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Condensed Cattle Herding Actually Improves Arid Land

Presidio Economics | Monday November 21st, 2011 | 2 Comments


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 ryan.gerlach@presidiomba.org.


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  • Kathy Murray

    The article mentions grazing on rangeland, but this type of management sounds like a recipe for weeds.
    Is there any scientific evidence that backs up the claims of “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”? Is this intended for native or non-native land?

  • Ryan Gerlach

    Kathy,

    First off, the South Dakota ranchers I mention are doing plot testing on their land and are finding increases in biodiversity and ground cover. I really recommend reading the Atlantic article that I linked to as it addresses some of your questions. Its hyperlinked in the text or here is a direct link: http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/09/the-brown-revolution-increasing-agricultural-productivity-naturally/245748/#.ToTNyoFpW_c.facebook

    I can’t speak definitively to what particular species thrive best under this management regime, but I would posit that it is initially going to encourage growth of whatever is in the seed bank, but eventually favor native landscapes. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but most native grasses found in prairies and grasslands are perennial – which over time develop incredibly dense root structures – whereas a lot of the problem weed species are fast-growing annuals that put most of their energy into above-ground growth. I have read that a problem with cattle grazing is that when feeding, they can pull up the entire plant, roots and all. If a section of land is populated largely with weak-rooted annual grasses, it is possible to denude it of vegetation. On the other hand, mature perennial grasses would not allow for complete removal from grazing due to the density of their root structures. With this understanding, I would venture that this type of management would favor the native perennials over time, which makes logical sense since the technique is mimicking the herd impacts that these areas evolved with.

    I should say that I am neither a rancher nor an expert in this field, but I have worked with grasslands for some time. I don’t intend for my answers to be taken as gospel, but I hope they might be helpful.

    Thanks for your question!