In light of last week’s post highlighting our death march towards Peak Soil, it seems appropriate to look at how we can go about building (i.e. adding organic matter to) the damn thing. Various permacultural methods exist that help build soil and heal the land, but the organic apple of this article’s eye is a technique known as “managed grazing.” In the words of Joel Salatin, “Nothing builds soil like intensively managed grazing on grasslands.”
As noted, left to its own devices, it takes nature roughly 500 years to build just 2 centimeters (cm) of living soil. When done properly, grazing – or, more specifically, management-intensive grazing - can more than double that rate in 50 years time. Meanwhile, Salatin’s farm has been building one inch of topsoil annually (along with increasing their organic matter from 1.5 percent to 8 percent of soil content over the past 50 years).
“The critical thing to understand is that grazing can be done in a way that builds soil and heals the land, or it can be done in a way that destroys the land. Grazing is not inherently good or bad. It is the grazing management, the pattern, that makes it ecologically positive or ecologically negative.” (from Folks, This Ain’t Normal)
Not only does that lead to healthier soils, it serves as one of nature most efficacious long-term carbon sinks (and here). Couple that with a recent Guardian article detailing the escalating desertification crisis affecting 168 countries worldwide, and building topsoil could very well be considered the greatest work of our time.
Now, for a comprehensive look at this burgeoning biomimetic practice.
Management-Intensive Grazing (video version)
Allan Savory, early pioneer of this method and whose institute produced that video, gave a talk at the TED 2013 conference that goes into further detail:
And here are some of the sites he’s restored:
Las Pilas Ranch, Chihuahuan Desert Region, Mexico
Zimbabwe, Range Restoration
Zimbabwe, Paddock Site Restoration
Management-Intensive Grazing (word version)
Management-intensive grazing, holistic planned grazing, rotational grazing…by any other name, they all refer to the same thing. Livestock graze in one area for a limited time before being moved to another area. This gives the land time to recover from grazing and ensures that the animals are utilizing a greater percentage of the available space.
For the ‘too short, would like to read more’ version, pastures are cordoned off into smaller blocks called paddocks (usually with lightweight electric fencing). The entire herd will graze in a single paddock – salivating on the soil, stirring it up, dropping nutrient-rich deuces (“black gold”), working it into the soil – until they are moved to a new paddock. It depends on the size of the herd and the size of the paddock, but cattle will generally graze on 2-3 paddocks per day. Those grazed paddocks will then be left at length to recover (sometimes months) before the cattle go back to graze again. Some set-ups will bring in chickens a few days later to scratch through the manure (they go for the fly larvae), which spreads it out and works it into the ground further (leaving their own soil-enriching turds in the process).
Joel Salatin gives us a walk-through here:
Salatin served as inspiration for researchers from the University of Tennessee and Bard College, who had this novel idea:
To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef
by Tom Philpott
Corn is by far the biggest US crop, and a network of corporations has sprouted up that profits handsomely from it. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sell the seeds and chemicals used to grow it, while Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and their peers buy the finished crop and transform it into meat, ethanol, sweetener, and a range of food ingredients. Known in Washington as King Corn, the corn lobby wields formidable power in political circles.
But what about the rest of us? It seems insane to throw our lot with an agriculture regime that’s so vulnerable to climate change. What else could we be doing with all of that that prime Midwestern farmland? A paper by researchers from the University of Tennessee and Bard College, published in the journal Climate Management, proposes an answer: Scrap the ethanol mandates and convert a large portion of land now devoted to corn to pasture land for intensively managed beef cows.
The authors create a model in which the US government cancels ethanol mandates, which would basically destroy the corn ethanol market and cause the price of corn to drop. If farmers responded to low corn prices by letting their cropland revert to native prairie and put beef cows on it to graze, they argue, their land would store significant amounts of carbon in soil—more than offsetting cow-related greenhouse gas emissions like methane—thus helping stabilize the climate. Their bottom line:
- Results indicate that up to 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres, more than a quarter of land currently devoted to corn) could be converted to pastureland, reducing agricultural land use emissions by nearly 10 teragrams carbon equivalent per year, a 36% decline in carbon emissions from agricultural land use.
Now, to get those climate benefits, the authors stress, would have to use an emerging technique known as management-intensive grazing, in which cattle are moved regularly from patch of land to patch of land, grazing intensively at each stop while leaving the rest of the pasture to recover at length. This style of grazing, they report—made famous by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin—is much more adept at sequestering carbon in soil than most forms currently used.
Over 60% of the corn we grow is used to feed livestock (same type of proportion applies to soy and grain). The land where it is grown is also an enormous resource sink – being soaked with petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, along with requiring tons of water. The aim, then, would be to move cattle out of factory farms – where their manure turns into a toxic liability due to being fed entirely unnatural feed and shot up with antibiotics and growth hormones – and into the corn fields where their food is coming from, turning the fields into thriving pastures and the cattle into one of our (and the planet’s) greatest assets:
“In fact, the cow, or domestic herbivore if you will, is the most efficacious soil-building, hydrology-cycling, carbon-sequestering tool at the planet’s disposal. Yes, the cow has done a tremendous amount of damage. But don’t blame the cow. The managers of the cow have been and continue to be the problem. The same animal mismanaged to abuse the ecology is the greatest hope and salvation to heal the ecology.” – Joel Salatin (Folks, This Ain’t Normal)
Herbivores, as Salatin reminds us, naturally restart nature’s biomass:
“The herbivore is nature’s grassland pruner to stimulate far more production and health then could be achieved if the plant were left alone… The main point is to understand the dramatic soil-building capabilities of the grass-herbivore relationship, and the symbiosis between the two.”
And healthy, biodiverse soils retain more moisture, which is why managed grazing systems fared better during last year’s drought.
This is biological farming at its finest. It recognizes the countless trillions of microbes and creatures of all sizes that are used to support life in the soil. It includes plants that draw fertilizing nitrogen right out of the air, and fungi that interconnect root systems and draw minerals and nutrients from the subsoil, and worms that create moisture channels and distributed fertile castings, along with manure and decaying plant matter to feed all those billions of creatures invisible to the naked eye. For the techno-glitz crowd out there (re: the “geo-engineering” types), it’s also a high tech-meets-low tech solution – high tech because of the incredibly light weight/maneuverable electric fencing to guide and “manage” grazing (along with the use of four wheelers, in some cases – like to move the “egg-mobile”), and “low tech” because you’re following nature’s course and allowing the cattle (or other herbivorous herds and/or flocks) to do the majority of the “work.”
Allan Savory has called this our “one option” in battling climate change. If not that, it’s one of our most effective.
Allan Savory – Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis?
Occam’s Grazer: An In-depth Introduction to Holistic Management (documentary)
How Cows (Grass-Fed Only) Could Save the Planet (Time article)
Roving Herds of Grazing Climate Helpers (Pacific Standard Magazine)
“Increases in soil organic material have important productivity and resilience benefits. These benefits include improvement in soil quality, increase in use efficiency of inputs, reduction in soil erosion and sedimentation, decrease in nonpoint source pollution, and lower rates of anoxia or hypoxia (dead water) in coastal ecosystems. Global food security cannot be achieved without restoring the quality of degraded soils, for which soil carbon sequestration is an essential prerequisite.
Soil carbon sequestration is a win–win strategy. It mitigates climate change by offsetting anthropogenic emissions; improves the environment, especially the quality of natural waters; enhances soil quality; improves agronomic productivity; and advances food security. It is a low-hanging fruit and a bridge to the future, until carbon-neutral fuel sources and low-carbon economy take effect.”
- Dr. Rattan Lal