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Keeping Cattle: Cause or Cure for Climate Crisis?

We’ve run posts on Alan Savory’s Holistic Management a few times (here, here and here for example), but for those who can’t get enough, here’s another for good measure. This is a 1-hour lecture given in Dublin at the end of 2009. It’s well worth a listen.

Allan Savory argued that while livestock may be part of the problem, they can also be an important part of the solution. He has demonstrated time and again in Africa, Australia and North and South America that, properly managed, they are essential to land restoration. With the right techniques, plant growth is lusher, the water table is higher, wildlife thrives, soil carbon increases and, surprisingly, perhaps four times as many cattle can be kept.


  1. I struggle to see the relevance of this piece to the Australian landscape. Unlike in Africa and the united states, Australia has no big pack predators. As such our native grazers do not need to live in tight herds like cows and sheep instinctively do. Instead, we have kangaroos who travel in mobs of 10-12 animals and impact the plants lightly. I think that if you tried the approach suggested in the video, you would give introduced grass species (like African Lovegrass) a competitive edge over our native pastures which have not evolved for such high animal impact grazing.

  2. Thanks for posting this video, it was great to watch this as I’m currently reading “Holistic Management” thanks to the last Allan Savory video you posted. This looks like a big part of the solution, perhaps the quickest, most large-scale way we can deal with climate change. Exciting stuff.

  3. Got a feeling the roos in Oz did once have a natural predator. The Aborigines. And I reckon before they came along, there were other big predators they wiped out. No big predators – pretent, design, mimic, recreate. IMJ Allan Savory is spot on. And his book is so clever, so intuitive, so very much much filled with wonderful stories and observations. Great stuff.

  4. Attn: Jess,
    I don’t know what your background or profession is. I would be great if people using this site could give there full names when making such statements.

    It might pay you to do some research on Australian history, with a particular focus looking at pre and post settlement of the first australians.

    A good book for you to read would be ‘The Future eaters’ By Prof Tim Flannery.
    Heres a brief for you: Australian megafauna are a number of large animal species in Australia, often defined as species with body mass estimates of greater than 30 kilograms, or equal to or greater than 30% greater body mass than their closest living relatives. Many of these species became extinct during the Pleistocene (16,100±100 – 50,000 years before present).
    The cause of the extinction is an active and contentious field of research. It is hypothesised that with the arrival of humans (around 48,000-60,000 years ago), hunting and the use of fire to manage their environment may have contributed to the extinction of the megafauna. Increased aridity during peak glaciation (about 18,000 years ago) may have also contributed to the extinction of the megafauna. Some proponents claim a change in the climate alone caused extinction of the megafauna, but these arguments have to account for the fact that megafaunal species comfortably survived two million years of climatic oscillations, including a number of arid glacial periods, before their sudden extinction.
    New evidence based on accurate optically stimulated luminescence and uranium-thorium dating of megafaunal remains suggests that humans were the ultimate cause of the extinction of megafauna in Australia. The dates derived show that all forms of megafauna became extinct in the same rapid timeframe — approximately 47,000 years ago — the period of time in which humans first arrived in Australia. The dates derived suggest the main mechanism for extinction was human burning of a landscape that was then much less fire-adapted; analysis of oxygen and carbon isotopes from teeth of megafauna indicate sudden, drastic, non-climate-related changes in vegetation and the diet of surviving marsupial species, as well as the loss of megafaunal species. Further analysis of oxygen and carbon isotopes from teeth of megafauna indicate the arid regional climates at the time of extinction were similar to arid regional climates of today, and that the megafauna were well adapted to arid climates.
    The Marsupial Lion (Thylacoleo carnifex, the “murderous (or ‘meat-cutting’) marsupial lion” from thylakos – pouch, leo – lion, carnifex – murderer, tormentor, ‘butcher’) is an extinct species of carnivorous marsupial mammal that lived in Australia from the early to the late Pleistocene (1,600,000–46,000 years ago). Despite its name it is not closely related to the lion, but is a member of the order Diprotodontia.

    These type of predators are what this landscape is missing!

    I think what you will find and I’m seeing this a lot is that this wide brown land of ours needs predators. Kangaroos are getting out of control and having a dramatic effect on the the ability of the native pasture. These Kangaroos no longer travel long distances to feed but stick to areas where they know can get a feed with out the threat of something eating them.
    Dingos are just about non-exsistant.

    This is a hot topic. I think HM has huge advantages for this country. Some parts mite need to be tweaked.

    I dont know what part of the country you live in Jess but where I am, the mob sizes are around 10 to 50! And the problem there is hunters are coming in and taking the large males and that letting the smaller bucks run wild and mate with who ever the please!

    Diversity + Soil carbon + Soil Biology = A healthy landscape.

    Thanks for the Post Craig. It would be great if you could use your Real NAME Jess. Thanks.

  5. Jess: Interesting observation.

    Are you saying we should only have native species in our designs? Should farmers switch from sheep and cattle to kangaroo farming instead of trying to manage the range for the non native sheep/cattle already there? It’s an interesting question for sure.

    I wonder if changing grazing patterns in a cool temperate zone (here in UK) would improve the sward, I have no idea if the grasses are native, I imagine native landscape here would have been mostly forest with little or no ‘prairie’.

  6. Perfect timing.

    I am looking forward to getting cattle (Dexters) onto my property this year. Already have keyline and planting of multi-species pasture grasses, legumes and forbs planned along with getting rid of the gums, and mass planting tagasaste, natives sans gums, tons of willows, and deciduous European trees. The feral kangaroos marked for the cull can make high quality low fat dog food for the working dogs or compost fodder where their quality nutrients can be returned to the soil and worked over and over again in the carbon cycles.

    Cattle will allow me to increase the carbon and nutrient cycles into the soils that much quicker and with a benefit of every 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years provide my family the yearly supply of meat which is important now that beef prices are set to rise even higher after lamb prices shot through the roof.


  7. Hi Folks

    Jess, it’s worth having a look at the work of Col Seis. He has used animal impact (sheep predominantly) along with direct sowing of winter grains into summer active perennial natives to create one of the healthiest native grasslands in the country.

    A word of warning for all those who start drooling looking at those pictures. I’ve seen similar pictures of paddocks here in Australia on the HM Australia website, but the thing is they have tended to coincide with years of good rainfall.

    We have a paddock that we are doing work on here at Mulloon Creek. At the start of last year, following 10 years of drought and too many roos in the bush, I could have taken pictures that look like a cross between the 2005 and 2006 pictures above. It wasn’t pretty. With the new fencing in, the grazing practices have recently changed in that paddock, but that hasn’t been the cause of the grass cover that easily surpasses the 2007 picture above. The cause in this case was if anything increased rest along with some decent rainfall finally. The best part of the paddock is definitely the areas that I keylined last Spring though!

    Dave Marsh is one of the best farmers and graziers in the country, and although he has definitely seen benefits from time-controlled grazing (using a Holistic Management decision making framework), he warns “Don’t overestimate how quickly succession will take place”. In his experience, those who make the grand claims usually haven’t actually practiced it.

    Cheers, Cam

  8. Nick- my real name *is* Jess. Looks like my website didn’t link in with my last comment, I posed it on my phone so maybe that’s why. I am an architect. So green buildings are more my thing. But I am big into Natural Sequence Farming, based in South-East NSW near Canberra.

    The predators you are talking about are from the Pleistocene era. Do you really think that the grasses haven’t evolved even the slightest bit since then? You can change the nature of plants and animals in just a few generations (there was recently an article published in Fairfax media that talked about how different Australian introduced species of plants like dandelions are compared to their British counterparts, for example). If these predators haven’t existed since the Pleistocene era, the plants that lived alongside them have also changed fundamentally.

    I personally don’t see the existance of kangaroos as a big issue, they are, after all, a wonderful food source if people are willing to manage them. Hard hoofed animals like cows and sheep churn up the soil and soft grasses and help cause erosion, especially along creeks and gullies. If you can figure out a way of trying out HM with animals that aren’t going to hard-hoof your land to bits, give it a go by all means. But in my opinion, cows aren’t your silver bullet.

  9. Jess,

    I haven’t been studying HM long, but from what I’ve seen, it seems there’s no reason the system couldn’t be tailored to Australia. You can see some examples on their website, a picture of the results in one part of Australia is included in the slideshow on the homepage.

    RE. evolution, I don’t see why this would be an issue. Perhaps you can explain more?

  10. Peter definitely sounds like he’s into natural sequence farming haha. Keep up the good work! Sounds like you’ve got the farm sorted. If you’re interested in Dexters, have a look at Square Meaters. It’s also a smaller breed but it puts on weight very early on.

  11. Very interesting talk by someone who is obviously knowledgeable.

    However, I’m not sure how you place this within the larger permaculture framework of using perennial species to build system fertility and biodiversity. He seems quite determined that only grasslands can work in environments that lack all-year rain, yet we know via greening the desert and other such projects that you can take the most water-deprived landscape and grow a food forest of trees which, even after it’s abandoned, continues to build fertility even after being abandoned by humans.

    One thing he mentioned that was new to me (perhaps because I grew up in a humid climate) was that grass/ground cover could not degrade in low-rainfall areas without animals chewing them up and the bacteria in their stomach processing them.

    The way he describes it (from what I can glean from the video), it’s almost impossible to maintain a healthy ecosystem in an area that does not get steady rain all year long without the presence of large herds of animals. I just don’t think that’s accurate.

  12. I don’t think we need to make rangelands viable,except where are natural prairies where local grazers like the bison in the States is living from thousands of year,no cattles or sheeps. We need forests,we need to convert those rangelands back to forest.
    Let’s make an effort to be more vegetarian drinking very little milk.It will be better for everyone.
    Pietro Zucchetti

  13. Just to clarify, there is absolutly no evidence to suggest Aboriginal people had anything to do with megafauna exstinction, if they did even hunt them why are their no megafauna bones with tool marks? we will never find out what happened if people ignore the evidence that doesnt suit their theory, Australia had the Thylacine, the big issue for grazing is soil productivity/biodiversity, mostly caused through soil compaction due to hard hoofed animals, Im not sure anything can be done other than giving the land a break

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