Cows Save the Planet, and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth
by Judith D. Schwartz
Chelsea Green Publishers
Many of you have seen Allan Savory’s TED talk, in which he explains the principles of managed intensive grazing as a method of reversing desertification (http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html).
As many of our members know, managed intensive grazing (also known as cell grazing, mob grazing, and holistic managed planned grazing), involves moving a herd of animals (usually cows, but also sheep, pigs, goats and poultry) regularly and systematically to fresh rested areas with the intent of maximizing the quality and quantity of forage growth. Properly managed herds can bring renewed fertility to pastures in any area of the world, but the system is especially beneficial to marginal or “brittle” lands that go many months without rainfall. Herds trampling the soil, fertilizing with urine and manure, and then moving on, can reverse the process of desertification that occurs when when there are too many animals on the land, or not enough of them.
As Judith Schwartz explains in her excellent book with the surprising title―Cows Save the Planet―managed intensive grazing helps put carbon back into the earth, and it is carbon that builds the soil. The premise that soil is built from the top, with the accumulation of manure and organic matter is only partially correct. As Schwartz explains, plants provide a two-way transfer of nutrients: the plant brings minerals up from the soil and into the stems, leaves and fruit, and also carries carbon from the air down to the roots. This carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi, soil organisms with a strand-like structure that feed on the sugars (carbon) that the plant produces from sunlight and carbon dioxide, and in turn help the plant absorb minerals. The fungus, with its long reach in the soil, and the organisms that it nourishes in turn, are what build organic matter (humus). Thus organic matter is created below ground, as well as on top, and soil can be built quickly, in a matter of a few years, and not over the eons as the geologists assert.
Soil with a lot of organic matter (with a lot of carbon, that is) holds water efficiently. Schwartz offers the intriguing theory that the rising sea levels are due more to lack of water-holding capacity in the soil than the melting glaciers. Many graziers have noticed that springs appear on their property as their pastures improve―more water in the soil fills the shallow water table and emerges as cool springs. Schwartz reports that for every 1 percent increase in the level of soil carbon, a square meter of soil can store an extra two buckets of water.
Schwartz describes visits to ranches practicing managed intensive grazing on vast tracts of land, and notes the improvement in vegetation. Grasses are greener, more dense and grow taller in the wake of cattle moving across the landscape―on the other side of the fence where cattle roam haphazardly or not at all, the land is sparsely vegetated, even desertified.
Carbon sequestration is a concept in the forefront of contemporary thinking. How do we reduce all that carbon building up in the atmosphere? Some have proposed getting rid of cows and other domestic animals; but as Schwartz explains, cows are the solution. Animal grazing can be used to build vegetation and thus carry atmospheric carbon into the ground to build humus, reverse desertification, replenish underground water, and as a happy byproduct, supply billions of people with wholesome grass-fed meat. By some estimates, a return to managed grazing on a large scale could return carbon to earlier levels in a matter of a decade.
All this is good news! Nature can recover, and recover quickly. But we need to return to our role as wise steward rather than a profligate destroyer of our most precious resource, the soil.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2013.