Photo by Sara Rubinstein
Spencer and Abbey Smith could not have picked a less promising year to take over Springs Ranch, an 1,800-acre property in far northeastern California previously run by Spencer's parents. At the best of times, the Surprise Valley, where the ranch is located, is a parched high desert, receiving a meager 16 inches of precipitation a year, virtually all of which falls in the late fall and winter. The young couple, who have a 7-year-old daughter, began managing the ranch in 2014, during the height of California's recent drought. To add to their difficulties, they would somehow have to expand the existing cattle herd to generate enough money to make the ranch profitable.
I visited Springs Ranch three years later. As we took a walk across the land, my reaction was, "Desert? What desert?" Pastures descended in green waves to the shores of Upper Alkali Lake. The jagged, dun-colored peaks of Nevada's Hays Mountains rose majestically from the opposite bank. Spencer, who sported a straw cowboy hat and wore a pearl-buttoned, long-sleeved shirt over jeans and scuffed work boots, pointed to a knoll that was covered in chest-high grass. "That was all bare ground two years ago," he said.
We reached the border between the Smiths' land and their neighbors'. It was obvious where one ranch ended and the other began. Smith's was lush. On the other side of the fence, stands of scraggly, inedible water hemlock predominated. "Some of our neighbors still think we're nuts," Spencer said. "But people are beginning to notice. They can see the fence lines. They can see that we are running more animals."
Despite the historic drought, Springs Ranch was now producing 40 percent more forage than before Spencer and Abbey took charge—allowing them to increase their cattle numbers from 150 to 230, about four times as many per acre as nearby ranches keep on similar land. Costs dropped, too, because they no longer had to buy fertilizer or spend money on tractor fuel (and put in 80 hours of labor) to harrow hardened cow pies into the soil. When we gathered for a cup of coffee in the ranch-house kitchen, Spencer's father, Steve, an older, gruffer version of his son, said, "The land has gotten a hell of a lot better, although I'd never admit it to him." He tipped his head toward Spencer. "There's a lot more biology in the soil. We rely less on the cowboy stuff and more on nature."
The Smiths are among a growing number of farmers who passionately advocate regenerative agriculture, a new method of raising animals made famous by Allan Savory, who has launched a global network of farms employing his techniques. They believe that to farm sustainably is no longer enough. Instead, farmers have a duty to go further, by steadily improving their land with the goal of bringing it closer to what was here before the advent of modern agriculture, a time when lush prairies covered much of the central United States. The grasses provided food for vast herds of bison and other herbivores that, in turn, fertilized the soil—a symbiotic relationship that promoted a hearty regrowth of vegetation, improved nutrient content and allowed the ground to hold more moisture. Regenerative agriculture attempts to mimic these conditions with livestock, such as cattle, sheep and goats.
Spencer Smith wades through a pasture on his California ranch. A few years ago, these fields were parched and far less vigorous, but they rebounded quickly under regenerative management. If degraded grasslands were turned around on a large scale, the Savory Institute estimates enough carbon could be sunk into the soil to lower greenhouse gas concentrations to preindustrial levels in a matter of decades.
Photo courtesy of Abbey Smith
In an era of global warming, Savory and his followers believe this method has a critical role to play that goes beyond putting meat on our plates. Regeneratively managed soil can trap and store vast amounts of carbon that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Exactly how much is still a matter of debate, but one study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture showed that areas covered by perennial grasses could store more than 20 metric tons of carbon per hectare (about 2.3 acres). Buried carbon is desperately needed to offset the depletion caused by modern, industrial farming techniques, which have caused the world's soils to lose between 50 and 70 percent of the carbon they once held. Getting carbon back underground has the potential to slow down, and even reverse, climate change. If advocates of regenerative farming are right, eating meat—the right meat—may be one of the best things you can do for the environment.
This notion, to put it mildly, runs contrary to the message that has been drummed into our heads for over a decade. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and other experts maintain that meat production is a major contributor to global warming; refraining from eating it is one simple way we can all reduce our carbon footprints. But the studies that initially led to that conclusion lump all beef production together. In fact, there are dramatically different ways to produce beef. Virtually all cows spend their early lives eating grasses and other forage on open pasture. But after about a year, most of them—97 percent in the United States—get trucked to large, centralized feedlots where they are fattened with grain (also trucked to the feedlots) before slaughter. This system of finishing cows at feedlots is energy-intensive and produces high carbon emissions. But a small percentage of cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pasture. Advocates say that this method of "grass-fed" beef production has a much lighter environmental footprint. Done regeneratively (using techniques that extend beyond simply being raised on grass), they believe ranching can actually remove more greenhouses gases like carbon and methane than it produces.
The Pioneer of Regenerative Agriculture
No one has had more influence on the development of regenerative farming than Allan Savory, the provocative 82-year-old president and founder of the Savory Institute, a Boulder, Colorado, nonprofit that supports the restoration of grasslands across the globe. Savory's career as a rangeland consultant has taken him to every continent except Antarctica. By his own account, he has trained between 10,000 and 15,000 ranchers whose livestock graze on nearly 40 million acres of pasture around the world. He calls his method of regenerative agriculture "holistic management and planned grazing."
Conventional livestock farmers often allow their animals to roam at will over an entire pasture. To prevent overgrazing, range-management experts advise limiting the number of cattle on the land or, alternatively, rotating the animals from paddock to paddock according to an arbitrary timetable. Savory says that both methods are wrong: "We've had about a hundred years of 'range science.' I hate that term because it's not science, it's range beliefs that assume scientific proportion. They come up with rotational grazing and other approaches on and on endlessly, and those have turned pastures into deserts."
Instead, he says, ruminants (any animal that feeds on grass) should be kept in tight herds in small sections of pasture and moved frequently—as soon as the forage has been lightly clipped but not destroyed. Timing is critical. After being browsed by the animals, the plants draw on nutrients stored in their roots to regrow leaves, and that new foliage provides energy that allows the plants to replenish their root systems. Overgrazing occurs if livestock feed again before this cycle runs its course, which can happen even with traditional rotational practices. The root systems weaken, eventually causing the plants to die. In regenerative grazing, animals return to an area only after the vegetation has fully recovered.
This practice has played a crucial role in Spencer and Abbey Smith's success. Under Spencer's father's traditional management, Springs Ranch had been divided into eight pastures. Now, there are 24 on the same acreage and those are divided into smaller sub-pastures. Cows used to spend two to three weeks in each paddock. Today, they spend only a day or two on a patch of land before Spencer and Steve ride out on their horses to move them.
Savory says his theory of livestock management replicates—and aims to restore—an ancient cycle. The original vegetation of the world's grasslands co-evolved with enormous herds of Cape buffalo, elephants, bison and other large grazers. These animals stayed in compact herds to protect themselves against predators and moved often to find grass unsullied by their urine and dung. Because they grazed for only a short time in any area, the forage plants rebounded rapidly, fertilized and watered by the animals' excrement. Their hooves trampled desiccated and inedible plants, thus increasing sunlight and nutrients for "good" vegetation and breaking up hard soil crusts, creating conditions conducive to water infiltration and seed germination. The crushed leaves and stalks from less desirable plants provided natural mulch that retained soil moisture and prevented runoff during rainstorms. The livestock's excrement added nutrients to the soil and further improved its ability to retain water. In turn, better soil produced bigger and thicker grasses that could support more animals. Better soil also harbored more carbon.
On the most rudimentary level, plants are natural pumps that suck carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it safely in the earth—a process called carbon sequestration. Through photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide in the air into carbon compounds that they use as food to grow their leaves and root systems. They also "share" carbon with beneficial fungi living on their roots. These fungi can trap that carbon deep underground—and keep it there—for thousands of years. Soil-dwelling bacteria that draw their energy by consuming methane also thrive in such environments, reducing the amount of that greenhouse gas (which is emitted as burps and farts by cattle, a major contributor of methane) in the atmosphere.
Savory insists that raising livestock is the only practical way to combat environmental destruction and global warming. "Humans have no ability to sequester atmospheric gases in the soils without livestock," he says. "We have only one option if we are serious about climate change. It cannot be done with current technology—nor any technology we can imagine. We have to change the public attitude from vilifying livestock to vilifying the current reductionist livestock-management practices."
The Roots of a Revolution
A wiry former rancher, soldier, game manager and politician from what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Savory is still as agile as an antelope. He favors khaki trousers held aloft with a home-tanned belt, and on occasions that demand footwear, old desert boots. His face, prone to smiling impishly, is weathered, tanned and deeply creased, and thinning white hair pokes out from a worn houndstooth flat cap. He and his wife, Jody Butterfield, divide the year between a comfortable pueblo home near Albuquerque and an off-the-grid thatched hut in Zimbabwe, where he is happy to pad around barefoot. "I don't like houses much. Or shoes," he tells me in a clipped accent that still carries echoes of the British Empire.
I met with him in a room that doubles as his office and den in Albuquerque. One side of the space could be the study of a mildly eccentric Oxford don. Shelves overflow with books, scientific journals, loose papers and a few briar pipes. The other side feels like a museum to Savory's early life. A fireplace is bordered floor to ceiling by two tusks from an elephant mistakenly killed during Savory's time as a wildlife manager. ("I have never shot animals to get trophies," he says.) One wall is dominated by a mounted tiger fish he caught in the Zambezi River, a fierce creature as big as my thigh with a mouthful of fangs that leave no doubt about the derivation of its name. The fireplace mantel is decorated with outmoded shotguns, Bowie knives and a black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, bearded Captain Savory, reclining against a bamboo screen beside a military rifle.
Savory came to his current views about livestock management after making what he calls "the saddest blunder of my life." After studying botany and zoology at the University of Natal in South Africa, he returned to his native Rhodesia to work as a biologist and game officer in 1956. "He would literally spend months in the bush," says his wife. He loved all of its resident wild animals, but had a special place in his heart for elephants. Nonetheless, with his head still filled with conventional theories about overgrazing being the cause of damage to grasslands, he convinced the government to cull 40,000 elephants to bring their population down to a level the land could sustain. But the theory backfired. The deterioration continued and, in fact, sped up. Too late, Savory realized that overgrazing wasn't the problem. But neither he nor anyone else had any idea what was causing the destruction. Determined to find the answer, he began ranching and consulting for other farmers in Africa, developing approaches that over the next decade led to holistic planned grazing.
Savory brought his methods to the United States in 1979, where his business as a rangeland consultant took off. His work is most effective on what he describes as "brittle" landscapes—grasslands that receive little rainfall or go for long periods each year with no precipitation at all. From the savannas of Africa to the plains of the American West, these lands cover more than 40 percent of the Earth's surface, according to United Nations estimates. Largely because of conventional herding practices, more than half of that area is overgrazed, barren, eroded and in danger of becoming desert. In areas where cattle are raised, nearly three-quarters of the land is seriously damaged. So the restorative potential for regenerative agriculture is immense.
And the results, Savory says, are stunning: "If you change the management of the land and begin to manage it holistically, I have yet to see a situation where there isn't measurable change for the good within the first year." In Zimbabwe, on the 7,500 acres at the Savory Institute's African Centre for Holistic Management, test areas showed a 270 percent increase in forage production and a 31 percent decrease in bare desert ground. More prolific pastures caused by adopting Savory's methods allowed the Oasis farm in Botswana to more than double its cattle herd on 45,000 acres from 1,900 head to over 4,000. Areas of badly eroded soil on a 6,000-acre ranch called Estancia Nevada, in Chile, became covered in carbon-sequestering vegetation. At the Rafter F Ranch in New Mexico, perennial grass species increased threefold—even as the number of cows grazing the land tripled. The formerly impermeable soil began to absorb rainfall so effectively that a well that had been dry for 50 years filled with nine feet of water. And at Brown's Ranch in Bismarck, North Dakota, soil health improved by leaps and bounds after owner Gabe Brown began managing the land regeneratively. Organic matter and rainwater uptake tripled, "and we can easily handle five times the number of cattle that we used to," says Brown, who also runs sheep and chickens and grows dozens of crops—all without using synthetic fertilizer, pesticides or fungicides. He credits the method for helping the ranch go from racking up debt to turning a healthy profit: "Some pretty striking changes have come about to the landscape."
Savory's transformative methods in action in the bone-dry Karoo region of South Africa: The land on the left side of this fence line started out as bare ground and small desert bushes several decades ago. The neighboring land on the right remained under conventional management over the same period.
Photo courtesy of Norman Kroon
Debating The Savory Approach
On assignments from the USDA in the early '80s, Savory provided training on regenerative practices to more than 2,000 federal employees over a two-year span. But his iconoclastic theories were so counter to the prevailing beliefs that his contract was canceled. "Since Galileo, it has been the fate of every scientist who discovered something that involved a major shift in scientific belief to be shunned or considered insane," he says. "Thankfully, I was already insane and had survived years of official, expert opposition."
David Briske, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, is one of those who vehemently oppose Savory's methods. Briske was lead author of a scathing rebuttal to Savory's 2013 TED talk (since viewed on YouTube more than 4 million times). In the article, published in the journal Rangeland, he wrote that Savory's claims are "not only unsupported by scientific information, but they are often in direct conflict with it," and argued that desertification—the technical word for once-productive land that is becoming desert—is caused by expanding human and livestock populations. To accommodate this growth, rangeland is being divided into increasingly smaller plots, and in order to make a living, impoverished farmers are forced to put more animals on their farms than the land can support.
According to Briske, rangelands are also poor at retaining carbon and could never absorb enough to seriously offset global warming. A recent report by the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford found that while grazing animals do have the potential to help with carbon sequestration, they only offset between 20 to 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that the grass-fed system produces. "There may be lots of benefits of grass-fed over industrial production, but there's this idea that animals nibble away and magically all of that carbon gets sequestered," says Tara Garnett, Ph.D., one of the lead study authors. "We found that there is a mechanism through which grazing management could potentially lead to sequestration of carbon, but there are so many pitfalls and caveats. In areas where land is degraded, for example, the soil is like a thirsty sponge—and in those types of circumstances you might get a benefit." But already-healthy soil, she adds, doesn't have the capacity to store much more carbon before it reaches a saturation point.
There is, however, other research that confirms Savory's theories. Jay Martin, Ph.D., a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University, and a team of scientists compared 18 conventional ranches and seven regeneratively managed cattle operations in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico that receives very little rainfall for much of the year. They found that regenerative farms could accommodate more cattle per acre, had lower cow and calf mortality, purchased less feed and used less herbicides than their conventional neighbors. The researchers also noted that topsoil on regeneratively managed land was deeper, more aerated and densely covered with plants. In southeastern Idaho, scientists studied the water-holding ability of soils in regeneratively managed pastures versus those where ranchers used traditional techniques and land where no grazing occurred at all. The moisture content of the soil on regeneratively managed ranches was highest. Indeed, University of Illinois researchers estimate that a 1 percent increase in soil's organic matter (the microbes and other matter that contribute to soil fertility) can allow an acre of land to hold 20,000 more gallons of water.
Studying three grazing areas in northern Texas, Richard Teague, Ph.D., a range ecologist at Texas A&M University, found that the soil on the ones managed regeneratively had the greatest water- and nutrient-retaining abilities, as well as the highest concentrations of sequestered carbon. Other research has shown the ability of regeneratively tended land to trap greenhouse gases. A study in the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management found that holistic farming was able to sequester 106 grams of carbon per square meter annually. Other pasture-management approaches released around 200 grams. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit coalition of scientists, policy-makers and business leaders aimed at identifying solutions to climate change, believes the potential for carbon sequestration is so great that it ranks farming methods like Savory's ninth on their list of the 80 most effective things that can be done to counteract methane emissions and sequester carbon—above crop-only regenerative practices where no livestock are involved. They call it a "climatic win-win."
As for why there is disagreement among scientists, Teague suggests studies disputing Savory's methods don't accurately replicate conditions on actual ranches. Such research is often too short-term to allow grasses to regrow and is conducted on tiny experimental plots of land rather than working farms. Ultimately, he says, they don't take into account the most important feature of range management: the human element and the skill and attention to detail—knowing the right moment to move your animals, for example—that successful farmers bring to the equation.
Savory has a less diplomatic view of his critics. "Many have ridiculed my work," he says. "But ridicule is not a sound argument. If you read those negative papers, you'll see that not a single one makes any attempt to study exactly what I'm saying. What I'm doing is outside their knowledge, their training, their everything. That's the kind explanation."
In an attempt to sort out the confusion caused by the conflicting arguments, I found myself driving four hours through the desert north of Reno, Nevada, last spring to visit Springs Ranch in California and the Smiths—to see what regenerative agriculture looked like in practice. Although the ranch covers more than three square miles, the cattle were packed so densely in the center of one small field that, from a distance, they looked like a solid black island on an ocean of green. Abbey noticed me staring across the mesmerizing landscape and admonished me good-naturedly, "You should look down at, not out over, the fields."
"Yeah," said Spencer, "I spend a lot of time with my face down on the ground and my ass in the air." He assumed that position and invited me to do the same. "The thing about the holistic view is that you see the world in a different way," he said.
I'd certainly never viewed a cow pasture from that vantage point. At close range, the grass looked to me like, well, thick grass. But Spencer pointed out and reeled off names of individual plants: yarrow, clover, bluegrass, timothy, meadow foxtail, wheatgrass, orchard grass—all in an area no bigger than a kitchen table. "Diversity is key," he said. "It means more bacteria and fungi, which yield more nutrient-dense forage, which means greater weight gain for our animals." The ground was covered with a thatch of dead vegetation. "Stick your hand under it," he said. I did. The earth was moist and noticeably cooler than the air. He dug up a handful of soil. It looked like jet-black cottage cheese. "See all those worm holes, and litter, and roots," he said, explaining that they were all signs of healthy, carbon-rich soil.
The Smiths are now actively educating other ranchers in their region about the benefits of regenerative agriculture. Abbey works remotely for the Savory Institute, and their ranch has become what the organization calls a "hub," a demonstration farm and learning center.
Although Savory himself has stepped away from day-to-day operations of the institute that bears his name, he says that one of his proudest accomplishments is the enthusiastic younger team that will carry on his work. The plan is for the Savory Institute to shift into consulting and education. To that end, more than 30 hubs have been established in a few dozen countries, and the institute is on track to have 100 hubs in 32 countries by 2025. "We need something to bring about rapid change," says Savory. "If we wait too long, we're screwed. It's the coming generation that I worry about."
Several years ago, in a conversation with Savory, James Teer, Ph.D., the late distinguished professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M, offered an assessment of Savory's life work that no one would dispute: "Allan, either you are wrong and we will not be able to dig a hole deep enough to bury you in, or you are right and we will not be able to build a monument high enough."
Savory gives the impression that he couldn't care less, either way. Success stories like the one unfolding on Springs Ranch being repeated on farms across the world are validation enough.
BARRY ESTABROOK is a three-time James Beard Award–winning journalist. A fully updated edition of his 2011 book, Tomatoland, will be released this spring.
Photo by Sara Rubinstein
At-a-Glance Guide to Regenerative Agriculture
Here's a look at Allan Savory's holistic-management method in action.