Too much rest damages the veld and only intense livestock hoof action can restore vegetation and reverse the effects of desertification, a major cause of climate change. Four decades since he gave his first course on holistic farming in South Africa, holistic management pioneer Allan Savory returned to Graaff-Reinet for a three-day workshop. Heather Dugmore was there.

“A universal fear of running livestock in large numbers is the biggest cause of veld deterioration, soil erosion and desertification in the world. I said it 50 years ago and I am saying it again with urgency that hoof action, with an emphasis on large livestock hooves, is the secret to restoring degraded landscapes. They work the soil better than any machine can possibly do, and healthy soil creates healthy vegetation. By contrast, outdated notions of endlessly resting the land and decreasing animal numbers will accelerate our downfall.”

So says Zimbabwean-born Allan Savory who, now in his seventies, is as committed to healing the veld as he has always been. More than 70 farmers from throughout South Africa attended his three-day workshop in Graaff-Reinet in mid-April, and many more had to be turned away for lack of space.

Finally his message is being heard. From the United Nations to farmers all over the world, Allan’s call for a Brown Revolution, which focuses on what we are doing to the soil, is taking hold.

“The soil is the greatest storage space for both carbon and fresh water; greater than all the dams, lakes and rivers in the world, but we have buggered it up,” Allan explains. To restore healthy soil in the world’s extensive grasslands that are seasonally humid and dry requires large numbers of large herbivores on the land, tightly herded together, grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating on a piece of land and then moving on after a brief period, just as the great wildlife herds once did. Those herds are gone in most parts of the world, and we now need to use livestock, particularly cattle, to achieve what Allan calls “herd effect, animal impact and hoof action”.

“Soils, plants and animals developed together and need to be managed together in a socially, environmentally and economically sound manner. Holistic farming sets out to achieve this,” continues Allan. “It is not my concept or a new concept. Sixty years ago French biochemist and farmer Andre Voisin published the evidence that overgrazing of plants was not related to animal numbers, contrary to what mainstream range scientists believe. He showed that grazing and plant recovery was all about time, about the number of days the plants are grazed and the number of days before they are grazed again.”

Allan explains that an integral principle of holistic farming is to time the grazing and restoration periods to achieve maximum soil and plant biodiversity and vigour. Using holistic planned grazing, farmers are able to plan their grazing to mimic nature. This requires creating increasing numbers of smaller camps, with a high density of animals grazing each camp over a shorter time period. Alternatively, livestock can be herded during by day in tight groups in larger camps to achieve the same effect. The vegetation that had just been grazed is then given a period of anything from 30 days to 9 months to recover, depending on its recovery rate, the environment and the overall management plan.

Savory points out that because of the way humans have been running livestock, the land is being over-rested. “Over-resting destroys many perennial grasses,” he says. “This is what happens in many rotational grazing situations where you have animals in large camps grazing or overgrazing plants in certain sections while plants in large tracts or in other sections are over-rested by never being grazed. They become moribund and unproductive because the plants and the soil are never disturbed.”

It has been an uphill battle for Allan to show the wisdom of what is today variously known as holistic farming, holistic range management or holistic veld management because conventional thinking through the decades proposed the exact opposite. In South Africa, for example, the government introduced a stock reduction plan some 50 years ago on the basis that the major cause of veld deterioration and soil erosion was overstocking. No one paid attention to men of insight like Allan Savory and the great South African vegetation specialist John Acocks, whose famous comment that the land was “understocked and overgrazed” was ignored by the government, conventional scientists and most farmers.

A few independent-minded farmers who understood what Allan and John were saying are today living proof of what well managed holistic veld management can achieve. These include the Jack family from Beaufort West and the Speedy family in Vryburg, both of whom met Allan in the sixties and have been farming holistically ever since.

Jennifer Speedy, who attended the workshop, farms with her father Sandy. They run 1 556 Nguni cattle on their farm in 240 grazing camps averaging  20ha, alternating  a 1 day grazing period with a recovery period of 60 or more days.

“Looking back 40 to 50 years later, I am convinced we took the right road although making many mistakes. If I could relive my life I would choose the same road again,” says Sandy. “Of course we had to learn the hard way about many things such as what grazing pressure is required, what constitutes a ‘too long’ grazing period, how long should the recovery period be, how to manage it so that the stock are in the correct areas of the farm at the appropriate times of the year, how to keep cow-calf pairs together in a relatively densely packed herd of breeding cows that are calving on the move, and how to supply water to a large herd constantly on the move.

“It has been hard work, but the rewards have made it worthwhile. Our beef production has doubled and is set to double again. Our stocking rate has increased from about 6 ha/MLU to 2, 5 ha/MLU. Our grass cover has become denser. The species composition of the grass sward is changing for the better. It is a far cry from where it all started. At this stage, the potential seems endless.”

It is this kind of testimony that debunks Allan’s detractors.

“Make no mistake, I have seen failures too in stop-start operations all over the world, but when the grazing is well planned and sound holistic management is in place, it cannot fail,” stresses Allan. Based in Boulder, Colorado, USA, the Savory Institute plans to restore 1-billion acres (404 million ha) of land by establishing 100 holistic agricultural hubs throughout the world, 40 of which will be in Africa.

“What I have to share are a few profound principles that can make a huge difference to people’s lives, and can not only yield 300% more profit than conventional approaches, but also change the course of our planet in these climate change times,” explains Allan.

“Climate change is the most serious threat that has ever faced humanity. A tsunami of global economic, social and environmental proportions is upon us and agriculture has a central role to play. At the moment agriculture is producing more eroding soil than food, but if we change our approach, livestock farmers will become the most important people in the world because we are the only ones capable of reversing desertification.”  Allan is convinced that, with greatly increased livestock numbers and holistic planned grazing, even deserts such as the Sahara in Africa or the Tihama in Yemen can be transformed.

To try and halt desertification, scientists have been advising governments that nomadic pastoralism all over the world be stopped. He cites the example of the US government that shot 50 000 Navaho sheep because of the belief that they were causing desertification. “But after they were removed the desertification got worse. The same happened in Africa after mass game culling programmes. The livestock and game wasn’t the problem, the problem was that there wasn’t sufficient animal impact and hoof action, and the animals were too sedentary,” he explains.

“The early Scottish shepherds understood this and spoke of the ‘golden hoof of the sheep’. Early writers in South Africa, such as Mostert, observed this and described the ‘thundering hooves of animals, healthy grasslands and reedbeds’ where now the same land with the same rainfall is dry and desertifying. We need to hammer the land with mass hoof action to stimulate litter build-up, which slows down water and soil runoff, evaporation and wind erosion. This encourages plant growth and increases plant cover. The seed stores are all there, waiting for the right environment to germinate, but they cannot germinate in compacted, capped soil.”

Many farmers believe that burning stimulates plant growth, but Allan points out the damage this causes.

“Africa is burning over 2 billion acres of grasslands a year, the immense carbon emission significantly contributing to climate change and destroying the soil. Soil is a living organism like skin where, if you burn too much of it, it dies,” he says. “Dead soil cannot support healthy vegetation and each time you burn you destroy the litter between the plants, and ultimately the space between plants gets greater and greater. This is the opposite of what we want to achieve because we need the plants to be closely spaced to bind the soil and make the rainfall more effective. Too many scientists and farmers confuse ‘total rainfall’ with ‘effective rainfall’. A farmer with a higher total rainfall may have far less effective rainfall than a farmer with a lower total rainfall, depending on how each manages his soil and vegetation.”

A fine example of what can be achieved with effective rainfall and hoof action of both livestock and wildlife is the 2 630ha Dimbangombe Ranch in the Hwange communal land near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, which has an annual but erratic rainfall of 600mm. The Africa Centre for Holistic Management, of which Allan is chairman, manages the land in partnership with local chiefs.

“Ten years ago the veld was in a bad state. The best areas had been 90% bare for over 30 years because of continuous grazing and frequent burning,” recalls Allan.

By increasing livestock numbers by 400% (500 cattle and some goats) and holistic planned grazing, veld degradation has been reversed, dead soil has been transformed into thriving grassland, and rivers, streams and pools that had dried up now flow again.

The livestock graze intensively as one large, undivided herd from dawn to sunset under the close supervision of fulltime herders, who herd from the front to control the pace at which the animals move. The herd is never spread; it operates as a concentrated unit occupying less than one hectare at any given time, and moving constantly. Because the livestock roam freely on the same land as wildlife, the livestock is herded into portable kraals for the night. “We achieve extremely high animal impact in the kraals and we use them for no more than seven consecutive nights to heal any seriously eroding gullies or extremely compacted bare soil,” Allan explains. Fixed-point photography over several years has monitored the dramatic reversal of desertification on these sites.

He advises anyone starting to farm holistically to take the official stocking rate for the area as general stocking guideline, but to start with double that rate. “Start your planned grazing straight away and then build up from there. Take fixed point photos each season and you’ll be amazed at the recovery of the veld and by how many animals you can run on your farm after a few years.”