The grass-fed revolution

Back to pasture

Today, a growing number of livestock farmers are shifting away from the grain-based feedlot model to perfecting the art of small-scale, rotational pasture systems.

The grass-fed revolution is about more than animal welfare; it is a radical response to decades of industrial livestock practices that have not only failed to feed the world, but have resulted in the widespread degradation of our food resources and the planet itself.

To begin with, liberating our cattle, poultry and other livestock from feedlots and onto pasture means we can break free from a food system heavily reliant on fossil fuels to one based on solar energy.

Sunlight, a limitless and free resource, is the principal energy source for nature’s life cycles and pasture farming systems. It enables grass to grow, which grazers eat and convert into a valuable organic resource in the form of green manure, which in turn fertilises the soil that nourishes the grass … and the cycle starts all over again.

The artistry of Mother Nature

With the prospect of billions more people to feed, and the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels in just a few decades, our future will ultimately depend on an agricultural system that is based on sustainable energy and uses our resources responsibly and restoratively.

By raising animals as they have evolved to live, in harmony with soil, grasses and wildlife, we return to a model of sustainability that Mother Nature has already perfected for us; one that considers and improves every aspect of life too, not just nourishment.

So join the grass-fed revolution and rediscover the tastes and nutritional benefits of foods from animals that have lived the way nature intended. And know that you are also contributing to the health and future of our planet in more ways than you know.

Grass-fed nutrition

Herbivores such as cattle and sheep aren’t the only animals that graze; omnivores including hogs, turkeys, ducks and chickens are also natural grazers, and thrive in grassland ecologies.

Yet today, the vast majority of livestock aren’t fed or raised this way. Instead, they are segregated from the land, kept in confinement, and fed exclusively on an artificial diet based on the cheapest feedstuffs – including subsidised grain, drugs, manure and industrial food waste.

As a result, the animal foods we eat now are not only far less nutritious than that of previous eras, but they also present serious health risks, being filled with harmful pathogens and chemicals. It’s no wonder that health authorities recommend eating less meat and dairy foods.

Following nature’s way

Not all meat, dairy foods and eggs are created equal. What animals are fed, and how they are raised, has a profound influence on the nutritional quality of those foods. To generalise the impact of animal foods on our health without considering the impact of feeding and welfare practices is simply unfair and misleading.

Did you know that for chickens raised on pasture, up to 30 per cent of their daily diet will be grass, with much of the remainder being other natural fodder such as herbs, seeds, grubs and insects? For ducks and geese, the amount of grass consumed can be up to 50 per cent of their diet.

By returning to holistic ways of raising livestock on open pastures and allowing them to graze on grass, we stand to gain significant nutritional benefits.

Grass-fed equals good health

Compared to foods from grain-fed livestock, those from grass-fed animals are known to provide the following nutritional benefits.

– Lower levels of total fat (including saturated fat) and fewer calories.
– Higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids (the heart-friendly fats).
– Healthier ratios of omega 6 (excess levels of which can lead to obesity).
– More carotenoids, including lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene (antioxidants that can reduce risks
of cancer and cataracts).
– Much more conjugated linoleic acid (a potent defence against cancers and cardiovascular disease).
– Higher levels of vitamin E (which boosts our immunity and can lower cardiovascular disease).

In addition, grass-fed foods are a rich source of minerals, folic acids, calcium, potassium, thiamine and riboflavin, all essential for our wellbeing.

Thinking against the grain

‘Feeding grain to cattle has got to be the dumbest idea in the history of western civilisation.’

John Robbins, environmentalist

A wasteful use of farm land

For the first time in 12,000 years of agricultural history, we’ve been taking livestock off the land and confining them in industrialised feeding operations to be intensively fed on grain.

Presently, nearly 40 per cent of the world’s croplands are devoted to growing the grain to feed these animals – even though grain is a human food. At the same time, one billion people globally are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. A cruel coincidence?

For the majority of the human population grain is an important food staple but, shockingly, only a small amount of global production actually reaches human mouths.

In the US for example, corn covers 97 million acres of farmland, but only 20 per cent of the harvest goes to feed people. World soybean production tells an even starker story, with only 6 per cent going to human consumption.

In dialogues about sustainability we hear little about the growing of grain for animal feed, yet this wasteful use of croplands and food resources is causing one of the greatest social and environmental challenges of our time.

Dilemma of crop cultivation

In the past, grain was considered a precious commodity and reserved for human consumption. It was expensive to produce because crop cultivation was extremely difficult. For instance, preparing land to grow crops required tillage, seeding and weeding using only human hands and draft animals, which was hard work and time consuming. A farmer could only cover so much land in one day.

It also must be realised that tillage is actually harmful for the land. To plant and germinate seeds, land first needs to be cleared of existing flora and fauna, then left bare for months, which goes against nature. Exposed soil can be eroded easily by wind and rain, the heat from the sun can kill soil microbes, and soil carbon, which is the basis of fertility, is released into the atmosphere.

In ancient times therefore, crop cultivation was practised sparingly to minimise land degradation. To regenerate soil health after a season of cropping, farmers usually returned the land to grass and livestock grazing for a number of years before planting crops again.

Corn monoculture for animal feed

Understanding the hidden costs

With the advent of mechanisation and agri-chemicals, multi-year rotations with land-healing pasture were no longer necessary to conserve soil health. Crops could be cultivated on a massive scale and planted and harvested every year, sometimes twice a year, because farmers could replace lost organic fertility with chemical fertilisers.

With so much surplus grain being produced annually came the birth of confined animal feeding operations. To protect the viability of the giant crop industry, governments in many countries began to provide substantial subsidies to lower grain costs for industrial livestock producers. This continues today; however, farmers who raise animals on grass do not receive any such assistance.

The taxpayer-subsidised grain prices largely obscure the real cost of meat and dairy products. If the subsidies were taken away, animal foods would not be as cheap as they are now.

Feeding animals on grain also means they grow faster. Just 100 years ago it was not normal to slaughter cattle less than three years old. Today, in factory feedlots, they can be fattened to market weight in 14 to 16 months. Similarly with pigs, the minimum slaughter age in the past would be at least a year; now they fatten so fast on grain they are slaughtered at three to four months.

The spread of crop monocultures

Each year, there are around 50 billion livestock reared in grain-based feeding operations. To support the industry, sprawling crop monocultures now cover much of the world’s rural landscape. This has led to the displacement of local farmers and indigenous food systems that have fed communities for generations, along with the gradual depletion of soil, fresh water and biodiversity.

Unwittingly, modern industrialised agriculture is at the root of almost every major dilemma facing the world today, including global hunger, cropland degradation, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, public health decline, species extinction and desertification.

That’s why grain-based animal feeding systems are not the solution to feeding the world. They exhaust more food resources than they produce, and have left more people hungry and suffering from food-borne illnesses than ever before.

Shifting back to smaller scale, grass-based cattle, sheep, pig and poultry farming systems will help reduce the strain on natural resources. They are also more efficient, since it is solar energy that’s used to grow the grasses, which the animals convert into food, allowing nearly all the grain to be reserved for human consumption.

Grain fed cattle production

Pasture-based regenerative agriculture

Eating fewer foods from grain-fed animal will help bring about the diversification of the millions of acres of crop monocultures into a wider mix of sustainable agricultural systems devoted to feeding people instead of animals.

Traditional mixed-crop pasturage farms can produce substantially more food, in greater varieties, than the industrialised agricultural system. The benefits include a more nutritious diet, and there’s the resiliency, resourcefulness and regeneration that comes with such foods too.

Championing grass-based livestock farming systems does not mean we should still expect the boundless quantity of choice cuts and cheap prices promised by industrialism. In order to support human-scale, pastured livestock farming, our way of thinking about eating that has evolved over the past half century clearly needs to change.

For example, rather than regularly dining on only one or two choice cuts, we can re-learn how to celebrate the whole animal and rediscover forgotten parts such as offal, bones and fat.

This will not only help support family farmers but also satisfy our appetites, in both quantity and variety.

Besides producing more nutritious foods, grazing animals and grasses have an important place in regenerative agriculture too.This ancient partnership between grazers and grasses that has evolved over millions of years is nature’s most powerful process for building healthy soils and healing the land.

Manx Loaghtan, conservation grazing, unimproved ancient grassland

Global hunger

The scale of hunger in the world today is not a result of poverty but rather the prevalence of industrial farming systems, which are increasingly diverting food resources away from people to livestock production.

Developing countries are most affected, because the vast majority of their populations live in rural areas and have always depended on subsistence farming. The widespread growth of crop monocultures has led to the decline of traditional farmers, small-scale farmlands, local food networks and native seeds and breeds, which have sustained communities for generations.

Without traditional farmers having the natural and financial resources they require to farm and compete with industrial agriculture, hunger is the result.

Turning the tide

Famine-stricken nations such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh and North Korea actually do grow enough food to feed their people, but the harvests from their croplands are destined for domestic or export markets, mostly for factory farming to feed animals, leaving millions of people to starve.

For example, during the 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia, tons of grain were exported to the UK for factory farming. Similarly, in the 1997 famine in North Korea, a thousand tons of maize was sent to Japan for poultry feed. Such illogical exports of food from famine-prone nations are a regular occurrence.

While governments are largely responsible for the agricultural policies and food security in these countries, it cannot be denied that the immense demand for grain-fed animal foods has a huge impact on the destiny of the world’s croplands.

If the grain that is fed to cattle in the US alone is enough to feed 1.4 billion people, imagine the benefit to the world’s hungry if the croplands around the globe were to be restored to traditional and diverse forms of family-run, pasture-based agriculture.

Land and resource use

To understand the full global impact of factory feedlots, it’s important to think beyond the industrialised operations and the animals, and look at the entire food chain.

Feeding grain to animals is a sure way to exhaust our natural resources, because it is based on crop monocultures. For example, farmland devoted to growing animal feed in the US totals more than 200 million acres. To put the insanity of this into perspective, all the nation’s fruit and vegetables are grown on just three million acres.

Further, the widespread production of single-crop species eliminates the diversity and biological cycles that are needed to keep ecosystems in balance. That’s why crop monocultures require extensive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, bactericides and fertilisers, all of which end up entering the food chain and polluting the environment.

Inefficient use of human food

Factory feedlots fail to feed the world and are far from sustainable because they waste natural resources and use more human food than they produce.

The digestive systems in ruminants like cattle and sheep are based on eating grass, not grain. Besides that, the process of converting grain into meat or dairy products is highly inefficient.

For example, it takes six kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of feedlot beef.

That grain could be used to feed people, so it doesn’t make sense to feed it to animals. On the other hand, grass, which humans can’t eat, is the natural diet of animals. Cattle and sheep raised on pasture is a natural and far more efficient way to produce meat and dairy foods.

A rare and precious resource

Scarcity of fresh water is predicted to become the most important factor limiting agricultural production in the near future. Up to 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, but only 2.5 per cent of that is fresh water. Of that fresh water, most of it is frozen in the polar regions, leaving just 0.77 per cent of all fresh water for human consumption. Yet nearly two-thirds of this precious water supply is used to irrigate agricultural land, in fact one-fifth of farmland worldwide.

Even though fresh, clean water is a rare resource, modern agriculture consumes more of it than can be replenished by natural means. Crop monocultures are extremely thirsty forms of agriculture. Globally, crucial water systems such as the Nile and Yellow Rivers and lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use. In the US, over half of the fresh water consumed is used to grow grain for cattle feed.

Feedlot animals consume more water than those on pasture because of their intensive feeding on dry grain. On average, beef cattle in feedlots drink 11 litres of water per day and dairy cows drink 22 litres. Compare those figures to pastured cattle, which need only around 5 litres since they are naturally hydrated by the water content in grass.

A sensible solution

Looking at the total picture, factory feedlots unnecessarily deplete scarce natural resources and consume grain that should be made available to feed hungry humans. With an estimated two billion extra mouths to feed by 2050, this is clearly not a rational situation and greater attention needs to be focused on how we can sustainably use our remaining farmlands and natural resources.

A solution lies in moving back to grass-fed cattle, sheep, pig and poultry farming systems, which would free up more food to feed people instead of animals, reduce the strain on grain and natural resources, dismantle crop monocultures into a wider mix of farming systems, and produce a more diverse and nutritious diet than the factory feedlot system.

Soil, grass and herbivores

Grazing a new path

How can eating food from grass-fed animals help save our planet?

The raising of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens on grass can be managed in a way that enhances the land’s ecological cycles, which will lead to the restoration of soil health, provide resilience against droughts and floods, promote diversification of native flora and fauna, and even help fight climate change.

Each year around the world, 12 million hectares of arable land are abandoned due to severe degradation. In total, the Earth has lost a third of its arable land in the past 40 years, and the rate is increasing. As land is degraded, food production is reduced, water sources dry up and massive amounts of carbon is released into the atmosphere.

We work with regenerative minded farmers who demonstrate how grazing livestock is nature’s most effective tool for land restoration. By moving livestock around their pasture in ways that mimic the natural behaviour of wild grazers, they help boost the land’s water, nutrient, solar and carbon cycles essential for building the land’s capacity to heal itself.

Reversing human-made deserts back to thriving grasslands, replenishing depleted water tables, and sequestering excess carbon from the air back into the soil, are some of the many positive outcomes that can be achieved by properly managing animals on grassland.


Sadly, much of the environmental devastation today is primarily caused by the way food is produced. Each year, modern agriculture continues to erode the building blocks of life – soil, water and biodiversity – leading to the collapse of ecosystems and compromising humanity’s options for a viable future.

Given the inability of the earth to sustain any further agriculture-related degradation, there is tremendous value and hope in raising livestock not as food commodities but as ‘ecological renovators’. The solution to feeding an expanding global population needs to be the same solution that heals our ailing planet.

By bringing stories of regeneration to the table, we can reveal a more compelling narrative of the connection between the land and the plate. Changing what you eat can dramatically change the future of soil, water, biodiversity and climate. Through this simple act we all have the power to regenerate the earth.

Ecological imbalance

The truth of the matter

For a long time now, it has been assumed that livestock, in particular cattle, are detrimental to the environment and the climate. But the truth is that the problem is not the livestock themselves – it’s how we manage them.

The rapid deterioration of our planet over the last century is largely due to the displacement of animals from the land into confined grain-based feeding operations. (You can read more about animal feedlots and crop monocultures in the section headed: ‘Think against the grain’.)

On the other hand, many environmentalists believe that too many livestock grazing on the land causes ecological degradation. But how can this be when, long before humans arrived on Earth, far greater numbers of herbivores existed in harmony with the land, building deep, rich soils and helping preserve a habitable climate.

In North America for example, prior to European settlement, it is estimated that up to 60 million bison roamed the great prairie plains. At the time, those plains had the most fertile soil in the country, but since the land has been converted to crop agriculture half the topsoil has been lost.

Taking note of history

Today in the US, bison numbers total about half a million and there are around 10 million cattle. Both figures pale in comparison with estimates of the historic bison herds, and that’s not even counting the millions of other native herbivores such as elk, deer and prairie antelope.

The same can be said about the number of native herbivores formerly in Africa, South America and Australia. If we go back further, to 12,000 years ago, mega herbivores also existed in massive concentrations across the world’s grasslands, before they were all hunted to extinction.

Yet these days, cattle are blamed for causing global warming and soil erosion. It’s difficult to conceive how this can be, when there are far fewer animals than ever before in history.

Working with nature

The prevailing wisdom on managing land degradation, in the past and still now, has been to greatly reduce the number of grazing animals or to completely remove them from the land, expecting that the soil, grasses and native biodiversity will recover.

This method has been tried in many places across the world, including in national parks, game reserves and ranches, and to the present day these places have shown no signs of recovery. In fact, much of the land has progressively worsened and is turning to desert.

While improper management of livestock will lead to land degradation, reducing the number of grazing animals or taking them off the land will also lead to further degradation. So what is the correct approach?

To care for the land in nature’s image, whether in conservation or agriculture, we must strive to define what nature originally intended for the land.

Evolutionary symbiosis

‘Livestock are the only tool now available to reverse desertification and return carbon and water to grassland soils.’

Allan Savory, ecologist and farmer

Nature’s gardeners

Herbivores and grasslands have evolved symbiotically for millions of years. Some would even argue that grasslands would not exist without herbivores, because it is their periodical grazing and associated activities that enable soil, grasses and wildlife to regenerate.

Like nature’s gardeners, herbivores aerate, fertilise and prune the land in ways that increase the soil’s capacity to absorb and store water, foster the germination of new plant seeds, enrich soil fertility and stimulate grass productivity, and more.

For instance, most of the world’s grasslands are seasonally dry, so the ability of soil to capture and store rain when it falls is crucial to sustaining life. During the hot dry season, bare patches of ground become so hard that when rain does fall onto the caked surface, it will be repelled rather than soak into the land.

However, when wild grazing herds pass through an area their hooves break up the hardened earth, so rainwater can seep into the soil, while also helping new plant seeds to sprout – much like how farmers till the land for crop cultivation.

Enabling the land to thrive

Wild herds are constantly moving, so not all grasses are eaten. Plants that have not been grazed are trampled down, creating a litter of leaves and stems that cover bare soil. This makes seasonal rainfall more effective by reducing runoff and evaporation, so more water soaks into the soil to nourish plant roots and microbial life.

Grasses have adapted to herbivores in order to thrive. They grow upwards from the base and do not shed their leaves. If left ungrazed, the accumulated stems and leaves on the top start to block sunlight from reaching the new growth below, eventually killing the plant.

In nature, herbivores prevent this from happening by periodically ‘pruning’ the top of the grasses to enable the new leaf buds below to receive sunlight, effectively restarting the plants’ growth cycle and making them productive again. Healthy productive grasses, in turn, build soil fertility and resilience.

This is why, in seasonally dry regions, removing or reducing grazing animals will not revive the land. Instead, the opposite happens; grasses deteriorate further and the land becomes drier due to infrequent and insufficient grazing and trampling by animals. The disturbance is needed to keep grasses and soils in a healthy, resilient state.

Nature’s vision

The role of predators

The healthiest grasslands are home to the largest number of herbivores, with hundreds of thousands of roaming buffalos, wildebeest, zebras, bison, and deer. In these truly natural conditions, the grazing and trampling activities of animals have a restorative impact, largely due to the presence of predators such as lions, hyenas and wolves.

Predators hunting in packs play a key role in keeping herbivores bunched up in vast herds and constantly on the move. This ensures larger areas of soil and grasses receive adequate disturbance and fertilising, but once the herds move on the intensity is minimised, allowing the land to recover and regenerate until they return again.

Often, overpopulation of large native herbivores has been assumed to be the cause of land degradation in many national parks or game reserves, when the real problem is the absence of natural predators.

Without predators or hunting packs of sufficient size, herbivores are no longer bunched up in huge herds and moved around, as nature intended. Instead, the animals are scattered across the land, grazing as individuals or in small groups, leading to inadequate disturbance. They also tend to stay too long in the same area, which can result in overgrazing.

For millions of years, herbivores have co-evolved with soil, grasses and predators so they complement each other and thrive. Understanding the synergy of these ancient relationships is the key to managing grassland degradation through regenerative forms of agriculture.


Land degradation is becoming one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. In fact, across 168 affected countries, vast areas of former habitable and fertile land are in the process of turning to desert.

This human-caused process known as desertification is where fertile land becomes increasingly dry and bare despite no change in annual rainfall. It is primarily a consequence of soil-depleting agricultural practices such as crop monocultures, chemical fertilisers and overgrazing.

Once living, now leaving

Soil is a hugely undervalued natural resource performing many life-giving processes that keep us alive, yet it is estimated that around 75 billion tons of soil are eroded annually, mostly from farmland.

Healthy, living soil is what grows our food and nourishes our bodies. It absorbs and holds water (the greatest reservoir of non-frozen fresh water available), filters biological toxins, purifies our ground water, and stores much more carbon than the atmosphere.

Desertification therefore, which is a result of soil erosion, is a major and underestimated source of water scarcity, mass rural population migration, famine, poverty and global warming.

Each year, the spread of desertification is creating an increasingly inhospitable planet, affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Without water and food, populations are left with little choice than to migrate to more hospitable areas or urban cities. The UN estimates that by 2030 another 135 million people will be forced to move from desertified land.

Desertification in grasslands

Desertification occurs mostly in the world’s natural grassland regions, home to nearly two billion people; however, its effect is even greater. This is a global phenomenon that threatens everybody, because 70 per cent of our food comes from grassland regions, and the soil health of those regions is intimately linked to fresh water availability and climate change.

Fortunately, many individuals and communities around the world are taking action to stop the spread of desertification through various forms of regenerative agriculture. In a lot of cases, and surprisingly, grazing livestock is used as a key tool for grassland restoration.

Against the prevailing belief in society, a growing number of farmers and visionaries are proving that livestock grazing, when managed properly, can help dramatically reverse desertification, and in turn climate change, on a scale that no technology can accomplish, and at minimum cost.

Regenerative grazing

Multi-functionality of good husbandry

Regenerative livestock agriculture is a way of grazing animals to revive and enhance the health of grassland environments. Farmers practising this approach on their land carefully plan stocking densities and rotation regimes to effectively use the grazing, trampling and dunging behaviours of animals to boost soil life, species diversity in pasture, and wildlife activity.

For example:

  • Grazers restore fertility on depleted land by recycling grass into nitrogen-rich urine and dung, rejuvenating the soil and thus the plants and the grazers that eat them.
  • Animal dung also provides an important contribution to the food web. A cowpat can be home to more than 250 species of insects, which are vital for feeding not only soil life but also birds, reptiles and many other animals up the food chain.
  • The hooves of herbivores are nature’s tools for planting seeds. They help break up hard surfaces to improve germination, tread the seeds deeper into the soil to protect them from wind or drying out in the sun, and allow rainwater to seep deeper in soil.
  • The rooting behaviour of pigs can be used to break up large areas of tough or invasive plant species, such as bracken and brambles, that have little ecological value, which then allows dormant seeds of other, more delicate native plant species in soil to become established.
  • Omnivores like pigs, ducks and chickens are good grazers, but as they require protein in their diet to stay healthy they also help control pests and parasites in pastures.

Signs of regeneration and increased biological activity are evident just days after a mob of animals have grazed in an area and moved on. But we are only seeing half the picture. As well as restoring the biotic community above the ground, the grazers’ activities have also been enhancing life below, in the soil itself.


Preserving healthy soil

Soil is the foundation of all agricultural life, let alone terrestrial life. Soil health is critical to the land’s capacity to renew itself and build resistance against natural calamities such as floods and droughts. In nature, no other process builds deeper and more fertile soil than the partnership between grasses and herbivores.

Soil restoration and preservation is the basis of renewable agriculture. Without it, farming practices will progressively erode soil fertility, water availability and forage until the land is no longer usable or habitable. Therefore, soil health should be the appropriate measure of food quality or sustainable farming practices.

Why else is the ecological restoration of grasslands important?

Heritage breed chickens used to restore degraded grasslands on Sommerlad farm

Reversing desertification

Natural grasslands cover a third of the Earth’s land surface. Thanks to the dramatic soil-building capabilities of the grass-grazer relationship, the soils of these vast grasslands can move the greatest amounts of carbon and water from the atmosphere into the ground.

This process of sequestration has been going on for millions of years. Grasslands have developed the deepest, richest water and carbon holding soils than any other ecosystem.

Sadly, however, 70 per cent of the world’s grasslands are in the process of desertification. Each year, billions of tons of soil are eroded, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the air while diminishing the land’s ability to store water and support life.

Perhaps no other person has done more to bring to light the restorative impact that the ancient soil-grass-herbivore symbiosis has on desertification and climate change than wildlife biologist and farmer Allan Savory.

Counterintuitive wisdom

For some time, most scientists have believed that a major cause of desertification is having too many animals grazing on the land. Allan Savory discovered that this is not the case. The problem is rather how the animals graze.

In fact, he surmised that the dilemma arose because there were often insufficient animals on the land. He found that the healthiest native grasslands happen to have the largest number of grazing animals: wildebeest, zebras, elephants and other herbivores. But the key factor in these landscapes was that these animals roam together in large herds and are constantly moving.

In truly natural grazing systems, herbivores live in the presence of predators such as lions, wolves and hyenas, which keep the animals tightly bunched up and on the move. This has an important impact on soil and grass.

Grazing nature’s way

The herding of grazing animals by predators minimises overgrazing. Constant movement also means that by the time the herds return to the area, the grazed plants have had sufficient time to recover.

Another benefit of natural grazing systems is that large herds trample ungrazed grasses to the ground, creating a plant litter over soil. Their hooves break up hardened surfaces and create small pockets in the ground, which together with litter enables soil to absorb more rainwater and promote the germination of new seeds, leading to tighter spacing between grasses.

For example, you can put a thousand cattle in a 50-acre pasture for six hours in Spring and the grasses will grow back denser and healthier. But put only one or two cows on a thousand acres for six months and the land will deteriorate, because the soil and grasses are not receiving the adequate disturbance from grazing and trampling that they need.

Holistic grazing

Allan Savory’s holistic approach to solving desertification is more complex than routine grazing rotations, of course. The timing, intensity and frequency of grazing, and the stocking densities, are unique to each environment and also vary each year according to the land’s condition.

For more than five decades, the results of Savory’s radical ideas about grassland restoration have enlightened many farmers, scientists and ecologists. His charity organisation, The Savory Institute, has collaborated with many people across the globe to successfully regenerate millions of acres of desertified grasslands, from South Africa to Mexico, North America to Australia.

Regenerating the soil of grasslands worldwide, and thus its dramatic water and carbon sequestering capabilities, has huge implications for tackling climate change and improving the wellbeing of billions of people.

One other promising discovery from Savory’s work is that the greater the number and diversity of animals that are grazing as nature intended, the faster the land heals. Soils and grasses have evolved in this collaborative way, and should go on doing so.

It goes against everything we have been told to believe, but all one has to do is observe nature in its totality, not in isolation. The void that presently exists in the number of grazing herds can be filled by livestock and wild herbivores. Managed the right way, regenerative grazing is a solution to the needs of all – wildlife, livestock and humans living together on the land.

Climate change – carbon farmers

Racka sheep have evolved with native Puszta grassland ecology for over 1000 years

Soil as a carbon sink

Can cows help fight climate change?

Yes, because cattle, like all grazing animals when properly managed on pasture, are the most natural and powerful way to build soil, which is nature’s largest and most effective carbon sink and can store more carbon than the atmosphere.

Historically, much of the Earth’s carbon has been contained in soil, particularly in grasslands. The deep, carbon-rich soils of the grasslands have accumulated over millions of years thanks to the grass-herbivore relationship.

Why does soil need carbon? Because it’s the primary element for soil to create fertility and hold water. That’s why the world’s major crop belts are former grasslands. If you ever see rich, fertile soil, it’s jet black. That’s carbon.

The danger of desertification

How does soil receive carbon? The process is known as photosynthesis. Plants remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and convert it to soil carbon, then their root systems transfer it down into the ground where it’s stored indefinitely, unless the land is disturbed or becomes bare.

When soil is exposed to the air, soil carbon combines with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere again as CO2. Renowned Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones says, ‘every tonne of carbon lost from the soil adds 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere’.

Modern crop farming, through tilling and harvesting, exposes huge stretches of soil, contributing to the relentless spread of desertification worldwide. Such agriculture practices are responsible for adding more carbon to the air than the burning of fossil fuels.

So even if we stop burning fossil fuels, global warming will not be solved because there will still be billions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Much of that excess carbon hovering in the air is supposed to be down in the soil.

Grazing animals helps sequester carbon

Since nearly a third of the Earth’s land mass is degraded grassland, the potential to reverse the release of CO2 by regenerating its soils is substantial. In fact, grassland restoration is recognised by top climate scientists and world humanity organisations such as the UN as the only possibility for the large-scale reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Grasses, due to their more rapid growth cycle, pump more carbon from the air into the soil than trees. However, only actively growing grasses will inhale carbon. When grasses are left ungrazed they reach a point at which they start to decay, stopping the carbon sequestering process. Dying grasses also release CO2 into the atmosphere.

That’s why grazing animals are crucial to the carbon cycle in grassland ecosystems. By periodically pruning the top of the grasses, they remove the decaying material and enable the plants to restart their growth cycle. The grasses are therefore kept in a highly productive state and actively inhaling atmospheric carbon to produce new leaves and stems.

The value of grasslands over forests

Unlike grasses, trees don’t have a natural pruning relationship with animals, so they are not as efficient in carbon sequestration. Hence, the deepest and richest soils in the world are not in forests, but in grasslands where herbivores live and graze.

While trees also store carbon and have other benefits over grasses, planting forests is not a viable solution for desertification or climate change, because trees take longer to grow to a point where they become effective. More importantly, trees require lots of water to live and grow, and not many environments receive enough rainfall to support forests.

In China for example, which is one of the countries worst affected by desertification, they have been planting billions of trees for decades in order to try and stop the spread of desert in the north. But the results are mixed, as most of the affected regions are originally grasslands. Many of the trees have died off and this has accelerated desertification in some places by draining scarce water from the soil and groundwater tables.

The Gobi desert alone continues to consume 3,600 square kilometres of grasslands annually.

Choose nature’s way of storing carbon

In 2014, atmospheric carbon rose above 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in five million years. According to climate scientists, reducing carbon levels to 350 ppm is imperative if the planet is to remain liveable.

Promisingly, the most conservative estimate shows that if we can restore the carbon storage in more than half of the grasslands globally, reducing atmospheric carbon to 350 ppm can be achieved. In the process, we can produce healthier food, transform deserts into habitable land again and grow wildlife.

The tools and knowledge are available to do this. Farmers and ecological visionaries around the world are proving that managing the grazing of livestock the right way can regenerate soils and grasses, and remove massive amounts of carbon from the air and put it back in the ground.

No high technology or big budgets are required, just sunlight, soil, grass and grazers – the way nature has been doing it for millions of years.