The Savory Institute: Healing the World’s Grasslands, Rangelands and Savannas

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Below is an interview with Allan Savory, President and Co-Founder of The Savory Institute, an organization based in Zimbabwe that works with farmers, pastoralists, and ranchers to restore degraded lands through holistic management practices. Savory is a winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which awards recipients for innovative thinking to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

You cite rotational grazing as one of the biggest drivers of large-scale environmental degradation in Africa. Why is this practice so damaging?

That’s not quite what I say. The way livestock are grazed is what is causing the damage, and has done so for centuries. Early on, livestock were herded, protecting them from predation. Pastoralists were very knowledgeable about their land and animals, and did a remarkably good job in adapting to steadily worsening desert expansion and drying rivers and wells. But still, the deserts kept expanding.

With the development of range science and fencing, more sophisticated grazing systems— including rotational grazing—were developed. This, I believe (and observed in Africa) increased the rate of desertification, although this is strongly denied by range scientists, who judge mainly on the basis of plant species rather than using the measures of desert formation (bare soil between plants, loss of effectiveness of rainfall, drying of rivers, etc.). The desertification I observed even on research stations was reported by one other scientist, Professor Phillips, in about the 1950s, but he too was ignored.

As so often seems to happen, observant livestock operators made keen observations. Early Scottish shepherds talked about the “golden hooves” of the sheep, recognizing that hooves are what grow grass, which we now know to be correct. And early Dutch ranchers in South Africa admitted that the land was deteriorating under their herding, but correctly observed that the deterioration increased with the introduction of fencing. Again, we now know this observation to be correct.

So why do all of these methods of grazing livestock lead to land degradation, when judged on the basis of soil, the overall health of water and nutrient cycling, community dynamics, and solar energy flow to all life (as opposed to judging by desired species, as most do)? Consider the following reasons:

The land is rested too much. “Partial rest” occurs when animals are still on the land grazing but the land doesn’t benefit from the physical effect of herds. Although plants are grazed, the bulk of dead plant material is not trampled to form soil-covering litter between plants, which would increase water retention and penetration. Soil surfaces are not broken and chipped to allow for more water penetration and plant establishment. It is the hooves that come with herd behavior that cause plants to grow. The effects of total rest and partial rest are about the same, as every research plot that I have seen in the western U.S. rangelands shows: both lead to desertification.

The animals often overgraze plants. Range scientists and ranchers commonly talk about the overgrazing ofranges. This is not possible. Ranges are a complex of plants, soils, algae, microorganisms, etc., and only plants can be either grazed or overgrazed—not ranges. Overgrazing of plants, as discovered 60 years ago, is not due to animal numbers, as is taught in range science even today. It is a caused by plants being exposed to grazing for too many days, or being exposed for only a short time but then being re-exposed before full recovery in new growth. All grazing systems, including rotational grazing systems that I have seen in many countries, have shown clear overgrazing of plants.

Although rotational grazing systems are designed to avoid overgrazing plants, this is seldom avoided because short grazing periods are planned. What should be planned are not grazing periods, but recovery periods. Overgrazing of plants occurs either because grazing periods are too long or recovery periods are too short. The best way to avoid either is to plan recovery periods and let those determine grazing periods. But even if this is done, rotational grazing systems still fail to reverse desertification because there is more to take into account than the simple overgrazing of plants (as pointed out earlier with partial rest).

Faults with rotational grazing systems show up quickly in low-rainfall, seasonal environments. As I explained, in these seasonally humid environments, partial rest leads to desertification, which is not avoided simply by preventing overgrazing of plants (as research plots all over the U.S. show). But in environments with more evenly spread humidity, faults with rotational grazing do not show up as quickly because in these environments, partial rest (like total rest) begins to restore biodiversity, ground cover, etc.

Are there any examples of successful rotational grazing?

I have inspected many rotational grazing systems and have found the farmers very happy with results. In one publicized “success,” I found that farmers were running out of grass in a very good rainfall year, and thus had to lease additional grazing—yet they were happy. But it didn’t take long on the land to show how much production was being lost through inadequate recovery periods, leading to the need to lease alternative grazing. Thus, you have a happy farmer getting deeper into debt that could have been avoided by good management and planned grazing.

I am simply trying to note observations and not to blame anyone, because we are dealing with considerable complexities: time, animal behavior, growth rates of plants, seasonal differences, and different environments affecting whether partial rest leads to healthier grasslands or to desertification. This took me thousands of hours of researching the literature of every country I could, and many years of trial and error on my own ranches and those of many collaborators, to try to find an approach that would work in any environment.

The French pasture researcher Andre Voisin condemned rotational grazing and gave very clear reasoning, supported by a great deal of research. As an alternative, he developed a simple form of planned grazing that he called (interpreted from French) rational grazing. Voisin worked in environments of more perennial humidity where partial rest does not lead to problems. He mentioned in his writings that his rational grazing might also work in drier climates, something he did not get to test, but I did. It did not work and led to many problems because the complexity was greater and because of the problems associated with partial rest.

These struggles led to my development of “holistic planned grazing” in the late 1960s, which finally worked. We have not yet, in any country on four continents, experienced a failure with that process in any environment.

Can you describe holistic planned grazing?

When Voisin’s rational grazing led to problems, I realized that there was great complexity that ranchers and pastoralists had to deal with daily. More than simply planning grazing in one’s head (Voisin’s approach), we had to find a way for every livestock owner to deal with a wide range of elements, such as herd behavior, timing of grazing and recovery for plants and soils, differing plant growth rates, dry and wet seasons, frequent poor rainfall years, economics, the need for increased profitability with every step, wildlife on the land, crop rotations, parasites, poisonous plants, fire threat, avoiding destocking in dry years, and much more.

No range scientist had (or ever has) attempted to cater for such complexity, nor had any biologist, rancher, pastoralist, or anyone I knew of or could identify in the global literature. So I decided to look to the military, the only profession I knew of that had learned over hundreds of years how to plan in very complicated situations. I took the Sandhurst planning that the Rhodesian Army had used in battle conditions and adapted it to ranching and livestock. This involved taking simple steps that anyone under stress could think about, building one step on the next, and ending with the best possible plan at that moment and in that situation. To adapt this, I merely had to record each step on a chart that any farmer, rancher, or pastoralist could be quickly trained to do. In Africa, I have trained a high school graduate with little experience to do this very well in under two hours.

While there are many features that matter greatly in holistic planned grazing, three important ones are:

  • Droughts should be planned for in “time reserved,” not in areas of land. This increases the production of the animals and all plants grazed over the entire land every year.
  • If genuine drought is experienced, early livestock adjustments avoid catastrophic destocking.
  • Planning of grazings on the chart is done backward over critical periods of the year for factors like breeding animals.
  • Livestock conflict or competition with wildlife, ground-nesting birds, etc. is avoided, and livestock are used to increase wildlife generally (depending on site-specific requirements).

Can you describe some successful examples of holistic planned grazing? What was the scale, and what were the specific improvements to the environment?

Let me describe the first and most critical case, first done on a small scale and then over more than a million acres. One of the first properties we tested holistic planned grazing on was Liebig’s Ranch in then-Rhodesia. We agreed that they would make available 4,000 acres of the worst land, on which I could test the planning process and also increase livestock numbers to a level that scientists and experienced ranchers believed was ridiculous. Lloyd Swift, an American heading a team of visiting scientists, deemed the land technically beyond reclamation. It was totally devoid of any perennial grass, despite having once been the most productive part of the ranch. There were only trees, some shrubs, and annual grasses in good years.

Using the planned grazing, we doubled the livestock numbers immediately, something I said was possible even on land in such condition, as long as grazing was correctly planned. When this increase proved too little, we increased the animals by 200 percent (three times the established stocking rate) by the end of the first year. From there on, we never looked back over the next eight years of testing. Solid perennial grassland re-appeared, and the herd produced five times the meat per acre of our control herd (the breeding cows on the surrounding 220,000 acres). Based on this experience, we adopted holistic planned grazing over the entire 1.25 million acres of the ranch.

Successes are now widespread in Australia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Chile, etc., although I am not in touch with all projects. A good independent confirmation of this was recently published in Mark Stevenson’s book An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, which has an entire chapter on visits to successful practitioners in Australia.

I should mention that thousands of people, like those successful ranchers in Australia and elsewhere, got training in holistic planned grazing. But most failed to do it, preferring to pick bits like doubling the stocking rate and simply rotating cattle, in the belief that they did not need to follow the planning process. Even the great success on the Liebig’s test site was not continued during my four years in exile. The same managers who had planned and seen the success all those years reverted to simply rotating the animals using short grazing periods and being flexible with them, depending on rain and growth. As a result, the land went back to largely bare and they had to remove the animals. When I returned, the managers claimed it had collapsed due to drought. And they all looked sheepish when I pointed out thousands of severely overgrazed plants and the fact that droughts do not overgraze plants, only animals do.

What direction is the Savory Institute heading? Have you been able to reach farmers, organizations, and governments? And is your approach to holistic planned grazing being adopted more widely?

Holistic planned grazing, while critical to reversing desertification, is but the tip of the larger iceberg of holistic management, which covers even more vital aspects critical to humanity’s future. The use of livestock and planned grazing is finally catching public attention and is fortunately spreading, and we hope to keep it spreading. As is the norm with all such counter-intuitive scientific breakthroughs, it has been resisted by authorities and spread by ordinary people. With technology now driving social change, we can expect more rapid adoption because authorities and experts in the dogma of the day can no longer control the flow of information.

The more vital aspect of our work has not yet caught public attention, although this is beginning. Holistic management bases decisions and actions on a framework that enables people in all walks of life to take actions, make policies, structure development projects, etc. that are socially, economically, and environmentally sound, both in the short and long term. This holistic framework is a modification of the framework that all humans use unknowingly, and have used for roughly 2 million years. All humans make conscious decisions toward an objective or goal. And all humans, as mentioned earlier, use only technology, fire, or resting land (in this framework) to manage our environment at large.

This core framework has got us to the moon and is marvelous. But if we look more carefully, we see that it is only successful with everything we “make,” everything that involves technology. With everything we “manage,” such as economies, agriculture/desertification/climate change, human relations, governance, etc., we are running into ever-escalating problems. This is because there are two simple flaws in our core framework: one is the lack of a tool that can avoid or reverse desertification, the other is that objectives, goals, and the use of these to achieve missions or visions is not well-suited to dealing with nature’s complexity.

These two flaws are addressed in the modified holistic framework, for example by adding the “tool” of animal impact and grazing, and by developing a concept that is beyond goals, missions, or visions, called a “holistic goal.” This ties people’s deepest spiritual and material values, and how they want their lives to be, to their life-supporting environment. Once it is determined in any situation—household, family, individual, community, company, division of company, government, etc.—this holistic goal guides actions, objectives, and goals to ensure that as far as possible, our actions, policies, and projects are truly socially, environmentally, and economically sound and not leading to unintended consequences.

Using the holistic framework, some 2,000 U.S. scientists from land management agencies and universities analyzed a great many U.S. policies and found none to have any chance of success. One group-in-training stated (and we recorded): “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the U.S.” This took place during the Carter administration. Tragically, authorities cracked down and all further training for officials was banned by the next administration. Only now, 30 years later, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture once more beginning to have people trained and training farmers.

I should point out that none of what I describe is stupidity. Today, our inability to form holistically sound policies and projects is not because we lack knowledge, but because we are using at the center of our decision-making a framework that first emerged 2 million years ago. It is time to modify it, now that we have discovered it exists. The holistic framework is the first modification, and like all advances people will improve on it. But change we must.

Personally, I am anxious in what little life I have left to see many brighter minds than mine begin to first use the holistic framework, then to simplify it so it can become everyday routine behavior change and also be increasingly built into governance and policy. What is encouraging to me is that professional people who advise politicians and development agencies and NGOs now have a simple way to analyze and formulate policies and projects holistically. But they face the problem of getting new knowledge to be accepted by their institutions.

In this regard, the only hope I can see for humanity is social networking. Had we enjoyed the technology and social networking of today, this could possibly have avoided the tragic clampdown on progress by U.S. authorities 30 years ago. Nothing in institutional behavior has really changed in the 400 years since the authorities of the Catholic Church refused to even look through Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter.

The main thrust of Savory Institute is to do everything in our power to get the holistic framework into international consciousness, in order to avert tragedy beyond imagination. I say this because, with all scientists, climatologists, politicians, environmental organizations, development agencies, and people, as long as we use only the core framework as we do, we cannot address our most pressing issues.


Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on livestock and sustainability, currently serves as Project Director of State of World 2011 for the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental think tank. Her knowledge of factory farming and its global spread and sustainable agriculture has been cited widely in the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and
other publications.

Danielle worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She is currently traveling across Africa looking at innovations that are working to alleviate hunger and poverty and blogging everyday at Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet. She has a regular column with the Mail & Guardian, the Kansas City Star, and the Huffington Post and her writing was been featured in newspapers across Africa including the Cape Town Argus, the Zambia Daily Mail, Coast Week (Kenya), and other African publications. She holds an M.S. in agriculture, food, and environment from Tufts University and a B.A. in environmental policy from Monmouth College.
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