Commentary: Savory's solution will change views of livestock

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So you liked the Paul Harvey-narrated video that aired during the Super Bowl – So God Made a Farmer? Made you feel good to be involved with agriculture – even if the moment was fleeting.

Rejoice! There is a new video circling the Internet, one that promises to hold a nation’s attention span longer than 15 minutes because the content is more than just some warm fuzzy about salt-of-the-Earth folks who produce food. This new video is about solutions – and about dispelling some exaggerated myths about livestock production.

The star of this new video is Allan Savory, a soft-spoken Zimbabwean biologist, farmer and environmentalist who has spent a lifetime studying and practicing techniques that combat desertification around the globe. In fact, he’s built a career and a business challenging what many consider facts about livestock – that they’re bad for the planet and contribute to climate change.

On the contrary, Savory says, livestock are a solution to climate change and an effective means by which to fight hunger, poverty and violence across much of the Third World.

Savory’s speech was presented at the 2013 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference, a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.” Founded in 1984, TED now sponsors an annual conference in which speakers are given 18 minutes to address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture. Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Gordon Brown and many Nobel Prize winners.

Savory’s idea “worth spreading” is that removing grazing animals from an ecosystem promotes desertification. Indeed, he argues, the cause of desertification is the absence of grazing animals. To heal the land and slow climate change, he says, grazing animals must be returned to areas in peril of desertification, which may include two-thirds of the world's grasslands.

Those ideas are not just a hunch, an unproven theory that Savory promotes. He has proof, compiled over a lifetime of study and practice. You have to watch the video to fully comprehend this powerful message.

Savory began working on desertification in his native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1955. He is credited with developing Holistic Management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources that builds biodiversity, improves production, generates financail strength, enhances sustainability, and improves the quality of life for those who use it. Holistic management offers a new decision-making framework that managers in a variety of enterprises, cultures, and countries are using to help ensure that the decisions they take are economically, socially, and environmentally sound, simultaneously—both short and long term.

In 1992, Savory created the Savory Institute that works globally with individuals, government agencies, NGOs and corporations to restore the vast grasslands of the world through the teaching and practice of holistic management and Holistic Decision Making. The Institute's Consulting and Training activities are turning deserts into thriving grasslands, restoring biodiversity, bringing streams, rivers and water sources back to life, combating poverty and hunger, and increasing sustainable food production, all while mitigating global climate change through carbon sequestration. In 2010 Savory and the Africa Center for Holistic Management won  The Buckminster Fuller Challenge. In a 2012 address to the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, on the urgent need to bring agriculture and conservation back together, Prince Charles lauded Savory's nature based approach.

Currently, thousands of families, corporations and businesses are using the holistic management framework developed by Savory to radically improve the quality of their lives and regenerate the resource base that sustains them.

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Kentucky  |  March, 06, 2013 at 09:39 AM

This is a compelling talk full of the power of persuasion. But we have to be careful. While some ranchers and the beef industry no doubt are enamored with Savory's ideas, this is not the case for most range management scientists. Experiments done in various areas of the world using his Holistic Management approach have not duplicated his results. This is the essence of doing science, and if we do not have multiple examples by diverse researchers then the science is not proved. Indeed, I would love to have his ideas proved, but that is not the case so far and range management scientists are not optimistic they will be. I should also add that controlling the number of animals to "mimic nature" may be possible in Africa with its long traditions of community herding and relatively low level of meat production from such activities, this is hardly a solution for the commercial livestock industry worldwide. Unfortunately, things are far more complicated than we would like, and despite all his accolades and awards, Dr. Savory does not really have the "solution." I hope readers will understand this and the many complexities of integrating human activities with nature.

Joe Maddox    
west Texas  |  March, 06, 2013 at 10:17 AM

I agree with Robert that most range management scientists do not agree with Mr. Savory's ideas. We have been using his ideas and principles since 1986 and I have never seen them fail. We started by putting 5000 ewes and 400 cows together and used the planned grazing technique to move them from pasture to pasture on a timely basis to ensure enough time for sufficient plant recovery. The other ranch had 70% bare ground at the start and after one year with 1200 ewes and 150 cows on a planned grazing plan, we reduced that bare ground number to 20%. My advice is for all people of the land is to get educated to Mr. Savory's holistic management principles and do your own trials.

Cindy Dvergsten    
Colorado  |  March, 06, 2013 at 11:17 AM

I second what Joe says. One must be actively engaged with managing animals and the land to truely understand the dynamics. I have doubled my production and my stocking rate over a period of 8 years by using holistic decision making and holistic grazing planning. Bare ground decreases, oraganic matter increases, diversity increases, forage quality increases, animal performance increases. This along with solid financial planning makes for success. Holistic management and grazing planning can be practiced on one acre of land just as well as 10,000 acres. Communal lands and traditional herding are not necessary. Each piece of land is unique and each ranching situation is unique. Therefore each situation will require a unique application of grazing, rest/recovery, and animal impact.

Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  March, 06, 2013 at 06:51 PM

But if it were a matter of grazing cows for the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem then the issue would be to let them remain on the land. The notion of removing one turf eating herd for the next just wouldn't make sense. Obviously this is yet another ploy to have your range-lands and your beef too.

Hank the Cowdog    
Kansas  |  March, 06, 2013 at 07:58 PM

It makes perfect sense, Bea. The animals are FOOD! And, yes, having healthy rangeland and eating beef is exactly the idea.

Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  March, 06, 2013 at 08:27 PM

An idea and an ideal are two entirely different things. If one insists on grazing herbivores, why not let herds of REAL wildlife (buffalo and elk and moose, etc) graze naturally, instead of hunting them and putting livestock in their place? These are all just excuses to eat cows - Knowing this agenda makes every "fact" suspicious. There's also extensive research being done on veganic permaculture - And these systems are providing abundant yields - All without having to control horses, bison, coyotes wolves and other nonhuman "competitors".

Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  March, 06, 2013 at 09:27 PM

Seems there's more than one way to create an oasis from a desert: Surely choosing the way that requires no blood shed is the one that's best! ;)

Paul Griffin    
East Texas  |  March, 06, 2013 at 10:19 PM

Bea, your vision may be good for you and your like minded people but it's not good for me and my like minded crowd. Do your thing and we will do ours. May the best group win.

Paul Griffin    
East Texas  |  March, 06, 2013 at 10:25 PM

By the way there Bea, what ultimately happens to your herd of wild elk and deer and other critters? I'm sure they don't live forever so they die. Just like my 18 to 24 month old steers when they are at about 1200 pounds.

Julia Winter    
March, 07, 2013 at 08:31 AM

Anybody who is raising cattle should also check out Greg Judy, a very successful cattleman in Missouri. Mr. Judy came to using Allan Savory's techniques out of necessity: he was dead broke, running cattle on rented land and he had no money for the usual inputs. He tried Savory's techniques, and they worked brilliantly. Watch: This is a long video, of a talk he gave 2 years ago to a farming conference. If you are just a little curious, grab the dot and scroll through to see the before and after pictures. It's as amazing as Allan Savory's results. If you are interested in raising more beef, of higher quality and for a pricier market, with fewer inputs and all the while continually improving your land, I recommend watching the whole thing.

Colorado  |  March, 07, 2013 at 09:26 AM

Wildlife and predators is still part of the equation. Unfortunately in most cases, the predators are gone. It is necessar in most cases to manage for both domestic animals and wildlife. What Allan proposes is not new and it is based on the work of others like Andre Voisen.Also, Holistic decision making and planned grazing works on small acreges and backyards just as well as large landcapes.

NW Indiana  |  March, 07, 2013 at 10:58 AM

Buy yourself enough land and do it. Show us your results in 10 years.

Colorado  |  March, 09, 2013 at 09:43 PM

Savory's grazing is a management tool to manage grazing lands. This management system will improve the soils microorganism activity which man has destroyed. Life in the soil, site ecological plants increase, live roots are maintained year round, cover is maintained on the soil surface year round, and the soil structure improves. This can be done with livestock and management. With a healthy pasture, the vegetation will maintain the grazing livestock. If you are not sold on the management concept, it will not work. I have 28 years of field experience to prove the management concept works.

Charlie Andrews    
chicago-kansas  |  March, 12, 2013 at 03:34 PM

All great comments. In 1962 I was sent to LA to meet a delegation of Japanese. Their very first words were "our cousins born & raised in the US are several inches taller than their cousins in Japan because of amino acids--we want to learn the cattle & beef business". History proves their mission grew. Rotation grazing works extremely well. Let that cows mouth do the harvesting and NOT those very expensive green & red machines. How about 5 Lbs. per 6.5B people in addition to 57 Lbs per 300+M?

Charlie Andrews    
chicago-kansas  |  March, 12, 2013 at 04:08 PM

Another point rotating rye & sedan grasses with 25' and above rainfall will support cows per acre not acres per cows. Excess sedan is put up as dry feed supplements during winter grazing. Some rye needs to mature for replanting. Last year the excess rye seed cleaned and sacked ready for shipment to Japan grossed $15.00 per bushel. Final point regarding rye-graze it in the winter and drinking it in the summer mkes it quite a lovely crop.

Randee Halladay    
Alberta Canada  |  March, 14, 2013 at 01:20 PM

Thank you, thank you. Allan Savory's ideas saved our ranch and made it profitable way back in the 80's. A brilliant man with a simple remedy for many of the worlds problems.

Randee Halladay    
Alberta Canada  |  March, 14, 2013 at 01:23 PM

Forgot to mention that we now have 27 years of proof of the truth of Allan's ideas.

March, 17, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Cattle, schmattle. This all smells to high heaven of an excuse to eat more meat. The cattle do not want to be eaten. They don't want their children to be eaten. Especially not by humans. Why not use elephants, zebras, gnus, wild horses, wildebeests? Maybe because they are not palatable to the unwashed consumers. Have we not evolved since the cave man days? Have we not learned anything about compassion from all those religious teachers we claim to respect?

A Scientist    
U.S.  |  March, 19, 2013 at 12:22 PM

As a scientist in the range arena I can tell you that Savory's ideas not only are not supported by science by are refuted by it. I listened to his TED presentation and have read most of his writings. They simply are vodoo science at its best. While we may wish some of his message were accurate, I can find little evidence to support anything he says. I do realize a lot of ranchers espouse that his system works. The problem is, in every case I have seen there experiences are always confounded. That is, they try his system, but they also simultaneously change a lot of other things to. This is not how science assesses practices. When you do 10 things at once, how do you know which worked? Sorry folks, but desertification is not going to be cured by herbivory. It is driven largely by climate and that is the elephant no one wants to tackle.

Another Scientist    
U.S.  |  March, 20, 2013 at 07:14 AM

As a scientist in Animal Science I can assure you that anecdotal evidence counts just as much as published literature in establishing evidence of efficacy, especially to farmers and ranchers who neither read nor care about scientific literature - they are more likely to try something their neighbor did that worked rather than ask a scientist how they should run their farm. So, do we make single changes in management to assess their scientific merit? Or, do we allow farmers to make many changes at once and accelerate their success? I think confounding is not so much of an issue here, as the process works for many people (read the comments as well). It would be wonderful for a research station or five to pick apart the management techniques of Savory's work to scientifically examine the process of landscape change and make specific recommendations to farmers, but I think it's okay for farmers to use many different management changes to accelerate improvements to their land for now. Yes, climate change is assisting the shift to desertification. Instead of sitting back and lamenting the negative effects of climate change, we can at least try to slow the desertification and increase the productive land for food production. It's too easy to be pessimistic as a scientist, but we must at least try to reclaim and preserve land for the sake of future generations and the growing world population.

Sherrie Sangha    
Fresno, CA  |  April, 19, 2013 at 05:07 PM

Astrid. Elephants, zebras, gnus, wild horses and wildebeest are not indigenous to the States much less in California. Instead of trolling and calling people names know this. Humans are, have been and always will be carnivores in one form or another. As to the reference of evolving, it is because of the hunter mentality that we have evolved this far. Pretty soon were going to get a troll in here that will say " plants have feelings also".

California  |  May, 08, 2013 at 07:44 PM

Why is there so much distress going on with the BLM vs. wild mustangs? In light of Mr. Savory's talk, the grazing livestock should graze along side the horses. Why are the livestock ranchers so hard-headed and demand that the BLM round up these horses--which belong to all Americans. Also, slaughterhouses MUST and NEED to clean up their acts: that means, have a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY towards workers who abuse animals. Such workers are like a cancer--get rid of them. Committing these abuses is outrageous--period. If slaughterhouses refuse to do so, animal rights people will do it for us. Ultimately, we are hurting ourselves by causing a lot of distrust and suspicion among consumers.

California  |  March, 27, 2014 at 06:44 PM

Perhaps it is just a ploy. But think about it: we don't have large herds of wild native ungulates anymore to maintain these landscapes because people killed them all off. While it is a great idea to reinstate these large herbivores, it is definitely not realistic given the current governmental and societal constraints. Keep in mind that while generally livestock ARE eaten because this provides an income stream to land managers, they don't HAVE to be eaten. So this isn't necessarily just a ploy to let people keep eating beef. Not to mention that most beef production involves feedlots and animals packed onto bare soils eating grains cultivated on prime agricultural lands. Sustainable beef production does not involve this process, and as such, if we only produced animals on rangelands rather than in crowded feedlots, we would not eat as much beef as a nation anyway, and our lands would be healthier overall.