Condensed Cattle Herding Actually Improves Arid Land

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Macroeconomics course on a blogging series about “the economics of sustainability.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Ryan Gerlach

Those of us that fancy ourselves environmentally conscious eaters spend a fair amount of time thinking, talking, and perhaps worrying about where our food comes from and how it was produced. Concepts like organic and food miles start to compete with price and taste in our purchasing decisions. Under this guise, a lot of people steer clear of red meat as it’s gotten a bad rep for its contributions to global climate change (previously covered on TriplePundit herehere and here).

However, in the last few years there has been a growing body of research indicating that oft-vilified beef cattle might actually be the answer to our climate problems. Alan Savory has been at the head of this movement, advocating a technique he calls “holistic management.”  He is not only successfully raising cattle on arid and otherwise infertile land in Zimbabwe, but he has actually managed to reverse desertification and rebuild eroded topsoil in the process. In doing so, ranches utilizing his technique have sequestered massive amounts of CO2. Last month, The Atlantic published an article about some enterprising ranchers who were implementing the same techniques and yielding similar results in the arid rangelands of South Dakota.

So what is their secret? They put far more head of cattle on the land than any reasonable rancher says they should. In fact, many times more than the number that conventional wisdom would hold that the land could sustain. Their technique tries to mimic the impacts of the large herds of grazing ruminants that once freely roamed these grasslands. More specifically, they keep their animals bunched close together, graze a particular parcel of land intensively for a very limited time, then move the herd to another parcel, leaving the grazed patches to recover (the last component being crucial).

Grazing in this manner has a number of important impacts. First, the grazing stimulates root growth in the grasses, which has the effect of sequestering carbon underground. Secondly, the animals make manure. And in such close quarters, they make a lot of it. While continued inundation of nitrogen-rich excrement would ultimately be toxic for a small parcel of land, a one-time barrage serves as a shot in the arm for nutrient-deprived soils. The key is to give the soil adequate time to recover, meaning this technique requires a high level of intentionality and planning. Herds cannot be left to wander wherever they please. If done right, holistic management results in increases in seed germination, vegetative ground cover, and root density, as well as a greater quantity of organic matter in the soil and raised water tables.

What effect could this have? According to Savory, increasing the organic matter in the world’s 4.9 billion hectares of rangeland by just 0.5 percent would sequester 720 gigatons of CO2 equivalents. To give context to this figure, the total CO2 equivalents released from all sources in the year 2000 was roughly 44 gigatons.

Stepping back, the world’s population recently surpassed 7 billion. At the same time, global food systems are proving increasingly volatile. Climatic fluctuations are making traditional methods of agriculture, already an unpredictable trade not for the faint of heart, all the more financially untenable. On the other hand, Savory’s technique produces more food per acre, addresses the root cause of climate change, and simultaneously improves the land’s ability to withstand the weather extremes that come with a changing climate. While many of us have assigned the beef industry the role of the villain with regards climate change, it seems at least somewhat ironic that increasing the intensity (as well as the method) of their production might be the answer to these issues.

Ryan Gerlach has spent his professional career working in land management and restoration ecology. Now pursuing an MBA at Presidio Graduate School, his professional mission is to improve land use as it relates to our food systems. He can be reached at