Allan Savory, head of the Savory Institute and Africa Center for Holistic Management, is providing a very new approach to the reversal of desertification and the role of cattle management. Contrary to the belief that human-induced cattle grazing has lead to 10,000 years of overgrazing and resulting desertification across the world, Savory believes that the only way to reverse the process of desertification and decreased CO2 retention is to increase cattle management in the impacted areas. Previous science shows that cattle grazing leads to the degradation of grassland ecosystems, the decreased retention of CO2, and the increased production of methane. However, Savory and his colleagues believe that we will be able to restore grassland habitats by reintroducing large herds of cattle to mimic the original conditions of the land.
Savory believes that the presence of large herds of cattle will have an effect in which their movement impacts the soil in just the right way that it can retain water at much higher rates. He also believes that the cattle will help the soils by leaving behind their manure, and thus contribute to the vital nutrient cycle. Savory believes that the presence of cattle, under intense human management, will allow carbon-sequestering grassland to grow back in these lands that have undergone desertification. One might worry that the increase in cattle will lead to an increase in methane-production (a well-known contributor to global climate change), but Savory believes that the growth of the grasslands will completely counteract the increase in methane through carbon sequestration.
In theory, Savory’s proposal is very exciting in several ways. An increase in cattle production would benefit the food supply and local ranching operations (especially in struggling areas throughout Africa), but it would also help reduce global climate change. Increasing food production and jobs while decrease global climate change sounds amazing. However, the application of such a practice is not such a harmonious process. During Savory’s Charter Grazing Trials, the research that he bases his theories on, there were several important issues that he seemed to skim over to make his conclusions. In a review of the Trials, the authors note that “precipitation during the study was 24% above the long term average. Since the control pastures and the short-duration grazing pastures were not stocked equivocally it is not possible to separate stocking effects from rotation effects. Grazing and burning effects are also difficult to separate in this study” (Joseph et al. 10). They go on to show that even with high rainfall, Savory still did not prove that his methods could lead to the increased vegetative production he claimed.
In a critique of the talk, James McWilliams notes that Savory makes a lot of assumptions and conclusions that have not been backed by other research or basic science in general. McWilliams points out that Savory believes his work done on a plot of about 6,200 acres can be projected to the rest of the global 12 billion acres of desert. He also points to an article done by Holechek et al. that summarized research done at 13 sites across North America. Four of these studies evaluated short-term grazing methods over long periods of time. The studies conclude that “hoof action from having a large number of animals on a small area for short time periods reduced rather than increased infiltration” (Holechek et al. 19). They also note that “several studies now show that there is little difference in forage production between short-duration and continuous grazing systems if stocking rates are the same” (Holechek et al. 19). In an effort to see if Savory’s seemingly great theory would benefit other areas of the world, research has shown the opposite.
Savory also fails to realize that grasslands are not always more beneficial than other organisms that may be present in a desert ecosystem. Some plants that exist in desert ecosystems are actually very beneficial at sequestering carbon, and the presence of cattle trampling would take them away from the landscape. Savory also assumes that cattle’s manure will be a simple fix for nutrient cycling, but ignores the need for cattle to remain on the land throughout the duration of their life in order to improve nutrient cycling (i.e. long-term manure production and the eventual decay of their corpse).
by Keir Staple
May 21, 2013
Holechek, Jerry L., Hilton Gomes, Francisco Molinar, Dee Galt, and Raul Valdez. "Short Duration Grazing: The Facts in 1999." Rangelands 22.1 (2000): 19-22.
Joseph, Jamus, Francisco Molinar, Dee Galt, Raul Valdez, and Jerry Holechek. "Short Duration Grazing Research in Africa." Rangelands 24.4 (2002): 9-12.