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A Change for the Better

October 31, 2011 - I learned about something that's a real game changer last week. It's called Holistic Management (HM), and it has to do with the way grasslands are managed. The fact is, HM was developed for the express purpose of changing the way ranchers and farmers do business. Allan Savory, a Rhodesian (Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia decades ago) biologist, game ranger, politician, farmer and rancher, saw the need to repair grasslands in his native country nearly fifty years ago. What was it he saw?

Livestock Raising was being managed in much the same way all over the world at that time. Sedentary livestock was easier to keep track of than animals that were allowed to roam, so ranchlands had gradually been fenced off. Once cattle were confined, ranchers figured their lives had been made a whole lot easier. The land degradation that resulted from the continual scuffing of cows' hooves across a relatively small area was easily corrected: cattle were simply moved to another contained area in order to graze. The fact that degraded land was unable to repair itself because of the length of time over which abuse had occurred, an example of poor animal husbandry called overgrazing, was an uncomfortable reality affected ranchers were slow to acknowledge. By the time they did, desertification had set in.

Allan Savory recognized desertification as it was happening, due to the loss of grasses and other plants that act as soil cover. He knew that when the ground is no longer held in place by plant roots because the plants have been trampled to death, an important step in the process known as desertification has taken place. The unlikelihood of plants growing to replace those lost is amplified by the lack of decomposing, above-ground plant parts to enrich the soil. That's another devastating step. When land has been degraded to the point it can no longer support plant life, it is well on its way to becoming desert.

Savory also knew that desertification can be reversed. This needed to happen, so that the land could be productive once again, both as farmland and as rangeland. In addition, the biologist/farmer was quick to comprehend that fertile ground sequesters carbon dioxide during the growth cycle. Carbon sequestration is now widely recognized as a vital service rendered by grasslands and forests in the battle to mitigate climate change. Little doubt, then, that healthy grasslands are important. Savory's land management techniques have been found to be highly effective in restoring overgrazed grassland. What are they?

Central to Savory's approach is re-establishing the role of cattle as roaming animals. When cattle chew grass, they stimulate plant and root growth. By removing above-ground plant parts, they permit sunlight to reach "growth points." As they proceed from one patch of grass to another, the cows' hooves loosen soil, allowing for water penetration and seed germination. As long as they keep moving to previously unvisited sites, the grasslands can only benefit.

Because 45% of global land area is grassland, Holistic Management stands to make a world of difference to many of our planet's peoples. It is for that reason that Savory was awarded the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Prize. Since then, HM has become far more widely known. Here, in the United States, HM is being practiced to great effect in places like Colorado and New Mexico. Many would say it's not a moment too soon. The world is badly in need of more food-producing land, not more deserts.

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