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