Hawkins’s 2017 Meta Analysis of Holistic Planned Grazing Should be Retracted

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)?

In this article I will be examining the recent paper “A global assessment of Holistic Planned Grazing™ compared with season-long, continuous grazing: meta-analysis findings” by Hiedi-Jayne Hawkins. My critique her paper applies equally to the many other range scientists claiming to have debunked Allan Savory’s methods while drawing on data completely unrelated to Savory’s work as evidence against him.  (Briske et al. 2014; Briske et al 2013; Briske et al 2008; Briske et al. 2011; Carter et al. 2014; Holechek et al. 1999).

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.

What exactly is Holistic Planned Grazing?

Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) is a specific grazing methodology developed over several decades by Allan Savory and his collaborators. HPG has gone through several iterations throughout the years as flaws in the process were revealed and subsequently fixed. The current version of HPG is detailed in the “Holistic Management Handbook: Healthy Land, Healthy Profits” (referred to as the “HM Handbook” from now on) and the “holistic decision making” aspect of HPG is laid out in the HM Textbook (the most recent version is called “Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment”).

The version of HPG presented in these two books is the version of HPG which most managers are using right now, and which is advocated by the two major HPG promotional organizations; the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International.

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:

  1. Was a Holistic Context developed and used to guide the grazing management?

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”.

  1. Was the grazing planned on a “Grazing Plan & Control Chart” according to the 17-step process from the HM Handbook?

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”!

An overview of the 17-step grazing planning process from the HM Handbook (Butterfield et al. 2006).

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.

Digging Deeper:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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, Michalk DL, Cranney P, Broadfoot K. 2017b. The intensity of grazing management influences lamb production from native grassland. Animal Production Science 57: 1837–1848.

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Find Your Optimal Grazing Recovery Period

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.

This guide has 6 parts:

  1. Review your Holistic Context
  2. Choose your benchmark plant species
  3. Find your baseline recovery period by observing these plant species
  4. Lengthen or shorten your baseline recovery period based on other management factors
  5. Use the correct recovery period in your grazing based on environmental conditions
  6. 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).

“Full Recovery”:

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.

Cowspiracy, Allan Savory and Holistic Management: A Collection Of Rebuttals

Cowspiracy Rebuttals

  1. How Accurate Is The Movie “Cowspiracy?”
  2. Cowspiracy & The Building Blocks Of An Absolutist Position
  3. An Ethical Meat Eater’s Response To The Film ‘Cowspiracy’
  4. Review of Ope’s vegan manifesto: “Comfortably Unaware”
  5. Cowspiracy Film Farce: Its Not WHAT You Eat, Its HOW Its Grown

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”

Anti-Allan Savory Rebuttals

Original Article: “All Sizzle And No Steak: Why Allan Savory’s TED Talk About How Cattle Can Reverse Global Warming Is Dead Wrong” – James McWilliams, Slate, 2013

Response: “Why The Slate Article About Allan Savory Is Dead Wrong” – Sheldon Frith, 2015

Original Article: “Eat More Meat And Save The World: The Latest Implausible Farming Miracle” – George Monbiot, The Guardian, 2014

Response: “Why George Monbiot Is Wrong: Grazing Livestock Can Save The World” – L Hunter Lovins, The Guardian, 2014

Original Article: “TED Talk Teaches Us To Disparage The Desert” – Chris Clarke, KCET, 2013

Response: “A Response To Chris Clarke’s Misinformed KCET Article” – Sheldon Frith, 2015

Original Article: “A global assessment of Holistic Planned Grazing™ compared with season-long, continuous grazing: meta-analysis findings” – Heidi-Jayne Hawkins, AJRFC, 2017

Response:Hawkins’s 2017 Meta Analysis of Holistic Planned Grazing Should be Retracted” – Sheldon Frith, 2017

Original Article: “Short-Duration Grazing: The Facts in 1999”- Holechek et al., Rangelands, 1999

Response: “Correcting Misconceptions about the Supposed Discrediting of Savory’s Approach” – Seth Itzkan, Planet-TECH Associates, 2013

Original Article: “Rotational Grazing on Rangelands: Reconciliation of Perception and Experimental Evidence” – Briske et al., Rangeland Ecology and Management, 2008

Response: “Correcting Misconceptions about the Supposed Discrediting of Savory’s Approach” – Seth Itzkan, Planet-TECH Associates, 2013

Original Article:  “Allan Savory’s Holistic Management Falls Short on Science” – Christopher Ketcham,  Sierra Club, 2017

Response: “Fake Green, Fake Science – The Sierra Club (And George Monbiot in The Guardian) Don’t Add Up!” – Dan Dagget, The Right Way To Be Green,  2017

Original Article: “Goodbye – and good riddance – to Livestock Farming” – George Monbiot, The Guardian, 2017

Response: “Response to ‘Goodbye – and good riddance – to Livestock Farming'” – Daniela Ibarra-Howell, The Savory Institute, 2017

Simplified Holistic Decision Making and Financial Planning

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.


Create Your Simplified Holistic Context

  1. Make sure all decision makers are included in this process.

  2. 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?

  3. Now combine these individual statements into a group statement which represents the shared values of everyone involved, reach a consensus.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Always make decisions as a group. Allow everyone to participate. Strive to achieve a consensus on every decision.

  10. 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:

  1. List all of the revenue which will be generated as a result of the enterprise/action.
  2. 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.
  3. Subtract the costs from the revenue. The result is your “gross profit.”

Create Your Business Strategy

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. Decide on the enterprises which you will engage in over the next year:

    1. 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.

    2. 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?

    3. 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.

  5. 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?

      1. 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).

      2. 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).

      3. Marketing is your ability to turn your finished product into dollars (your tomatoes need customers who will pay money for them).

  6. 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

  1. Calculate your total gross income for the coming year. Include all of the enterprises you plan to engage in this year.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Determine where to invest your profit, after living expenses are accounted for. Some good ways to invest your profit are:

      1. address a logjam

      2. address a weak link

      3. grow your business

      4. create a depreciation fund to avoid going into debt when assets must be replaced

      5. invest outside your business to maintain liquidity or spread your risk

  7. 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.

An Introduction To Permaculture For Newcomers

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture = “Permanent” + “Agriculture”

There are three parts to Permaculture:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

My urban garden which uses many Permaculture techniques.
My urban garden in Canada which uses many Permaculture techniques.


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.

Mark Shepard's Permaculture Farm.
Mark Shepard’s Permaculture Farm.


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.

The Permaculture Movement has quickly adopted the new livestock management techniques developed by Allan Savory which are able to quickly regenerate grasslands.
The Permaculture Movement has recently adopted the new livestock management techniques developed by Allan Savory which are able to regenerate grasslands.


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.

1. Rocket Mass Heaters (RMH)

        • The Technique:

          • The fire burns very hot, and therefore very clean (no creosote)

          • After the passing through the combustion chamber, the air must wind its way through a large thermal mass, transferring the heat into the thermal mass as it goes

          • When the air finally exits the thermal mass it is room temperature and is completely smoke-free

          • The thermal mass holds the heat and releases it slowly into the house over several hours

          • The thermal mass is made of cob or brick. It can be designed to be a couch or a bed!

        • The Results:

          • Many times more efficient than even the best wood stoves (create more heat with less wood)

          • A well designed RMH can heat a house in winter for 24 hours with only 30 minutes of burn time

          • RMH can be built by anyone with cheap materials. Most RMH cost about $500 to build

          • People using RMH report cutting their wood usage down to 20-30% of what it used to be

2. S.T.U.N Plant Breeding (Sheer.Total.Utter.Neglect)

        • The Technique:

          • Plant from seed to achieve genetic diversity, seeds are cheap or free

          • Plant trees 6-12 inches apart, shrubs even closer than that, in rows 20-30 ft apart

          • graze animals, or plant crops, between your rows

          • Cull ruthlessly!

          • Aim to cull 70-80% of the plants within the first 5 years

          • Pick your breeding goals, and only keep the very best

          • After 5 years, or whatever time period you choose, take seed from the survivors and repeat the process

        • The Results:

          • You will be cutting down a lot of plants, use them for wood chips, animal feed, craft materials, compost materials, or dig up the plants and sell them

          • This technique has been used to develop brand new varieties of plants in just a few years

          • This technique is especially useful if you want to grow something that is not suited to your climate: plant a few thousand seeds and the chances are good that something will survive

          • This technique is currently being used to develop blight-resistant American Chestnuts

          • Universities, and plant breeding experts, will call your results “impossible”

          • This technique has the potential for amazing increases in production (ex: Hazelnut bushes which produce 2 nuts per flower instead of 1, this has only been accomplished on a farm practicing S.T.U.N.)

          • low costs : no need to buy expensive varieties of plants

          • low labor: plants will be so well adapted that they will not need pruning, fertilizer, weeding…. just harvesting

3. Compost Heat Source

          • The Technique

            • Build a large, round compost pile (precise size depends on heat needs)

            • Made with wood chips + Manure

            • Surround with a layer of square straw bales if your winter is cold

            • place plastic, or copper, pipe in a spiral through the pile, starting at the bottom and moving to the top

            • Connect the pipe to your water system

          • The Result:

            • pumping water through the pile will heat the water

            • a pile about 10 ft in diameter can provide hot water (including shower water) for a family for 1 year, including winter.

            • The water will not just be warm, it will be very hot!

            • People have used larger piles to heat their entire homes (a compost pile the size of a garage will provide 100% of your hot water and 100% of your winter house-heating for three years once set up!)

            • After the compost pile cools down, it is taken apart, and you get finished compost to apply to your garden, cropland, or pasture

            • can be used to heat houses, barns, watering troughs, greenhouses or outbuildings

4. Hugelculture

        • The Technique

          • 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 Benefits

          • 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

5. Forage Forests

        • The Technique

          • Trees are planted which are highly tolerant of pruning, and which provide good food for your species of livestock

          • Either “Coppice” or “Pollard” production can be used

          • Pollard Technique:

            • trees are allowed to grow about 20 ft tall before being cut

            • trees are cut just above the “browse line”

            • trees are cut every 2-5 years

            • cuttings are manually fed to animals, the sticks are used for fuel

          • Coppice Technique:

            • trees are allowed to grow 10-20ft tall before being cut

            • trees are cut every 2-5 years just above ground level

            • before the trees are cut, animals are allowed to graze the area (they will be able to reach most of the vegetation on their own)

            • after the animals graze, the remaining shoots are cut and used for fuel-wood

        • The Results:

          • Some of the oldest forests on earth are “Coppice” or “pollard” forests: this technique increases tree lifespan

          • provides better nutrition than grass if producing goats, elk, deer, or other browsers

          • totally drought resistant after established, the tree roots will eventually go down 50 ft or more

          • the young shoots can be cut, dried, and stored as “tree hay” (tree hay has been used to feed livestock in Scandinavia for thousands of years)

          • Provides an abundance of wood for fires, natural building techniques, mulch, fence posts, etc. (most of the wood is long, straight, poles less than 3 inches in diameter)

6. Rain-Producing Forests

      • The Technique

        • In tropical climates rain relies on microscopic particles in the air to form

        • Trees can provide these microscopic particles, allowing rain clouds to form where they otherwise wouldn’t

        • Trees planted on ridge lines are best for achieving this effect

      • The Result

        • Tropical reforestation projects as small as 5000 acres have been proven to significantly increase the local rainfall

        • The trees, of course, provide many other benefits as well

        • This also demonstrates why deforestation can create arid landscapes where there once was a rainforest

There are thousands of other great ideas contained within Permaculture:

Food Forests, Aquaculture, Natural Swimming Pools, Compost Toilets, Greywater Irrigation, Water Harvesting Earthworks, Companion Planting Suggestions, Micro-Climate Manipulation, Underground Housing, Natural Building Techniques, Living Fences, Compost Creation, Animal and Vegetable Integration Systems, Survival Techniques, Marketing Techniques, Coastline Agriculture, Banana Circles, Plant Guilds, Wood Fueled Vehicles, Timber Production, Fish Production, Alpine Food Production Techniques, and many more….

This desert was transformed with a keyline plow. Keyline plowing is a common Permaculture technique.
This desert was transformed with a keyline plow. Keyline plowing is a common Permaculture technique.

Permaculture Resources





Permaculture: A Designers Manual

The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming

Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers

-Regrarians Handbook

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition

Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (Conservation Classics)

The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book



Earthworks 3-DVD Set : Ponds, Swales and Hugelkultur in action. Permaculture techniques explained by Paul Wheaton – World Domination Gardening 2014 (ENG) NTSC
Wood Burning Stoves 2.0 – 4 DVD set : Secret of Rocket Mass Heater and Rocket Stove revealed by Paul Wheaton
Permaculture Skills: A Cold-climate, Applied Permaculture Design Course (4-DVD set)
The Permaculture Orchard : Beyond Organic (DVD – English)

-INHABIT Documentary

Free Online Videos

-Geoff Lawton’s Free Videos

Jack Spirko’s Videos

-Elaine Ingham’s Videos

-Sepp Holzer Videos

-Mark Shepard Videos

-Farmstead Meatsmith


Geoff Lawton’s PDC

-FarmStead Meatsmith Courses

-Heating Water With Compost

-Permaculture Research Institute


Natural Building

-8 forms of capital

-The Survival Podcast

-Permaculture Voices

-Paul Wheaton

-Permaculture Meetups


-Geoff Lawton

-Darren Doherty

-Masanobu Fukuoka

-Mark Shepard

-Ben Falk

-Paul Wheaton

-Jack Spirko

-Elaine Ingham

-Toby Hemenway

-Willie Smits

-Sepp Holzer

Why Should We Regenerate The Environment?

I have been writing about how to regenerate the environment using agriculture for quite a while now… but I have never actually written about why it is a good idea to regenerate the environment in the first place! I will remedy that oversight here…

Why should we regenerate the environment?

  1. Oxygen for us to breathe.
    • Living, photosynthesizing plants produce oxygen. We need oxygen in order to live. Therefore, the less total plant growth on the planet the less oxygen available for us to breath. (reference)
    • Regenerating landscapes almost always increases the plant growth on those landscapes. Turning a wild landscape into cropland almost always reduces total plant growth on that landscape (reducing the oxygen produced). Therefore, when landscapes degenerate and lose plant growth, we are putting our oxygen supply at risk.
    • Which landscape is producing more oxygen?
      Which landscape is producing more oxygen?


  2. Sustainable food production
    • Chemical fertilizers will not last forever. Eventually we will have to learn to grow food without petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides).
    • Farmers have already discovered how to produce food on an industrial scale without these chemicals (read “The Future Of Agriculture Is Regenerative”). It requires healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem. Most agricultural soils are currently in a degraded state, which would make them unsuitable for growing crops without fertilizer and pesticide inputs. In order to develop sustainable global food production it is necessary to regenerate these farmland soils and ecosystems.
    • concern
  3. Healthier food
    • Crops produced in a biologically healthy soil are healthier for humans to eat. They contain all of the nutrients we need. Crops produced in degraded soils do not provide all of the nutrients humans need… leading to many health problems in our populations. (reference)
    • Regenerating landscapes will, therefore, produce healthier food for humans.
    • This Kernza perennial wheat plant can access nutrients from far deeper in the soil than traditional annual crop plants ever could.
      This Kernza perennial wheat plant can access nutrients from far deeper in the soil than traditional annual crop plants ever could.


  4. Reduced poverty, starvation, and disease in developing countries
  5. Reduced drought and water shortages
    • Healthy landscapes are able to hold more water in their soils, mitigating the effects of drought. (reference1, reference2) Bio-diverse ecosystems are also able to cope with droughts better. (reference) This puts water back into the aquifers and also provides surface water even when there has been no rain. (reference)
    • glenn-gall-farm-scale-permaculture-water-harvesting-27-638
  6. Reduced landslides, flash floods, etc.
    • A healthy landscape will absorb most of the water that falls onto it into the soil, instead of allowing it to run over the surface. This reduces, or eliminates, all floods (including flash floods). (reference) Landslides are primarily caused by removal of vegetation from steep slopes. Regenerating landscapes almost always requires a re-vegetation of steep slopes with trees or shrubs who’s roots will hold the soil in place, preventing landslides.
    • Slope-use
  7. Reduced environmental toxins
    • Regenerating landscapes means we can produce food without using toxic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. (reference) Healthy soils also act as filters, removing pollution from water that passes through them. (reference) The microorganisms which exist in healthy landscapes are also able to break down many toxins. (reference)
    • 253110_116269798531105_1394971852_n
  8. Beauty from healthy landscapes

Enough said.

Enough said.

Learn More

These three books are great places to start:

Restoration Agriculture

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being A Lunatic Farmer

Holistic Management

This article will give you a quick taste of the Regenerative Agriculture movement.

And this one will introduce you to some of the most important techniques in Regenerative Agriculture.

You can find even more resources here.

A Response To Chris Clarke’s Misinformed KCET Article

As techniques for greening deserts, like Planned Grazing and Permaculture, are becoming widely known there are a few people who are raising their voices in protest. Chris Clarke’s article, “TED Talk Teaches Us To Disparage The Desert”, is one of the more prominent articles opposing the greening of deserts.

After Chris Clarke refered to Allan Savory’s supporters as an “ecocidal cult” I decided to write a point by point response to his article, once again...

*I was fortunate enough to get Allan Savory’s direct comments on this article. I will be including his comments throughout, but his full response can be found at the end of the article…

People are dying right now due to the effects of desertification. If Allan’s methods work (they do), then the only reasonable and ethical response we can have is to first express our wholehearted support for these methods being used where they are needed desperately, and only then debate their merit in locales where human lives are not in immediate peril from desertification. Chris Clarke has failed to do so, and that, in my opinion, is the biggest flaw in his article.


A Point By Point Response To Chris Clarke

You can read Chris’s full article here.

Chris doesn’t take long to get into his attack:

Part 1:

“Allan Savory takes it further than that: He wants to eradicate deserts just because they exist.”

Actually, as he states very clearly in his TED Talk, Allan Savory wants to “reverse desertification” in order to feed dying people in Africa, reduce conflict over food and water, save traditional dry-land cultures from extinction, and to reverse global warming. Lets move on….

Part 2:

“Savory, who has been riling up land management scientists for decades with his theories about grazing management, gave a talk in February 2013 at TED Long Beach that’s available on YouTube. In that talk, he claims that the world’s deserts are all human-caused, that they all were once grasslands, that they can and should be converted back to grasslands by the application of very large numbers of grazing livestock, and that his plan is the only way we as a global species could combat the effects of global warming caused by desertification.”

Savory has been riling up land management scientists for decades, but this is not because his techniques don’t work (they do) it is because they are a dramatic departure from previous land management paradigms. It is hard for people to accept new knowledge.

Second, no where in the TED Talk does Allan ever claim that “the world’s deserts are all human-caused”. Nor does he ever say that all deserts “were once grasslands” and nor does he ever say that “they [all] can and should be converted back to grasslands”.

Allan could not fully explain his exact views on deserts in the TED Talk because of the time restrictions. However he has said many times in other talks and public comments:

“At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me.”

-Allan Savory

Chris Clarke’s next argument is similarly misleading…

Part 3:

” Savory claims that desertification is always caused by overgrazing, but in many places other factors play as large a role: plowing, groundwater mining, habitat fragmentation, and a range of other issues.”

No where, in this TED Talk or elsewhere, does Allan Savory ever claim that “desertification is always caused by overgrazing”(emphasis added).

allan picture
Desertification in New Mexico happening without livestock, plowing, mining, etc….


Part 4:

“But Savory seems to take the conflation completely to heart: his TED Talk is entitled “How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change.” Not “how to repair our damage to the planet.” Not “how to revegetate desertified grasslands.” Savory wants to “green the deserts.””

Let me refer you once again to Allan’s comments:

“At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me.”

-Allan Savory

Bunched Bison

Part 5: 

“Savory has spent most of his life in Southern Africa, where that paleoecological description has some small validity — and where, for that matter, the line between actual old-growth deserts and human-trashed wastelands is somewhat less distinct. His science there has been challenged rather harshly over the decades, but at least it’s plausible in an African context. But Savory doesn’t limit his recommendations to Africa. He’s pushing them in deserts in Australia and the Americas, where the local arid landscapes did indeed have grazers, and sometimes destructive ones — but by no means on the scale of the Serengeti’s massive herds.”

So, to summarize, Chris Clarke is basically saying that intensive grazing (properly managed) should not be applied to Australia or the Americas because past populations of “grazers” in these areas were “by no means on the scale of the Serengeti’s massive herds”. 

Lets ignore the fact that Allan’s Techniques have been proven to be very effective in Australia and the Americas….

Chris provides exactly no evidence to support his claim about prehistoric mega-fauna population levels. But consider that there were an estimated 50 million bison in North America when Europeans arrived, which was after the megafauna of North America had been subjected to devastating losses for over 10,000 years.… compare that to the 1.3 million wildebeest which currently roam the Serengeti (there are other animals present, but their numbers are generally under 1 million). Chris Clarke’s statement is in direct opposition to the evidence. Australia and the Americas probably did have herds on the scale of Africa’s Serengeti. 

All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.
All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.


Part 6:

“I’ve written here, for instance, about the blackbrush vegetative community that’s common at upper elevations in the California deserts. Blackbrush is quite fragile: if a massive herd of grazing animals wanders through it, it gets trampled and broken. Solid covers of blackbrush can take 10,000, even 15,000 years to develop. Solid covers of blackbrush are reasonably easy to find without much searching across the American West. Which means that across the American West, it’s not hard to find vegetative communities that have not been affected by massive herds of grazers for millennia.”

Conveniently 10,000-15,000 years ago is exactly when megafauna populations in North America were devastated… Leading to an alternate explanation:

10,000-15,000 years ago when the natural herds of large herbivores roaming North America were put out of commission, the desertification process began, exactly as Allan describes it. The loss of animal impact lead to a dramatic increase in bare ground along with a shift in vegetation from grasses to woody plants like blackbrush. The types of ecosystems and vegetation found in most of America’s west are most likely nature’s response to the loss of mega-fauna.

Grassland or "cryptobiotic crust"?
Grassland or “cryptobiotic crust”?


Part 8:

Chris Clark finishes with comments about bare soil being a good thing, stands of dying grass being a good thing, and “cryptobiotic crusts” being a good thing. (read his comments here)

I think Allan Savory’s response, below, is excellent. But I will offer my own opinion as well:

The biodiversity present in true desert ecosystems should definitely be preserved. But this leaves a whole lot of room for grassland restoration projects.


Regenerating desertified land into healthy grassland has the following benefits:

  • increased rates of carbon sequestration (reference1, reference 2, reference 4)
  • sustainable production of human food as a side effect
  • increased wildlife populations due to increased forage availability
  • decreased water runoff over the surface of the soil, which reduces flooding (especially flash floods), soil erosion, and silting of waterways (reference)
  • increased biodiversity in the area, which leads to increased ecosystem resilience against short and long term changes in environment  (reference 1, reference 2)
  • increased plant biomass, which means more carbon is stored in the living biomass, and more oxygen is being created (reference)
  • soil organic matter is increased, improving water filtration abilities of the soil (reference)
  • air temperatures at the surface of the soil are moderated because bare (or capped) soil is covered by either vegetation or litter, on a large enough scale this leads to more moderate regional temperatures(reference)
  • greatly reduced wind erosion and nutrient loss (reduced dust in the air) (reference)
  • improved nutrient distribution over the landscape (the livestock which are necessary in grasslands are far more capable of transporting nutrients to high ground than small animals like lizards and desert hares) (reference)
  • reduced poverty in dry regions due to increased availability of food and water in the local area
  • reduced national poverty in dry regions, due to increased national food production and reduced droughts

Allan Savory’s Response:

Dear Sheldon,

By all means post my response to your question and some comments I make on the claim by Chris Clarke that my TED talk disparaged deserts. While I can understand the confusion, tragically beliefs about the role of cryptogrammic crusts (in brittle environments quite different from their role in nonbrittle environments) is causing untold loss of biodiversity, increasing man-made desertification, violence, suffering and dying as we write. Anything we can do to increase public understanding is good.

Clarke states Allan Savory takes it further than that: He wants to eradicate deserts just because they exist”. That statement reflects the tone and assumptions throughout his article. At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me. If anyone watches my TED talk about the unfortunate word desertification to describe environmental degradation brought about by humans they should understand. As Elisabe Sahtouris said, viewed from space over the past centuries we would be described as a “desert-making species” because these expanding deserts are the greatest changes on Earth seen from space as we now can do.

While we know for certain those natural deserts and a few others perhaps, much of what is being called desert today, and assumed to be natural is not. An example would be the Tihama desert in Yemen that is ancient and I showed in TED talk. That has been called a desert for centuries but is in fact a man-made desert. The Arizona desert where caring concerned people fiercely defend soil crusting is probably a man-made desert but those people would oppose such thinking to their death. Why do I think this might be the case? The main reasons. First N.America now has about 11 large mammals where it used to have about 40 more large mammal species before humans within recent time (about 9,000 years) with language and organization, spear and fire wiped out most large animals and replaced their role mainly with fire. Australia the same thing but over 50,000 years creating their great man-made deserts. Such “deserts” – with low and erratic rainfall environments high on the brittleness scale simply did not evolve with total rest or protection and the very nature of many of the present “desert” plants having evolved with protective structures to minimize over-browsing show this. Second reason, the desert tortoises that are endangered because of habitat change, and not predation and accident as believed – predation and accident, as well as disease, are decimating factors not welfare factors. Other than with slow breeding animals as far as we know if decimating factors are wiping out a population it is because something is wrong with the welfare factors (Leopold). Something the crust protectors do not consider. If that habitat is what the tortoises evolved in over millennia and was not changing they would not be endangered. This is not a casual view – I have spent many hours in that “desert” with researchers, officials and others analyzing the problem using the holistic framework that enables us to do such analysis in a way that is simply not possible with conventional management/research. The same analysis of many management practices and policies that enabled many scientists undergoing training in the use of the holistic framework to state “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States”.

You ask “What type of deserts should be turned over to grasslands?” None of the true deserts because you cannot do so practically with any tool available to mankind and science. Nor is it either desirable or necessary. Now of the remaining – land that is desertifying, has long ago become what we believe today is a true desert – all of which amounts to about two thirds of the world’s land area it would be a case by case situation. And in no situation would the goal be to turn that land into grassland. That is reductionist management that has led to the problems humanity faces.

The social, cultural, economic and environmental complexity involved, no matter how many scientists, experts and people are involved in the management simply cannot be reduced to a simplistic context for management actions and policies. To make this concrete for you and your readers let me assume that we were looking at the Arizona “desert” and concerned people were doing the best they can to preserve cryptogrammic crusting of the soil, desert tortoises and all the other plant, insect, reptile, bird and animal life. This is what government agencies, environmental organizations and others have been doing for many years. However, as we observe floods and droughts are increasing in frequency and severity I believe and some species are disappearing or in danger of doing so. Clearly something is wrong. So assume we decided to simply manage holistically what would that entail? It absolutely would not entail anyone even suggesting putting cattle on the land, bringing back wolves or any other measure. Why? Because we would have immediate conflict and one of the first things Holistic Management does is to prevent conflict and get everyone collaborating in their own self-interest.

In my TED talk I showed a picture of land on which there has been protection of cryptogrammic crusts for a very long time strongly reinforced by US National Parks Service. It was simply desertifying seriously and historically used to be the centre of an irrigation-based civilization.

Here is a picture of similar land here in NM with the result plain to see after many years of the very best of current management known in the Western World.

allan picture

So if we were to look at the possibility of managing say Arizona “desert” land we would begin by simply looking at what land is to now be managed holistically as indivisible from society or economy. With that in mind we would bring key people to a solutions retreat – from the large environmental organizations, government agencies, ranchers, farmers, captains of industry, church groups, etc. being as inclusive as we can be. These people, with facilitation in the process of Holistic Management, would develop a holistic context. An over-arching context for management and policy that everyone agrees upon and that represents what all deeply desire. No action, no prejudice can be part of the context which is 100% what people desire 0% how to do that. In my recent Schumacher Lecture I used a generic holistic context that I personally use to guide me in all countries and amongst all cultures I work with globally – people in Arizona would come up with their own holistic context but being human it would not differ greatly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrBauQO2sI4

Once we had a context for management that does cater for social, environmental and economic complexity we would then move forward with management having of course determined who will lead the management on the ground. At this point we would recognize we have some problems – tortoises as mentioned and perhaps other species declining, fear of development encroaching, need to protect cryptogrammic crusts to preserve those species for thousands of years and so on. We would also recognize we have other problems perhaps – rising taxation, small towns and communities dying, a dying Western culture and more.

We would clearly have a number of goals associated with each such problem and would seek ideas and suggestions as to actions that could possibly deal with every one of these problems. Each and every idea would be welcomed as a constructive possible solution. With each suggested action we would first do all the normal stuff we have done for centuries and consider many factors – past experience, research results, expert opinion, cost, etc. etc. And then if a suggested action looked promising to solve any of those issues we would pass it through seven holistic context checking questions. This is to ensure the action would be socially, culturally, environmentally and economically sound short and long-term and in line with the holistic context that all own.

If any action is found to be in line with the people’s holistic context and going to solve a specific problem, and it is a new action affecting the environment never before taken, then we would automatically assume it was wrong – no matter how much it might be supported by research or expert opinion. And on that assumption we would institute a feedback loop based upon the earliest possible change so that management ceases to be adaptive (as it has been for centuries) and becomes proactive.

While this may sound an awful lot of work it is only because I am writing about it. Just as if I was writing trying to tell you and your readers how to ride a bicycle would sound awfully confusing. I have found that people with little education learn the process within days as long as we simply do it. The commonest reaction is “this is such commonsense”. People experiencing most difficulty are usually those who defend a certain limited point of view fiercely. And this John Ralston Saul summed up best perhaps when studying mounting management issues since the Age of Enlightenment. He states “The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and coordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted.”

Sheldon the article you provided by Chris Clarke is simply a mass of assumptions and rejection with no idea about Holistic Management and what that entails. I am going to ignore it.

For your interest, I am involved in watching Holistic Management in action on land I live on half of each year. They began with the usual conflicts, land desertifying, species dying out and thousands of acres on which as I said in my TED talk we had cryptogrammic crusting between plants and over larger bare areas of soil. They have lost no cryptogram species and today have wildlife returning, and open water, water lilies and fish, with geese breeding where never known before. The productivity of that land is now so great, even after 8 years of average but generally poorer rainfall, that they are battling to keep up with it. As Dr M. Sanjayan a Senior Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, who hosted a recent National Geographic/PBS documentary partly filmed on that land had to say The message is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it could be the best thing, the absolute best thing that conservation has ever discovered.”

I hope this helps increase understanding.


I would also like to include some comments a friend had about this article, which I thought were quite relevant:

“A few of my quick thoughts, mainly having to do with, how do you say, “now-centrism” – the idea that the state of the system as we found it is how that system is ideally, irrespective of its relatively recent history and functioning. The saguaro reference is particularly useful, because the environment which we typically imagine them to be living in has been radically modified anthropogenically over thousands of years, but especially beginning in the 19th century with the introduction of the railroads and intense grazing, but to other extents by indigenous groups over millennia. The whole of the Sonoran desert, the native range of the saguaros, was a rich grassland-savanna. The name ‘Sonora’ refers to the sounds of water flowing through the riparian zones which were forested bosques of cottonwoods, sycamores, plentiful beaver and what have you – not what you think of when you’re in Tuscon today. The saguaros evolved in a system very different to what we’re used to seeing, and in fact without the cover of trees (nurse plants) there will be no further saguaros – a reason why you see a strong age-dependence in their populations-very few young cacti. Obviously this environment isn’t recovering on its own, the grassland needs livestock in order to recover. At a point before human use began under the Uto-Aztecan peoples of the region, the hills were forested with quintessential Sonoran dryland trees – palo verde, ironwood, mesquite – which extended down into the lowland grasslands. Go back to the end of the ice age and beyond and you have throngs of bison, mammoth, rhinoceros, camels, horses and the whole megafaunal cohort. This region was still a dryland then, even if a little moister, and the saguaro existed in it just fine for the whole of its evolution, jackrabbits, insects, the whole Holocene gang and all.

This sort of “now-ism” colors a lot of “conservation” thinking. Conservation of what? A degraded, barely functioning landscape? The arguments of the long-lived desert plants are equally telling. If you go to Mesa Verde in Colorado, up on the mesas there are plentiful juniper trees, the oldest cohort of which are all 900 years old, nothing older. These trees demark a radical change in the landscape – the collapse of the Anasazi civilization around 1100. Similarly, all these clonal creosotes, yucca, oak and what have you, all dating to the end of the ice age demark the collapse of a vast ecosystem, and the entering of a new steady state. If what Allan Savory says about rebuilding desert grasslands is true, and we all have reason to believe it’s on to something, the loss of the megafauna is what caused this descent into the steady state we’re familiar with, dominated by creosote bushes and everything else. All of these systems evolved with throngs of megamammals orchestrating the nutrient cycling and ecosystem functions, without which the systems have collapsed. Cows are a mimic of these historical conditions orchestrated not by packs of megapredators, but by people. Really, many of these systems have probably been waiting for the return to historic conditions, and their megafaunal partners.

The cryptogramic soils are another example of this thinking, as we’ve been studying a disturbed system while assuming that it’s “normal” and what’s supposed to be there. The cryptobiotic crusts are actually the highest order succession in these systems without disturbance, and to say that they’re supposed to dominate the deserts of the world would be like saying of a disturbed ocean that the “rise of slime” was the highest trophic level the system was meant to progress to, and therefore that fish are bad for eating all the slime.”

-Jesse Sherer

Why Livestock Are Necessary For Food Production To Be Sustainable

The Argument:

  1. Livestock are the key to a healthy soil food web
  2. A healthy soil food web is necessary for sustainable food production
  3. Large numbers of livestock are necessary to maintain the soil food web
  4. Therefore large numbers of livestock are necessary for sustainable food production

*Note I am not going to be talking about the role of livestock in Brittle Environments in this article. Please refer to this article on the subject of livestock in Brittle Environments.


1. Livestock Are The Key To A Healthy Soil Food Web

Why are animals so important? Animals improve the health of the soil food web in three ways: they graze, they trample, and they digest. Lets look at each of these three functions to see why exactly they are necessary for soil food web health, and why livestock are our only option for providing these functions over most agricultural land on earth.

The Benefits Of Grazing

When a plant loses some or all of its above-ground leaves or stems (like when it is grazed) it will immediately try to regrow the lost material as fast as possible. It needs nutrients to regrow so it starts putting out huge amounts of energy (exudates) into the soil, far more than usual, in order to acquire these nutrients. This effectively puts the soil food web in overdrive for a little while. (for more information about this process see this post).

Because grassland plants have evolved alongside grazing animals they are able to recover from grazing very quickly. This allows the soil food web to be put into “overdrive” several times each year. This process increases the health and efficiency of the soil food web over time. It also physically increases the depth and organic matter content of the soil. (Note: plants must be allowed to recover after being grazed or the soil food web will eventually start to degrade. See “What Are Properly Managed Livestock” )

Grazing stimulates soil microorganisms and increases soil fertility.
Grazing stimulates soil microorganisms and increases soil fertility.


This is why grasslands have the deepest and richest soils on the planet: for millions of years animals have been eating the grass plants, each time they do the soil food web goes crazy. And when the soil food web goes crazy soil is created, fast.

After the animal’s graze the plant material goes through their digestive system and passes out later as feces. This process is also incredibly important, you will learn more about that later in the section called “The Power Of Digestion”.

Why Do We Need Livestock, Not Just Wild Animals, For Grazing?

  1. The larger the proportion of the plant that is grazed, the greater the amount of energy (exudates) released by the plant into the soil because the plant is trying to regrow a greater amount of biomass. Therefore animals which eat more of each grass plant will have a greater positive effect on the soil food web.

  2. If the recovery period before the plant is grazed again is too short the plant will be stunted. Stunted plants cannot contribute much, if at all, to the soil food web. So to get maximum benefit from grazing the recovery period must be long enough to allow the plant to prepare to be grazed again. An animal which returns to graze a plant too soon is not benefiting the soil food web.

Therefore we need animals which eat most of a plant, and then leave the plant alone for several months.

Deer tend to take small bites from many different plants, and they tend to return to a plant when the regrowth is still tender and delicious (way too short of a recovery period). Deer, and their relatives, cannot improve the soil food web with their grazing.

Smaller animals like mice, rabbits, and gophers exhibit the same behavior. They take small bites, and they return when the regrowth is most appetizing, which is far too soon for proper recovery.

There is only one category of wild animal which will do this reliably: large herbivores in a natural herd. The vast majority of agricultural areas do not have access to these natural herds anymore (Africa probably is the last place on Earth that this process happens naturally).

Livestock, on the other hand, can be controlled to eat a large portion of the plant and then allow it to recover fully. We cannot rely on wild animals to graze the land properly, we need livestock.

Why Can’t We Use Technology To Graze?

There are many machines which can perform the function of grazing (lawn mowers, industrial mowers, swathers, etc).

Most of them cut the vegetation which is slightly different than grazing because most animals pull the vegetation until it tears (allowing the plant to have some control over the grazing through its leaf and stem structure). There is no solid evidence about how important or unimportant the pulling-action of animal mouths are to plant health. Some farmers claim that the pulling action stimulates more biological activity around the roots of the plants. But lets assume that machines can perform the same grazing function as animals can…

Do you think machines should be used instead of animals? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many machines would it take to “graze” all agricultural land in the world at least once every couple of years (which is a very rough estimate of the ideal minimum amount of grazing needed)?

  • How much fuel would they use? What happens when fossil fuels become scarcer? (it is possible, of course, that at some point these machines could run off of renewable energy sources. But what should we do in the meantime?)

  • How would steep mountain slopes, woodlands, and wetlands (where machinery cannot go) receive the benefits of grazing except through animals?

  • Why would any farmer use a machine to graze (which costs money) instead of animals (which make money, and provide additional benefits)?

  • Why would we use machines, which can only perform some of the functions needed, instead of animals which have a whole host of positive interactions with the soil, wildlife, and with the humans who manage them?

In conclusion, machines can be used to mimic livestock grazing action and improve the soil food web. But it is impractical, costly, and unsustainable to use machines on a large scale. Machines will no doubt continue to be important for certain landscapes (lawns, for example) but over the vast majority of land on Earth machinery cannot replace the grazing function of livestock.

* Note: If you are going to use machines to graze (or livestock for that matter) you must understand the importance of timing. The reason you do not see lawnmowers dramatically increasing the health of people’s lawns has to do with timing. Lawns are mowed too often. Grass plants must be allowed to fully recover before they are grazed/cut again otherwise their growth will slow over time, reducing and eventually eliminating the beneficial effects on the soil. Generally a grass plant has “fully recovered” when it starts to put out a seed head. “Grazing machinery” will not benefit the soil food web unless it is timed properly!

The Necessity Of Trampling

When an animal tramples a plant to the ground without eating it the stems are usually broken in the process, so from the plants point of view it is as if it had been grazed. So the soil food web kicks into high gear exactly like it does when plants are grazed. But trampling actually does even more than that…. trampling also deposits a layer of dead plant material onto the surface of the soil called “litter” or “mulch”.

The trampling action of properly managed livestock.
The trampling action of properly managed livestock.


Mulch, or litter, has the following benefits:

  • Reduces water evaporation from the soil

  • Provides habitat for bugs, rodents and other small organisms which are essential parts of any food chain. Without these organisms the soil food web itself would be negatively effected.

  • Creates organic matter. All of the plant material is eaten by soil microorganisms and incorporated into the soil where it can do its job of providing water and nutrients for years to come.

  • Protects the surface of the soil from extreme temperature fluctuations which are harmful to plants and soil organisms

  • Protects the soil surface from solar radiation which is deadly to most soil organisms

Without a litter layer on the soil surface the soil’s health will decline rapidly. Water will not be absorbed into the soil in sufficient quantities, and the soil itself will be lost via erosion. Eventually the soil will not be capable of growing anything but weeds. Maintaining a litter layer on the surface of the soil is a necessity for basic sustainable food production. 

Note: Animals must be in a fairly high density “herd” in order to trample any significant amount of vegetation. See “Properly Managed Livestock”.

Why Do We Need Livestock, Not Just Wild Animals, For Trampling?

  1. The heavier and larger the animal, the more types of vegetation it will trample onto the soil surface. (For example, an elephant (or a mammoth) can trample shrubs and small trees whereas a deer can only trample delicate grasses). The more vegetation trampled the greater the benefits to the soil food web.

  2. The heavier the animal the tighter it packs the vegetation onto the surface of the soil. The more tightly packed the litter layer the faster it can decompose (especially in dry environments) and therefore the faster its nutrients are incorporated into the soil food web.

  3. Normal animal behavior is to follow well-worn pathways. Animals must be either running away in fear, running towards something eagerly, or in a tightly packed herd in order to trample vegetation. Most animals spend a relatively small amount of their time running away in fear. If they can, they will run along pathways and therefore trample no vegetation. They spend even less time running towards something in anticipation. So the most practical way to get an animal to trample vegetation is to put it in a tightly bunched herd.

Therefore in order to receive the maximum soil food web benefits from trampling we need the tallest and heaviest animal possible and it must spend the most amount of time possible in a herd.

Deer cannot be kept in a tight bunch for very long, they are not herd animals and will not be happy with those conditions. Deer are also relatively light, and have small feet, meaning they do not do a very good job of trampling anything.

Smaller animals like rabbits, birds, and rodents are simply not heavy enough or tall enough to trample vegetation onto the soil surface.

Once again, in most areas of the world, we must use livestock in order to receive the soil food web benefits that result from animal trampling.

Why Can’t We Use Technology To Trample Instead Of Livestock?

There are also many machines which can trample vegetation. Some machines can even mimic animal hooves.

However trampling machinery faces the same problems as grazing machinery: it is simply too expensive and too energy intensive to use on a large enough scale to provide the essential service of trampling to all of the worlds agricultural land. Trampling machinery cannot access many areas of the world which are too steep, too heavily vegetated, or too wet. 

So, yes machines can be used to replicate the trampling action of livestock. But they are not practical, except on a relatively small scale and in locations where livestock may not be allowed. Machines also cannot perform the other roles which animals provide for ecosystems like providing food for birds, food for dung beetles, etc. Machines are also not edible.

The Power Of Digestion

The environmental conditions inside an animal’s gut are far different than the conditions in the soil. The inside of an animal’s digestive system is anaerobic, always moist, and very warm. This means that different organisms and different chemical processes take place within animals, which can not be replicated anywhere else in nature.

This unique process recycles nutrients far faster than soil organisms ever can because the conditions in an animal’s gut are more conducive to chemical reactions. Plants have evolved in environments where animal feces were almost always available, so they have evolved to require these easily available nutrients for optimal growth.

In the absence of animals the store of easily available nutrients will eventually be depleted and plants will only be able to access nutrients as fast as small organisms can make them available (which is not very fast). Plants will begin to suffer and many will not be able to grow at all.

The only other source of these extra nutrients besides animals are fertilizers. The difference between animal manure and fertilizers is that animal manure (when deposited naturally) is not harmful to soil organisms, and animal manure is infinitely sustainable.

*Note: Animal poo is also an important source of microorganisms for soils which have lost their native microorganism populations.

All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.
All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.


Why Do We Need Livestock, Not Just Wild Animals, To Cycle Nutrients?

  1. Most vegetation consists of mostly cellulose. An animal which can digest cellulose in its body will speed up the nutrient cycle more than an animal which leaves the cellulose in its feces where it must be slowly decomposed by soil organisms. Think about how long it takes a leaf to decompose on the surface of the soil, or even in the soil. Compare that with a ruminant which can decompose that leaf completely in a matter of hours!

  2. All major terrestrial ecosystems evolved with cellulose-digesting animals, therefore plants have adapted to grow in ecosystems with very fast recycling of cellulose. Without cellulose-digesting animals plants will not grow to their full potential. Eventually this altered nutrient cycle may no longer be able to keep up with the needs of the plants in the area. It may take a long time for this deficiency to show up if plenty of non-ruminant animal digestion is taking place.

  3. The higher the percentage of biomass digested by animals versus by soil organisms the faster the nutrient cycle and the more nutrients will be easily available for plant growth at all times. So the more an animal eats, the better (as long as plants are allowed to recover and there is a layer of “litter” on the surface of the soil).

Therefore an animal, or a population of animals, which can eat the most total vegetation and which can digest cellulose will provide the most benefits for the nutrient cycle.


Based on this information it seems likely that we need the largest herbivores that we can find. In many areas cattle are the largest animal available. There may be larger animals available (like moose, horses, bison, etc) but if their population is small than they will not be able to compete with a large herd of cattle in terms of their effect on nutrient cycles. Likewise a large herd of sheep will have a greater effect on a given area than a small number of cattle.

Of course there is a limit to the number of animals any ecosystem can support, and going over that limit would start to degrade the ecosystem. So to have the maximum benefit to the nutrient cycling of an ecosystem we need to have the maximum population of grazing animals that can live on the land without overgrazing it.

Why Can’t We Use Technology To Replace Livestock Nutrient Cycling?

There are two ways in which technology might help us replace the nutrient cycling functions of livestock: composting/fermentation, and redistributing human wastes.


It is definitely conceivable that fermentation process could mimic the conditions inside the digestive system of livestock. The temperature would need to be maintained within a very narrow range, oxygen would have to be excluded from the process, the base material would need to be shredded (chewing) and then bathed in acids and enzimes (stomach), moisture would need to be constant and evenly distributed, and the specific organisms which live in digestive systems would need to be applied to the compost. Composting on a large enough scale to replace animal manure would b very costly and energy intensive.

Expensive machinery would be required to harvest the compost base material and then again to distribute the compost over the land, whereas animals distribute their manure for free. Once again this sort of technology-intensive solution is just not a practical or sustainable way of distributing nutrients over the vast landscapes of the Earth. Although it is certainly a useful technology that we should be using in situations where livestock are not practical. 


Human waste should definitely be put back onto the land, where it is a benefit to the environment, instead of being put into our waterways where it causes tremendous harm. However, there are a lot of logistical problems in accomplishing this.

Most people live in cities. In order to use humanure to fertilize our agricultural land it would need to be transported out of cities and then spread evenly on the land. Considering the volumes of humanure that would be produced by the average city every day you can see how distributing this manure would be tremendously expensive. There would also be pathogen problems, the humanure would probably need to be fermented or processed before being put on the land to remove human pathogens. I am not saying we shouldn’t try to make it happen, but I am saying it is very unlikely to happen anytime soon and when it does happen it is unlikely to be a practical, or economical way of fertilizing most of the world’s farmland. 

There is a second problem with humanure; humans cannot digest cellulose. Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on earth, but it is very hard to break down. Only large herbivores (mostly ruminants) can break down cellulose rapidly. If a cow eats a leaf from a tree (which they do, if given the chance) that leaf will be completely decomposed in 1-3 days. Think about how long it would take that same leaf to decompose if it were just sitting on the forest floor? (months or even years) Clearly animals that can digest cellulose significantly increase the speed of nutrient recycling. In human feces cellulose passes through undigested, it must then be digested further by the slow-working soil organisms before it can be used by plants. Humans, in otherwords, are not as effective at recycling most organic matter as livestock are. Large cellulose-digesting herbivores used to roam every continent on Earth in huge numbers. It is only logical that plants would have evolved to require the very rapid nutrient cycle provided by these animals. Humans cannot replicate this without using livestock.

Nutrient Distribution

Recent research has indicated that large animals are also essential for spreading nutrients around the globe and counteracting the natural effect of gravity (which is to move everything downhill, into valleys and eventually into the ocean). (Reference) An animal eats a marsh plant, walks up a hill, and then defecates, depositing the marsh nutrients onto the hill. Without animals highlands and hills will eventually lack the nutrients needed to sustain their ecosystems.

All of this applies to farmland as well as natural ecosystems.

Why Do We Need Livestock, Not Just Wild Animals, For Nutrient Distribution?

The research specifically implicates large herbivores as being essential for this process. But why?

  1. Larger animals more nutrients in their guts while they travel.

  2. Larger animals can usually travel longer distances than smaller animals.

  3. The larger stride of big animals also makes it easier for them to travel uphill.

So which animals are needed to perform this function on agricultural land?

  • Most agricultural land has fences or infrastructure which prevents wild animals from roaming freely and depositing nutrients far and wide.

  • Most deer, and similar large wild animals, hang out it woodlands. In many areas woodlands occur in the valleys while the hills are grassy. This means that most of the time the deer will not be transporting nutrients from the low to the high areas.

  • There are no animals left in most areas of the world which can transport as many nutrients (by volume) as a cow can. Cows have big bellies!

Once again it makes the most sense to use livestock to fill this role. Livestock can transport large quantities of nutrients long distances. Livestock can also be consciously used to deposit nutrients on slopes and high ground if the grazing is planned carefully (there are many people already doing this).

Cattle can be moved very long distances to distribute nutrients.
Cattle can be moved very long distances to distribute nutrients.

A Summary Of Why Livestock Are Necessary For A Healthy Soil Food Web

Livestock are necessary because:

  • Grazing of vegetation stimulates the soil food web. The more grazing (as long as it is properly managed) the healthier the soil food web becomes over time. Grazing increases the depth of the soil and increases soil organic matter content. Beneficial grazing cannot be accomplished over most of the world’s land with technology or by wild animals, livestock are our only option.
  • Trampling of vegetation to create a “litter layer” can only be accomplished with livestock, not wild animals or technology, on most of the Earth’s surface. Constantly maintaining a litter layer on the surface of the soil is the key to maintaining the soil health necessary for sustainable food production.

  • Most plants, including food plants, have evolved with access to the rapid nutrient cycle which can only be provided sustainably with animal poo. Without the periodic deposition of animal manure plants will become unhealthy and unproductive. Some will eventually stop growing altogether. Livestock preform this nutrient cycling function far more effectively than any wild animals or technology can over most of the Earth’s landscapes.

  • In order to combat gravity and move nutrients uphill in our farm ecosystems we need livestock. They are large, can travel long distances, and we can precisely control how they move nutrients around the landscape. If we do not use livestock for this purpose lands at higher elevation will lose their soil and nutrients over time, making them inhospitable for agriculture and for natural ecosystems as well.


2. A Healthy Soil Food Web Is Necessary For Sustainable Food Production

I have written an in-depth article about the the necessity of  healthy soil food web for sustainable food production. You can read that article here, but here is a quick summary:

  • A healthy soil food web is responsible for the productivity of agriculture, and, therefore, the price of food and the total amount of land needed to produce our food. If the soil food web falls below a certain level of health agriculture will not be productive enough to sustain our population.
  • A healthy soil food web is necessary to mitigate droughts and reduce irrigation needs. Below a certain threshold of soil food web health most areas in the world will not have enough fresh water to reliably produce food in the future.
  • A healthy soil food web is the key to preventing diseases and pest problems in our crops. Pesticides are continuing to new pesticides, with every increasing levels of pesticides being required every year. Clearly this is not a sustainable model. There will eventually come a time when we will be forced to employ the natural pest protection services of a healthy soil food web or face the widespread loss of food crops.
  • The soil food web is responsible for supplying plants with all of their nutrients. If the soil food web is not healthy than plants will be nutrient deficient, and these nutrient deficiencies will be passed on to the animals or humans that consume them. If the soil food web is not healthy enough than human nutrition will suffer (we are already seeing the effects of this).
Healthy ecosystems have huge numbers of large herbivores.
Healthy ecosystems have huge numbers of large herbivores.


So we need livestock. But how many do we need?

We do not know for sure how many livestock we need because there is a tremendous lack of research in this area (the vast majority of agricultural research funding generally goes to the latest chemical, tractor, or GMO, not into researching sustainable alternatives).

The missing information we need in order to determine the bare minimum number of livestock necessary:

  • How frequently must vegetation be trampled in various climates in order to maintain a constant litter layer? (my personal guess is that trampling must be applied ever 2-3 years in most climates, but that is only based on personal observation, we need research!)
  • How many livestock are needed to achieve this rate of trampling over all of the world’s farmland? (Based on personal observation of high density livestock I would estimate that 40 cattle can trample 1 acre/ day)
  • How frequently must vegetation be grazed in order to maintain reasonable levels of soil health over a very long period of time? (I have no idea)
  • How many livestock are needed to achieve this rate of grazing over all of the world’s farmland?
  • How many livestock are needed to provide the soil and plants with the manure (nutrient cycling) that they need? (probably a similar number to the numbers of mega-fauna which used to roam the earth)
  • How many livestock are needed to counteract the constant movement of nutrients downhill over an indefinite period of time? (no idea)

We can use my extremely rough estimations to get some idea of how many livestock would be needed at a bare minimum in the United States and Canada (which are the areas I have experience with).

  1. Every acre of farmland (not including existing pasture land, which is often too poor quality to produce other crops) in  must be trampled every 2.5 years to maintain soil health.
  2. There are 90 million acres of cropland in Canada and 408 million acres in the United States. (roughly 500,000,000 acres total)
  3. So there would need to be enough livestock (we’ll assume they’re all cattle) to trample 200 millions acres of land once every year.
  4. Using my estimate that it takes 40 cattle to trample 1 acre in 1 day we can calculate that in order to maintain the minimum soil health of all existing cropland in the US and Canada I estimate that we need to put about 22 million cattle on that cropland permanently. (Plus the cattle needed to maintain the other ecosystems in Canada and the US)

This is estimate was based on extremely limited data, so it is probably very inaccurate. (haha). More research is needed!

We do, however, have some very good reasons to believe that a lot of livestock are necessary, possibly far more than are currently being raised! Here are the reasons we need large numbers of properly managed livestock:

  1. The more properly managed livestock on our cropland the greater the benefits to the soil food web. In other words, the more properly managed livestock on our cropland…. (reference)
    1. The less total land area needed for human food production
    2. The less total amount of water needed for irrigation
    3. The less pesticides needed for crop production
    4. The lower the price of food
    5. The more nutritious the food produced.
  2. Ecosystems, and individual organisms, tend to function most efficiently and productively in the same conditions they evolved in. Almost all ecosystems on earth evolved with large numbers of megafauna (huge animals), and most of these megafauna moved in herds to avoid mega-predators. (reference) These megafauna only went extinct relatively recently (10-50 thousand years ago depending on location) so most ecosystems have probably not had enough time to evolve adaptions to their absence (considering those megafauna have been around for at least 5 million years, 100 x longer than they have been extinct). We can therefore assume that most ecosystems on Earth need the ecosystem functions provided by these extinct megafauna in order to be at their most healthy and productive state. The only method available to replicate these extinct megafauna is properly managed livestock. Especially cattle, horses, and other large livestock. Mamoths would be way better!

In summary, we do not know the bare minimum number of livestock necessary to maintain our basic food production needs. I estimate that in Canada and the US we might need 22 million cattle just to maintain existing cropland soil health.

But why settle for the bare minimum soil health? We have many good reasons to strive for maximum soil health (see them above) which would mean putting as many properly managed livestock on our land as possible.

Bunched Bison


Livestock are necessary for maintaining healthy soil food webs on our agricultural land. Their trampling, grazing, and digestive systems cannot be replaced by wild animals or by technology. Additionally, maintaining healthy soil food webs is a basic prerequisite to sustainable food production. Without healthy soil food webs we agriculture simply cannot sustain our needs into the future. In order to provide all agricultural land with grazing, trampling and manure we need large numbers of livestock.

Therefore, for food production to be sustainable, large numbers of livestock are a necessity

*Note: Everything in this article was written with Non-Brittle Environments in mind. Brittle Environments have an even greater need for livestock, for different reasons. Read about why Brittle Environments require livestock here.

Why Properly Managed Livestock Are Necessary In Brittle Environments

A very Brittle location.
A very Brittle location.



Brittle Environments are simply areas where humidity is distributed unevenly throughout the year. See this InfoGraphic for more information on the “Climate Brittleness Scale”.

Properly managed livestock are simply livestock managed to mimic the natural herds which used to roam the Earth. Managing livestock properly is actually fairly complex, you can read more about properly managing livestock here. 

Different Ecosystems

Ecosystem processes (like the water and nutrient cycles, for example) function very differently in Brittle Environments than in Non-Brittle Environments. In Brittle Environments large grazing animals, bunched together in herds, are actually essential to ecosystem health.

The effect of properly managed livestock on a Brittle Environment in South Africa.
The effect of properly managed livestock on a Brittle Environment in South Africa.


Why are herds of herbivores so essential in these environments?

  1. Microbes require moisture to function. Without moisture all natural nutrient cycling stops. Large herbivores are nature’s way of keeping the nutrient cycle going during the long dry periods. Animals essentially carry the humid environment in their guts. The gut of an herbivore is the only place biological decomposition can take place at these times… so animal manure and urine are the only sources of plant nutrients during the dry months.

  1. Brittle Environments tend to develop hard crusts on the soil surface where there is bare soil. This hard “cap” on the soil prevents seeds from germinating and it prevents the little rain that does fall from entering the soil where plant can actually use it. Instead the rain runs over the surface of the soil (which is why flash floods are so common in desert environments). Properly managed livestock will quickly break up this hard crust on the soil surface which will once again allow seeds to germinate and rainfall to infiltrate the soil.

Improperly managed livestock do not break the hard cap on the soil surface.
Livestock which are not exhibiting herd behavior do not effectively break the hard cap on the soil surface in Brittle Environments.
  1. In Brittle Environments plants that die or go dormant do not fall to the ground and decompose like they do in more humid environments. If this standing plant material is not trampled onto the soil surface it will not decompose biologically which means the nutrients it holds will mostly be unavailable for future soil and plant growth. The standing plant material will also shade new growth which is trying to establish. If the standing plant material is trampled into the ground it becomes litter/mulch: preventing evaporation, feeding the soil food web, moderating temperatures, and allowing rainfall to infiltrate the soil where it can be used. This trampling can only be accomplished on the necessary scale with properly managed livestock.

This plant will not decay biologically unless it is trampled onto the soil surface.
  1. The trampling of livestock also presses seeds into very tight contact with the soil. This close contact allows the seed to draw more moisture from the soil, which often means the difference between the seed growing into a new plant or just remaining dormant.

After properly applying animal impact to this very Brittle environment new seeds can germinate, and it can return to a healthy state.
After properly applying animal impact to this very Brittle environment new seeds can germinate, and it can return to a healthy state.


A Brittle Environment in a healthy state.
A Brittle Environment in a healthy state.


How Many Livestock Are Needed?

In Brittle Environments all grass must be trampled or grazed every year or the land will start to deteriorate. This means that livestock numbers in Brittle Environments must exactly match the productivity of the grass in those environments. (Note: Stocking rates are typically increased by 50 to 100% the first year that proper management is implemented compared to conventional stocking rates in that area). When properly managed livestock are introduced to Brittle Environments grass productivity starts increasing dramatically, so livestock numbers must also increase dramatically until the ecosystem reaches its peak productivity. This is one very good reason why the system of Planned Grazing is so useful in Brittle Environments: it makes it easy for livestock managers to have the exact right number of livestock for their lands current production.

Why Livestock Must Be The Predominant Land Use 

Crops cannot grow without a functioning water and nutrient cycle. The water and nutrient cycles of Brittle Environments rely on annual application of heavy animal impact in order to function. Therefore crop areas must be rotated with pasture areas to maintain fertility, or animal impact must be regularly applied directly to the cropland. This places a severe limit on the amount of cropland that can be in production compared to the amount of land that must be dedicated to perennial pasture for livestock. Crop production is possible, but, by far, the predominant source of food and income for farmers in Brittle Environments must be livestock.

We Must Mimic Natural Herds

Brittle Environments co-evolved with large herds of animals who played an essential role in the cycling of nutrients and the soil health. In a healthy state they are grasslands. Without herds of herbivores, the land desertifies. (reference) Desertifying land is not a place that you will find much food for human consumption. Desertifying land also represents a loss of biodiversity and a loss of habitat for the once-abundant dry grassland plants and animals which existed in these environments along with the large grazing animals. Desertification is a loss for the environment, a loss of potential happy animal lives, and a loss for humans.

Brittle Environments ringed in red.
Brittle Environments ringed in red.


Brittle Environments Are Incredibly Important For The Health Of The Earth

Brittle environments cover more than half of the Earth’s land surface. In other words: more than half of the land on earth requires herds of large animals (in high densities) to produce any significant amounts of food. If your food comes from a Brittle Environment it cannot be produced sustainably unless properly managed livestock are a part of the production.

We Cannot Use Technology To Replace The Role Of Livestock In Brittle Environments

A "Dixon Imprinter" machine. Relatively effective, but impractical compared to livestock.
A “Dixon Imprinter” machine. Relatively effective, but impractical compared to livestock.


There are machines which can mimic the hoof action of livestock, breaking up the surface cap on soil, trampling vegetation, and pressing seeds into the ground. There are not yet any machines which can graze, digest, and poop. But they could be invented.

The problem is not a lack of technology, the problem is that technology is not as efficient at performing ecosystem functions as animals are. Animals graze, digest, poop, and trample, but they also produce food, income, habitat for birds and bugs, and food for predators. No machine can do all of that.

But the main reason that machines cannot replace the role of livestock in Brittle Environments is that animal impact (or machine impact, in this case) is require on every single acre of every single Brittle Environment on Earth at least once every year! What a logistical nightmare that would be! Not to mention the gigantic energy needs of these machines and the huge costs of running them. Its just not practical. No way. Livestock are cheap, and they actually generate income over time. They reproduce themselves, for free. They can be easily managed by poor and illiterate people (who often are the occupants of very Brittle Environments). They are available right now in every country on earth.

There is no way that technology can replace the essential role of livestock in Brittle Environments any time in the foreseeable future. 

Further Resources:

Allan Savory’s TED Talk  on reversing desertification

Tony Lovell demonstrating these concepts on a massive scale

Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making 

Allan Savory’s Full Length Talk

The Savory Institute 

Resources from Holistic Management International

Properly managed livestock on the right. Poorly managed livestock on the left. In Australia.
Properly managed livestock on the right. Poorly managed livestock on the left. In Australia.

Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change

Not all livestock contribute to Climate Change. In fact, it turns out the properly managed livestock are probably our best hope for preventing Climate Change!

*For an overview of what “properly managed livestock* are please read this article. 

**I have included several reference links to support the claims in this article, they are at the bottom.

Before I go into the effects of livestock on Climate Change I would just like to make a little note for people who doubt, or downright deny, Climate Change:

It is okay to question Climate Change, you are free to form your own opinions (saying anything else would be denying the basic freedoms which have allowed humanity to flourish so much since the Enlightenment, we cannot ever forget that). So here are some benefits of properly managed livestock that don’t have anything whatsoever to do with Climate Change…

The non climate-related benefits of PROPERLY MANAGED LIVESTOCK:

    • They are happy animals, living natural lives

    • They reduce soil erosion, silting of waterways, and they reduce floods

      • They do this by covering bare ground which allows rainwater to move into the soil instead of over it

    • They moderate regional temperatures in Brittle Environments (Middle East, Sahara, Sahel, Australia, India, Sonora, etc)

      • They do this because they cover the soil surface which lowers the peak temperatures at the soil surface and also moderates the lowest temperatures at the soil surface

      • The temperatures at the soil surface, when multiplied over hundreds of millions of acres, hugely impact the regional climate (not talking about GHGs or global warming here)

    • They increase biodiversity

    • They improve agricultural productivity, reduce the total land area needed for agriculture, reduce the water needed for agriculture, reduce the pesticides needed for agriculture, lower food prices, and increase nutrition in humans (reference)

    • They can be eaten

    • They are infinitely sustainable and do not consume non renewable resources (they self replicate for free, every year)

    • They are more profitable than poorly managed livestock

The effect of properly managed livestock on a severely degraded savanna in Zimbabwe.
The effect of properly managed livestock on a severely degraded savanna in Zimbabwe.


Carbon Dioxide

Alright, with that out of the way, lets look at how the carbon cycle works.

  1. Carbon Dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by plants. They use the carbon in their cells, to build structures and energy, and they release the remaining oxygen back into the atmosphere.

  2. If this plant dies, and is incorporated into the soil, than all of the carbon it removed from the atmosphere stays in the ground where it is called “organic matter”. Carbon in the ground does not cause harm (it is actually a really good thing)

  3. If the surface of the soil is completely covered with litter and living plants than the carbon will stay in the ground indefinitely.

  4. If the surface of the soil is bare, or if the soil is disturbed by tilling/cultivating, then the carbon is “off gassed” back into the atmosphere where it becomes atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Clearly the organic matter content (a.k.a carbon) of the Earth’s soils has a lot to do with climate change. (reference)

But how much does organic matter really affect the global climate?

The soils of the world currently hold over 2,700 Gigatons of carbon. The atmosphere (right now) holds about 780 Gigatons of carbon. All of the biomass on earth (mostly wood) is estimated to hold about 575 Gigatons of carbon. (reference) Clearly the soil is important if we are concerned about carbon!

So, it follows that any mechanism which can increase the baseline level of organic matter in the soils of the world will have a tremendous positive effect on greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Increasing soil organic matter is the same as decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

How do we increase organic matter in soil?

  1. By increasing biomass growth per acre per year…

    • We need to increase the productivity of plants

    • The primary drivers of plant productivity are sunlight, nutrient availability, and water

      • Sunlight levels are mostly out of our control

      • Nutrient availability, in the absence of harmful chemical fertilizers, is determined by the health of the soil food web.
        • Livestock are the most effective way to increase the health of the soil food web
      • The only sustainable way to increase water availability on the massive scale required is to increase the soil infiltration rate (how much rainwater actually is absorbed by the soil), increase the soil water holding capacity (primarily determined by organic matter content and the depth of the soil), decrease evaporation from the soil (all soil must be covered with vegetation and/or “litter”

        • properly managed livestock do all of those things more effectively than any other tool on a large scale

  2. By ensuring as much of this growth as possible becomes organic matter in the soil

    • Plants can decay either biologically (via microorganisms) or through oxidation

    • Only biological decay will turn dead plants into soil organic matter

      • oxidation primarily happens in Brittle Environments when dead plant material is not trampled or eaten by livestock

      • fire is just a very rapid form of oxidation, and releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere instead of storing it in the soil

    • Plants which are trampled directly onto the surface of the soil will decompose faster than if they remain standing. This increases the rate of carbon sequestration in soil

      • Properly managed livestock are the only viable mechanism for trampling vegetation over the vast rural lands of the world

    • The health of the soil food web also determines the rate of biological decay (which cannot take place without microorganisms)

      • Properly managed livestock are the most practical and powerful tool for increasing the health of the soil food web (although a one-time application of thermal compost to heavily degraded soils can sometimes have a greater effect than livestock, although adding livestock will still improve the soil even further)

  3. By ensuring that organic matter does not leave the soil via “off gassing”

    • Bare soil is constantly “off gassing” carbon, soil must be covered at all times

      • The deeper, and more tightly packed, the litter layer on the soil surface the less “off gassing” happens (to the point where there is far more carbon coming in to the soil than going out)

      • The best way to achieve a thick and tightly packed litter layer on top of the soil over the vast landscapes of the earth is with Properly Managed Livestock

    • Cultivation/tillage is the fastest known way to put soil organic matter back into the atmosphere, the opposite of what we want

      • Growing food without tilling requires an extremely healthy soil food web, to maintain this high level of soil health while growing crops the benefits of livestock need to be applied to the land at least once every year. Therefore to reduce tillage we need more livestock on the land.

The enemies of soil carbon storage are tillage, bare soil, and fire.

The trampling action of properly managed livestock: all of that trampled vegetation is carbon sequestration in action!
The trampling action of properly managed livestock: all of that trampled vegetation is carbon sequestration in action!


Therefore to dramatically increase the carbon stored in our soils (which will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by an equal amount) we must dramatically increase the number of properly managed livestock.

Not only do all current livestock need to become properly managed, but the actual numbers of livestock will need to be increased as well, especially in Brittle Environments.

Haven’t Scientists Proven That Livestock Cause Global Warming?

There are many statistics and studies claiming that livestock have a negative effect on climate change. Unfortunately none of these studies say anything about the effect of properly managed livestock on global climate! Most of them are discussing the effects of animals when either in a factory farm system or in conventional, destructive grazing management. These systems are fundamentally different than Regenerative Agriculture systems in the way they effect global climate. Factory farms do not sequester carbon in the soil, nor do poorly managed pastures.

References And Further Reading

Properly Managed Livestock sequester Methane in soil. 

Improved Grazing Reducing GHG Levels

Well Managed Livestock Rapidly Sequestering Carbon

Methane And Properly Managed Livestock

The Fight Against Global Warming: A Failure And A Fix

Pasture Raised Beef Is Methane-Neutral