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Regaining Desert Land Using Holistic Land Management (HLM)

Updated on August 14, 2016

How Cattle Fight Against Climate Change


From Zimbabwe Comes Holistic Land Management

Allan Savory, born in Rhodesia, becoming a farmer, game rancher, politician, and now an international consultant, is the father of the holistic land management movement. In 1960, while working on the inter-connected problems of poverty and the ever-increasing loss of wild life in Africa, he came to some conclusions about what was causing the continually-expanding loss of grazing land to desertification worldwide. Beginning at this point in time, he made some breakthrough discoveries that were more or less formulated by 1983 and he then put together the total package of what is known today as Holistic Land Management (HLM). As Wikipedia states in its article on Holistic Management, "Savory concluded that the spread of deserts, the loss of wildlife, and the human impoverishment that always resulted were related to the way people made decisions, whether or not those people lived or worked on the land."

In February 2013, after this article was first written, Allan gave a very interesting and important talk, How to fight desertification and reverse climate change. He mentions his involvement in the killing of over 40,000 elephants in an attempt to reduce desertification of the land and then had to live with the results of this elephanticide, the desertification got worse; he had to change his opinion on what was the cause of this problem.

Savory was exiled from Zimbabwe in 1979 because he was the leader of the political opposition to the ruling party of Ian Smith. He moved to the United States where he finally formulated the various missing parts in the desertification puzzle. Since that point in time, grazing land managers from around the world have been able to put Savor's concepts into action. He formed the Savory Institute and remained involved in Zimbabwe and Africa helping with their land management problems through the Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM). The TEDx Program has a remarkable article on their website about the restoration of the Dimbangombe River by using the practices of HLM.

The Africa Centre has achieved this remarkable breakthrough on the Dimbangombe River by following the basic precepts of Allan Savor's HLM plan and is now providing the educational resources for others in Africa and from around the world to achieve similar results. The ACHM improved the health of the river by:

  • Increasing the herd numbers of goats and cattle by 400%.
  • Moving the herded animals on a grazing plan that makes sure that the wildlife and the livestock do not compete for the grazing resources, thereby benefiting one another.
  • Providing necessary training for those who move the herds, particularly in working with the animals to keep the stress to the herds at a low level; the result is productive and healthy herds.
  • Keeping the animals safe by constructing portable corrals (kraals) for the herd safety at night. This way the domestic animals are safe from leopards, lions, wild dogs, and hyenas.
  • And finally, moving the corrals at frequent intervals to different sites, including crop fields, where the herds naturally till the soil with their hooves and also fertilize it with dung and urine. These periodic moves prevents the land from becoming 'over fertilized'.y

By becoming a recent winner of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize, Savory is showcased as the developer the Holistic Management grazing technique during his time as a researcher and farmer in Southern Africa in the 1980s. By getting grazing cattle to stay in larger, tight herds, Savory was able to restore grassland vitality and increase grass biodiversity throughout the nations. Deep chewing of plant roots, paired with the repeated soil chipping of hooves, caused dormant seeds to germinate and water to penetrate below the surface. According to the Holistic Management Team at the Savory Institute, ranchers can and have been consistently doubling, and even quadrupling livestock capacity over time."

Holistic Land Management: How to do it.

Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making
Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making

As a reviewer points out, two ranches of the same size have the same number of cattle. One of the ranches is in bad shape from being overgrazed, but the other is able to increase its herd by 50% and provide the necessary grazing. Then about ten years later, the second ranch buys the overgrazed ranch and is then able after a period of time to graze almost four times as many cattle as the two ranches originally grazed.


Long horned cattle grazing


Animals Grazing Properly Benefit the Eco-Environment

Raising animals on pasture, instead of following the modern method of trying to increase profits by raising animals on factory farms, is an absolute benefit to the environment. In the concern over the use of fossil fuels, an animal grazing on grass uses far less fossil fuel than the typical feedlot diet of dried corn, soy and the more modern use of feeding animal protein to the grass eaters. Pasture-fed animals, in the midst of their grazing, take care of the fertilizing of the fields, the harvesting of the grasses, and, thus, by using all of the concepts of holistic management, end up improving the soil itself. By using holistic land management the ground never becomes bare by overgrazing, but is covered with greens all year round and, thus maximizes the natural use of solar energy rather than fossil fuels. The sun and holistic methods of holding on to topsoil and moisture work their benefits. By grazing, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere more effectively than any other method of land use, including forestland and the non-grazed prairie land. The end result is a decrease in global warming which ultimately benefits mankind as the sheer number of grazing animals increases the potential for additional food.

If you have ever driven by one of the factory dairies, for example, it is obvious to any right thinking person that there is a problem with confined operations when you see the cows, for example, up to their udders in slop. In this method of farming, the animals are crowded into sheds or kept outdoors on barren land, their feed is brought in to them from distant fields, thus, increasing costs. Then there is the additional problem of, in the effort to increase profits, treating the crops with fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides which hazard the environment. Also, the fields are planted, worked, and harvested with heavy farm equipment causing additional problems.

All of these various operations require non-renewable fossil fuels. Typically, after the harvest, the potential animal feed is shipped to feed mills where it is dried out, flaked or pelletized, and mixed with other ingredients such as animal protein and then, after all of this, sent to the end user, to the hungry animals, using trucks and other forms of transportation which uses even more fossil fuel. Many farmers who have been sucked into the bigger is better travesty are starting to take a second look at the problems with mega-farm practices.

Then there is the important difference in “manure management” between the two systems. On the typical holistic pasture-based farm, the animals naturally spread their manure in an even manner over the pasture where it becomes a source of an organic rather than a chemical means of fertilizing the land. This animal manure improves the quality of the grass, which increases the rate of weight gain for the grazing animals. The pasture-based farm becomes a closed and sustainable system in conjunction with the farmers helper, the hard working dung beetle as it goes about its job of rolling up the dung. The potential problem of too much manure and urine on the land is prevented by the programmed constant movement of the large herds of grazing animals.

But on the other hand, the factory farms creates a major problem when the excrement builds up in the barns, the sheds and the feedlots, which fouls the air and causes the release of ammonia and the other so-called greenhouse gasses into the ecosystem. These gas fumes cause stress to the air system and thereby sicken the animals and the farm workers themselves. The nearby neighbors also have a problem because the foul air lowers their quality of life. Then there is the additional problem of how to get rid of the waste. It is typically put on the nearby fields where it overloads the land with hot nutrients. All of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the manure pollutes the soil as well as with the produce from the planted fields. This problem has been seen in recent times as some of the contaminants have migrated to the shelf of the supermarket. These effluents also contaminate the groundwater with the resultant drain off into streams, rivers, and estuaries; this results in the creation of “dead zones” that threaten the fish population and the those who eat the fish, be it man or creature.

Grazing Lands in America and Around the World

Here in North America, many land managers are trying to improve their management techniques by following the advise of Allan Savory and his Holistic Management message. One example is Reed Beauregard Turner, aka Beau, who is working with his father, Ted Turner of CNN fame, to manage land in such a way that it brings in income while balancing environmental concerns. Holistic land management is a big part of this effort as outlined in an article by Mother Earth News, How Holistic Management Inspires, Keeps Hope Alive.

I first became interested in and aware of the problems of existing grazing management in my own personal environment in the wonderful farming areas of Central California. Then, while researching the subject, I looked around the world and discovered what some farseeing individuals such as Allan Savory and his disciples are doing about the problem. The first inkling I had of the grazing land management problem was in various articles by Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farms---, a committed Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer from Madera in Central California. Tom delivers his organic farm products around the central valley and with each of the weekly boxes of CSA organic produce he used to provide a very informative newsletter entitled "Whats Growing" which informed the reader about box contents, featured recipes for the contents, a little history about the various types of produce in the box, but this asset has been discontinued and the occasional article now written by Tom or other staff members can be found on the Facebook site for the farm.

At one point, Tom wrote an informative article which told me that there was a big problem in land management in my local area. He pointed out that this problem is particularly exemplified by the grazing problems in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains; this problem is later reflected in the typical annual flooding conditions which occur whenever the local rains come. From what I read, the problems are multiple, yet interrelated; the poor grazing practices causes the land to be unable to soak up the intermittent, yet heavy, precipitation in the mountains. Instead of soaking up, for example, six inches of rainfall from a heavy rainstorm, the land is only able to soak up one inch and the rest runs off taking topsoil with it into the valleys below. Then the excess water causes localized flooding and the associated mud and debris plugs up everything. Tom stated in the article that "drastic changes in human management of the Sierra ecosystem since Gold Rush times have negatively impacted its ability to cycle water effectively. Human intervention has been a formative factor in our Sierra for what could be as many as 10,000 years prior to Europeans’ recent arrival. Native peoples’ primary manipulative tool was fire, with which they maintained an open environment where grasses and herbs flourished. Lightly burning most areas each 3 to 5 years provided sustenance for a deer herd on the Kings River watershed estimated at 250,000 grazing animals." That one time herd population of 250,000 has been reduced to about an estimated 5,000 today.

In an article the following week, Tom introduced me to Allan Savory, the founder of the holistic land management movement, and to some of the many organizations that are trying, worldwide, to alleviate the bottom line problem of poor grazing land management. In this article, Tom pointed out that the problem requires solutions other than the annual burning of the land, he states that according to Savory "The bunching or “mob grazing” habit of wild herds, such as our American bison, historically served as a community defense for the animals, but also ensured against overgrazing of any part of the rangeland. Perennial grasses were intensively grazed by large wild herds on the move for only a matter of hours each season, during which time plants were fertilized and the soil was “cultivated” once over by a sea of aggressive hooves that incorporated vital organic matter into the soil. Today’s domesticated ruminants, under protection from predator pressure, range haphazardly as individuals, browsing and re-browsing favored plants repeatedly over short periods to the detriment of rangeland ecosystems." None of the factors that kept the land alive in the past are practiced to any large degree today, in fact the modern scientific methods are resulting in land that supports less and less grazing animals as time goes on.


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    • jacksson47 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Reeder 

      4 years ago from Reedley, CA

      Hello Pippap,

      You are absolutely right; the trouble is that across the spectrum, farmers are stuck with the status quo. Herding the critters around in Africa is different from herding two cows around a local farmers 20 acres. Here, locally, in central California, my wife and I buy our meat from a local CSA farm that moves their cattle around to different pastures on a constantly rotating basis and who are getting good results with their grazing land. But, my sister and her husband, in Eastern Oregon, are having to reduce their herd because of lack of forage due to lack of precipitation. Farming is in trouble these days, worldwide. There are hurdles to overcome and not everyone is willing to take the risk, they take the easy way out and attempt to pay off their bank loans with farming as usual.

    • pippap profile image


      4 years ago from Surrey, BC

      A terrific hub! Voted up, up, up! There is plenty of room, clean water and food on this earth for everyone if we just manage it effectively. This hub makes that very clear.

    • jacksson47 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Reeder 

      4 years ago from Reedley, CA

      Hello Ellen,

      Please forgive me for taking so long to answer this; my only excuse is old age. Thank you for your accolades, they are appreciated. So many of these articles that we write kind of go off into the hozone (a hole in the ozone - lol), you don't if anybody read the article other than by the statistics. Statistics are pretty boring in my opinion. I am interested in how you are doing with your alpacas; living in the Central California mountains introduced me to them on neighboring fields. And, I have a fabulous alpaca scarf that I purchased at the local farmers market from an alpaca rancher.

    • Ellen Karman profile image

      Ellen Karman 

      6 years ago from medina, Ohio

      Oh what a well written article about Land Management, I too, as a farmer, have read many books on managing my alpaca's in different paddocks for certain amounts of time and moving them off to the next paddock. Figuring out how many of these pseudo-ruminants could be put on an acre so I could divide my paddocks appropriately. My states farming and land management articles were wonderful, I'm from Ohio and Ohio University has a wonderful web site. I didn't know this all started in South Africa, how interesting! What a wonderful article!!!! Ellen

    • jacksson47 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Reeder 

      7 years ago from Reedley, CA

      Mary615: The Indians lived holistically in regards to the land, but their numbers were small compared to populations today. The big problem today is land ownership in small parcels, it is difficult to move large herds around on small pieces of land. Can you imagine 10,000,000 wandering around Kansas, for example?

      Thank you ripplemaker for the heads up on Hubnuggets, I didn't even know that it existed. I am all for Holistic land management, but it is difficult to figure out how to do it in modern America in an large amount. The gurus will have to work on that one, that is for sure.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Wow, this is such an awesome solution to loving the earth. I am for the holistic management practices, that's for sure.

      Jacksonn, have you heard the great news? Your hub has been nominated on the Hubnuggets! Do visit this link to see the Hubnuggets or read your email too : Three cheers!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I always admired the Indians. They had a great respect for Mother Nature, and the land. Wish we were more like them. We take everything for granted. Good Hub. I voted it UP, etc.etc.

    • jacksson47 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Reeder 

      7 years ago from Reedley, CA

      Thank you Chrisine for your comment. I have more to add to the hub about some folks here in California who are very aware of the need to change grazing practices. The practices of the last 150 years have practically destroyed the foothills and higher valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Where there used to be lots of game animals, there are much fewer now primarily because of environmental change.

      I live about a block from the Kings River in Reedley and just became aware that large boats used to come up river on the San Joaquin all the way to the KR. Now the KR has no outlet to the ocean and the San Joaquin is a slime pit. This is all due to the dams on the rivers and the irrigation. Here in Reedley, they used to dry farm wheat and other staples, now it is all grapes and orchards. Nice to have the stone fruits, etc., but the end result is a dying valley; it is just a matter of time to go along with the dead mountains. Regarding the mountains, the trees are dying in record numbers including the sequoias, the largest trees in the world.

    • Christine P Ann profile image

      Christine P Ann 

      7 years ago from Australia

      A very thought provoking hub Jacksson47. I believe it is very important to eat animal products from animals that have been reared in open pastures and killed humanely. I also wonder if a lot of our illness is not related to the awful practices you describe in your hub, surely the stress of overcrowding alone would have some flow on effect to the consumer. I rated up and interesting. :)


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