Can cattle be part of the climate change solution?

The Gunther Report

Can cattle be part of the climate change solution?

It’s become a truism of the environmental movement. Eating meat is bad for the planet. A few years back, a couple of researchers published a study claiming that livestock is responsible for 51 percent  51 percent!  of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO says it’s closer to 18 percent, but still …

Jim Howell, a lifelong rancher and the CEO of a company called Grasslands LLC, says this conventional wisdom is ill-informed and misleading. More important, he has set out to disprove it. Grasslands owns four cattle ranches in South Dakota and Montana, where the company is monitoring the environmental impacts of its unconventional approach to ranching - called holistic management  and forging relationships with nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, hoping to turn them into allies. Last month, Howell’s partner, mentor and friend, Allan Savory, who is a Zimbabwean farmer, politician and environmentalist, delivered a TED talk called "How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change" that rapidly attracted about half a million views. Their argument, in brief, is that traditional ranching methods can degrade land and threaten biodiversity but that, when managed well, cows can actually be restorative.

What’s most interesting (to me, anyway) is that Howell, Savory and their investor-partners in Grasslands believe that they can use markets to drive their unorthodox ideas about ranching to a much, much larger scale. They argue that holistic management is better for business, better for the land, better for the climate and, not incidentally, a way to raise more cattle on less land than conventional methods and thus help feed a hungry, growing planet.

Next page:  How can grown meat be good for the environment? 

If it sounds too good to be true, well, their arguments have been controversial for decades, and certainly since 1988, when Savory described his methods in the 564-page book "Holistic Resource Management."  In a book review in the Journal of Soil & Water Conservation, a UC-Berkeley range ecologist named James Bartolome wrote: “Holistic resource management itself is a model for a management system with little novelty and severe technical problems …Those who apply Savory’s approach do so at their peril.” The Savory Institute has compiled a portfolio of supporting evidence, including peer-reviewed papers, but the debate rages on.

Howell, 44, comes from a family that has been ranching in Colorado since the late 1800s. He intends to bring further science and economics to bear on the question of whether ranching, done right, can help regenerate the planet, improve the farm economy and, as one of his investors, John Fullerton, puts it, “harness the power of capital and markets to shift the course of capitalism onto a more just and sustainable path.” A former managing director at JP Morgan, Fullerton is now president of the Capital Institute and an investor in Grasslands, along with Larry Lunt, a private investor and environmentalist who runs a family office called Armonia. The Savory Institute, a for-profit company that carries out Savory’s work  Howell’s wife is CEO  is also an owner of Grasslands. Other investors will be brought on as Grasslands grows, as its owners expect it to.

So how does holistic management work? In a word, it’s complicated. In fact, when we spoke by phone the other day, Howell said that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s not surprising since, like politics, all farming is local.

“Recipes never work when you are dealing with the chaos and unpredictability of nature,” Howell says. “Plan is not a four-letter word but a 24-hour job.”

Having said that, the core idea is to manage cattle to mimic the way wild herds  elephants or zebras in Africa; bison, elk, bighorn sheep and deer in the grasslands of the U.S. West — interacted with the landscape. Nature’s way of recycling plant matter is through the stomachs of big herbivores, who consume plants and return it to the soil in the form of dung and urine. The Savory Institute website puts it this way:

Holistic management embraces and honors the complexity of nature, and uses nature’s models to bring practical approaches to land management, and restoration. The planning procedures embedded in the Holistic Management approach are designed to incorporate this complexity and work with it. It does take time, skills and discipline to use this decision-making framework successfully  but the economic, environmental and social benefits are enormous.

Next page:  Holistic herd management? 

In practical terms, the debate revolves around how much acreage is needed per cow, how they should be herded and how often they should be moved from pasture to pasture. As Howell explained it to me (and, be patient, I’m a city kid), problems can arise both when lands are overgrazed by cows that eat young plants before they mature or recover from previous grazing, and also when lands are not grazed enough, which leads to an overburden of decadent plant material, impeding the ability of plants to capture sunlight and grow new leaves. When the grazing events are correctly timed — meaning plants have a chance to fully recover between grazing periods  grass plants become more vigorous and productive. Put simply, ranchers need to learn to manage the ecology of the ranch and not just the cows.

The environmental benefits of holistic management are dramatic, Savory and Howell argue. Biodiversity flourishes, soils become richer and the land can sequester more carbon  a lot more. Howell offers a back of the envelope, bullish calculation: If all 5 billion hectares of grasslands around the world were holistically managed, and the organic matter in the soil was increased from 3 to 4 percent, to a depth of about 2 feet, as much as 54 additional tons of carbon per hectare could be sequestered. That’s 270 gigatons of carbon, enough to lower atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by 135 ppm. If Savory and Howell are even close to right, that’s a big deal, and a way to curb climate change that doesn’t require billions of dollars of capital outlays.

“This is just a matter of people changing the way they and their livestock interact with the landscape,” Howell says.

That said, getting millions of farmers around the world to change is no easy job. That’s where the economics come in. Counterintuitive as it sounds, holistic management means that more livestock can be raised on the same land base, perhaps twice as many. On the Howell family’s Colorado ranch and an adjacent ranch that they manage, the aggregate stocking rate has more than doubled since the late 1990s under holistic management. Ranchers around the world practicing holistic management have achieved similar gains. “You can effectively double the size of your ranch,” Howell says.

Next page:  The importance of grasslands

Grasslands and its investors now control slightly more than 100,000 acres of land on its four ranches, and they intend to acquire more. (This year’s massive drought may slow their plans.) To demonstrate the environmental benefits of its methods, Grasslands has hired a firm called LandEKG (get it?) to monitor the health of its land. It’s also inviting environmentalists to visit.

Louisa Willcox of the NRDC, a Montana-based wildlife expert with a forestry degree from Yale, visited a Grasslands ranch near Broadus, Mont., as well as the J-L Ranch in the Centennial Valley west of Yellowstone Park, which uses holistic methods to raise Yellowstone grass-fed beef. She came away hopeful.

“I thought they were really exemplary in what they were trying to do,” she says. ”There’s a whole generation of younger ranchers coming up who realize that the way their grandfathers did things may not make sense anymore, and that there are new markets that may be explored.”

Others at NRDC are skeptical, I’m told. There’s more to say about this, and I hope to return to the topic again, and give some space to the dissenters — who, as always, are encouraged to comment below. What the debate over grazing tells me is that we need a better framework to measure the impacts of ranching, as well as the rest of the food system. 

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to meeting Howell  at the FORTUNE Brainstorm Green conference April 29 to May 1. With BSR’s Aron Cramer, I’ll be moderating a panel about “the future of protein” where we’ll hear from Howell and from Clarence Otis Jr., the CEO of Darden, about their efforts to sustainably produce meat and fish. World-class ultrarunner and vegan Scott Jurek will be joining us, too  we don’t want to leave out the vegetarians!

Photo of brown cow and white bull provided by Martina I. Meyer via Shutterstock