Photograph by Maryn McKenna
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Ecologist Allan Savory speaks to farmers in a field at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.
Photograph by Maryn McKenna
The Plate

Is More Cattle Grazing the Solution to Saving Our Soil?

In a scrubby pasture in deep southwest Georgia, reclaimed from growing pesticide-drenched cotton, Allan Savory—ecologist, philosopher, TED speaker—stoops to pluck a blade of grass.

“What can we do to increase productivity, make this pasture more diverse, get more species of grasses to return here?” he asks the 50 people clustered around him in paddock boots and seed-company caps. They look at him raptly, and he gives them the answer they drove hours to hear: “We can use livestock. Livestock is the most powerful tool we have.”

Savory, 80, is the originator of a compelling—and in some quarters deeply controversial—theory that argues that that everything we know about maintaining natural landscapes is wrong. Instead of fearing overgrazing, and taking livestock off land to rest it, he argues that most grazing lands should have more livestock added, because their movement and their waste and their relentless chomping stimulate grasses to grow. When grasslands restore themselves, he adds, they sequester carbon; so increasing the density of cattle and other grazing animals not only restores the environment, it protects against climate change.

“Without agriculture, we cannot have a church, we cannot have an orchestra, a choir, a university, a company,” he told them. “Everything we humans do is 1,000 percent dependent on agriculture. Yet if you looked at our world from space you would consider us a desert-making species. Agriculture is not doing too well.”—Allan Savory

His passion for these principles led Savory, a native and part-time resident of what is now Zimbabwe, to found the Savory Institute in Boulder, and to speak all over the world. That was what brought him to Bluffton, Georgia, where recently he led ranchers and farmers on lecture walks through the fields of White Oak Pastures, the biggest organic farm in Georgia and one of the largest grassfed-beef operations in the United States.

White Oak belongs to Will Harris III, who is the fourth generation of his family to work the farm and the first to turn it away from commodity cow-calf production. (See A Family Rejects the Industrial Model and Rebuilds Their Farm.) Since the 1980s, he has been turning the 3,000-acre property into a hub for innovation, rejecting hormones, antibiotics, artificial insemination, and chemical fertilizers. Over the years, he has added four other four-footed species and five types of poultry that move through the fields in a carefully planned rotation.

But, he tells me as we bump over the lush pastures of his oldest fields, there is always more you can do. When he heard about Savory’s principles, he decided to investigate. He became a “hub” of the Savory Institute, effectively a satellite location where farmers who work in a similar climate can see how the Institute’s ideas work.

“If you think about it, there are a lot of people out there advocating for and validating good animal welfare: Global Animal Partnership and Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane, and we have been certified by all of them,” Harris says. “But there is nobody advocating for and validating good land use. Most of what I do, I figured out on my own—and when you do that, you also figure out there is a hell of a lot more to learn. So when I learned about the Savory Institute, I figured I had to know more.”

Savory’s precepts for livestock raising are embedded in a decision-making system he calls Holistic Management. It requires close observation of pastures’ geography and grasses—the spreadsheet mapping out White Oak’s grazing plan covered one end of a wide table—but it is based on observations he made as a young game ranger in Africa: that the natural movement of cattle on grasslands, spreading out and then clustering tightly, is dictated by defending themselves from predators. On modern ranches where predators are excluded, clustering cattle into smaller pastures and moving them frequently simulates that natural movement.

As he has described it in several books and many interviews, Savory came to these realizations through his observations as a game warden in Africa—and also, perhaps, as penance. (In an interview that followed his TED Talk, which has racked up more than 3 million views, he describes burning grasslands and causing the Zambian government to kill thousands of elephants, decisions he deeply regrets.) The night before his Bluffton pasture walk, Savory took a packed auditorium at Andrew College, a small independent school in tiny Cuthbert, Georgia, through the evolution of his thinking, showing slides of land parcels that were put aside for conservation but turned to desert.

“Without agriculture, we cannot have a church, we cannot have an orchestra, a choir, a university, a company,” he tells them. “Everything we humans do is 1,000 percent dependent on agriculture. Yet if you looked at our world from space you would consider us a desert-making species. Agriculture is not doing too well.”

It was a message the audience seemed ready to hear. Alex Miller, a University of Tennessee professor and seventh-generation farmer, tells me how he and his wife Shannon are re-fencing their farm’s 20-acre paddocks into 5-acre parcels to follow Savory’s recommendation of clustering animals tightly for short periods of time. Drausin Wulsin, who operates Grassroots Graziers in Cynthiana, Ohio with his wife Susan, says Savory’s principles have guided their farming for 20 years. The couple run 150 beef cattle, 300 sheep 200 hens and a few hogs on an 1,150-acre family farm, and operate a grassfed dairy.

“We changed all our land from cropland to grassland,” Wulsin says. “We installed water systems in all the fields. We move the cattle and sheep twice a day. It’s a constantly demanding process of assessing what is needed, finding unobvious solutions to complex problems.”

Savory’s statements don’t always meet with so much appreciation. No doubt that’s partly because he can be prickly and blunt. On a ride through the White Oak property, he told Harris to stop casting seed over his pastures, recommending instead that he trust the effect of grazing to bring diversity back. Harris, who has invested heavily in restoring the biodiversity of his pastures, visibly bristled.

More substantively, though, Savory meets with resistance because his recommendations contradict what land managers have believed for years: that too many livestock on a parcel of land will overgraze it, destroy vegetation beyond its ability to recover, and lead to the formation of deserts. Researchers critical of his conclusions have charged that continuous grazing, in which animals are allowed to wander freely, produces as much or more plant regrowth and live weight of cattle as the rotational grazing he champions.

Even advocates who support his push to remove cattle from feedlots and return them to grass, such as Denis Hayes, one of the creators of Earth Day, say that his assertions about using pasture to sequester atmospheric carbon are unrealistic. And popular science writers George Monbiot of the GuardianGeorge Monbiot of the Guardian and James McWilliams of SlateJames McWilliams of Slate, who point out that climate-protection campaigns call for reducing cattle herds, dismiss his pronouncements as reassurance for meat-eaters who want to support the planet but don’t plan to give up steak.

Those criticisms have been widely circulated. Indeed, Savory himself says in his TED talk that his recommendations to double or quadruple the amount of cows on land parcels feel “unthinkable.” But none of that seemed to make a difference to his eager audiences in south Georgia, who came to hear him because they feel putting cattle back on grass is more appropriate for their properties, more humane for the animals, and more sustainable in the long term. To them, he was visionary, and reassuring.

“You are the experts on your land,” he tells them. “There is nobody in the world who knows your land as well as you do.”