Proper grazing mimics nature: expert

Preventing desertification | ‘Rested grasslands tend to die,’ says a soil specialist who admits an about-face in his thinking

The father of holistic grazing management admits he started out fanatically opposed to livestock roaming the grasslands of his native Rhodesia.

“I was one of the people who opposed cattle ranching because as a wildlifer, I had seen the damage they were doing to wildlife,” Allan Savory told a recent Calgary meeting sponsored by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency. “I was a very fanatical young scientist.”

Trained as a wildlife biologist, Savory was an early advocate of game ranching in the mid-1950s, when livestock was removed and wildlife restored to manage grasslands in Africa.

“It became a multibillion-dollar industry in Africa and parts of Texas, and tragically, it was one case in my life where I was horribly wrong,” he said.

“I have been wrong many times and I have had to change.”

His inspiration to solve the case of eroded land around the world came from French agronomist Andre Voison, who understood that cattle naturally rotated on pasture. It was more about the amount time cattle spent on the land rather than the number that grazed a particular spot. The land deteriorated if the animals were not there.

Savory’s work on holistic farm management has gained adherents around the world, but he admits it took some trial and error to get it right.

Meanwhile, millions of acres of land have reverted to desert because of the unintended consequences of poor management policies.

He foresees a “global tsunami” with more desertification and more people going hungry.

He said agriculture is vital to feed people, but it has become compartmentalized at a time when the entire industry needs to work together.

Soil erosion is a major problem around the world, and he said poor agricultural practices caused most of it.

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Monoculture farming, in which large tracts of land are exposed to the elements, is unsustainable, he added.

Soil scientists estimate millions of tonnes of soil are lost each year and billions of acres of land burned to remove trash. Fire exposes the soil and also contributes to air pollution.

Savory’s solution is to bring livestock back to the land because he believes a lack of properly managed grazing brings desertification. Biodiversity returns when the forage is rested and grazed.

Grazing animals remove the tops of plants, but the plant chemistry shifts to chemical oxidation without that action and plants die.

When the grass dies, nature fills the vacuum with crusted soil, shrubs and tap-rooted plants such as thistle.

“Rested grasslands tend to die,” he said.

Savory said grasslands occupy 18 percent of the global land base. Planting more trees is beneficial be-cause they cycle carbon, but grasslands store it in the soil.

His solution for desertification came from his military training, which allowed him to apply what he knew about battlefield planning to draw up grazing plans.

A rancher can use a chart to determine which land to use, how many animals are needed to consume the available forage and length of time in a paddock.

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This information can then help him decide how and where to move cattle next.

Some of the early grazing plans failed, but the concepts started to work as Savory and others learned to understand that nature functions in patterns.

He decided agriculture had to mimic nature.

Grasslands were originally grazed by large herbivores, which collected in herds to protect themselves from large predators that kept them moving along.

The animals dropped urine and feces on the grass while their hoofs trampled plants and soil. This forced them to move on after they had chewed off the tops of plants, which meant nutrients and litter were left behind to restore the soil and hold rainwater.

Savory emphasized that grazing plans must have objectives that fit each farm and ranch so every decision makes economic, environmental, social and scientific sense. The plans also need to be flexible.

“What might be right this year may not be right next year, so you are constantly planning,” he said.

His practices have been spread by farmers teaching each other. He founded the Centre for Holistic Management in 1984, which later became the Savory Centre. In 2009 he formed the Savory Institute.

The work includes demonstration ranches that implement holistic management with livestock grazing and planning to restore eroded grasslands.

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The institute is also leading programs in 12 countries where farmers have started hubs of excellence to teach the concepts to each another.