Send in the Cows (or, How to Reverse Desertification, Build Soils, and Sequester Carbon)

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:

Land Restoration with Holistic Management

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.

Additional Resources

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)

Soil Erosion Threatens Environment And Human Health, Study Reports (ScienceDaily)

Soil: Our Financial Institution

“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

19 Comments on "Send in the Cows (or, How to Reverse Desertification, Build Soils, and Sequester Carbon)"

  1. #hope

  2. Dan Muench | Oct 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm |

    Great idea – cows eat the shit out of the land, the land eats the shit out of the shit, we eat the shit out of the cows, perhaps while high on the shrooms we picked out of the shit.

    “They grow on COW TURDS! HEAVEN is in a cow’s BUTT!!! AH-hahahahahahahaaaaaaaa!!!!!” – Bill HIcks

    It’d be a saner world!

  3. BuzzCoastin | Oct 19, 2013 at 12:01 am |

    great info & good ideas but
    something more mundane
    like how to create soil in your own back yard
    while at the same time grow some of your food
    and possibly connect with nature in visceral way

    • Absolutely we should all be doing what we can in our own backyards. Another one of my favorite soil remediation methods that is highly scalable is the making and application of “biochar”:

      It’s a technique that is believed to have led to the deep black soils of the Amazon basin.

      Anyway, when it comes to the yards themselves, there are 40 million acres dedicated to manicured tracts of lawns. In other words, large swaths of space with nothing but mono-crop turf grass. This guy covers more of the mind-boggling waste:

      That’s in addition to another 43 million acres used to raise show horses. Imagine if the majority of that was converted into edible, biodiverse gardening (particularly the lawns) that integrated other stuff like hoop houses and backyard chickens.

      • not to mention golf courses, parking lots, land being used by military, land used to extract energy and minerals, the list goes on. And if it keeps going on, we won’t be.

  4. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Oct 19, 2013 at 8:41 am |

    There are many converging reasons why this is what I’ve chosen to do this very thing with my life. This article highlights several. Thank you for sharing this important information.

    Of course, the primary issue hindering the success of this endeavor is not technical, but economic. Management intensive grazing relies on small, independent family farmers. You need actual people out in the field, moving the cattle, and examining the land. The current regime of land ownership (aging land baron “welfare queens” riding shiny new tractors) and system of subsidies keep things from changing on a significant level; surely from the sea change we need. Throw in international land speculation, where corporations buy up all the good acreage at unreasonably high prices and zoning/tax shenanigans by local governments to increase their revenues, and this beautiful hope-filled dream is out of reach for basically everyone.

    • Great to hear about your pursuits! And thank-you for adding such keen insight. It’s really not about a lack of know-how, but a lack of will, effort, and access.

    • A couple years back I had an epiphany and chose to give up personal ambitions and commit my self to living by the Spirit.(which is really a fulfillment of my self, not a renunciation, although it can seem to be a renunciation) So I began looking for how I may volunteer my time to alleviate some suffering and give back. That didn’t pan out how I expected. What I came to the realization of was giving back to the earth by working on sustainable farms, which have manyy benefits. A sustainable farm can feed the hungry, heal the earth, heal sick people, give us natural beauty and teach us community and what is a real living economy, rather than an abstract one.
      I would love to help out with land remediation projects, reclaiming polluted and wasted soil.
      Presently, i’m having a tough time finding a farm to work at for the winter and am soon to be looking for one for next spring. You wouldn’t have any suggestions, would you? I don’t care where it is, as long as its in North America, preferably US and Canada.
      by the way, thanks for taking part in the healing of the earth. I send out some positive vibes to ya, that yer endeavors in working with the land turn out fruitful.

  5. Ted Heistman | Oct 19, 2013 at 9:30 am |

    great article! This is the future of humanity! Some people don’t like it because it doesn’t involve robots, but this is the way it has to be.

    • Agreed on all fronts, Ted!

    • InfvoCuernos | Oct 19, 2013 at 3:10 pm |

      They could totally build robot herd dogs! What about robot cowboys?

    • jasonpaulhayes | Oct 20, 2013 at 3:56 pm |

      The greatest part is where the photographs are from the same location in the before and after but the shadows are all cast in opposite directions. Right? Right!

  6. It appears that Time article I linked to at the bottom is blocked via log-in/subscription. Here it is posted at another site:

  7. Cortacespedes | Oct 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm |

    “A vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO2 than I am.”

    Hallelujah, Brother, hallelujah!

    I would LOVE to tear out my lawn tomorrow, or today even, time permitting, but it would seem that municipal codes and CODE ENFORCEMENT prevent me from doing so.

    Imagine using all the time, water, work and money spent on the “Kentucky bluegrass” and using it more efficiently on gardens and permaculture.

    My internet connect here sucks to high hell, so I didn’t get a chance to watch all the videos, only snippets so I may have missed a few things, but one of the things not mentioned too much was water. Water is a big, big part of this. Cows use A LOT of water. Where I live, water is under tight rein. Rain barrels are forbidden. Actually, any device used to capture water can get you a hefty fine.

    Water, yeah, that’s a tough one. Whoever controls the water….

    The whole methane argument against cattle is looking weaker all the time. If you graze your livestock on pastures that contain tannin producing plants, it will reduce the amount of “gas” produced by that animal.

  8. jasonpaulhayes | Oct 20, 2013 at 9:18 am |

    Bullshit and a complete put-on from some right wing think tank. Tear down a forests for grass that wont grow… laughable!

  9. Brian Cartwright | Jan 9, 2014 at 9:59 am |

    Thanks for this collection of positive techniques. I’d recommend, to anyone interested in soil carbon, the book “Cows Save the Planet” by Judith Schwartz, which makes a lot of useful connections between soil carbon and nutritious food, climate/hydrology, water conservation, and Allan Savory’s grazing techniques.

    • Thanks! Sounds absolutely fantastic, and I can’t wait to dive in (already ordered and on the way!).

      • Brian Cartwright | Jan 10, 2014 at 6:25 am |

        Also, check out the Google discussion group named “soil-age” (as in, we’re going from the oil age to the soil age). There’s a very good mix of participants including Savory enthusiasts and scientists, also the author of “Cows” is member.

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