Doing What Works: Range Magazine

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  • 1. Doing What Works and explained logically, on my own land, it all seemed such common sense. Savory explained that on ranch-scale ranges, preparing soil for plant life and waterSloppy science is damaging rangelands and wildlife. retention could only be done as nature intended: by large herds of grazing animals.What’s missing is a complex functioning whole. By Chris Gill Not by resting the land, using machines, chemicals or fire, as recommended by almost all range scientists. Historically, beforeI humans arrived in the Americas 10,000 years am a businessman for whom ranching and wildlife/habitat ago, these soils, plants, and vast numbers of restoration are avocations. Because I married into a large herbivores with their pack-hunting predators all developed together as one com- landowning family 38 years ago, at one time or another, plex functioning whole.and to varying degrees, I have been responsible for the man- He tied these explanations to a solid base of scientific research concerning overgrazingagement of ranches in Uruguay; near Austin, Texas, in the of plants and resting of seasonal, low-rainfallTexas Hill Country; in West Texas; and even a 3,600-acre land. Fifty years ago, a French pasture scientist discovered that overgrazing of plants was dueriver-delta/marsh ranch on the Texas coast. to either the plants being exposed to grazing I never had even a minimal understand- in, and cover soil with plant litter and manure too long or reexposed to animals too soon toing of what I was doing. I wasted hundreds of to provide a seedbed. This gets plants grow- allow sufficient time for roots to regrow. Asthousands of dollars. I was anti-cattle. I ing. It improves the soil’s ability to absorb and this Frenchman’s research established, over-thought desert grasslands could best be store rainfall to grow more plant life. This in grazing has nothing to do with animal num-restored by removing all cattle, and that if one turn supports more animal life in an ever- bers but everything to do with how manyhad to make a living off their ranch, this widening cycle. days a plant is exposed to grazing and howwould require very conservative stocking to Allan showed me to my dismay that most long it is allowed to recover between suchprotect soil and vegetation. of our perennial grass was dying. There were grazing. Savory told me of the many research Then a neighbor introduced me to Allan not enough large animals grazing to keep it plots in deserts all over the world which total-Savory. Touring our 32,000-acre high-desert alive by cycling the annually dying leaves and ly exclude livestock, established to “prove thatmountain ranch together, Allan used simple stems. Past seasons’ old grass material that overgrazing causes land degradation” andgardening analogies: To grow plants on hard, should have rotted through grazing was how these exclosures turned grasslands tobare soil, one does not simply rest it and hope! instead turning gray-black—oxidizing— desert, contrary to what range experts expect-Break the soil surface to let water and seeds through gradual chemical breakdown. Shown ed and predicted! Allan explained why we need to disturb photos courtesy gill family our range to stimulate plants, why we need to plan how to move our cattle, and why we need to minimize overgrazing plants in ways that mimic what used to happen for millions of years. Such disturbance and timing is, he explained, regulated in undisturbed wild situ- ations by pack-hunting predators forcing large numbers of grazers to bunch for protec- tion and by the seasonal availability of forage and water. Together, these force constant movement. The result is that animals neither grazed plants too long nor returned too soon. Finally, Savory talked to me about how complex this would be for my family as ranchers. I’d have to think of timing of graz- ing, re-grazing, and animal numbers so as not to run out of grass, synchronizing the cattle moves with calving, lactating, and breeding requirements. This had to be done economi- cally, while generating income from sunlight,About one-third of the Circle Ranch herd at water. Allan Savory told Chris, “To grow plants on hard, through plant growth.bare soil, one does not simpy rest it and hope! Break the soil surface to let water and seeds in, and coversoil with plant litter and manure to provide a seedbed. This gets plants growing. It improves the soil’s Our ranch is in a very erratic rainfall area,ability to absorb and store rainfall to grow more plant life. This in turn supports more animal life in an so we needed to plan continually forever-widening circle.” droughts. Allan explained that most ranchers
  • 2. the same amount of grass in a shorter time, have nothing to do with holistic planned using more animals?” So we decided to try it. grazing or Allan Savory. I was perplexed. We Three of us completed Holistic Management at Circle Ranch, as described above, were International’s (HMI) Ranch and Rangeland doing what they claimed to be impossible! So course. For eight years HMI consultants have I obtained and read every study used in the coached us with our grazing and strategic book in its conclusion. planning. What I found was that Savory’s holistic We have excellent records of what we have planned grazing had been redefined by the done. Based on regular monitoring, our land authors as a short-duration grazing (SDG) has measurably improved through planned wagon-wheel system, with shared water, no grazing, increasing our livestock 400 percent fewer than eight paddocks, five days or less and our densities sometimes 250 times. For- grazing and four weeks or more nonuse— age taken has tripled. Our problem is getting about 10 full cycles a year. Further, this defini-Circle Ranch is owned by Laura and Chris Gill the increased grass eaten. We are bottle- tion or something similar had been acceptedand their children Christopher, Richard, Carolyn necked in trying to water the ever-growing by every range scientist on whom the authorsand Josephine. herd this requires! All our wildlife has benefit- relied. I already knew from my HMI range ed greatly from the increase in cattle num- training that Savory had never recommendedplan for drought by setting grazing areas bers, and so has our profitability. anything remotely like what these researchersaside. This decreases production of all grass So it surprised me when, at a mule-deer were testing and attributing to Allan.and cattle every year. He advised instead that seminar, a member of Texas Parks & Wildlife I wondered: were the scientists readingwe plan for droughts in terms of days of graz- field staff gave me the latest book on mule old texts? So, I reread several of Savory’s olding reserved. This keeps animal and grass deer, “Habitat Guidelines for Mule Deer.” It papers and his early textbook (later editions ofproduction high every year, including in the was written by eight range and wildlife “Holistic Resource Management” are in use indroughts. experts (the “authors”) for the Mule Deer more than 20 universities and colleges). Allan explained we would never be able to Working Group, and sponsored by 24 state Thousands of times he had warned that allmanage this complexity using any rotational wildlife departments (the “sponsors”). To my such short-duration grazing systems, grazinggrazing system. “How,” I asked, “can we as astonishment, I read that what we do with rotations and other grazing management sys-ranchers, concerned about our land and such success at Circle Ranch harms plants tems would fail to reverse land degradation inwildlife, graze our cattle correctly?” and water function. seasonal rainfall environments worldwide. “Very simple,” explained Allan. He then I read the book’s citations and identified One was a 1983 Society of Range Manage-proceeded to tell me of a British military plan- 20 peer-reviewed research papers which had ment paper cited by the authors themselves!ning process, developed over 300 years, to “proven” Savory’s claims were untrue! On the Curious whether this was deliberate mis-deal with the ever-shifting complexity of bat- basis of this scientific evidence, the authors representation, I contacted Savory and askedtle, the need to train men rapidly in time of and sponsors strongly advise that ranchers about it. He pointed out that new discoverieswar and to always produce the best plan at themoment, no matter how stressed andexhausted the officer might be. Allan hadbeen taught this process as a young lieutenantin Rhodesia, and later adapted it to ranch andwildlife management. As he explained, therange and wildlife professions had never dealtwith complexity, but rather sidestepped withgrazing formulae like rotational and othersystems. For decades, Allan has advocatedthis grazing planning process and taught it tothousands of people in many countries,including the United States. This made sense. It appealed to our fami-ly’s heritage as ranchers. We made a plan tomove our herd so that we would know wherethey were going months ahead, always locat-ing them for the right reasons, at the righttime, and with the right behavior. We couldnow see how our cattle might produce betterhabitat for all wildlife. To get “animal impact,”we would need, at times, to carry two or three A “tinaja” (seasonal water hole) showing regrowth typical of planned grazing intense/brief animal impact.times as many cattle and concentrate them. It “We have excellent records of what we have done,” Chris says. “Based on regular monitoring and measure-would also help the ranch be more profitable. ment, our land has improved through planned grazing, increasing our livestock 400 percent and our “How,” we pondered, “can it hurt to take densities sometimes 250 times. Forage taken has tripled. Our problem is getting the increased grass eaten.”
  • 3. Dimbangombe: “Nobody warned me as a young scientist thatthe greatest crime a scientist can commit is to Success in Africa.actually discover something totally new that Story and photos by Allan Savory.clashes with the deep beliefs of a profession.” Allan Savory T he Dimbangombe Ranch in Zimbabwe is the oldest, most advanced holistic management learning/demonstration ranch in the world. This is where the Africa Centre for Holistic Management runs its Col- lege of Agriculture, Wildlife and Conserva- tion Management, training and assisting thousands of impoverished people alongside large populations of Africa’s wildlife. Recently, after hearing about Dimban- gombe at a major Water Summit conference, Zimbabwe’s new minister of Water Develop- ment, Sam Nkomo, came to see it for himself. At the summit, he witnessed scientists and politicians, united as never before, agreeing that water is the lifeblood of the nation, that wells are going dry, that dams are filling withMore than a thousand head of cattle being moved to new pasture on Jan. 2, 2009. “I am pro-habitat silt, and that no local or foreign experts knowand pro-wildlife,” Chris says. “I strongly advocate holistic planned grazing because it works. If it didn’t what to do. Sam now sat in the African bushwork, I would say so and look for something better.” with me, drinking tea on the edge of a clear pool covered with flowering water lilies. Inare often fiercely resisted. He wryly explained kidding! the distance, a herd of elephant, having slatedthat while innovators used to be burned at the I am a pragmatist with no professional their thirst and coated their hides with freshstake, this treatment of deviant scientists is agenda. I strongly advocate holistic planned mud to ward off insects, wandered awaynow illegal. “Nobody warned me as a young grazing because it works. If it didn’t work, I across the grassland toward the forest.scientist that the greatest crime a scientist can would say so and look for something better. I Sharing a dented tin mug and joining uscommit is to actually discover something am pro-habitat and pro-wildlife. While I for tea were two Ndebele cattlemen invited tototally new that clashes with the deep beliefs respect the ranching life very much, the sad sit with the minister. They work on the ranchof a profession.” fact is that cattle ranching is a marginal busi- and are in charge of the cattle herd that is the What of the 20 research papers? Savory ness looked at alone. But if ranchers all over single most-important tool used to managelaughed that range scientists in Texas had pla- the West could, as our family has, greatly the wildlife habitat and health of the river andgiarized his work in the 1970s and, in so increase their cattle numbers, improve profits underground water supplies. From his fellowdoing, dropped the planning, converting it to and experience range improvement, what a tribesmen, Sam heard that this pool was new,a short-duration grazing rotation system. And wonderful thing it would be for the United having only appeared in the upper riverever since, American range scientists have States. What a wonderful thing for our catchment in the last two years. They toldbeen proving to one another that the plagia- wildlife. him water had come and stayed through therized form doesn’t work, and cussing Allan for Why not give this open-minded and hon- dry season higher up in the river system thanproposing it! est consideration? Anyone who tells you it had ever been known before. So, I wrote the authors and sponsors (200 Allan Savory sells snake oil has never seen “What witchcraft is this?” asked the min-in all) a 20-page paper challenging their this in practice. Ask them for a document ister. “You must have had a lot more rainscholarship. I also wrote an article which was wherein he has ever recommended any because how else can water appear where itpublished in HMI’s “In Practice.” All this went unplanned system under any name. Ask for has not existed in a hundred years?”on the Web (www.holisticmanagement.org). any actual test that disproves planned grazing. There had been no more rain. RatherNow some folks were mad at me, too. One If you can find one, Allan will give $1,000 to than give a long scientific explanation, Iscientist said I was “bowing to Mecca [Albu- the wildlife organization of your choice and enjoyed my tea, while two barely literate oldquerque],” HMI’s home base. But most were Circle Ranch will match it! n herders talked to the minister and his perma-silent. Not one sponsor or author asked for nent secretary in their own language. Theyour records or plan or accepted our invitation Chris Gill continues to learn about land and livestock. He ranches with his family in Texas. explained how we had increased the cattleto visit and observe. Finally the authors wrote and goat numbers 400 percent, and how theyback and said they were just talking about the ran them in one herd, constantly moving to aSDG systems that Savory recommends. No
  • 4. plan to fit the wildlife needs, grass needs andmore. They told him they did this so thehooves, dung and urine would cause moreplants to grow, covering more soil; how morewater now soaked into and stayed in the soil;how the boreholes were now more reliable;and the river is now flowing longer in the yearand water is arising higher than they haveknown up the river drainage, where we weresitting. As a result of that simple demonstrationof what is possible using common sense andgood science, the minister, who had to get onto meet the president of Zambia, left his per-manent secretary behind to start planning apartnership between the Africa Centre andgovernment to restore all rivers in the nationso that cities, industry and agriculture canlook to a brighter future. We are now draftinga concept paper to jointly present to Ameri-can, or other government development agen-cies, to begin training people in governmentagencies and eight universities and colleges.The goal is exciting—to stop biodiversity lossand land degradation so that the nation can The Dimbangombe River has been restored by livestock on holistic planned grazing over its watershedbegin restoring the health of all its rivers run- and along its banks. Elephants now drink in new pools a mile above their traditional water hole,ning through forest reserves, communal pas- due to a healthier river system.toral lands, ranches, national parks and farmsbecause the watersheds of the rivers involve rounded by the herders with their cooking of corn production on average threefold,all land uses. fires. some fivefold, higher than control fields using I have always been passionate about Even though the portable lion-proof cor- traditional practices.Africa’s wildlife and people. Our cattle/goat rals were developed for protection, we found Suddenly our learning/demonstration siteherd is run without fencing that is so damag- by accident that we had developed a powerful is taking on greater significance than weing to wildlife, which needs to move freely. soil-restoration and crop-production tool. anticipated. Because of this, we hope we canThe livestock are herded daily to a carefully Where the corrals are placed for about five serve many nations. nmanaged grazing plan that integrates their nights on the worst of gullies—bare-cappedmoves with the sable antelope, buffalo, ele- eroding soil or other problem areas—and the Allan Savory is chairman of the Africa Centrephant, waterbuck, kudu, bushbuck and zebra. for Holistic Management. He and his wife animals trample the ground to death and Jody Butterfield founded the InternationalAnd because we protect and need the preda- cover it with dung and urine, the recovery is Center for Holistic Management intors—lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and amazing. And where we have trained local Albuquerque, N.M. He can be reached athyenas—the management herd sleeps secure- starving people to place the overnight corrals allansavory@gmail.com.ly at night in portable lion-proof corrals sur- on their crop fields, they have achieved levelsBare, hard eroding ground for 30 years, over a foot of soil loss at base of trees. Same land in 2009 (note bent-over lower branch of tree on the left).This land was subjected to extremely high impact from cattle spending the night Erosion has stopped. Vastly more feed and cover for wildlife has grown andon it in 2007. Subsequently, it has been only subjected to holistic planned grazing more water and carbon are being absorbed into healthy soil. Using holisticand wildlife use and no range management, reseeding or any other practice. management, amazing recovery takes place.