.
It took years for me to understand the primary causes of desertification. But of them, the hardest to identify, and the most critical, was overresting. Overrest occurs when there is inadequate or infrequent grazing and trampling by animals, a process that keeps grasslands and their soils in a highly productive, resilient state. In 1979, when I visited the United States, I observed some national parks desertifying as badly as any place in Africa. The damaging effects of overrest were obvious in America, and not something I could have discovered in Africa, where size of animal populations (wild and domestic) obscures the problem.
In the 1930s, the federal government, attempting to reverse the region’s desertification, killed more than 250,000 sheep and goats belonging to the Navajo Nation, according to the Southwest Indian Relief Council. Sure enough, with the sheep gone from the research plots, the overgrazing stopped and the plants did grow profusely over the first few years. But as years passed, the desertification of the Navajo lands appeared to have increased. Fifty years later, I saw the research plots turning to desert, despite having no livestock grazing within them for half a century.
Overresting led not only to the early death of grasses that had evolved with grazing animals but also to inadequate disturbance of the soil surface by animal hooves, which break up the soil so that new plants can grow and which trample down dead leaves and stems to provide the litter that makes precipitation effective. The focus on overgrazing obscured the problem of overresting.
Slowly the murky picture became clearer. The healthiest land I had seen was always associated with the largest herds — thousands of buffalo, elephants, and other grazing animals — accompanied by large packs of lions, wild dogs, and hyenas that kept them concentrated and needing to move off ground fouled by their own dung and urine. That movement minimized the overgrazing of plants.
Overgrazed plants result in a loss of soil-covering litter. And widely spaced animals trample very little litter onto the ground, whereas bunched animals trample more plant material to cover soil.
I finally understood why so much of the soil was bare between the plants in most of the world’s seasonally humid environments. Where large herds of bunched grazing animals were replaced by scattered animals (wild or domestic), the land was suffering from partial rest — too few animals present, providing minimal vegetation and soil disturbance. In the absense of pack-hunting predators, animals scattered while grazing and trampled few or no plants, leaving the soil bare between them. In other cases, the animals overgrazed plants by lingering too long in a place, or returning to it too soon. In short, there was an imbalance — too much grazing or trampling in some areas and not enough in others. As a result, there was less forage to cover soil and feed animals. Scientists like myself, who had insisted on reducing animal numbers, had merely aggravated the problem. Fewer animals led to more ungrazed plants, which then accumulated dead, oxidizing leaves and stems that blocked sunlight from reaching new leaf buds and emerging stems at the plant base, eventually killing the plants.
What I have just described is vital to addressing climate change and altering the future of humanity. Prominent institutions such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have recognized the important role grasslands can play in mitigating climate change through absorbing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.
proper grassland management is essential to successfully address climate change.
grasslands not only play an important role in ambient carbon cycling, they also store carbon from millennia past. It’s why many of the world’s primary grain-growing regions — with their deep carbon-rich soils — are former grasslands.
While many scientists vilify trampling as destructive to plant life, my experience in the field has amply shown just the opposite to be the case. Trampling breaks hard, crusted soil surfaces, allowing new plants to sprout, while also pushing detritus down to the surface, where soil organisms can more easily break it down. The litter keeps the soil covered, and the dung and urine provide a natural fertilizer. The process makes the soil increasingly capable of absorbing and holding water and carbon.
I found the vital clue about time and overgrazing, namely that plant recovery time was more important to healthy rangeland than the amount of animals grazing on it.
Although individual animal weight is important, it’s not as important for profit as weight of meat produced per acre. Simply put, fewer slightly heavier animals do not result in as much meat produced as a higher number of slightly smaller animals. This is why so many ranchers who pride themselves on their cattle’s conception rates and weight gains still go broke, unlike, say, corn farmers who focus on yield per acre and not the size of their corn cobs or the number of cobs per plant.
The holistic planned grazing process begins by clearly defining the context for the many objectives in management. In this case, it is a holistic context. This is opposed to the context we find for objectives in management, most commonly need, desire, profit, or addressing a problem. These contexts are too simplistic and don’t take into account the social, environmental, and economic complexity involved.
During the growing season, bunched perennial grasses generally require 30 to 90 days to recover from a grazing. In the nongrowing season, since plants will be dormant and unlikely to be overgrazed, it’s more important to simply give animals the best available diet during this hard dry period.
The holistic context encompasses the quality of life desired by the people involved and what they need to produce to attain it. It also encompasses a description of that land, not in its present state but as it will need to be far in the future to sustain their descendants and all other life forms.
The ranchers I worked with initially in developing holistic planned grazing began to see tangible recovery of land, wildlife habitat, and profitability immediately. Forage production increased: Plants were no longer being overgrazed, more plants were establishing, and disappearing species were returning. Ranchers had the happy problem of needing to increase livestock numbers to prevent all the extra grass from overresting.
We compared the production of meat per hectare on this land with the production on the surrounding 200,000 acres under conventional stocking rates and grazing practices, also owned by the Liebig Company. The result was astonishing: The land with greatly increased animal numbers under planned grazing produced five times more meat per acre than the surrounding 200,000 acres, which were continuing to desertify.
Occasionally, planned grazing begins on land where there is absolutely no plant life at all, as is the case when reclaiming mine dumps. In this scenario, feed (hay) is used to kick-start the biological processes and seedling establishment. Once grasses reestablish, holistic planned grazing can proceed normally.
a reversion to merely rotational grazing is a common cause of failure on ranches that had started practicing holistic planned grazing. In these scenarios, ranchers who have a preference for working in the field rather than spending even the short time necessary to think and plan on paper (whether they are planning grazing or finances) tend to fly by the seat of their pants, as it were. They drop the planning and the planning chart, believing they can make do by simply bunching the animals and varying the grazing periods based on whether the animals seem hungry or the grass is growing slowly. What they lose sight of is, when you reduce the grazing time in one paddock, you automatically reduce the recovery time in all remaining paddocks. As a result, the livestock end up returning to paddocks before the previously grazed plants have fully regrown their roots, and many plants are overgrazed.
Scientists and land managers have long tried to create the ideal grazing system in hopes of designing a one-size-fits-all protocol. But the reality is, no prescribed grazing system, including rotational grazing, no matter how flexible or adaptive, can address the complexity that a continuous and dynamic planning process can. This has led to many years of argument and skepticism of planned grazing from scientists trained to do research that requires replication. The two fields — research using replicable experiments and holistic management — are very different. The former is reductionist (a technical term that refers to the isolation of variables for testing), the latter holistic. So where I have claimed that we can, and are, addressing the full complexity (social, environmental, and economic) of the situation on a ranch through holistic planning, researchers have repeatedly dropped the planning process because they cannot replicate it and have reverted to various forms of basic, short-duration, rotational grazing (which is possible to replicate because it involves nothing more variable than rotation on a prescribed, regular basis with no accommodation for other vital management considerations). This has led these scientists to conclude that, because their simplified replications failed, my claims for holistic decision making and planning of grazing have been false. Further, they have insisted that any successes are anecdotal because they were not derived from replicated experiment. In short: Because they can’t replicate a type of management that by its very nature is unique to every situation managed, researchers trained in the experimental process have doubted my work.
In any business, management is greatly facilitated when you establish procedures, or management “systems,” for handling the routine tasks that generally have predictable outcomes — tracking inventory, managing payables and receivables, maintaining equipment, etc. However, because markets, materials costs, customers, clients, regulations, and taxation are constantly in flux, a business will fail if it sticks to any prescribed system for the overall management of the business, no matter how flexible. Smart business leaders know this and it’s why they opt instead for continual planning — and replanning — to manage their companies effectively. Managing livestock grazing is no different: It must account for the complexity inherent in nature as well as the social and economic factors that might influence outcomes.
I soon found that as long as a farmer was not mentally defeated, we could turn things around. It taught me that you could never manage land without accounting for the attitudes of the managers, their families, and their finances. This is why holistic management today treats the land, finances, and people involved as inseparable. Each area feeds into the others, which makes the overall result ecologically, economically, and financially successful simultaneously.
A common question I’m often asked: How long does it take to get results after changing to holistic planned grazing? The answer: within the first year. In general, the larger the herd size, the greater the bunching and impact achieved, and the faster the recovery — although good rains always help! Remember: Overresting land is the leading cause of desertification in seasonally humid grasslands, and only animal impact provided by bunched animals can address it.
Holistic planned grazing is being adopted in communal lands, where communities are combining individually owned animals into “land management herds.” Literacy rates in these communities are low. But because their powers of observation and memory skills are often very high, we’ve been able to simplify the planning process and planning chart to meet their needs. We’re now training villagers and pastoralists in southern Africa to gather livestock into communal herds and adopt holistic planned grazing techniques.
efforts to reduce emissions aren’t enough. We must decrease the excess carbon already in the atmosphere — referred to as the “legacy load” — to a concentration of no more than 350 ppm, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” warns Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist who first sounded the alarm on climate change nearly two decades ago.9
To decrease the legacy load in the atmosphere, soil scientists have investigated the potential for storing carbon in soils suitable for crop growing, which constitute roughly 30 percent of the world’s land area. But even the best conservation agriculture practices, such as no-till and cover crops, won’t reduce the legacy load enough.10 Scientists disagree on just how much carbon grasslands can sequester, but if, indeed, grasslands can sequester carbon on the scale I believe them capable of, reversing desertification may be an essential tool in returning the planet to 350 ppm.
Putting climate change aside for a moment, consider that desertification contributes significantly to poverty and violence in the world’s most distressed regions. Here, millions of people are already running out of water, forage for their animals, and food for themselves due to increasingly frequent man-made droughts, which in turn leads to violence and even war, and to the suffering and deaths of millions. An average of only 5 percent of the land area in these regions is capable of growing crops to feed people. The bulk of the rest is suitable only for livestock production, because they are grasslands, which require less rainfall and are not undermined by shallow soils the way crop production is. And it is only livestock properly managed that can begin to reverse the desertification of these grasslands and the problems arising from it.
As the pace of desertification slows and begins to reverse, soils begin to store more water. Soil is, as mentioned earlier, the largest reservoir of nonfrozen fresh water available. If, for instance, we were to make just 1 inch (25 mm) of the rain that falls in severely desertifying New Mexico each year soak into the soil rather than evaporate or run off, more water would be stored in the soil every year than in three reservoirs the size of New Mexico’s largest reservoir.
Bear in mind that this extra water remaining in the soil is added to with each following year in a cumulative manner. And bear in mind that the fate of both carbon and water in the soil are tied to increasing organic matter.
In the United States, millions of cattle are fed grain in a fossil-fuel-based factory production system, while so much of the land in the western half of the country is desertifying due to too few livestock.
We must change our policies and practices now because we know that holistic planned grazing can:
- Help heal man-made deserts, which will once again assume their role as productive grasslands.
- Restore desertified grasslands to mitigate floods, droughts, stabilize river flow, and greatly increase water storage.
- Let ranchers increase livestock (and other herbivore) numbers to hasten land recovery, no matter how bad its condition.
- Dramatically increase wildlife, soil, and plant diversity.
- Reduce carbon that is currently being added to the atmosphere by dying eroding soils, while sequestering excess atmospheric carbon through regenerating grassland soils that cover very large areas of the world’s land.
- Address a major underlying cause of man-made floods, droughts, poverty, social breakdown, emigration, cultural genocide, violence, and war.
- Improve community food and financial security.
My early blunder as a young scientist led to the futile deaths of more than 40,000 elephants. It was an epic mistake that truly changed me. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been able to save the elephants and establish long-term policies that better served the people and wildlife of Zimbabwe.
managing holistically – involving, as it does, science and other sources of knowledge – is backed by solid data. Scientists at Ohio State University conducted a survey of 25 holistically managed properties across the U.S. They examined the land — its health and productivity — and on all but one ranch found improved biodiversity, while profitability (which had increased in four-fifths of cases) had on average, in those cases, nearly quadrupled (the median profit increase was 238 percent).
After many years of struggle against institutional resistance that even people leading those institutions could not change, it is my opinion that institutions, even if they wish to, cannot change until there is a significant sway of public opinion. I base this opinion on my own experience in trying to lead genuine change as president of a political party, the centuries it took the Catholic Church to accept that the earth was not the center of the universe, the 200 years it took the Royal Navy to accept that lime juice could prevent scurvy, and the research of Eric Ashby about the need for a certain level of shift in society’s view before people in elected positions in democratic institutions, or the institutions themselves, could change. The global problem of desertification with all its many adverse effects cannot be realistically addressed until there is institutional change. It’s my hope that I can begin that shift here.
the Savory Institute, which I co-founded with five others to scale holistic planned grazing globally.
Our strategy is three-pronged:
- • Healing the land by managing in partnership with impact investors and large landowners.
- • Empowering others to heal the land through the creation of locally led and managed Savory Hubs: 100 hubs by 2025 influencing 1 billion hectares of grasslands.
- • Removing barriers to large-scale change through: Monitoring, curating, and conducting research with a variety of collaborators to document the environmental, economic, and social changes that occur as a result of managing livestock properly. Informing policies and programs related to grasslands and livestock management of reasons why desertification is spreading rapidly and how properly managed livestock can reverse it. Identifying and establishing market-based incentives that encourage people to manage holistically. Increasing public awareness that livestock are not the problem but rather that how they are managed and interact with grasslands is the problem. And this is an issue of human management and decision making.