So-called planned grazing may (not?) benefit grasslands

Grazing On The Windfarm

Photo by Flickr user Pam Morris, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the second of Harvest Public Media’s recent two-part series on protecting American topsoil, Luke Runyon takes a look at how the planned grazing of cattle might be good for grasslands. As he describes,

Conventional wisdom tells you, if ranchland ground has less grass, the problem is too many cows. But that’s not always the case. It depends on how you manage them, if you make sure they keep moving.

“Plants actually respond to grazing. It actually stimulates growth in some ways,” said William Burnidge, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy. Burnidge runs the Conservancy’s Colorado grassland program, which includes a 14,000-acre nature preserve and working commercial cattle ranch, the Fox Ranch.

A few miles west of the Kansas border in Yuma County, Colo., the land stretches north and south along a band of the Arikaree River, a tributary of the Republican River. The ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy and leased to local rancher Nathan Andrews, is part of a grand experiment. Researchers are putting in practice something called holistic management, or planned grazing….

The godfather of this grazing technique is Allan Savory, the creator of a few organizations that tout the ability of these methods to restore grasslands and pull ranchers across the world out of poverty. If his name sounds familiar you might have seen his TED talk from earlier this year. The video went viral, currently at almost a half-million views, and introduced a whole new audience to the concept of holistic, or planned, grazing.

Nevertheless, Runyon says that

if you think the entire rangeland community is singing kumbaya around holistic grazing, you’re wrong. [Allan] Savory’s methods are controversial. Most of contemporary rangeland science says Savory’s basic tenets, increased cattle numbers and rapid fire grazing, have no scientific basis.

For a critical look at Savory’s work, check out this piece in Slate earlier this spring from James McWilliams (yes, that James McWilliams).


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