Holistic Management is the most powerful tool I have encountered for regenerating landscapes. I have compiled a list of all of the best online evidence supporting Holistic Management. Hopefully we can soon stop doubting Holistic Management and start implementing it, we need it desperately.
The best way to know for yourself whether Holistic Management works is to go visit a Holistically Managed farm or ranch. This directory of Holistic Managers should give you a place to start as you look for a Holistic Manager nearby.
*Caution: Many of these studies use grazing systems like Rotational Grazing, Multi-Paddock Grazing, etc which are a step in the right direction and can work in non-brittle environments, but these systems inevitably fail in brittle environments. Only Holistic Planned Grazing has proven successful in brittle enviromnents.
In most fields of science, it is common sense that in order to conclude a method doesn’t work you should actually test that specific method.
For example, if you are trying to determine if Newton’s laws are accurate, you’d better test Newton’s Laws as he himself described them in his books, or else you’d better not claim to be studying Newton’s Laws.
What would the reaction be to a study on the effectiveness of “chemotherapy”, for example, that actually just studied the effects of giving cancer patients random poisons? From a certain perspective it makes sense — chemotherapy drugs can be thought of as poisons — but clearly there is a distinction between chemo-drugs and other poisons that matters! So why is it that range scientists can presume to make conclusions about Holistic Planned Grazing, seemingly without loss of professional reputation, by studying rotational grazing systems that have only the most superficial similarity to HPG (in the same way that chemo drugs have superficial similarity to poisons)?
Since no one who peer-reviewed Hawkins’s paper seems to have caught the glaring errors in her meta-review, and no one else in the academic world has yet publicly spoken out against this meta-review, it is apparent that there must be a widespread fundamental misunderstanding of what the term “Holistic Planned Grazing” refers to.
Hawkins claims in her paper that “If adaptive management is used, there is little to distinguish HPG from other rotational, high-density, time-controlled grazing approaches such as short-duration high-intensity grazing, intensive rotational grazing, cell grazing, and strip grazing.” (Hawkins 2017) This statement is false, as anyone who is familiar with the grazing approaches in question should immediately realize. There are many, many aspects to Holistic Planned Grazing which are found nowhere else. Sure, there are many other grazing approaches which have superficial similarities to HPG (animals are high density, and moved between many paddocks frequently, for example), but, as in the case of the chemo vs poison example I gave above, there are details unique to HPG which make all the difference!
The HM Handbook is not at all ambiguous about the methodology of HPG. You should read the foundational texts yourself, as I cannot adequately describe the process in this short article. But, for reference, here are a few key aspects which define HPG:
First, a Holistic Context is developed to guide all decision making. The Holistic Context is constantly consulted throughout the creation of the grazing plan and during the actual implementation of HPG on the ground. Holistic management is not a synonym for “adaptive”, which is clear if you read the HM Textbook. (Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Recovery periods (a.k.a. rest periods) are critical variables in HPG, and are carefully determined based on the specifics of each Holistic Context and the ecological understanding presented in the HM Textbook. A minimum recovery period is used when growth is at its fastest, and a maximum recovery period is used when growth is at its slowest (when growth stops the entire grazing methodology changes, this range of recovery periods is only meant for use within the growing season). A guideline given in the HM Handbook is that plants are ready to be grazed again “when [they] look like ungrazed plants growing nearby”, but advice is also given about when you would want to lengthen that period or shorten it based on your Holistic Context. (Butterfield et al. 2006)
Different advice is given for different climates. Climates are broadly classified into “brittle” and “non-brittle”. In brittle-environments it is made clear that “herd effect” (“ the result of a change in animal behavior… usually brought about by some actual management action – using an attractant, or crowding animals to ultra-high density.”) is of paramount importance for successful regeneration or sustainability of pastures. Herd effect is still a useful tool in non-brittle environments, but not as strictly required for success as it is in brittle environments. (Butterfield et al. 2006; Savory and Butterfield 1998)
In all environments the use of fire is heavily discouraged, with an entire chapter devoted to it, detailing why it is almost never the right tool to use, in the HM Textbook. (Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Two different grazing methodologies are given in the HM Handbook: one to be used during the dormant season (called a “closed plan”), and one to be used during the growing season (called an “open plan”). (Butterfield et al. 2006)
HPG always involves planning the season’s moves on something called a “grazing plan & control chart”. This planning is done according to a very clear 17-step process, which can be found only in the HM Handbook. This planning process primarily centers around ensuring that your chosen recovery periods are maintained for all paddocks, but it also includes many other variables in the planning of herd movements (ex: birthing and breeding periods, labour considerations, livestock health, wildlife habitat considerations, crop field needs, etc.) and, depending on the Holistic Context, these other variables may take precedence over maintaining your rest period. (Butterfield et al. 2006)
HPG does not end with the creation of the grazing plan on the chart; after the plan is implemented there is continual monitoring, and adaption involved which are essential to success with HPG. The two most common things which are monitored and changed throughout the growing season are stocking rate and rest period (which determines grazing period). The HM Handbook gives specific indicators to determine if stocking rate or rest periods need to be adjusted. In the academic range science literature, this practice of adjusting stocking rates and/or rest periods throughout the season is usually referred to as “Adaptive Grazing”. HPG is always adaptive grazing, but adaptive grazing is not always HPG. (Butterfield et al. 2006)
Now that we better understand what HPG is (a highly specific set of recommendations and processes detailed in the HM Handbook and HM Textbook), lets turn our attention to Heidi-Jayne Hawkins’s meta-review:
She analysed twenty-three studies from around the world and found that HPG has no benefit over Continuous Grazing in terms of animal and plant production (Hawkins 2017). Since her study is very specifically about “Holistic Planned Grazing ™”, we would expect that the studies analysed in her meta-analysis would be actual studies of “Holistic Planned Grazing™”. This is, alarmingly, not the case at all!
*Please note, I was not able to find copies of two studies from Hawkins’s paper; “Dowling et al. 2005” and “Gammon and Roberts 1978”. The Gammon and Roberts study was published 10 years before the earliest version of Allan Savory’s Holistic Management, so, barring the use of a time machine, it is impossible for this study to have been studying the specific approach referred to as “Holistic Planned Grazing”. “Dowling et al. 2005”, on the other hand will simply be left out of my analysis altogether since I cannot seem to access the text online anywhere.
*Also note, the study “Clatworthy 1984” is a reference to the “Charter Grazing Trials” in Zimbabwe which were personally overseen by Allan Savory. This occurred before he had developed the modern versions of Holistic Management or Holistic Planned Grazing, but because it was overseen by Savory himself, we are going to treat it as a completely legitimate study of “Holistic Planned Grazing” which he created.
Are they studying HPG, or something else?
Let’s compare the grazing methodologies used in the twenty remaining studies (see the notes above about the other three studies) with Holistic Planned Grazing:
Since the development of Holistic Management, Allan Savory has been consistent: grazing management cannot be divorced from the holistic context, or holistic decision making, without negative consequences. This point is heavily reinforced in all official HPG/HM courses and literature. (Butterfield et al. 2006; Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Out of the nineteen studies, none mention that a “Holistic Context” or “Holistic Management” or “Holistic Decision Making” or anything similar to these concepts were at all involved in the grazing management. This makes them, at best, studies of “Planned Grazing” not “Holistic Planned Grazing”.
Not a single study in the meta-review mentions “Holistic Management Handbook”, nor the “grazing plan & control chart” nor anything about the 17 steps to creating a grazing plan with HPG. So not only are the grazing methodologies used not “holistic” they are also not even “planned grazing”!
Grounds for retraction
At this point we can already say without reservation that Hawkins’s supposed meta-review of “Holistic Planned Grazing” was nothing of the sort, and therefore her conclusion that “Holistic Planned Grazing does not improve production” is unfounded, and the paper should be retracted.
Let’s go easy on Hawkins; lets relax our definition of HPG a bit, and see whether the studies she assessed use grazing methodologies that are at least close to HPG…
There are seven simple questions we can ask to determine how close the grazing methodologies used in each of the studies was to actual Holistic Planned Grazing as laid out in the official texts and courses:
Question 1: Did any of the studies use a grazing methodology which was explicitly NOT HPG? (ie. did any have a “fatal flaw”?)
There were three studies which state explicitly a grazing methodology was used which no one could argue is HPG:
Anderson et al. 1988 :“The 10 paddocks within the rotation cell were monitored as each was being grazed. On the day preceding grazing, and each day while the heifers were grazing the paddock, visual estimates of standing crop height were made at a minimum of 10 locations in the paddock. When grazing had reduced the average standing crop height by 30-35% from that estimated initially, cattle were moved to the adjacent fresh paddock” This means the herd movements were not based on any grazing chart, neither were they based on maintaining a certain recovery period. The movements were based on only looking at the current paddock being grazed, and how much forage had been taken from that paddock. This is not, and has never been, how HPG works. You will never find in any of the HM or HPG literature the advice to move animals based on the criteria used in the Anderson et al. study. In HPG the percentage of standing crop taken in each grazing is only monitored as an indicator of whether the stocking rate should change, it has no bearing on the timing of animal movements. (Butterfield et al. 2006; Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Badini et al. 2007: This was not an actual study of real-world results with different grazing methodologies, it was a computer simulation. HPG was created to bring benefits in the real world, not a simulation which was so limited that it could not even “simulate the effect of pasture degradation factors such as selective overgrazing and physical damage of soil and pasture due to animal activity”! Besides the obvious limitations of using a simulation, the criteria used to determine when to move the animals was, once again, based on a threshold of biomass in the current paddock being reached. As mentioned above, this is absolutely not how animals are moved in HPG. (Butterfield et al. 2006; Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Teague et al. 2010: Besides the heavy use of fire in this study (which is almost never a part of HPG) the movement of animals was, once again, not based on a grazing plan or on maintaining a certain rest period, but instead the decision to move was based on “The Grazing Manager (TGM) optical utilization score (scale of 0 to 5) of Kothmann and Hinnant (1999)”. This is an entirely different methodology than HPG. (Butterfield et al. 2006; Savory and Butterfield 1998)
…. Now we are down to 17 studies. Four studies, out of the original twenty three, have been shown to be not even remotely studies of “Holistic Planned Grazing™”, one has been confirmed as a legitimate study of HPG, and one is not included in my analysis since I could not access the paper online.
Question 2: Did any of the studies implement anything remotely resembling a Holistic Context/Holistic Decision Making?
None of the papers mentioned anything resembling a Holistic Context, Holistic Management or Holistic Decision Making except for Teague et al. 2011 which says “They plan their grazing management within an adaptive, goal-oriented management framework using basic knowledge of plant and animal physiology and ecology” in reference to those using planned rotational grazing. Presumably, if they were testing this same method in their study they would have also used an “adaptive, goal-oriented management framework”, although there is no confirmation of this or further mention of it in the paper.
Question 3: If they didn’t use a “Grazing Plan & Control Chart” or the 17-step grazing planning process, did they at least plan the grazing on some sort of chart and/or in a way that ensured full recovery for each pasture before the next grazing?
None of the papers make any reference to planning the grazing on any sort of chart. However, in email correspondence with the author, I discovered that “Badgery et al. 2017a,2017b” did utilize a grazing chart (although it was not the same type of chart used in HPG).
As for basing the movement schedule primarily on ensuring full recovery for the plants before they are re-grazed (a key part of HPG’s planning process):
Six of the studies gave no indication of how the grazing schedule was created (Derner and Hart, 2007; Heidschmidt, 1982; Jacobo et al, 2006; Thurow et al. 1988; Vermiere et al. 2008; White et al. 1991)
Five of the studies did not base the grazing schedule primarily on ensuring adequate recovery for the plants, these were all studies of the same grazing experiment in Wyoming: “The time-controlled rotation treatments were subdivided into 8 paddocks, with length of grazing on each paddock determined by estimated forage availability and rate of forage growth. These parameters were not actually measured, nor was any attempt made to develop mathematical guidelines, but when more forage was available or when forage growth slowed in a given paddock, steers grazed that paddock longer.” (Derner et al. 2008; Hart et al. 1988; Hart et al. 1993b; Hart et al. 1993a; Manley et al. 1997)
Three of the studies (Badgery et al. 2017a,2017b; and Teague et al. 2011) were not totally clear, but at least give me reason to believe that they were using recovery period as a primary criteria for the grazing schedule.
Three of the studies (Cassels et al. 1995; Gillen et al. 1998; McCollum et al. 1999), all from the same grazing experiment in Oklahoma, were clear that they did use recovery period as the primary variable in their grazing schedule. I received this in email correspondence with one of the authors: “Our planning for the rotational movement started with our target rest period. If we wanted a 30 day rest period for the first cycle and we had 8 paddocks, the grazing period for each paddock was 30/(8-1)=4.3 or about 4 days per paddock. We did not base movement on forage remaining in the paddock or any animal indicator. We wanted any grass tillers grazed during a given grazing period to have adequate rest before cattle entered the paddock again. A given paddock was always “moderately” grazed during a cycle. We never tried to graze down to some target stubble height or uniformity.”
Question 4: Did they monitor and modify stocking rate throughout the season to match livestock needs with the forage available (ie. was the stocking rate “adaptive”)?
Fourteen of the studies did not change stocking rate through the season based on observed forage shortages or excesses (Cassels et al. 1995; Derner and Hart 2007; Derner et al. 2008; Gillen et al. 1998; Hart et al. 1988; 1993a; 1993b; Heidschmidt et al. 1982; Jacobo et al. 2006; Manley et al 1997; McCollum et al. 1999; Thurow et al. 1988; Vermiere et al. 2008; White et al. 1991). A few of these did destock 100% occasionally during severe drought, but this is not the same as the HPG practice of closely matching livestock numbers to the needs of the land throughout the season. To be clear, HPG does not always require frequent stocking rate changes, but it DOES require the manager to constantly monitor the forage base to determine if stocking rate changes are needed. Sometimes changes are not needed for several years, but more often stocking rates will need minor adjustments more than once per year.
Only three of the studies did use adaptive stocking rates (Badgery et al. 2017a,2017b; Teague et al. 2011).
Question 5: Did they monitor and modify their rest period throughout the season based on the observed rates of growth in the first grazed paddock? (ie. Was the rest period “adaptive”?)
Three of the studies do not mention whether their rest periods changed at all, or were static (Thurow et al. 1988; Vermiere et al. 2008; White et al. 1991).
One of the studies used a fixed rest period (Derner and Hart 2007).
The remaining twelve studies did change their rest periods based on growth rates (Badgery et al. 2017a,2017b; Cassels et al. 1995; Derner et al. 2008; Gillen et al. 1998; Hart et al. 1998,1993a,1993b; Heidschmidt et al. 1982; Jacobo et al. 2006; Manley et al. 1997; McCollum et al. 1999), but none of them say what exactly triggered the change to a different rest period, with several of them indicating these changes in the rest period were predetermined at the beginning of the season, and not based on actual observed growth in the first-grazed paddock during the current season (which is the practice advocated in the HPG methodology).
Question 6: Did they use fire, which the HPG literature makes very clear is not a good tool to use? (Savory and Butterfield 1998)
Three of the studies mention that fire was used (“all units were burned 1 April 1990 and 20 March 1993”) as a part of the management (Cassels et al. 1995; Gillen et al. 1998; and McCollum et al. 1999).
We will assume fire was not used in the remaining studies since it was not mentioned.
Question 7: If the study was done in a brittle environment, did they focus on creating “herd effect” as a primary management goal? Herd effect is described in the HM Handbook as “The impact on soils and vegetation produced by a large herd of animals in high concentration or in an exited state… the result of a change in animal behavior and usually has to be brought about by some actual management action – using an attractant, or crowding animals to ultra-high density”. (Butterfield et al. 2006)
Out of the ten studies conducted in brittle environments (Derner and Hart, 2007; Derner et al. 2008; Hart et al. 1988,1993a,1993b; Heidschmidt et al. 1982; Manley et al. 1997; Thurow et al. 1988; Vermiere et al. 2008; White et al. 1991), none have any mention of “herd effect”. Considering that it takes out-of-the-ordinary management actions to create herd effect, we can safely assume none of the studies used herd effect if they did not mention it.
Now that we have compared the grazing methodologies used in all of these studies versus the official HPG approach, let us rate the studies based on how similar the grazing management they studied was to HPG and then take another look at the results of Hawkins’s meta-review in light of our new understanding…
For each of category below, studies were given a rating of 0 to 5 (5 meaning that that aspect of the grazing management was exactly the same as is used in HPG, and 0 meaning that that aspect of the grazing management was not even close to what is used in HPG). Where the study did not indicate what the given aspect of its grazing management looked like, the study is given a default score of 2 (although probably in most cases they should have been given a 0). Each category is given a weight multiplier, based roughly on how much importance it is given in the HM Handbook and HM Textbook. The results were color coded to show the similarity or dissimilarity to HPG.
Quantifying Similarity to Holistic Planned Grazing:
*Studies in non-brittle environments were given a 2.5 rating for the herd effect category since herd effect is unimportant in non-brittle environments, so whether these studies used herd effect or not should have no bearing on their rating relative to the other studies.
Now that we have quantified how similar the grazing methods used in each study are to HPG, lets overlay that rating onto Hawkins’s data.
Note: I will only be showing the overlay for her “plant biomass (kg/hectare)” and “animal gain (kg/hectare)” forest plots. The other two forest plots, showing “plant basal cover (%)” and “average daily gain (kg/head/day)” are not factors which are generally important to practitioners of Holistic Management or HPG since most are concerned with whole-ranch profits, which “forage production/hectare” and “animal production/hectare” are much better measurements of than the weight gain of individual animals or the number of stems per hectare. Of course, you can go and look at those two graphs yourself and overlay them with my rating of similarity to HPG, and you will find that there is little to no correlation between similarity of the grazing system to HPG and plant basal cover or individual animal gain. This is because HPG has been developed to benefit ranchers in the real world, where total forage production and total animal weight gain per hectare are far more important than plant basal cover or individual animal gain. Plant basal cover could be a useful performance measure in HPG since it is related to the function of the water cycle, but it would have to be coupled with measurements of surface litter cover and water infiltration rates to be useful.
This is Figure 2 from Hawkins’s study (Hakwins 2017). All colours are overlays which I have added. The colours correspond with how close the grazing methodology being used was to actual HPG. Red meaning that the grazing methodology was not at all like HPG and green meaning it was very similar to HPG (see the rating chart above). Notice how the four studies which are most obviously not studies of HPG (in red) have been given a collective weight of 82.6 % of the overall effect size! I have added a green dot at the bottom where I think the overall effect size probably should be if the data were re-adjusted based on actual similarity to HPG.
This is Figure 3 from Hawkins’s study (Hawkins 2017). I have coloured it with the same method as Figure 2 showing for each study how close its grazing methodology was to HPG. You can see once again a clear positive effect size once the non-relevant studies are eliminated. In this forest plot the data from the decidedly not-HPG “Anderson (1988)” study accounts for 61.2 % of the total effect size, whereas the data from two of the most relevant studies in the set (Badgery et al. 2017b and Clatworthy 1984) accounts for only 13.7 % of the overall effect size. I have again added a green dot where I think the overall effect size should be if we are trying to actually study HPG.
After re-examining Hawkins’s data with our new knowledge of what exactly HPG is and what it is not, we can draw a few clear conclusions:
Not a single study in this meta review looked at “Holistic Planned Grazing™” as it is defined in the HM literature, or by organizations like HMI or The Savory Institute (who hold the Trademark on “Holistic Planned Grazing™”), or even as it is described by Allan Savory himself.
Even if we ignore the official HPG literature and severely relax our definition of HPG most of the grazing practices categorized as HPG in this meta-review are still nowhere close to HPG (average rating 12 out of 40 in our rating of similarity to HPG, see above).
Given the above two points, Hawkins has no justification for her conclusion that “Holistic Planned Grazing does not improve production and therefore does not warrant the additional inputs (infrastructure and labour) that the approach requires” (Hawkins 2017). Her paper should be retracted.
If we look at Hawkins’s charts showing effect sizes for forage productivity and animal productivity per hectare (the two measures that HPG practitioners are actually concerned with) we see that the similarity of the grazing system to HPG is strongly correlated with a significant positive effect size. In other words, Hawkins’s meta-review actually supports the efficacy of HPG to increase forage and animal production!
There are only four studies, out of twenty three, which stand out as being fairly close in grazing methodology to HPG. Clearly there is simply not enough data available on the specific practice of HPG to warrant a meta-review. Given that all four of these studies show significant positive effects on production, more experiments studying actual HPG are warranted.
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Badgery WB, Millar GD, Broadfoot K, Michalk DL, Cranney P, Mitchell D, van de Ven R. 2017a. Increased production and cover in a variable native pasture following intensive grazing management. Animal Production Science 57: 1812–1823.
Badgery WB, Millar GD, Michalk DL, Cranney P, Broadfoot K. 2017b. The intensity of grazing management influences lamb production from native grassland. Animal Production Science 57: 1837–1848.
Badini O, Stöckle CO, Jones JW, Nelson R, Kodio A, Keita M. 2007. A simulation-based analysis of productivity and soil carbon in response to time-controlled rotational grazing in the West African Sahel region. Agricultural Systems 94: 87–96.
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This is a guide for determining what recovery period to use in Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Traditionally the process for choosing a recovery period has been left very vague in the Holistic Management literature because there are such a wide range of recovery periods which can be effectively used, depending on the specifics of the situation. However, recovery period is arguably the most important variable in the long term success of HPG, and I have seen too many examples of people using a poorly chosen recovery period and suffering because of it. I have also seen too many examples of scientists researching HPG using recovery periods that are way off the mark and then blaming HPG or Allan Savory for their poor results. Hopefully this guide can address that problem.
“Recovery Period” is the time, measured in days, which plants are allowed to grow without disturbance between impact events (usually between grazing events with livestock, but impact events can also be things such as fire, hay cutting, mechanical rolling, etc.).
*Note: This guide will only tell you what recovery period you should use during your growing season (“open ended plan” in HPG)… the recovery period you should use in your non-growing/dormant season (“closed plan” in HPG) is governed by completely different criteria and is beyond the scope of this single article.
The recovery period is arguably the most important variable in determining whether HPG will be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to the land being managed. Choosing the wrong recovery period can lead to degradation of the land, and degradation of profits, even when using HPG. Getting the recovery period right in brittle environments is especially important, and using a recovery period that is too short has caused many ranchers and researchers to fail in these unforgiving environments.
Find your baseline recovery period by observing these plant species
Lengthen or shorten your baseline recovery period based on other management factors
Use the correct recovery period in your grazing based on environmental conditions
Assume your chosen recovery period is wrong, and learn to spot the problems and modify your recovery period to fix them
Management Goals, Holistic Context, and how they relate to Recovery Period:
As Holistic Managers, we know that keeping our Holistic Contexts in the front of our minds at all times is the key to success, and things are no different when choosing a recovery period:
We are going to assume here that your Holistic Context includes having healthy land and healthy ecosystem processes. We all rely on these things for our survival, and they are the only source of sustainable wealth; so we should all probably seek to have a healthy land base and healthy ecosystem processes if we are managing land. This is why the process of determining your “baseline recovery period” based on plant growth in your area is going to be the same for basically every situation: because if you deviate much from this, the ecosystem will probably start to move in a direction you don’t want it to.
But there are other things in your Holistic Context which will be totally unique to your situation and which will affect what recovery period you should use. Keep your Holistic Context handy and I will show you how to change your recovery period during this process based on your unique goals.
Choose Your Benchmark Plant Species
Make a list of all the plant species you know of on the land you are managing.
Go through this list and decide for each plant if it is “desirable” (a plant that you want to favor with your management) or “undesirable” (a plant that you want less of on your land).
We are going to choose a recovery period which is most favourable to the desirable plants on your list, which will tend to increase the vigour and population of those plants while decreasing the population and vigor of the plants you didn’t list as desirable (this process is not perfect; don’t expect it to completely remove all undesirable species!). So, if you choose plants for the wrong reasons on this list it can have very negative long term impacts on your land!
You should choose which plants are desirable based primarily on what impact they have on the Four Ecosystem Processes (refer to the “Holistic Management” book if you don’t know what these are), while also considering your Holistic Context and the HM testing questions (if the government is going to shut you down for having an “invasive” species, for example, you probably shouldn’t have that plant on your desirable plants list no matter how good it is for your ecosystem processes).
For example, many of you may have the choice between favoring bunch grasses or runner-type grasses. If we look at the four ecosystem processes, runner-type grasses are often better than bunch grasses because they form a continuous protective covering over the soil surface without the bare spots between plants that you often see with bunch grasses. Over the long term the reduction in water runoff, erosion, and wind erosion which runner-type grasses provide probably will outweigh the benefits of bunch grasses (typically nutritional benefits).
For our purposes in this guide “full recovery” is when a plant has started to produce a flower or flower bud. This is stage is the only indicator which we can practically observe (without access to a high tech biology lab!) that indicates a plant has fully recovered from the last disturbance event, or has built enough energy stores to be able to cope with a new disturbance event.
*Note: The flowering stage is not the same as the seed stage! If the plant has already formed seeds, and especially if the plant is beginning to lose colour, it is past the flowering stage.
One of the core concepts of HPG is that grazing or cutting plants before they have reached “full recovery” will tend to harm the long term health and vigor of that plant. We have yet to figure out the exact biological mechanism behind this (are plants losing root mass when grazed, or are they just using up stored sugars in their roots? etc.), but anyone with land can very quickly test the theory and find that yes, grazing/cutting a plant before it has reached “full recovery” will tend to reduce its long term productivity compared to plants that are allowed to reach full recovery before every grazing/cutting
Likewise, allowing plants to continue growing for a long time after they have reached full recovery is also bad (unless you want them to produce seed for some reason). This is something widely accepted even by mainstream range science: that plants allowed to go past the flowering stage rapidly decline in nutrition, palatability and, most importantly, photosynthetic activity.
Observe your land:
Now you have the task of finding out when each plant that you marked as desirable on your list reaches “full recovery” (flowering/bud stage) after being grazed/cut/etc. You will actually need two figures for this: the time it takes for this plant to recover during periods where growth is very fast (wet years, for example) and the time it takes for this plant to reach full recovery during periods of slow growth (drought years, for example).
Finding this information by observing your land is obviously a long process. Here are some less accurate methods you can use in the meantime:
Look at photo records of the area. All digital photos have the date they were taken embedded in the metadata of the photo (usually can be found by “right click>properties” for example). So find some digital photos of your area in which you can see some plants on your list that have reached full recovery. Find the date that photo was taken and compare it to the last time those plants were probably disturbed (for example if it is an untouched field in a temperate location then the number of days between the start of growth in the spring and the date the picture was taken can be used as the recovery period for those plants). Google images or google street-view can be very helpful for this process.
Ask local people who have been in the area a long time, and who have been paying attention to plant growth very carefully. You will probably have the most luck talking to hay producers, since most livestock producers use grazing management practices (like continuous grazing) which distort the natural regrowth period of plants and so the numbers they give you will likely not work under the radically different HPG management.
Narrow it down:
Once you’ve got estimates of the time needed to reach full recovery for each of your desirable plants, you have to pick one of those plants’ recovery period to use as your “baseline recovery period“.
Usually picking the longest recovery period out of your desirable plant list is the best option (since plants tend to be damaged more by a recovery period that is too short than by one that is too long).
However there can be situations where this is not a good idea. For example, you might have trees or shrubs on your desirable plant list, which generally take significantly longer to recover from grazing than pasture plants. In this situation you will have to make the choice to either lengthen your recovery period to accommodate the “outlier” plants (and by doing so have most of your other plants go way past the flowering stage into dormancy and decay) or to shorten your recovery period to one that is more appropriate for most of your plants (and by doing so probably harm the outlier plants that needed the extremely long recovery period).
For example if I have a list of plants where all the plants have recovery periods between 50 and 90 days, but then I have one or two desirable species which require over 200 days to fully recover, I cannot make my recovery period 200 days without probably harming most of the species on my list, but I also cannot make my recovery period 90 days without harming the species that needs 200 days. A common solution to this problem, if you are unwilling to lose the outlier plant species, is to set aside areas of land where you use a different, much longer, recovery period than what you use on most of your land in order to increase the outlier species on at least some of your land.
Remember to consult your Holistic Context throughout this process of determining which species of plant to favour or to not favour with your grazing management!
At this stage you should have a “baseline” recovery period; ideally with a minimum value representing the amount of time needed for full recovery during good years, and a maximum value representing the amount of time needed for full recovery during bad years. In my specific context, for example, I use 80 days as my minimum baseline recovery period, and 90 days as my maximum baseline recovery period, which are based on the time Smooth Brome needs for full recovery in my area.
Modify your baseline based on management goals
If you use your baseline recovery period in your grazing planning your land will most likely improve rapidly (assuming you picked your desirable species mostly based on the four ecosystem processes), and your animals will be happy.
However, sometimes your situation might dictate that you need to temporarily change your recovery period, and therefore probably reduce the health of your land somewhat. Here are some examples:
If you are trying to produce a high quality grass finished meat product from your pasture, your pasture plants will need to be at the peak of nutritional quality when they are grazed… this typically means you need to use a recovery period of about 50-80% of your baseline recovery period.
If you are trying to produce forage which will stay green and nutritious during winter you may want to shorten your recovery period a little bit, since plants tend to hold their nutrition during winter a bit better when they are at a younger growth stage (40%-100% of your baseline recovery period, depending on snow depth).
If you are just trying to extract as much value from the land as possible in a short amount of time (for example if you know the land is going to be bulldozed or plowed over next year no matter what you do with your grazing) you should probably shorten your recovery period so that your plants spend as much time as possible in the fastest stage of growth (30%-80% of your baseline recovery period generally).
There are many other situations in which you might want to change your recovery period temporarily, but just remember that deviating from your baseline recovery period is generally not going to be good for the health of your land, so don’t make it a habit!
Use your recovery period with HPG
Now that you have your min. and max. recovery periods you can use them during the process of making your Holistic Grazing Plan. Follow the instructions in the Holistic Management Handbook and you can’t go too far wrong. Remember to change the recovery period you are using based on whether growth is slow or fast (this is also described in the handbook).
Assume you are wrong, and change accordingly
A core part of Holistic Management is to assume with each decision you make that you are wrong, this forces you to constantly check your results and constantly update your plan. You should do the same thing when you chose your recovery period.
Assume the recovery period you have chosen is not quite right, and look for signs that will tell you if you need to lengthen it or shorten it. The most obvious sign is if most of the plants in your paddock are not at the flowering stage when you are ready to graze again; your recovery period is probably off. The other common indicator is if the forage productivity of your land decreasing over time. This could mean you are using a recovery period that is too short. If the decrease in productivity is accompanied by an increase in woody species it might mean your recovery period is too long. Of course there are other factors that could be responsible for the change in productivity, but too short of a recovery period is a common one.
In my opinion the most damaging part of the film Cowspiracy is its treatment of sustainable livestock management techniques. So I have put together a bunch of evidence supporting the effectiveness of using livestock to regenerate the environment. You can access that here:“Evidence Supporting Holistic Management”
I have created a simplified version of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning which can be used when there is not enough time to complete the full process or when the people involved are resistant to completing the full process.
Undergoing the whole process of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning with a group can take months. Sometimes we just don’t have the time. This year, for example, I am going to be working with a farm but I will have only one day to meet with the farmers before the growing season starts. On top of that, the farmers are completely unfamiliar with Holistic Management and probably will not be interested in putting in the many hours necessary to craft a complete financial plan. My solution to this problem is to use this simplified version of Holistic Management this season, with the goal of completing the full process next winter when we will have more time and when the farmers will have some idea of the benefits of Holistic Management.
Using this simplified version of Holistic Management is much better than not doing anything at all, but it should only be used when it is not feasible to go through the whole process. Going through the full process will give you better results. The larger your operation, the more people and money involved, the more essential it is to complete the full process.
You can find the complete process of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning in the excellent books: “Holistic Management” and the “Holistic Management Handbook.” I have borrowed heavily from these books to create this simplified version of Holistic Management.
Make sure all decision makers are included in this process.
Have each person write a paragraph about their ideal quality of life. Include a sentence or two about economic wellbeing, social wellbeing, relationships, personal growth, and contribution to others. What do you value most?
Now combine these individual statements into a group statement which represents the shared values of everyone involved, reach a consensus.
For each item in the group statement, figure out what must be produced to make that thing a reality. Try to avoid descriptions of how to produce something. For example, if extra income must be produced in order to meet a quality of life goal, do not start describing methods for producing that extra income. The specific methods will be determined later.
Now collectively describe what the group’s resource base must be like far into the future in order to sustain the desired quality of life. If the group relies on any area of land (most do) you should include a description of what the land must look like to sustain the group, and you should also describe any services provided by the external community that will need to be available far into the future.
Combine 3, 4 and 5 into a single document. This is your Holistic Context. Keep it handy, put it in a visible location, and use it constantly to guide your decisions.
Tips For Making Decisions Holistically
Have regular brainstorming sessions. If possible, get outsiders involved, as they can often think of things you would not. Try to keep your brainstorming sessions fun and relaxed. Encourage irreverence and radical ideas.
Always make choices which will move you towards your Holistic Context, not away from it. Take the action which gives you the biggest return, in terms of your Holistic Context, for the least investment.
When trying to solve a problem, ensure that the solution you choose addresses the root cause of the problem. Take some time to determine what the real cause of the problem is, because it is not always obvious.
If you are trying to either decrease or increase a living organism, make sure that the action you take addresses the weakest point in that organism’s life cycle.
Be aware of where the energy and money you use are coming from. Is the source of energy or money in line with your Holistic Context? Favor energy from sources which are abundant and sustainable. And favor actions which do not require getting money from outside sources.
Is the way in which energy or money to be used going to lead towards your Holistic Context? Avoid uses of energy/money which have no lasting positive effect, are addictive, or which, once initiated, will require repeated reinvestment of energy or money. And make sure that your uses of money and energy are supporting the people or community services you rely on.
Most land managers or farmers should make soil health a primary area of investment. A healthy soil, combined with sunlight, produces plants for free. Without healthy soil biology you will need to apply expensive and unsustainable inputs constantly in order to harvest your sunlight.
When making any decision which involves spending money, always do a “gross-profit analysis” (see below) to make sure that it makes financial sense compared to the alternatives.
Always make decisions as a group. Allow everyone to participate. Strive to achieve a consensus on every decision.
When you decide to take an action or implement a plan make sure you monitor the results. Make this a habit. Even the best laid plans rarely go as expected. Figure out what exactly you need to monitor to see if you are succeeding or not. As soon as you detect something going wrong take action to fix it. This may require going back to the drawing board and coming up with an entirely new plan.
Gross Profit Analysis
When choosing between different enterprises, or making any decision which involves spending money, you should do a gross profit analysis. Gross profit analysis separates fixed costs from the costs directly incurred from production. When analyzing an enterprise using a gross profit analysis, exclude any costs which you would incur anyways, regardless of whether you engage in that enterprise or not (land payments, salaries, debt payments, living expenses, etc). These are commonly called “overhead” costs.
To do a gross profit analysis:
List all of the revenue which will be generated as a result of the enterprise/action.
List all of the costs which will be incurred solely due to the specific enterprise/action and which would be avoided if you stopped the enterprise or did not take the action.
Subtract the costs from the revenue. The result is your “gross profit.”
Create Your Business Strategy
Throughout this process keep your Holistic Context in mind. And make sure all of the decision makers in your group are involved in this process.
Determine if there is a “logjam” blocking your progress towards your Holistic Context. Overcoming this logjam is the most important thing to invest your money in.
Are there any other things, besides your logjam, which are adversely affecting your operation as a whole? Things like a lack of training, lack of expertise, lack of leisure time, lack of communication, etc?
Decide on the enterprises which you will engage in over the next year:
First, brainstorm 20-50 new sources of income. Narrow down the list. Discard any ideas which don’t move you towards your holistic context. Discard any ideas which conflict with the decision making tips given above. Discard any ideas which fail the gross profit analysis. You might discard all of the ideas you came up with, that is okay.
Now look at your current enterprises. Do a gross profit analysis for each. Are they each profitable? Are you relying too much on a single enterprise to produce your income? Do they all align with your Holistic Context?
Choose which of your current enterprises you will continue, and which you will drop. And decide if you will start any new enterprises in the next year, and what they will be. Use the gross profit analysis to double check that they are all profitable.
For each enterprise, determine the weak link in the chain of production. The chain of production has three links; Resource Conversion, Product Conversion, and Marketing. For each enterprise, which of the three links is the weakest?
Resource Conversion is your ability to turn your raw material (sunlight, if you are a farming operation) into some product (like a tomato plant, for example).
Product Conversion is your ability to take the product produced and turn it into a marketable form. (tomatoes must be harvested, cleaned, stored, processed, transported, etc).
Marketing is your ability to turn your finished product into dollars (your tomatoes need customers who will pay money for them).
When investing in any of your enterprises always prioritize investments which directly address the weak link for that enterprise. Be aware that the weak link for each enterprise will be constantly changing. Make sure that you are aware of when the weak link has changed and make sure your actions always address the current weak link.
Craft Your Annual Financial Plan
Calculate your total gross income for the coming year. Include all of the enterprises you plan to engage in this year.
Make a plan to address any logjam in your operation. A logjam is, by definition, blocking your progress so it must be addressed first. Allocate whatever funds are necessary to solve the logjam and subtract them from the total income you just calculated.
Now set aside a percentage of the remaining income as planned profit. 50% is a good starting point for many operations. The higher the portion of your planned income that you set aside as profit, the more you will be challenged to creatively cut your expenses. Planning your profit first forces you to stringently cut back on your expenses while still maintaining production. It helps you avoid the common trap of allowing production costs to always rise to your match your anticipated income.
Now you must plan your expenses. This stage takes persistence and creativity. Do your best to keep your expenses low enough to provide the profit you planned above. In the rare occasion where the planned profit turns out to be totally impossible, you should simply start over with a slightly lower planned profit percentage. Be very detailed when accounting for your expenses; don’t leave anything out. Put all of your expenses into one of these three categories:
Inescapable Expenses are fixed, non-negotiable expenses which you are legally or morally required to meet. This category will be small, but you should allocate funds for these expenses at the very beginning of the expense-planning process.
Wealth Generating Expenses are expenses which will either increase your income or your social and biological capital. Expenses used to solve a logjam are wealth generating expenses. Any money used to strengthen the weak link of an enterprise is also wealth generating.
Maintaining Expenses are expenses essential to running your business but which will not increase your wealth or income. Most expenses fall into this category. This category would include living expenses, wages, fuel, insurance, etc. This is the area in which you should strive to make cuts.
Now put it all together, and make sure that all of the numbers check out. Are your expenses going to be covered by your income throughout the whole year (cash-flow)? Are you going to make the profit you have planned. Keep reworking your plan as necessary.
Determine where to invest your profit, after living expenses are accounted for. Some good ways to invest your profit are:
address a logjam
address a weak link
grow your business
create a depreciation fund to avoid going into debt when assets must be replaced
invest outside your business to maintain liquidity or spread your risk
Monitor your finances on a monthly basis to ensure that you are following the plan. If there are any extra expenses which were unaccounted for in your plan immediately find a way to cut expenses in the coming months to bring your finances back on track. Monitoring will require that all income, expenses and inventory consumption is recorded and kept well organized. You should probably assign the task of financial monitoring to a specific person to ensure it actually happens.
The health of any soil food web is determined by the diversity and size of the beneficial microorganism populations which are a part of it (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc). And the size and diversity of the microorganism populations are determined by the following factors:
The biodiversity in the ecosystem. How many different species of soil organisms, plants, and animals are present? Each plant will support a different set of organisms (although they are not mutually exclusive) so having a diversity of plant species will also increase the diversity of soil organisms.
Beneficial microorganisms require oxygen. Oxygen enters soil when the soil is loose. A healthy soil food web creates soil that is naturally loose (no mechanical tilling required).
Soil organisms also require water. Water is held in soil either by tiny particles of organic matter or by particles of clay. The more organic matter in a soil the more water it can hold (the clay content of a soil cannot be easily changed).13 Looser soil (see #2) allows more rainwater to infiltrate the soil where it can be stored.
Soil organisms require energy. They get their energy from living plant roots. Plants will put a large portion of the energy they produce back into the soil as exudates. In the absence of living plant roots some microorganisms can live off of the organic matter in the soil and on the soil surface, but many cannot. Even a short period of time without living plant roots will quickly degenerate the soil food web. This is why perennial plants provide more benefit to the soil than annual plants.
The soil food web requires mineral nutrients. These are provided by bacteria and fungi. The bacteria and fungi get their nutrients either from inorganic rock particles, or from organic matter. It is far easier and faster for them to obtain the nutrients they need from organic matter than from rock particles. Therefore the more organic matter in the soil the less energy plants need to use in order to acquire their nutrients.
The 5 factors influencing soil food web health:
Factor #1: Time passed without disturbance (increased aeration and oxygen)
Factor #2: Organic matter content of the soil (for water and nutrients)
Factor #3: The rate and total amount of energy released by plant roots (exudates)
Factor #4: The diversity of species in the soil and over the soil
Factor #5: The availability and even distribution of water It is by controlling those five factors that we are able to regenerate soil health.
The debate about animal agriculture will never be the same again. Sorting out whether livestock and meat are good or bad, among the thousands of contradictory opinions, can be an overwhelming task. This book makes it easy.
“Letter To A Vegetarian Nation” is a meticulously researched and thoroughly logical analysis of why livestock are actually essential for sustainable food production and environmental restoration. No matter how much we might like to live in a world without livestock and meat eating, this book proves that it is simply not possible.
“Despite eating a meatless/dairyless diet myself, this book is extremely difficult to refute. I highly suggest that anyone interested in environmental issues – veg or not – give it a read and learn about regenerative agriculture.” – Ryan Brownrigg
“Sensible solutions for sequestering carbon and restoring equilibrium to our ailing ecosystems. It is well researched and presented without the usual hyperbole and drama often found in the “latest answer” to the challenges we face. Provides excellent, rational arguments refuting the prevailing dogma from the vegetarian/vegan proponents with numerous historical and current examples. Quite accessible writing style, short illustrated chapters backed up with reference links, tables and photographs… As a practicing student of permaculture, retired small holding farmer I believe with this knowledge we can recreate manageable harmony with Gaia’s ecosystems by following this pattern. Recommended for anyone working the land, growing food and concerned about the future.” – Clive Michael
“This profound two hour read builds a soil-up basis for regenerative agriculture, while also immobilizing seemingly all vegan/vegetarian arguments. The tone brings complex environmental science to simple, precise language in a way that makes it compelling to read. The chapters are organized in a storytelling manner and lead to an irrefutable (and astonishingly hopeful) conclusion! Finally we have something to reference in our meat/no-meat conversations that is inclusive, non-combative and realistic! I am convinced that we can make positive environmental change with the clear reasoning Sheldon presents.” –Sarah Nicholson
Read a preview of the book by clicking on this picture:
This book provides:
Over 120 peer reviewed references to give you confidence in the book and also to help you when you are debating others.
Over 100 links to awesome resources on Regenerative Agriculture. These resources will be invaluable if you want to become more informed about the revolution that is currently sweeping agriculture, or if you actually want to practice Regenerative Agriculture yourself.
A thorough glossary, which explains every uncommon term used in the book, so you don’t have to get a degree in soil science or agriculture to understand this book.
After reading this book you will have a more in-depth and clear understanding of soil science, regenerative agriculture, and livestock management than the vast majority of humanity. You will also learn to reduce your carbon footprint by buying meat!
You can see the full table of contents for “Letter To A Vegetarian Nation” by clicking here: Table Of Contents.
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Permaculture Design: A system for designing sustainable landscapes and communities. Mostly based on the book “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. Permaculture Design is a combination of specific suggestions and general principles.
Permaculture Techniques: A large collection of ideas and techniques related loosely to sustainability and agriculture. These techniques come from a wide variety of sources, many of them are borrowed from other disciplines such as civil engineering, alternative energy, natural building, ecology, etc. There is no central authority to determine what is, or is not, a “Permaculture” technique. This lack of regulation has allowed the best techniques to flourish, spread and be improved upon by anyone.
Permaculture Movement: A large, and growing, movement of people who are generally interested in sustainability. Most of them are practitioners of Permaculture Design and/or Permaculture Techniques. There is no central leadership or central organization controlling the movement. Most people in the Permaculture Movement aim to spread the principals and techniques of Permaculture over the entire Earth. Obviously they still have a long way to go.
What is a “PDC”?
PDC simply stands for “Permaculture Design Course”. PDC are one of the primary ways new people learn about Permaculture. Anyone at all can teach, and charge money for, a PDC; there is no central certification authority. Because of this, the quality, duration, and prices of PDCs vary dramatically. Careful research is required before signing up for a PDC to ensure that the teacher is worth the entry fee.
Most PDCs have the following characteristics:
a curriculum based on the chapters of “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”
a duration of several days of full time study
a price between $500-$1500
PDCs are the only form of certification within the Permaculture Movement. However, because of the varying quality of teachers, PDC completion is not a reliable indication of a person’s Permaculture knowledge or abilities.
A Brief History Of Permaculture
Permaculture started in the 1980s. The word “Permaculture” was coined by the founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The Permaculture Movement started out very small, essentially it was just the students who attended Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s lectures and PDCs. In the early stages most of Permaculture Technique was based on the textbook “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. All three forms of Permaculture (Permaculture Design, Techniques, and the Movement) primarily owe their existence to this book. It is a very large and very thick book, and yet it is also incredibly information dense. I highly recommend that you read it, or at least flip through it to look at the illustrations (which are fabulous).
From its humble beginnings in the 80s, Permaculture has come quite a long way. Permaculture Design is still mostly based on the original textbook. Permaculture Techniques and the Permaculture Movement, however, have grown exponentially. Permaculture Techniques now number in the thousands. They have been created by hundreds of different people all over the world. Every year new techniques are added and old techniques are improved upon. The Permaculture Movement now has followers in almost every country on earth and it is growing rapidly. Permaculture has become especially popular among younger people in urban areas of North America, Australia, and Europe.
The Value Of Permaculture
Permaculture is full of good ideas. I will list a few here, just to peak your interest. But to list them all would require several books. In fact, there are many books written about Permaculture. If you would like to learn more about the ideas I list here, or if you want to hear more ideas, please check out the resources I list at the end of this article in the “Permaculture Resources” section.
Four Permaculture Design Principles:
1. “Stacking Functions”
The good designer should strive to include elements which perform more than one function. Look at the waste products, and the input needs, of an element; is there something that can utilize those waste products while also producing the input needs?
For example: If the design includes chickens it would be beneficial to also include an orchard. The chickens produce manure to fertilize the trees, they also eat bugs which would otherwise be pests in the orchard. The excess fruit produced by the trees in the orchard can be allowed to fall to the ground where it will feed the chickens. The trees also provide a safe roost for the chickens as well as shelter from the elements. If the orchard happens to be a U-Pick orchard then the chickens will also provide a marketing advantage: customers will enjoy interacting with the chickens while they pick fruit. This is a simple example of the “Stacking Functions” principle at work.
2. “The Problem Is The Solution”
Every problem is also an opportunity. The good designer will train themselves to recognize these opportunities and work them into their designs.
Example 1: If the land is covered in an invasive species the designer should research the species to find out what uses it has and then incorporate these into the design. If Kudzu covers the property: get goats. If a weedy tree dominates: find a use for its wood. Etc.
Example 2: If the property has very poor clay soil, find out what opportunities clay soil provides: Can it be used to make pottery? Can it be used as a cheap building material? Does it make water-harvesting earthworks more effective? Are there valuable plants which require poor, clay soil to thrive? Does it offer an opportunity to experiment with soil-regeneration techniques? Etc.
3. “Zones Of Production”
The good designer will position elements on the property based on the amount of time that will be spent in them. Elements which require daily attention should be close to the living area. Elements which only require one or two visits per year should be as far from the living area as possible.
Zones 1 and 2: High-Use elements (herb garden, kitchen garden, milking parlor, tool shed, etc.) should be placed as close to the living area as possible.
Zones 4 and 5: Low-Use elements (wood lot, wilderness area, etc) should be as far from the living quarters as possible.
Zone 3: Medium-Use elements (crop fields, livestock pastures, orchards, etc) should be between the High-Use and Low-Use areas.
4. “Edge Effect”
Edges are the most productive areas of landscapes. The good designer will maximize the amount of edge in the landscape.
Examples of productive edges: Where water meets land, where forest meets field, where slope meets flat land, where roots meet soil, where soil meets rocks, where leaf meets the air, where roads meet vegetation, where “crop a” meets “crop b”, where “herd a” meets “herd b”, etc.
To maximize edges avoid straight lines. Patterns such as zig zags, waves, or spirals have the maximum amount of edge in the smallest area. Create textured landscapes with gullies and terraces. Create winding, long waterways instead of straight ditches. Create forest edges that wind inwards and outwards, not straight lines. Create polycultures, not monocultures. Create small fields with winding hedgerows, not large, featureless fields.
Six Specific Permaculture Techniques:
*I do not have space to provide references to validate these techniques, however they all work. Many of them I have personal experience with. All of them are in use on real farms, in the real world. These techniques are in no particular order.
Basically a huge raised garden bed with wood at the core
create a pile, or a long row, of wood (can be large logs or small branches)
Rotting wood will produce better results in the first few years than fresh wood
cover the pile/row of wood with about 1 foot of soil
during the process of creating the pile water everything very thoroughly
after the soil is put on you should plant the pile very densely with a fast growing crop (clover works well) and then cover the soil with mulch
the ideal size is 3-6 ft tall and 6-8 ft wide, if it is a row make it as long as you want
if you are creating a row on a slope it should be oriented across the slope so that it catches water, if frost is an issue than the row should allow the frost to flow downhill and away from the row, if you would like to create a heat-trap on one side and a cool area on the other side you can orient the rows east/west, if you want both sides to grow equally you can orient the rows north/south
never plant shrubs or trees on the pile because the pile will sink over time, exposing their roots
The wood inside the pile will slowly rot over many years, releasing nutrients to the plants growing on top
The rotting wood will provide food for the soil, increasing the organic matter content, biodiversity, aeration, worms, and beneficial fungi
The rotting wood acts as a sponge for water, soaking up the water when it rains, and then releasing the water to the plants slowly over several days
The air pockets and little spaces inside the pile will provide habitat for all sorts of beneficial bugs, bees, rodents, snakes, etc.
The raised bed is easier to access for gardeners who can no longer bend very well
The south side of a large “Hugelculture” row can really build up a lot of heat, which can extend the growing season in cooler climates
The rotting wood itself will also generate heat, extending your growing season and increasing your root growth
This technique has been used to grow veggies with zero irrigation all summer long