Could cows heal the West?

By grazing them in a way that mimics the pattern of wild herbivores, advocates say, rangeland improves.

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Rancher Jim Thorpe has been applying Allan Savory's grazing principles to his New Mexico herd. Mr. Savory came to his conclusions as a national-parks manager in southern Africa.
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 When Sid Goodloe bought his ranch half a century ago in south-central New Mexico, it was a dry, desertified mess. The roads leading to homesteads abandoned since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s had eroded into gullies. Overgrazing had stripped away soil-stabilizing ground cover. Where plowing had occurred, precious topsoil had dried up and blown away in the area’s fierce winds. Years of fire suppression had allowed pinyon-juniper forest to supplant grassland.

“There was little here except broom weed, cactus, and pinyon-juniper,” says Mr. Goodloe. “And yet, it had tremendous potential.”

The soil quality was good. Native American petroglyphs of beavers suggested that the area once supported a more productive ecosystem. With the proper care, the land could recover, Goodloe thought. But that would depend on bolstering its ability to retain water, the limiting factor in much of the semiarid Southwest.

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Originally from West Texas, Goodloe didn’t come from a ranching family. He had no one to turn to for advice, and no preconceived notions. So when, in the 1960s, he met Rhodesian land manager Allan Savory, he was receptive to Mr. Savory’s somewhat counterintuitive proposition: To heal the land, put more animals on it, not fewer – but move them after a relatively brief interval.

If livestock mimicked the grazing behavior of wild herbivores – bunched together for safety, intensely grazing an area for a brief period, and then moving on – rangeland health would improve, Savory said.

Today, Goodloe’s land is often referenced as a model of “sustainable ranching,” a phrase many consider an oxymoron in the West. Wild antelopes bound across his pastures, which are thick with an array of grass and browse species. Water now runs intermittently though a willow-lined creek that once lay dry. And in 2004, Goodloe put a conservation easement on the property, preventing its development in perpetuity. But he nonetheless resists the “environmentalist” label.

“I’m what you would call an environmentally sensitive rancher,” he says.

Goodloe and Savory belong to – and in some ways have spearheaded – an ongoing reappraisal of ranching by ranchers in the American West. Savory’s method, dubbed “holistic management,” remains controversial. But throughout the region, the shortcomings of what some call the “Columbus method” – leaving cows to graze in one place for months at a time  – are readily apparent:

Large swaths of landscape continue to suffer loss of topsoil, invasion by weedy species, and runaway erosion.

Now, spurred by growing consumer concern over meat’s environmental impact and concerned about the long-term viability of their livelihood, a cohort of ranchers is trying to apply the understanding gleaned from the science of ecology to livestock management. Courtney White, cofounder of the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, N.M., and a former Sierra Club activist, calls the result a shift to the “radical center.” After years of mutual antagonism, ranchers and environmentalists are finally working together, he says.

Others see it as ranchers finally taking stock of the Western landscape.

“We’ve been trying to make the West into Europe since our ancestors came here,” says George Whitten, a rancher in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. He has been practicing holistic management, with good results, since the mid-1980s. Now, “I think we have to become truly westerners to live within its limits and its bounty,” he says.

Moisture retention is key

With concern mounting over human-induced climate change, how land is managed and whether it emits or traps carbon is an issue of growing concern. Carbon taken from the atmosphere by grasslands during photosynthesis ends up underground, in the plants’ roots. There, microbes metabolize some of that carbon into humus, the fine particles that give topsoil its black coloring. Humus can hold four times its weight in water, greatly enhancing soil’s ability to retain moisture, a bulwark against desertification.

Humus is also a huge carbon sink, says soil scientist Christina Jones, founder of the Australian Soil Carbon Accred­i­ta­tion Scheme, on her website. Grasslands can continually sequester carbon.

Worldwide, soils contain three times more carbon than the atmosphere, Dr. Jones says. That’s more than four times the carbon contained in the world’s vegetation. By her calculations, a mere 0.5 percent increase in soil carbon on only 2 percent of Australia’s farmland would equalize all the nation’s carbon emissions. Degrading grasslands, though, emit carbon. As organic material breaks down, carbon escapes back into the atmosphere. That’s the case across large parts of the American West, Africa, Asia, and Australia where centuries of overgrazing and plowing have caused soils to steadily lose organic material.

“The most meaningful indicator for the health of the land and the long-term wealth of a nation,” says Jones, “is whether soil is being formed or lost.” Livestock can aid in that soil formation.

A lesson from Africa’s nature preserves
“It just so happens that the best management practices for rangelands also promote other goals,” says Jim Thorpe, a Quivira member and owner of a ranch near Newkirk, N.M. “It’s like being a grass farmer, only, instead of [my] growing it, the cows are.”

Land manager Savory, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., had his “aha!” moment while managing Rhodesia’s (now Zambia and Zimbabwe’s) fledgling national parks in the 1950s. He was puzzled when wildlife preserves started degrading soon after being put off-limits. The land became bare, packed, and hard, the riverbanks trampled and defoliated. Nearby areas that hosted large numbers of herbivores, carnivores, and even people, meanwhile, remained verdant and healthy.

“I was seeing the healthiest land where there was the healthiest game population,” he says. “But where we’d created reserves, removed people, and stopped hunting, almost immediately, the land became degraded.”

Then it hit him: When protected on reserves, herbivores quickly became sedentary, leading to the same problems observed with chronic grazing by livestock. Savory’s insight: Grazing of a certain kind is integral to a savanna’s health. Migrating wildebeests and elephants recycle nutrients, he reasoned. The large quantity of urine and feces these large herds left jumpstarted the microbial activity necessary for healthy soil. Trampling broke the surface cap on the soil, permitting more water to flow into – rather than off of – the earth. The key to whether animals enhanced or destroyed rangelands was how long the animals remained in a given area. If they stayed too long, they killed grass and compacted soil. But if they moved through quickly, the plants survived and, newly fertilized, rebounded spectacularly.

“I realized we could use domestic animals to mimic animals on the move,” he says. “Use the maximum density of animals for minimum time, followed by adequate recovery periods for both soil and plants.”

But with its emphasis on more animals, not fewer, many say Savory’s method sounds too good to be true. The American West is hardly an African savanna, skeptics add. While the Great Plains hosted hordes of bison, ecosystems further west did not evolve with large numbers of migrating herbivores. (Semiarid western ecosystems were greatly shaped by wildfires, another periodic disturbance that recycles nutrients, however.) The grazers here – elk, bighorn sheep, rabbits, grasshoppers – affect the landscape very differently than do domestic cows, says George Wuerthner, author of “Welfare Ranching” and a critic of Savory’s. Cows simply can’t functionally replace wild animals, he says.

Scientific study generates debate
Others question whether Savo­ry’s ap­­proach delivers on its promise. A 2008 review in the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management concluded that many studies have failed to show that it worked better than continuous grazing. The paper generated debate at a recent meeting of the Society for Range Management in Ft. Collins, Colo. Many adherents of methods like Savory’s conclude that the science was flawed.

“I know for a fact that we can graze livestock in the West on a sustainable basis,” says Rick Knight, a professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, Ft. Collins.

Keith Weber, a scientist at Idaho State University, Pocatello, has data that may help resolve the debate. In an ongoing experiment, he’s found tha­t intensely but briefly grazed pastures have higher soil moisture than either rested pastures or those grazed for long periods and then rested. He hopes to submit the results of his experiment for publication in a year.

Critics and proponents of these grazing methods do agree on one point: planning and monitoring – how engaged a rancher is with his or her land – makes all the difference.

“Livestock grazing can be sustainable, but it’s not a sure thing,” says rancher Jim Thorpe. “You’ve got to pay attention.”

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