There has been much talk in the last few years about pasture, grass, grazing, and grass-fed. You might say we are experiencing a sort of forage renaissance. Astute farmers want to know how to manage their grassland. They want to know how to become regenerative farmers. We have good news: the knowledge is already available to us. There is actually a glut of information, enough to keep a farmer busy researching for countless reading and Youtube-ing nights. And there is better news: there is also a way to make sense of this information, to organize it, and use it. The problem of degraded land has existed for thousands of years, but at least one man, Allan Savory, has dedicated his life to finding a solution and putting in place a simple, universal, framework for tackling what has become the greatest challenge humans have faced –ecosystem degradation. In many parts of the world this means desertification. In our part of the world it is low crop and hay yields, pests, weather extremes, and sub-optimal animal and human health.
Allan Savory is the father of Holistic Management (HM). He was born in Rhodesia, Africa, and in his early career he was a biologist, game ranger in the British Colonial Service, farmer, rancher, consultant, and wore many other “hats” before eventually becoming the international consultant he is today. All of his activities were driven by the same motive, which was to save his beloved bush, degrading before his own eyes, and in spite of all efforts, in and around what is now Zimbabwe. The bush, like many other places was wasting away in spite of common practices to save it including efforts like de-stocking, fencing out, or eradication of certain perceived problem species. He knew that these efforts were missing something. It was this drive to save the bush that led him to the discovery of what he calls the “key insights” and to develop the decision-making framework of Holistic Management.
Allan has always been a researcher, and Holistic Management is a compilation of his own work and experience, along with the work of countless others. Many of HM’s main concepts were adapted from work of the best thinkers – Albert Einstein, Jan Smuts, Masanobu Fukuoka, Andre Voisin, and many others. The knowledge that thinking in terms of wholes (whole systems, whole people, whole communities, whole ecosystems), and that all things are wholes within other wholes, rather than parts, is the key to managing complexity, and it came from the work of Jan Smuts. It is this approach, rather than a multidisciplinary or specialist approach, that bring success. His other key insights describe a “brittleness scale” that classifies landscapes by rainfall frequency and whether plant decay is largely biological or chemical; that the predator-prey relationship provides critical functions in maintaining the interdependence between plants, soil, and animals; and the fourth is that “overgrazing” is a function of time and not numbers of animals.
For more than 40 years Holistic Management (HM) has guided many farmers and ranchers and has revolutionized their lives. In 2009 Allan Savory and a small group of long-time Holistic Managers formed The Savory Institute (SI). This is the culmination of his lifetime of work and research. A TED talk last year brought Allan and his work into the limelight. The publicity took Holistic Management out of its pigeonhole in ranching and farming and brought its massive global potential to the public eye. Many people have read something about it, have seen the TED Talk, or otherwise have heard of Holistic Management, but it still seems to be understood by very few.
When we watched the TED Talk, we were struck by Allan’s response that he did not have the time to explain the process for the amazing, magical, restoration he had displayed in the photos. Lush grass and water had appeared out of nowhere, just by grazing cattle. Grazed them how? There wasn’t any grass there to graze! Why couldn’t he give us the answer? A hint? Having now made the shift, we understand completely. The answer requires a new paradigm.
Approaching the management of a farm or ranch, or anything for that matter, from the perspective of a specialized, fine tuned “solution” to “a problem,” leads to unintended consequences and most often also creates a new problem. Allan Savory and others who teach Holistic Management train people to think in terms of wholes and to manage their surroundings in a way that promotes a natural order and encompasses all conceivable factors. So any particular result of Managing Holistically cannot be explained or summarized briefly. The genius of Holistic Management is its concise, simple, framework, and it can be learned with time and effort. The framework is a series of thoughts, guidelines, and “tests” that are expertly organized. Any idea or action can be applied to the framework so that decisions enhance the desired Holistic Context. Part of learning the framework requires that we master some fundamental truths, including the four “key insights” and an understanding of the ecosystem processes. The details can be obtained by reading Allan’s book, Holistic Management, and through the work of the Savory Institute and its affiliates. Once the shift in thinking has occurred, and one can develop some familiarity with the framework, the world literally opens up.
Rather than remaining in the theoretical, though, perhaps a look at some of the tools that were applied to the site we saw in the TED Talk might illustrate some of Allan’s insights at work.
In that site the livestock were gathered into a single group and moved according to a plan that took into account seasonal rainfall, plant germination, the impact the animals’ hooves would have on the soil, and such. The animals’ hooves prepared the soil surface for germination when it was otherwise capped from lack of impact and had caused runoff and evaporation of rainfall. Predators were not eliminated but allowed to thrive, and human interventions such as the creation of overnight enclosures also mimicked trampling and further prepared areas for rejuvenation. The animals were herded and moved along in a way that resembles the movement of the great herds and allowed for grazed plants to recover properly before the animals returned to the same spot. These and other factors and tools were used by the community within their plans of action for developing the place and life they desired. As the grass returned, water was retained in the soil and rainfall became effective and the water table began to heal. Relative humidity also improved and the weather and climate were also positively affected. Biodiversity returned, returning carbon to the soil, and further improving plant growth and biodiversity. The animals were increased in number and their impact became greater, again improving the grass production with the execution of the plans. The description of this example is a gross oversimplification, but we can see that when the processes are understood, and the right tools are applied appropriately for a desired outcome, we have success.
About a year and a half ago, we attended a pasture walk guided by a Holistic Management practitioner, and it was this workshop that prompted us to go back to the books and computer to “brush up” on Holistic Management. It was during this research that we came across the inquiry for “Hub” applicants on the Savory Institute’s website. SI has recently launched a worldwide effort to restore the Earth’s grasslands. To do this, they are forming partnerships to establish 100 Hubs around the globe, 10 at a time. They aim to apply HM to 1 billion hectares of the world’s grasslands (1/5th of the total) in order to reverse desertification while providing the only feasible means of affecting enough carbon sequestration to reverse climate change.
Each regional Hub will be an affiliation with local leaders to provide education, training, management and consulting services to practitioners, landowners, governments, and NGO’s to implement local solutions to land degradation, provide regional food and water security, and to boost community empowerment. We decided to “click” the tab for application to become a hub. From there, we entered a rigorous application process, and were chosen as finalists from 90 applicants. We are now officially “hub candidates”, awaiting our final accreditation in the coming weeks. During our accreditation process we have continued our research of and training in Holistic Management. The refined, formal, implementation of Holistic Management is already having a remarkable impact on our farm and family. We have also begun working with other “Hubs” and Holistic practitioners around the world and we are astounded at the positive energy and progress that is being made. We have come to believe that the implications for agriculture, business, society, and the planet are profound.
As part of our SI affiliation process and partnering to develop a hub we traveled to London for their annual conference and then to Zimbabwe to visit SI’s first Hub, the Africa Center for Holistic Management, in August of this year.
When we got to Zimbabwe we saw grassland rejuvenated and a host of positive rippling effects. At the Africa Center, the herd of cattle, sheep, and goats has brought the grass back on much of the ranch. It has eliminated much of the encroaching brush, and provided crop sites for corn and grains. The ranch is now home to wildlife populations that hugely outnumber the neighboring “parks” that are designed to protect those same populations. Cattle and other livestock from the surrounding community members have been added to the herd, but more animals continue to be needed to keep up with the increasing forage growth.
In the nearby Sizinda village, where USA Food Aid provided for the community’s food supply for all but two months of the year, the Africa Center has been working with the village leaders to use the HM framework and develop plans for community action, context development, mobilization strategies, and grazing. The result has been similar grassland restoration, and the return of water to the nearby river. The river dried up 20 years ago, and has been flowing year-round for the past 5 since the village members’ got together and began using Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Their garden and crop sites now enable them to grow their own food for eight months out of the year instead of only two. The success is due to the community development work that provides the entire village with structure and a self generated Holistic Context to work within.
After watching the creation of wealth and community in Africa, we pondered our context back home. We thought about the needs of our community. We thought about our culture. We thought about our farms. To be truthful, the two worlds couldn’t be much more different. We live in a digital, consumer society, where a lot of the time people don’t know their neighbors. Communities consist of people with similar interests more often than they do of people who live close to each other. Most of us don’t grow our own food at all. Some of us grow food for thousands of people. We use tractors because we have machines instead of laborers. But we all want a sustainable future, a regenerative one. Consumers and farmers alike are forming a community along with any other organization or person that might help the effort to be careful about our land use. So this is our Context. This is where our Hub will begin its work – with the growing community of grass based dairy, with grass-fed beef producers, with CSA growers – and it will grow quickly from there. But it will begin with a great effort in supporting the graziers of our region. And while at first blush it seems that desert grasslands of Africa do not translate to Northeast grazing, we should consider how Voisin’s work contributed to the development of HM.
It was the work of Andre Voisin that enabled Allan to fill in some of the gaps in his original framework. He had purchased Voisin’s book, Grass Productivity, but had not given the work much thought at the time because he perceived it as irrelevant to the desertification of his beloved Rhodesia when compared to the lush pastures of France. It was in contemplating this difference later on, however, that he came to define the varying degrees of what he calls the “brittleness scale” for ecosystems. Understanding this scale reveals critical insight for understanding the impact certain tools or practices have on any given landscape.
There were also concepts found in Voisin’s grazing techniques that helped form Allan’s Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Voisin had developed rational (meaning well-thought-out) grazing, in response to the link Voisin had discovered between overgrazing and time, but this has since morphed into “rotational grazing,” the dangers of which Voisin himself spoke about vehemently. Mr. Savory says in his book Holistic Management that Voisin “would probably turn in his grave to see what has become of (rational grazing).” Too often “rotational grazing” becomes a set rotation that is mapped out and followed by moving cattle through the paddocks like clockwork. Without a Holistic Context and a system of Plan, Monitor, Control, and Re-plan, the land and cattle can degrade quickly. This degradation is the result of the “untorrid acceleration” that Voisin warned against.
Here in the Northeast USA we see many, many, farmers practicing what they call “rotational grazing”. Some call it “mob grazing” or even “planned grazing” but far too many are using this tool (grazing) without the context of Holism. If we are going to provide for our entire farm along with the social, environmental, and financial needs, however, we must graduate to Holistic Planned Grazing. Rather than attempting to manage the land and animals with a juggling act of rotation, we must consider the whole. The whole consists of the farm with its soil, people, and animals, the culture, the society, and the economy, because all of these are indivisible from the land. This is done by articulating a Holistic Context and developing not just the HPG, but the Financial and Land Planning as well.
When we plan our Grazing Holistically, we will plan “backwards,” from recovery periods. We consider if the animals should be on the land, and if they should, we plan for them to be in the right place, for the right reasons, and at the right time. In order to do this we must gain some understanding about how our ecosystems function, and how to recognize healthy water cycles, mineral cycles, energy flow, and community dynamics. Then we can use the Holistic Management framework to manage this complexity. It is quite easy, and in practice it is done in communities where the people are illiterate. It is only the change in paradigm that can be difficult.
In agricultural education programs we are taught to be good purchasers and managers, knowing which supplements and shots to use, which feed to buy and how to balance it. As grain and crops have become commonplace over the last many decades, much of the knowledge and practices that centuries of farmers had, including ecology and husbandry, were lost. In their place we brought in the grain scoop and a call to the vet or the tractor dealer for advice. But we have paid a great price for the conveniences of tractor farming and outsourcing. We have transformed most farms into mining operations where the fertility and resources have been harvested and sold, without the regenerative processes that used to accompany farm production. We are now faced with a huge ecological debt, and our practices generally have become absolutely dependent on purchased inputs. That is a dead end road for farming, and we all must be turned around. If we want to succeed, we must educate ourselves and regain the skills needed to replace purchased inputs and tractor-only farming.
Of course we will still use tractors, grain, and crops, but we will begin to use them as tools, intentionally, with specific outcomes in mind that will enhance our triple bottom line and include the ecological, social, and true financial implications. We will need to eliminate the “throughput” paradigm based on turning around cash and purchasing inputs. When we do this, our land, our selves, our cows, our crops, our finances, and our community will all thrive. We need to take a good look at the whole system. “There is no wealth other than that which comes from sunlight and the green growing plants that grow from it on regenerating soils” (Allan Savory). We need to work on our soil ecology, our plant diversity, our cow size, our land base, our feed efficiency, our market, and anything else we think might matter.
Even though our region appears to be very tough and steadfast, we should not be fooled. We live in a forgiving place, where things grow without human intervention, but that does not mean that we can’t mess it up. All ecosystems are fragile. The vegetation and its interaction with the animal populations that support them hold the key to functional ecosystems, and their health governs the health of soil, food, weather, community, commerce, economy, and of course, the people of our world. Let’s learn how to take care of it. By 2015 The Agrarian Learning Center, our SI Hub, will be up and running. We will be available for consulting, coursework, pasture walks and seminars. You will find us then at www.agrarianlearningcenter.com. In the mean time, we can be reached email@example.com, or at (518) 248-9721.