Ranching After Fire and Drought
Can "Holistic Management" Be The Answer?
Mark Glauth knows first-hand about wildfires. The ranch he runs with his sister near Woodland Park, Colorado was devastated by the Hayman Fire of 2002. Even though he grew up in a cow-calf operation, the disaster has taught him much about ranching. He's using a practice called "Holistic Management" in which livestock improve the health of soil and create the right conditions for grasses to thrive. He believes this method of ranching sustainably is a more effective way to restore the land and rehabilitate the watershed. It's a slow process, but he's starting to see the small green shoots of his labor.
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Jamie: Nothing conjures up the image of a world without water like a desert. Desertification, where large areas of land are turned into barren deserts is increasing at an alarming rate to the point where now about 25 per cent of the Earth’s land is becoming desert . Every year about 29 million acres worldwide are lost and that rate is increasing.
Desertification is mostly caused when land is cleared for cultivation or mining, as well as by prolonged periods of drought. Another well-known culprit is livestock, mostly cattle, sheep and goats, overgrazing land and leaving soils bare. Given that, many were surprised to hear Allan Savory, a biologist from Zimbabwe, declare that those maligned creatures could be the VERY thing that reverses desertification. In a recent TED talk Savory explained how the migration of ancient herds played a role in creating and maintaining good soil:
Allan Savory: “Now large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, and they have to keep moving, and it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of the soil, as we see where a herd has passed.”
Jamie: Savory’s idea of mimicking migrating herds and applying that movement to ranching is called “Holistic Management” and it’s certainly not without its skeptics. After giving his TED presentation last Spring many criticized his methods as “dodgy science” and “utter nonsense,” citing lack of data and adequate research proving his methods work scientifically.
But others think his ideas are worth trying. One high-profile group taking his planning approach seriously is The Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy and partners are testing Holistic Planning by working with sheep herders in Argentina. They’ve also purchased the Fox Ranch in eastern Colorado where they are experimenting with Holistic Management principles calling it “Cowboy Conservation.”
Another Coloradoan is engaging in this so-called Cowboy Conservation, but in his case it’s out of necessity rather than curiosity. Mark Glauth and his sister are cattle ranchers in the Rocky Mountains not far from Colorado Springs. Their ranch was severely impacted by the Hayman Fire of 2002 that burned forests in central Colorado for 20 days. It destroyed 600 structures and was the largest fire in the state’s history. Ranchers lost livestock, feed, fencing, and equipment— and rushed against time to move their cattle out of harm’s way.
Mark Glauth: The Hayman Fire experience to me was all about finding and moving cattle.
Jamie: That’s Mark Glauth. He’s taking us on a tour of the ranch where we see both beautiful pine forests, but also barren areas where dead trunks linger like tombstones marking the place the trees used to be. Under a deep blue sky on a crisp Autumn day he tells us about the challenges he faced coping with a fire of such magnitude.
Mark: My favorite story is that the fire was burning and there was a newborn calf. And that evening as it got dark there was this new calf and we had moved the cattle, we were hoping out of the way the direction the fire was coming. In the morning when we got back, the group had moved and there was no calf. And so I went looking for the calf fully expecting to find a lump on the ground, and there was a lump on the ground, but it was alive. And I picked ‘em up and proceeded to carry him. And he peed and pooped on me and broke me sunglasses, but I got back to the cows. And it was a group of mother cows and he was bellowing in distress and we’d just come to the highway so I jumped in the back of the pickup truck and Laurie drove across the road and those 40 mother cows stayed hot on the calf’s trail and that’s how we moved the cattle out of harm’s way. (Laughter)
Jamie: Once the immediate threat to the animals had passed and the smoke had cleared, Mark came to grips with to his new reality. The fire had burned so hot that it created what are called “hydrophobic soils.” In severe, slow-moving fires, the combustion of plants creates a gas that penetrates the soil profile. As the soils cool, this gas condenses and forms a waxy coating on the surface. In hydrophobic conditions water can’t be absorbed into the ground leading to severe erosion. Additionally seeds can’t germinate and surviving plants have difficulty obtaining moisture.
Mark: If you have healthy soil... If we had healthy soil it might absorb 4 to 5… 6 inches even of moisture as it comes down depending on how quickly it comes down. When you have soil like we have now after the fire and also where we are in the mountains, etc. as little as a quarter inch of water can start to run off. So if you get 2 or 3 inches in 20 minutes most of that is going to come downhill and be concentrated by the draws and you’re going to get incredible erosion. So when you think about when rain falls if you have vegetation the rain doesn’t hit the ground directly, it gets busted up by the grass and doesn’t hit the soil and soil crum and so when the ground is a little bit protected the soil develops quicker and is more productive.
We tend to look at a landscape and not think of the life that is in the soil. It’s bacterial, worms, beetles. We don’t have much of that. And so how do we kickstart that life?
Jamie: Are there any ideas that you know of to kickstart that?
Mark: The ideas that I’m aware of have to do with things like what Allan Savory has identified in grazing management. In this environment, there is the biological impact of the ruminant animal, but also the physical impact that if you get them close enough together where not watching where they’re stepping they will step on whether it’s a weed, whether it’s a grass, whether it’s a piece of wood; and push it into the ground or push it down to the ground. If it’s down on the ground then there’s a little bit more moisture and there’s a chance there’s going to be some breakdown biologically. If you don’t step on that thing and you leave that grass sticking up in the air you’ll see a lot of white. It’s not being pushed down where a little bit of moisture and some biological activity can break it down and be part of building soil, it’s just oxidizing.
Jamie: We’ve stopped near a place where there’s a big rubber circular thing coming out of the ground. What is that Mark?
Mark: That’s a collection area for a spring. Basically we found that spring when a very large pine tree that got blown down in the wind. When the roots came over the hole that it made when you looked down in there, there was some water. Basically in this environment as dry as it is… where is that water table and can I use it; can I daylight it; can I bring it to the surface for drinking water for the animals, but also how do I manage it to grow more grass?
Jamie: How important is it to you and the ranch to find these types of springs?
Mark: Water is the number one thing to grow anything from the animals to the grasses. Water is life. 💧
Pinehurst Family Ranch
Pinehurst Family Ranch uses management techniques that mimic wildlife which results in improved soil and water quality for a healthy watershed.
Visit pinehurstfamilyranch.com for more information and a slideshow of the ranch before the fire.
Allan Savory & Holistic Management
Holistic Management was first developed over 40 years ago by Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean biologist, game ranger, politician, farmer, and rancher, who was searching for ways to save the beautiful savannah and its wildlife in southern Africa.
Holistic Management teaches strategies for managing herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds to heal the land. It's based on four key principles that highlight the symbiotic relationship between large herds of grazing animals, their predators and the grasslands.
Cowboy Conservation at Fox Ranch
Learn more about The Nature Conservancy's preserve testing Holistic Planning in Eastern Colorado.
TED Conferences LLC
Allan Savory: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change
Colorado State University
Fact Sheet: Soil Erosion Control After Wildfire
Co-Producer: Frank Kinder
Published: January 2014
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