Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts – Solar Dollars

Maturing solar dollars in home made mineral dollars
Holistic Management is an interesting set of concepts, techniques and methodologies. While the application is typically used to make ranches profitable and regenerative, it actually has broad applicability. Many of the other concepts have great potential beyond the ranch. Of these, perhaps my favorite is the concept of solar dollars.

According to Holistic Management, there are three kinds of wealth: mineral dollars, solar dollars, and paper dollars. Paper dollars are the easiest to understand. That is the actual money we are all familiar with. Mineral dollars are resources you have, like water, soil, rock, maybe even gold if you are lucky enough to have a gold mine on your property. Some mineral dollars are renewable, like fertile soil and water, while others are not, like that gold mine. Solar dollars, though, are the product of photosynthesis. Fruits, vegetables, wood, stuff like that. You use your mineral dollars to create your solar dollars.

This seems like a pretty simple concept. So why, of all the important concepts of Holistic Management, did I pick this one to expound on? This concept is really important when it comes to the application of everything else I am talking about. See, where this concept really becomes important is in the area of resource conversion.

Harvesting solar dollars (pollarding) to create more solar
dollars and more mineral dollars
Resource conversion is the conversion of one form of dollar into another. For example, you can buy a bag of composted steer manure with your paper dollars to help build your mineral dollars in the form of soil. You can then use that investment in mineral dollars to create solar dollars in the form of fruit from your fruit trees. Then you can pollard the fruit trees, harvesting solar dollars in another form. You can then chip them and convert them to another form of solar dollars: mushrooms. When the sawdust block is finished producing mushrooms, you can compost it and create mineral dollars in the form of improved soil.

The thing is, there are hundreds of ways to create and utilize solar and mineral dollars. It is really up to you to determine what is the best way to use them on your property. The important thing to realize is that these things have value, and not just some pie-in-the-sky theoretical value. In some cases, they give you a product to sell, and in others they prevent you from having to spend your hard-earned paper dollars, and in yet others, they give you a measure of resiliency.

Take a look around at your yard. What are you doing to preserve and earn solar dollars? Are you composting? Are you maximizing the production potential of the land you have through food forests? What can you do better? Remember, there is more than one way to earn income.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts - Animal Impact

These guys right here
As those of you who are frequent readers of my blog probably know, my hobby is engineering with biological systems. In everything I do, I do my best to be holistic. Each organism in an ecosystem has a job and the whole works as a whole when all of the necessary pieces are where they are supposed to be and doing the job they evolved to do. The problem with the modern world is that our ecosystems are so degraded that the animals are often absent completely or at the least rarely seen in natural systems. As such, it is so easy to forget that they are an integral part and are often seen as pests or otherwise harmful. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Animals are an integral part of the nutrient cycling function of a healthy ecosystem. The tricky part, though is to manage the animals. It's important to choose the right animals (or encourage the right ones to come to you) and help them have the right impact.

There is no place this axiom is more true than in a brittle ecosystem. The inconsistency of moisture in an area that has distinct rainy and non-rainy seasons means that the organic matter (typically perennial bunching grasses) cannot break down into its component nutrients when exposed to open air like it does in a non-brittle environment, one with constant exposure to moisture. But the cycling of nutrients is critical for any ecosystem to function. It is how each and every organism functions within the ecosystem. For the plant, the fungus, the bacteria, and the animal each, it is their food source.

In a brittle environment, the dead grasses still need to be removed so the plants have room to grow at the beginning of the next rainy season. As any gardener knows, the best thing for all that grass is to finely chop it, compost it in a warm, moist environment, and deposit the finished compost back on the ground where it can be worked into the soil. Being a bit of a mad scientist, I propose we automate the process. Let’s make the composting unit mobile, something that moves around  and continually collects the grasses. I think I will call this new invention a “cow.”

This is basically how a ruminant works. They are mobile organic matter collection and composting units. They provide the moisture needed to break the plant matter down and keep the food web going. Remember, those grade school science books downplayed the importance of poop in the nutrient cycling of an ecosystem. In reality so many more nutrients are cycled through dung than through dead bodies.

Ecosystems develop through an intricate process called “evolution.” Often, evolution picks some minor function, one often overlooked, and makes it an integral part of the whole. This is absolutely true with the animal impact on a grassland. Yes, the cow eats the grass, but they miss a lot. They dung and urinate all over everything and tend to not eat the contaminated vegetation. But all of the vegetation needs to be lowered to ground level.

Also, bare ground is pretty much the biggest problem in a brittle environment. As ground sits bare (nothing growing from it and no plant litter covering it), there is nothing to replenish the soil carbon content and it just bakes in the sun. Bare soil loses its carbon content eventually and forms a hydrophobic (water repelling) crust. This crust matures over time, becoming more and more effective at repelling what rain comes to it. As the environment further degrades, the soil crust forms a permanent crust, grows a sad layer of algae and gets protection in a state park from people who can’t tell the difference between a healthy ecosystem and a biological response to extreme environmental degradation.

In order to keep the grassland healthy, the soil crust needs to be broken regularly and the uneaten litter scattered over the surface, along with a healthy dose of dung and urine applied. But this process breaks down when the cattle spread out across the landscape, grazing peacefully. The hooves naturally break the crust, but not when they step gingerly. The weight of the animals crushes the dead clumps of grass and scatters the remnants across the bare soil, but not when they walk carefully between the grasses. The piles of dung help fertilize, but not when they are twenty or thirty feet apart.

See, the ecosystem doesn’t respond specifically as a single block. Each clump of grass responds to the pressures and stimuli it is subjected to. Grass is overgrazed a clump at a time. Grass is undergrazed a clump at a time. And the two can be right next to each other. When cows are allowed to live a leisurely, spread out life with plenty of room to wander and plenty of time to pick and choose what they eat, they do exactly that.

It is the natural system of predator and prey that brings the whole thing together. In the wild, the great herds of ungulates are subjected to the predation of pack hunting predators like lions and wolves. The herds bunch together for safety. But in bunching, they eat huge amounts of food and leave behind huge amounts of dung and urine. In the excitement of being bunched and worrying about predators, they aren’t careful about where they step and trample the bunches of grass and break up the soil crust.

See, it is only the original system that works completely to maintain the grassland ecosystem. The herds have to be big enough that they can eat or spoil the food, then move on before the grass starts growing back. They have to be bunched and excited to disturb the ground just right to get the benefits.

The problem is that those great herds are largely gone, as are their pack hunting predators. But if the land dies without them, what are we going to do?

It turns out that Allan Savory has worked out a way to mimic the impact of the animals and built a whole system around it. The system is called Holistic Management. It uses smaller paddock sizes to mimic the bunching and manage the time spent grazing. It even turns out that the excitement and trampling can be mimicked without the stress of predators. Ivan Aguirre, a rancher in Mexico, uses mesquite hulls, the parts filtered out after the milling of mesquite pods, as a treat. Mesquite pods are naturally sweet and the cows get so excited about their treat (a waste product, really), that they trample everything to get to the hulls.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the great herds are gone forever. However, with enough dedicated people and the will to make a difference, we have the tools to restore the grasslands of the world to some of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts - Brittleness Factor

A brittle environment in the dry season, complete with
happy cows
As I began to delve deeper into Holistic Management, there were several concepts I thought were just brilliant. The first one is the Brittleness Scale. It is quite simple, really, it is just a scale from one to ten that describes the inconsistency of moisture throughout the year. A rainforest, where it rains almost every day, would be a one. A deep desert, on the other hand, where it only rains a few weeks out of the year, would be a 10.

On the surface, this seems pretty simple of a concept, and not really worthy of a whole blog post. However, like many simple concepts, just a little bit of digging into the impacts reveals just how important of a concept it is.

Do me a favor. Go look up Google Earth. Keep it at a global level. Scroll around a little and look at the little blue-green-tan orb we live on. I’ll wait. Did you notice how the land masses of the world are predominantly either green or tan in color? That is your brittleness scale right there. For the most part, the green areas are non-brittle, and the tan ones are brittle. Obviously, it is a scale, but it’s a good general rule. Now think about the population centers of the world. Where do all the people live? Southeast Asia. Europe. Eastern United States. The west coast of Australia. Japan. The list goes on. These areas are predominantly green. The only significant exception to this rule is the Middle East, but those civilizations started in the river valleys, primarily of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, prone to seasonal flooding and deposits of rich soils.

The non-brittle environments are easy places to be successful in agriculture. There is always plenty of water for humans and our crops. The soil is always trying to build itself up. Heck, just leave it fallow for a couple of years, and the weeds move in and build the soil back for us. Because of this, these areas are where we had the stability and prosperity to settle down and develop civilization, including institutions of higher learning. They are where science was developed. They are where that science was used to study the best way to maintain crops and soil fertility.

So what’s the big deal? Why is this such an important idea? Well, the first thing is a subtle point, but like most subtle points, makes all the difference in the world. Brittleness doesn’t indicate the amount of water an environment receives, but rather the consistency of available moisture, including humidity. See, an environment functions by breaking down organic matter from one organism to another until it is returned to its constituent parts, returned to the soil, then upcycled into plants to begin the process again. Every level of this process requires available moisture to break down organic material.

When I first moved to Prescott, AZ in 2002, there was a rather large tree, probably 30’ tall, that was right next to a highway I traveled regularly. The tree had already been dead long enough that it had lost all of its bark and all of its small branches. But the large branches and the trunk remained. It wasn’t for another 4 or 5 years that it really started losing the big branches in earnest. It was probably around 2010 that the tree finally lost its last branch and a little after that that it fell over. In a nonbrittle environment, this process wouldn’t have taken more than a few years rather than the probably 15 or more it took in this brittle environment. And Prescott is probably a 7 on the brittleness scale.

When an environment is extremely dry and has little to no rain for long periods (Prescott can go 5 to 6 months at a time with no rain at all), the biological processes that drive can only operate for, at most, a couple of months out of the year. So how does the ecosystem function without the extra moisture?

It turns out that nature is extremely adaptable, and perennial bunching grasses end up being key to brittle ecosystems. They do several things for the ecosystem. At the beginning of the rainy season, the grasses expend stored energy from their roots, sacrificing the roots and pushing their blades skyward as fast as possible. Once they are full grown, they make use of the fertility in the soil, the available rain, and plentiful sunshine to replenish the stored energy in their roots. Once the roots are ready, they produce seed heads and go dormant, usually about the time their rainy season is over. There they will sit until the next rainy season.

But they have some pretty strict requirements. They can be grazed during the rainy season, but if they are overgrazed during this time, they won’t have the energy to store in their roots and take full advantage of next year’s rainy season. They also need to be grazed completely before next year’s rainy season. If the dead foliage isn’t removed, the new foliage will be choked out just as it is trying to grow. Lastly, it needs a heavy dose of fertilizer. I’ll get into the animal impact needed to make this happen in my next post.

One of the most important impacts of this environment is how it manages its own water. The annual cycle of the grasses sacrificing their roots and growing new ones has the effect of “pumping” carbon into the soil. That carbon feeds the soil microbes and increases fertility. More importantly, for every 1% increase in soil carbon, every acre has the ability to store an ADDITIONAL 60,000 gallons of water. So if there is only one percent carbon in a field, it can only store 60,000 gallons of water when the rains come. But if you can get that number up to 5%, the same acre of land can store 300,000 gallons of water. And the prairie grasses can send their roots 6 feet or more into the soil, helping that water penetrate deep into the soil, where it will be stored.

Most brittle environments are prone to heavy rains when the rains do come. Without this natural cycle and a healthy grassland ecosystem, the soil carbon is lost and the water runs off, causing erosion as well as lost moisture. When the grasslands are restored to a more natural system, so much water is stored that ephemeral streams often start flowing again, providing a permanent supply of water to the animals that roam in these environments.

Grassland ecosystems can be some of the most productive on the planet, but only if the natural processes that make them so are fully understood and upheld. If the right level of animal impact is fostered, these ecosystems can begin the process of self-repair in just a couple of years and provide a great source of solar dollars (I’ll talk about that one in two posts).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Holistic Management

La Inmaculada Ranch, Hermosillo Mexico before Holistic
Management - 77% bare soil, 23% soil crust, 3 species of
perennial grasses
Every now and then I find a concept that just blows my mind. Not because it is difficult to understand, but because it shifts my worldview and causes me to see the world around me in a whole new light. Often, the new information latches onto a generally accepted concept that just bothers me. It nags at the back of my mind because it doesn’t feel true, but everyone accepts it as true because they have been told it is. But then this new idea comes along and adds clarity to the issue.

In this case, the idea that never made sense to me is that agriculture, particularly the raising of cattle, is responsible for some huge percentage, about 9%, of global production of greenhouse gasses. In reading most articles, the assumption is that it isn’t just poorly managed stocks. Most make the assumption that it is the cows themselves and it couldn’t possibly be any other way. That makes no sense to me. Pretty much all of the grasslands of the world were home to great herds of large hoofed animals before man came along. Herds of bison in the North American Great Plains were reported to be in the tens of millions of animals. So how could it possibly be that the natural, healthy condition was home to that many large animals, but now we can’t possibly handle a similar number without doing severe damage to our atmosphere and environment?

The answer came from a biologist named Allan Savory. I have written about him before, but have since learned much more about his ideas and methods and I have to say that I am sold. The answer is quite simply that, as humans, our centers of population and learning are mostly in areas that have consistent moisture throughout the year. These are very productive ecosystems that support large populations and we know well how to keep them healthy and productive. They also tend to be conducive to growing forests.

The grasslands of the world, on the other hand, operate completely differently.  The inconsistent moisture won’t support as many trees, but rather favors a completely different type of environment, one dominated by perennial grasses. As I mentioned before, this cycle of plant growth and decomposition is the primary cycling of nutrients in an ecosystem, and the primary driver of life. Because of the inconsistent availability of moisture, the moisture required to biologically break down organic matter and foster the creation of the soil is simply not present for much of the year. This means that as a plant (in this case, the grasses) grows during the wet season, it produces body mass. As it runs through its annual cycle and sheds biomass, the biomass doesn’t simply fall to the ground and decompose.  So how does the grassland ecosystem function?

It turns out that a completely different method of decomposition is utilized by the grasslands. The decaying grasses get the moisture they need to decompose in the gut of large ruminant animals, such as cows and bison. The animals then deposit the proto-soil in the form of urine and dung. This then continues to decompose and fertilize the soil.

Same location as above, after 36 years of using Holistic
Management practices. 25% bare soil, 1% soil crust, 11
species of perennial grasses
However, the whole process is very fragile and is contingent on several factors. The right kind of animal impact needs to be maintained. The grasses rely heavily on the top of the plant being removed by the animals between the completion of the growing season and the beginning of the next growing season. Some of this happens via eating and some happens via trampling. This happens best in the presence of huge herds that are bunched and excited because of the presence of pack hunting predators, such as lions. In this configuration, huge numbers of animals are constantly on the move. They consume the bulk of the tops of the plants, trample on the rest, and fertilize what’s left. When the next rainy season comes around, the perennial grasses are ready to leap off and complete their life cycle.

But when this cycle is disrupted, such as is the case over most of the land masses on the planet, the grasses don’t get the cycle of stress and rest they need to best complete their life cycle. Most of the grasslands of the world are either overgrazed or over-rested, both equally damaging to the perennial bunching grass.

This is an important environmental factor. As I mentioned previously, the soil is a living thing. It needs to be fed, and it eats decomposing organic matter, mostly plant. In the grasslands, a small percentage of this comes from the animal dung, but really, the bulk of it comes from the grasses themselves. See, in order to take advantage of the brief rainy season, the grasses store a huge amount of energy in their roots. At the start of the rains, the grasses shoot skyward, sacrificing those roots. They pull the energy from the roots and allow them to die. Once the grass is to the proper height, they begin the process of storing energy, growing new roots. The old roots then decompose and feed the soil. This happens every year. The bunch grasses in essence pump carbon into the ground to feed the soil.

As you might imagine, this is the single biggest carbon sink on the planet, one that is currently not functioning, causing the soils to lose carbon to the atmosphere rather than storing it in almost every grassland on the planet (about 60% of Earth’s landmasses). But the effects aren’t just damaging to global warming. See, the carbon in the soil, stored as humus, turns the soil into a giant sponge. When the monsoon rains come, healthy grasslands with heavy amounts of humus in the soil soak up the bulk of the rain. This stores the water in the soil, allowing more and healthier grass to grow and creating a positive feedback loop. But when the process is disrupted, the carbon disappears from the soils, causing the soils to form a water-repelling crust, which increases flooding and erosion while exacerbating the problem.

Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory as a series of techniques to best replicate the impact of the great herds without actually restoring the great herds. Cows, sheep, and goats are typically used to create the restoration, but have to be managed carefully to simulate the correct type of impact.

There are a bunch of really important concepts from Holistic Management, many more than can be outlined on a blog. I’ll select a couple of the more important concepts to delve deeper into over the next several blog posts. Over the next couple of posts, I will talk about the Brittleness Scale, Animal Impact, and the concept of Solar Dollars. After that , I can delve into some of the possible ways Holistic Management can be used to make real, positive change in the world.