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.

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