The Trouble With Allan Savory
If you’ve been in the Paleo or ancestral community for some time now, you’ve probably heard of Allan Savory of the Savory Institute. Self-described as a “Zimbabwean wildlife biologist-farmer,” he claims to have figured out a way to manage livestock that is non-destructive and actually regenerative to the land.
Decades ago, he claimed his method, now called “Holistic Management,” could restore desertified grasslands, reclaim lost carbon, and even be a major tool in fighting climate change.
But as we shall see, this has been highly controversial.
For example, George Monbiot, a well-known writer for The Guardian and advocate for ditching meat, lays into Savory’s claims, stating that all the science is against him:
“I would love to believe him. But I’ve been in this game too long to take anything on trust – especially simple solutions to complex problems … The conclusion, overwhelmingly, is that his statements are not supported by empirical evidence and experimental work, and that in crucial respects his techniques do more harm than good.”
“Contrary to claims made that HM [Holistic Management] will reverse climate change, the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year … Leading range scientists have refuted the system and indicated that its adoption by land management agencies is based on these anecdotes and unproven principles rather than scientific evidence.”
And here’s one more from James McWilliams at Slate.com:
“For all the intuitive appeal of ‘holistic management,’ Savory’s hypothesis is beset with caveats … Extrapolation seems even more dubious when you consider that a comprehensive review of Savory’s trial and other similar trials, published in 2002, found that Savory’s signature high-stocking density and rapid-fire rotation plan did not lead to a perfectly choreographed symbiosis between grass and beast.”
Sounds incontrovertible that Savory’s Holistic Management grazing method doesn’t work, doesn’t it?
But then we get some well-reasoned rebuttals to this. Like this one rebutting the Slate article:
“Not only is the article referenced by James severely flawed, but to take it as the final word on Holistic Management would be to ignore the vast majority of the relevant evidence which overwhelmingly supports Savory’s claims.”
“If Monbiot is serious about informing and educating his followers, he might do well to educate himself first. I’d invite him to come out on the land, see with his own eyes and learn from those who are healing grasslands while producing food, fibre and community prosperity. Savory’s network would be more than happy to once more make themselves available.”
Or any of the peer-reviewed papers listed here.
And here is a nice summary of some of the more salient detractor points:
“Statements that Savory’s work isn’t supported in the academic peer-reviewed literature, or that it has been discredited in the academic literature are categorically wrong. The entire so called discrediting of Savory rests on two papers, Holecheck (2000) and Briske (2008), which themselves have been refuted in the academic and professional literature (Teague, Provenza, et al 2008; Teague, Dowhower, et al 2011, Gill 2009b, Gill 2009c). Studies in peer-reviewed academic literature show that Savory’s method works in achieving a full suite of ecological, economic, and quality of life enhancing goals (Stinner, D. 1997, Teague R. 2011), including improved grass density, soil moisture, soil bulk density, standing crop biomass, and soil organic matter (SOM) (Teaque R. 2011) … ”
What’s going on here? How are researchers coming to such widely different conclusions?
First, let’s be sure we know exactly what we’re talking about.
What is Holistic Management?
After observing herds and grasslands in the wild, Savory figured he could mimic what they were doing on managed land. He developed a system of grazing (Holistic Management) that manages cattle and the land at the same time (with a positive environmental impact as a bonus):
- Keeping the cattle in smaller areas mimics the predator-pressure they would experience in the wild.
- In doing so, cows can’t selectively eat only the grass species they like, which ensures all the grass in that paddock get trimmed evenly and maintains plant biodiversity.
- This also concentrates the divot-making from their collective hooves and the manure which will trap water (urine) to fertilize the grass.
- The cattle are then moved to a new paddock allowing the grazed paddock to rest and grow back with a vengeance.
- This cycle of managed grazing can be sustained indefinitely.
[Note: More precisely, Holistic Grazing is part of Holistic Managment which is a process for ecosystem restoration. This includes community and economic restoration as well. Holistic Grazing is a component of Holistic Management that may be a tool used or not used depending upon the ecosystem. In other words, cattle are tools for Holistic Grazing.]
But this isn’t what the vast majority of beef producers are doing in the West. Virtually all beef comes from CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). While all cattle are born and raised on grass, most are shipped off to dirt feedlots where all the trouble begins.
We all should know by now that factory farms are bad for us and the environment (or sub-optimal at the very least). And we all know that grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is far superior. The problem is, grass-fed beef is still an incredibly small share of the market, which means it’s harder to get and it’s more expensive. If we’re going to scale pasture-raised beef, there needs to be a low or non-destructive way to do it.
Here’s where Allan Savory comes in
He’s been a controversial figure over the last few decades, but more recently over last few years. You may have seen his TED talk that went viral in 2013 where his notoriety exploded. He talked about his system of “Holistic Management” that would regenerate the grasslands by using cattle. Not only could you produce more beef, but you could also trap more carbon in the soil, thus reversing climate change.
“You mean, I get to keep my beef AND save the planet at the same time??”
The problem is, this claim seemed just too good to be true to many detractors.
That’s when the controversy really came to the forefront. Even though Savory has been promoting this system to ranchers across the globe for a few decades now, few scientists have bothered to rigorously put it to the test…
… Well, not exactly.
In 2008 there was a study done by D.D. Briske et al (Professor, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX) that set out to test these fanciful claims of Allan Savory’s once and for all (or more precisely, the claims of “rotational grazing,” which as we’ll see was erroneously linked to Savory’s Holistic Management method). While indirect, Briske’s findings essentially concluded that Savory was 100% wrong:
“There is no consistent or overwhelming evidence demonstrating that rotational grazing simulates ecological processes to enhance plant and animal production compared to that of continuous grazing on rangelands … ” – Briske et al
From that point on, every environmentalist grabbed onto this study as if it were the final nail in the coffin to this whole “Holistic Management” nonsense.
“Welp, science is science, right? Case closed.”
If only it were that simple.
There was then a strong backlash from Savory’s supporters.
The gist of these rebuttals was that: Briske did not test Savory’s actual method but instead assessed the viability of generic “rotational grazing” which has inherent limitations. These findings on “rotational grazing” were wrongfully glued onto Savory’s method, thus condemning any further attempts to justify alternative grazing methods.
There were also claims that Briske’s sample data set (land area) was far too small and that proper Holistic Management needs to take into account a much wider ecosystem to be effective. In other words, standard scientific reductionism might not be the right mechanism to test this hypothesis.
Let’s back up just a minute. We need to get our “grazing” terms straight because everything hinges on it.
The whole concept of grazing differently than what most ranchers have done is relatively new. It’s also an ever-shifting landscape where ideas are continuously being improved upon and tweaked.
Along with the tweaks comes the unfortunate tendency to label these tweaks as a new system.
This is where most of the major confusion in both the public sector and scholastic sector comes from: One person’s “Holistic Management” is another person’s “Adaptive Grazing” etc.
Here are the terms as currently understood:
- Continuous Grazing — This is what most people think of when they think of cows leisurely grazing on acres and acres of wide open pasture. The cattle can eat whatever grasses they want whenever they want. This is the most typical type of grazing that is currently used. It’s also the most destructive to grasslands because the cattle tend to only eat the grass species they like and thus not trimming all the grass, which leads to a host of problems, which can ultimately lead to desertification.
- Rotational Grazing — This can be considered the next evolution from Continuous Grazing. Cattle are moved between pastures (often called paddocks) as needed or on a regular basis. In theory, this allows the grass in older paddocks to regenerate by leaving them fallow for some time. This can be seen as analogous to rotational farming, where crops are planted in one field during one season, then another while that old field is left fallow to regenerate.
- Adaptive or Managed Grazing — This is typically where things get messy. Different ranchers are using very similar models that use the same or very similar methods. I’ve seen many times where these terms are used interchangeably or to describe essentially the same type of grazing: adaptive grazing, mob grazing, managed grazing, holistic management… Basically, these systems all share a few concepts in common:
- High stocking rates: lots of cattle in a small area.
- Rapid rotation: moving the cattle several times rather than let them graze the same paddock too much (sometimes even in the same day).
- Assessing the needs of the grass and cattle in concert: this paddock needs a little more grazing than that one… this paddock needs to be left alone for awhile longer… the cattle need water at this point, etc.
So where does Allan Savory’s “Holistic Management” fit into all this, and what does that mean exactly?
Basically, it’s a decision-making process for managing cattle and grasslands in a way that fits your particular circumstances. That makes Holistic Management highly adaptable to individual pastoral needs but also opens it up to controversy for not being clearly defined… or is it?
From the Savory Institute directly:
“Holistic Management is a process of decision-making and planning that gives people the insights and management tools needed to understand nature: resulting in better, more informed decisions that balance key social, environmental, and financial considerations.
In the context of the ecological restoration of grasslands worldwide, managers implement Holistic Planned Grazing to properly manage livestock — mimicking the predator/prey relationships in which these environments evolved.” (and here’s more detail from the site)
“Holistic Planned Grazing: Key Principles
- Run as few herds as possible – one is best.
- Plan plant recovery times before you plan grazing times.
- Base stocking rates on the volume of forage available and how long it must last.
- Drought reserves are planned as time reserves not areas of land.
- Plan on a grazing chart.
- Create one plan for the growing season before main growth starts.
- Create one plan for the non-growing season once grasses stop growing.
- Monitor the plan.
- Holistic Planned Grazing is a process not a recipe.”
That final point is probably the most important to consider when assessing Savory’s claims: it’s a process, not a recipe.
And that brings us back to the oft-cited Briske study that attempts to treat this grazing system as a recipe that can be identically replicated. In other words, if you claim your recipe will result in the most awesome cake ever, then I should be able to replicate it and emerge from my kitchen with an identically awesome cake, right?
Before we let the scientist have all the say in the matter, what are real ranchers on the ground saying about Savory’s claims?
“Today, there are successful Holistic Management practitioners spread across the globe, from Canada to Patagonia and from Zimbabwe to Australia to Montana. More than 10,000 people have been trained in Holistic Management and its associated land and grazing planning procedures and over 40 million acres are managed holistically worldwide.” — case studies from the Savory Institute
- 1 Million acres in Australia
- 2.8 Million acres in Patagonia
- 630,000 acres in Canada
- White Oak Pastures
- Polyface Farms
- And many more…
On one hand, you have successful ranchers implementing Holistic Management with great success. On the other hand, you have scientists unable to confirm this success. What’s going on here?
As much as I hate to say it, in this case, the problem seems to be science itself.
Science requires a tightly controlled environment that allows for only one variable at a time to be changed and monitored, all other factors being precisely equal. The problem with Holistic Management is that there are numerous variables being balanced at any given time. It’s simply too hard (impossible?) to measure that scientifically.
For comparison, think of what we currently know about human health science. Ideally, you’d be able to raise a generation of people in a lab, control every little thing they eat, all environmental inputs, and measure their health over the next 80 years… and only change one variable. Then repeat that entire experiment and change another variable in order to isolate what’s giving them cancer, or heart attacks, or whatever it may be.
Obviously, you can’t do that.
The same seems to be true with Holistic Management. A rancher is assessing and managing their particular ranch, in their part of the world, with their water resources, with their particular grasses, in their particular climate, and how all of that is responding on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis…. That’s extremely difficult to design a scientific experiment around.
You would need to take one ranch, divide it equally in half, and run one with Holistic Management and one with some other form of grazing, all other factors being precisely equal.
To my knowledge, this hasn’t been done yet (although there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence of this). Even if it were, would the findings be definitive? What if the Holistically Managed ranch simply had bad luck with bad weather, or water, or other resources beyond their control? Or what if the same happened with the control group? You’d need to do this experiment on several continents and several times over to “prove” that Holistic Management succeeds or fails.
The problem with this, of course, is money. You would either need a massive multi-government grant to perform these experiments or a bunch of ranchers willing to sacrifice their livelihoods to get to the bottom of all this. Again, unrealistic.
So why then, are so many ranchers willing to buck the conventional grazing approach for a new, unscientifically “proven” approach?
Because it’s working.
These are real, regular ranchers living and breathing this every day. They aren’t out to prove a point. They aren’t out to convince the world of some far-fetched ideology. They need to make a living and they can’t mess around waiting for the scientists to prove what they’re already seeing literally on the ground beneath their feet.
“Allan Savory’s holistic management system is the best game in town. This system emulates nature, using prairie animals to build the soil by mimicking the predator-prey animal systems, where animal herds were bunched and moving. Hooves breaking the soil, defecation, microbes in the animal guts working with microbes in the soil, intensive grazing. This flies in the face of commodified, centralized, industrialized livestock practices.” – Will Harris
“We became better grass farmers as a result of Savory’s tireless efforts. Meanwhile, we’ve seen our organic matter go from an average of 1 percent to about 8 percent. We’ve seen water runoff reduced, earthworm castings increase exponentially, and animal carrying capacity jump from 20 cows to 120 cows on the same acreage. The beauty of this paradigm is that it does not put ecology and economy in competition; it puts them in symbiosis. And that’s pretty awesome.” – Joel Salatin
“Our philosophy in grazing is to manage the cattle herd to simulate the large herds of Elk and Antelope which once roamed California’s grasslands. We accomplish this by keeping the herd moving with Holistic planned grazing, so as never to overgraze an area, but to stimulate growth and grass-land health through properly timed grazing. Watershed Stewardship is at the forefront of our management practices.” – Doniga Markegard
“Holistic management is just a way to check all of our decisions and make sure they are in keeping with our actual goals. I find that if we didn’t have goals, it would be so easy to drift from our mission. Holistic management puts ecology on the forefront. That is one thing that is kind of non-negotiable with holistic management, whether it is managing a company, a ranch, or a research preserve, or all of those combined. The idea is that if you are managing for the whole, you can’t externalize costs, and the most easily externalized cost is the environmental cost.” – Ariel Greenwood
“This all sounds pretty good, so why is there still a controversy?”
Because one side says: The immense volume of cattle being raised for beef is a major contributor to climate change. Therefore, stop producing (eating) beef.
And the other side says: It’s not the “cow” it’s the “how”: Yes, factory-farmed cattle are a problem, but there’s another way. And not just a way to slow climate change, but actually reverse it.
Back to the research
In 2014, Briske doubles down on his findings from his research six years earlier.
On one hand, he acknowledges that there are inherent difficulties in scientifically evaluating Holistic Management. On the other hand, he says that despite some success from some ranchers, Holistic Management shouldn’t be widely promoted as THE preferred grazing method.
In other words, because it has worked for some but not as well for others, we shouldn’t promote it as a superior grazing method over continuous grazing.
Perhaps a reasonable conclusion, but an unreasonable recommendation.
If a researcher found a cure for cancer that only worked 1% of the time, would the right answer be “This doesn’t work all the time, so we should abandon this strategy.” No, we would double our efforts and figure out exactly why it does work at all. And if you found that you could increase the success rate, but couldn’t exactly measure why, you wouldn’t just throw up your hands and say “Science can’t understand why this was happening, so, back to the drawing board.”
This seems to be what Briske et al, as well as other detractors, are saying.
To this point, I’ve only focused on the Briske papers to illustrate the same thread that runs through all of Savory’s detractors: Holistic Management isn’t the magic you say it is, so give up trying.
What about the other side? Is there evidence, aside from anecdotal evidence, to support Savory’s claims?
Richard Teague (Professor, Texas A&M AgriLife Research) et al tackle these research methodology flaws head-on in their paper “Multi-paddock grazing on rangelands: Why the perceptual dichotomy between research results and rancher experience?”
“ … we describe the differences between the interpretation of results of grazing systems research reported in the scientific literature and the results reported by successful grazing managers; we highlight the shortcomings of most of the previously conducted grazing systems research for providing information relevant for rangeland managers who aim to achieve desired environmental and economic goals. Finally, we outline knowledge gaps and present testable hypotheses to broaden our understanding of how planned multi-paddock grazing management can be used at the ranching enterprise scale to facilitate the adaptive management of rangelands under dynamic environmental conditions …
… Successful ranchers modify their management as ecological, economic, and social conditions change to achieve the best possible outcomes in dynamic biophysical and economic environments. To attain the goal of sustainability on rangelands, thinking in terms of grazing systems is unimportant compared to understanding and applying management principles that support the proper functioning of ecological, economic, and social processes. To do so, managers achieve management goals through scientific understanding of processes combined with practical local experience.”
Look at that last bit once more: “To attain the goal of sustainability on rangelands, thinking in terms of grazing systems is unimportant compared to understanding and applying management principles that support the proper functioning of ecological, economic, and social processes.”
I interpret this to mean: even though it may be impossible to lockdown Savory’s methods into a precise, codified recipe, the desired outcomes are produced nonetheless… precisely because they are not a recipe, they are a process.
There are ample examples that properly managed grasslands can regenerate as Savory claims, but what of his claim about soil carbon sequestration?
I have to admit, Savory is making a huge assumption that his method also pulls carbon out of the air and into the soil. He would certainly need scientific proof of this before making such a claim. However, he seems to come to this claim via observation and instinct: healthy grass means healthy soil, and healthy soil is full of carbon. So, it’s not such a wild assertion, but asserting that this can not only mitigate but reverse climate change does require some scientific backing.
What is soil carbon sequestration, and why is it such a big deal?
“Sequestration” simply means to take and hold something. And carbon is an element found in every living thing on earth. It’s in our bodies, it’s in the air, it’s in the ground… it’s quite literally the building blocks of life.
The problem is, there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough locked in the ground where it belongs.
Since the industrial revolution, we’ve pumped billions of tons of that carbon into the atmosphere through various forms of fossil fuels. These liberated carbon atoms float into the atmosphere causing the greenhouse gas effect which is a major contributing factor to climate change.
“What does that have to do with cows?”
Cows (cattle) and all ruminants on earth are the catalysts that create healthy grass that pulls carbon out of the air and into the soil.
Here’s how it works:
- Ruminants co-evolved with the grasslands of the world in a vital symbiotic relationship.
- The cows eat the grass (they trim it, actually… like free-range lawnmowers).
- The cows poop and pee which fertilizes the grass.
- The grass is stimulated to grow (regenerate) from the trimming and free fertilizer (this also prevents it from overgrowing and dying).
- In properly managed ranges, the cows move on, the grass grows back AND carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis and stored in the soil (not to mention all the oxygen they put back into the atmosphere as well).
What this means is, no ruminants, no healthy soil. No healthy soil, no carbon sequestration. No carbon sequestration, no drawdown of all that carbon floating up into the air.
It’s estimated that even if you magically could remove every car on the planet, every coal-burning plant, every single last carbon pollutant in the world… you still would need several hundred years for that carbon to naturally dissipate:
“So while a good portion of warming attributable to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions would be removed from the atmosphere in a few decades if emissions were somehow ceased immediately, about 10 percent will continue warming Earth for eons to come. This 10 percent is significant, because even a small increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases can have a large impact on things like ice sheets and sea level if it persists over the millennia.”
On the other hand, if large-scale carbon sequestration via cattle and grass is possible as Savory claims, then this is literally a game-changer in the battle against climate change. If true, global carbon drawdown wouldn’t require 100s of years to dissipate, but could actually be actively pulled out of the atmosphere through properly managed grasslands.
Think about that for a minute: instead of just waiting for the carbon to cycle back to normal levels, the grassland would simultaneously be sucking that carbon down at a faster rate… just like rewinding the film.
How much and how fast is understandably still controversial, but we’re in luck, a recent study just came out indicating that not only can carbon be sequestered in the soil, but it might be enough to offset cattle methane emissions in the process.
Sound too good to be true?
Researchers from Michigan State recently wrapped up a 4-year analysis culminating in this May 2018 report entitled, “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems”
The researchers wanted to compare standard feedlot-finished beef with alternative beef grazing practices to see what the full life-cycle analysis of carbon was in the end. In other words, does adaptive grazing sequester more carbon as Savory and others have claimed?
[Note: In this case, the researchers are exploring “adaptive multi-paddock [AMP] grazing,” which is a term created by researchers Teague and Rowntree as a synonym for Holistic Grazing Management. Since Savory was too controversial, neither Teague or Rowntree could use the term Holistic Grazing Management and get any of their research peer-reviewed. So, they came up with a different name.]
“In previous beef LCA literature, grass-fed (over the entire life cycle) or grass-finished (referring exclusively to the finishing stage) systems are often modeled using simplified grazing parameters typically representative of continuous grazing, a simplistic management strategy in which cattle graze the same pasture continuously through an entire grazing season (Crosson et al., 2011; de Vries et al., 2015). This grazing management approach, while still the most common, can negatively impact plant regrowth and recovery, as well as plant communities, and has low productivity (Oates et al., 2011) … ”
Already, they’re acknowledging that previous studies were oversimplifying various grazing systems.
“Grazing management techniques vary greatly, however, ranging from continuous to light rotational to intensively managed. Accordingly, the land, ecosystem, and GHG emission impacts resulting from beef production are highly dependent on the type of grazing management system utilized (Brilli et al., 2017; Rowntree et al., 2016) …
… Some literature has identified beneficial ecosystem services resulting from the adoption of a carefully managed system known as adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing. This approach applies an adaptive strategy that incorporates short grazing intervals with relatively high animal stocking densities, which are designed to allow plant recovery, promoting optimal plant communities and protecting soils (Conant et al., 2003; Teague and Barnes, 2017). These principles were conceptualized by Voisin (1959) as ‘rational grazing’ and have also been embraced within grazing systems such as ‘holistic planned grazing’ (Savory and Butterfield 1998) and ‘management-intensive grazing’ (Gerrish, 2004). Potential AMP grazing benefits include reductions in overgrazing and soil erosion, improved forage utilization and animal productivity, and increased soil carbon (C) sequestration, which might reduce net GHG emissions (Teague et al., 2016).”
Off to a good start.
The study goes on to describe their methods for calculating the total carbon cycle for each system (feedlot vs pasture beef). From what I read, they’ve incorporated as many known variables as possible, including crop production to feed the feedlot cattle, to nitrogen usage, to methane emission from cow farts, burps, and feedlot manure outputs, to final carcass weight.
In the end, what the numbers they came up with are astonishing:
“Across-farm soil organic carbon (SOC) data showed a 4-year C sequestration rate of 3.59 Mg C ha−1 yr−1in AMP grazed pastures. After including SOC in the GHG footprint estimates, finishing emissions from the AMP system were reduced from 9.62 to −6.65 kg CO2-e kg carcass weight (CW)−1, whereas feed-lot (FL) emissions increased slightly from 6.09 to 6.12 kg CO2-e kg CW−1due to soil erosion. This indicates that AMP grazing has the potential to offset GHG emissions through soil C sequestration, and therefore the finishing phase could be a net C sink.”
“I don’t speak Science, what does that mean?”
- The feedlot carbon emissions started at 6.09 kg CO2-e kg CW (a unit of measurement) and rose slightly to 6.12 due to soil erosion from the industrial farming which grew their feed.
- The adaptively-grazed carbon emissions started at 9.62 and ended at -6.65 (!)
This means that while the grass-fed cattle started with a higher carbon footprint, they end up with a negative carbon footprint.
How can this be?
The researchers rightly considered the entire carbon cycle at play, not just the cow farts and burps that are normally calculated in similar studies.
It’s the grass (the soil) that the cattle cultivate that pulls down carbon from the atmosphere at the same time. In other words, the cattle can fart and burp all they want as long as the grass they’re feeding on is managed correctly so it can do its job of drawing down carbon into the soil like trillions of tiny straws.
At least according to this recent study, it appears Savory was right.
One important point regarding this study, the researchers rightly point out that grass-fed beef didn’t produce as much total final weight in the end. Feedlot cattle are still far more efficient at producing more beef pound for pound, but that’s a separate issue.
At least according to one full lifecycle study, Savory and all adaptive grazing ranchers seem to have been vindicated.
Of course, we need more confirmation from independent sources, but considering the weight of anecdotal observations and flawed historical studies, Savory’s claims stand so far.
The real and honest next question is: can this be scaled? There has already been offhand dismissal that this would be an ecological disaster by reintroducing so many ruminants back into the rangelands. And there’s also the matter of increasing beef demand in developing countries to consider.
These are important questions that still need answers. Until then, it seems some form of Holistic Management, whether it’s called adaptive grazing, mob grazing, or intensive grazing, is worthy of further study, and more importantly, further real-world application until science can catch up and measure it.