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Holistic management (agriculture)

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Holistic management (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) in agriculture is a systems thinking approach to managing resources that was originally developed by Allan Savory for reversing desertification.[1] In 2010 the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, Operation Hope (a "proof of concept" project using holistic management) was named the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for "recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet's ecosystems".[2][3][4]


The idea of holistic planned grazing was developed in the 1960s by Allan Savory, a wildlife biologist in his native Southern Rhodesia. Setting out to understand desertification in the context of the larger environmental movement, and influenced by the work of André Voisin,[5][6] he concluded that the spread of deserts, the loss of wildlife, and the resulting human impoverishment were related to the reduction of the natural herds of large grazing animals and, even more, the changed behavior of the few remaining herds.[1] Savory concluded that livestock could be substituted for natural herds to provide important ecosystem services like nutrient cycling.[7][8][9] However, while livestock managers had found that rotational grazing systems can work for livestock management purposes, scientific experiments demonstrated it does not necessarily improve ecological issues such as desertification. As Savory saw it, a more comprehensive framework for the management of grassland systems — an adaptive, holistic management plan — was needed.


In many regions, pastoralism and communal land use are blamed for environmental degradation caused by overgrazing. After years of research and experience, Savory came to understand this assertion was often wrong, and that sometimes removing animals actually made matters worse.[2] This concept is a variation of the trophic cascade, where humans are seen as the top level predator and the cascade follows from there.

Savory developed a flexible management system designed to improve grazing systems. Holistic planned grazing is one of a number of newer grazing management systems that aim to more closely simulate the behavior of natural herds of wildlife and have been shown to improve riparian habitats and water quality over systems that often led to land degradation, and be an effective tool to improve range condition for both livestock and wildlife.[2][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18] Holistic planned grazing is similar to rotational grazing but differs in that it more explicitly recognizes and provides a framework for adapting to the four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle,[11][15] the mineral cycle including the carbon cycle,[19][20][21][22][23] energy flow, and community dynamics (the relationship between organisms in an ecosystem),[24] giving equal importance to livestock production and social welfare. Holistic management has been likened to "a permaculture approach to rangeland management".[25]


While originally developed as a tool for range land use[26] and restoring desertified land,[27] the holistic management system can be applied to other areas with multiple complex socioeconomic and environmental factors. One such example is integrated water resources management (IWRM), which promotes sector integration in development and management of water resources to ensure that water is allocated fairly between different users , maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.[28] Another example is mine reclamation.[29][30] A fourth use of Holistic management is in certain forms of no till crop production, intercropping, and permaculture.[31][32][25][33][34] Holistic management has been acknowledged by The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS).[34][35][36][37]

Four principlesEdit

Holistic management planned grazing has four key principles that take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between large herds of grazing animals, their predators and the grasslands that support them:[38][39]

  1. Nature functions as a holistic community with a mutualistic relationship between people, animals and the land. If you remove or change the behavior of any keystone species like the large grazing herds, you have an unexpected and wide-ranging negative impact on other areas of the environment.
  2. It is absolutely crucial that any agricultural planning system must be flexible enough to adapt to nature’s complexity, since all environments are different and have constantly changing local conditions.
  3. Animal husbandry using domestic species can be used as a substitute for lost keystone species. Thus when managed properly in a way that mimics nature, agriculture can heal the land and even benefit wildlife, while at the same time benefiting people.
  4. Time and timing is the most important factor when planning land use. Not only is it crucial to understand how long to use the land for agriculture and how long to rest, it is equally important to understand exactly when and where the land is ready for that use and rest.


Claims that holistic grazing can have a profound effect on climate change by making grazing cattle carbon negative have no basis in any peer-reviewed scientific literature and are based on literature only available on the Savory Institute website.[40]

Range scientists have not been able to experimentally confirm that intensive grazing systems similar to those at the center of holistic management show a benefit, and claim that managers' reports of success are anecdotal.[41][42]

An assessment of multiple research studies, published by the United States Department of Agriculture, concluded that "these results refute prior claims that animal trampling associated with high stocking rates or grazing pressures in rotational grazing systems enhance soil properties and promote hydrological function".[43] Similarly, a survey article by Briske et al. that examined rotational grazing systems found "few, if any, consistent benefits over continuous grazing."[44] A paper by Richard Teague, a coauthor of the USDA paper, et al. pointed out that Briske had examined rotational systems in general and not Savory's holistic planned grazing process. The paper contrasted the success reported by many ranchers practicing multi-paddock grazing with the general lack of evidence found by formal research.[45]

Earlier research[46] that compared short duration grazing (SDG) and Savory Grazing Method (SGM) in southern Africa and found no evidence of range improvement, a slight economic improvement of a seven-unit intensive system with more animals but with individual weight loss. That study found no evidence for soil improvement, but instead that increased trampling had led to soil compaction.

In March 2013, the Savory Institute published a research portfolio with selected abstracts of papers, theses and reports supporting holistic management and responding to some of their critics.[47] The same month Savory was a guest speaker with TED and gave a presentation titled "How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change". [8] Responses were posted on several prominent blogs, including the blog The Wildlife News, by Ralph Maughan, who said "The idea that we can almost like magic, green the desert and the degraded lands, by running even more livestock, albeit in a different fashion, sucking up greenhouse gases all the while, is a compelling and dangerous fantasy."[48] published a piece saying that Savory's claims that his technique can bring atmospheric carbon "back to pre-industrial levels" are "simply not reasonable."[49]


A few scientists have focused much of their research to demonstrate the science behind how holistic planned grazing (or adaptive multi-paddock grazing) does improve soil health and there is a growing body of research work which is reversing the claim that the only evidence for holistic management is anecdotal.[50]

Soil scientist Christine Jones from Australia with much of her research available on her website,[51] wrote an article in which she discussed the research done by Mark Adams from the University of Sydney regarding the soil's ability to sequester methane.

Richard Teague from Texas A&M Agrilife has a number of different studies that he has undertaken [52] focusing on the role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon that was co-authored with Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. Teague has also done specific research in Canada [53] and Texas [54] comparing the increased carbon sequestration on land where people are practicing holistic planned grazing in comparison to their neighbors that are not. On average in the Texas study the holistically grazed land added 3 tons Carbon/ha/yr more than the heavy continuously grazed neighboring land. Keith Weber from Idaho State University has worked on how holistic planned grazing improves soil moisture retention on semi-arid rangelands.[55] This water retention leads to more plant growth which increases soil carbon and thus carbon sequestration.

Some qualitative studies show the improved profitability and sustainability of holistically managed operations and the efficacy of holistic management as a whole farm/ranch planning tool. In particular, Deborah Stinner/Benjamin Stinner (Ohio State University at Wooster) and Ed Marsolf wrote an article about holistic management and how biodiversity is an organizing principle in agroecosystem management.[56] Another was done by Charley Orchard as he surveyed ranchers in the Northern Rockies and the results they had achieved.[57]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Coughlin, Chrissy. "Allan Savory: How livestock can protect the land". GreenBiz. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  2. ^ a b c "2010 Challenge Winner: Operation Hope: Permanent water and food security for Africa's impoverished millions". Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  3. ^ Thackara, John. "Greener Pastures". Seed Magazine. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  4. ^ Rothstein, Joe. "Hang On, Planet Earth, Help Is On The Way". EIN News. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  5. ^ Voisin, André (1 December 1988) [1959]. Grass Productivity. Island Press. ISBN 978-0933280649.
  6. ^ Voisin, André, Antoine Lecomte (1962). Rational grazing, the meeting of cow and grass: a manual of grass productivity. C. Lockwood LTD, London.
  7. ^ Retallack, Gregory. "Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling" (PDF). The University of Chicago. The Journal of Geology. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  8. ^ Voisin, André (1 December 1988) [1959]. Grass Productivity. Island Press. ISBN 978-0933280649..
  9. ^ Undersander, Dan; et al. "Pastures for profit: A guide to rotational grazing" (PDF). University of Wisconsin Extension. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  10. ^ Dagget, Dan ; with photography by Tom Bean (2005). Gardeners of Eden : rediscovering our importance to nature. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Thatcher Charitable Trust. ISBN 9780966622911.
  11. ^ a b Weber, K T; Gokhale, B S. "Effect of grazing on soil-water content in semiarid rangelands of southeast Idaho" (PDF). Elsevier. Journal of Arid Environments. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  12. ^ Schwartz, Judith D. "Greener Pastures". Conservation Magazine. University of Washington. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  13. ^ Salatin, Joel. "Tall grass mob stocking" (PDF). Acres USA May 2008 vol 8 no 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 January 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  14. ^ A. M. Strauch et al. Impact of livestock management on water quality and streambank structure in a semi-arid, African ecosystem, Journal of Arid Environments 73 (2009) 795–803
  15. ^ a b Teague, W R; S. L. Dowhowera; S.A. Bakera; N. Haileb; P.B. DeLaunea; D.M. Conovera (2011). "Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie". Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 141, Issues 3–4, May 2011, Pages 310–322 (3–4): 310–322. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2011.03.009.
  16. ^ Undersander, Dan; et al. "Grassland birds: Fostering habitat using rotational grazing" (PDF). University of Wisconsin-Extension. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  17. ^ Coppedge, Clay. "Cattle and Quail: Management requires a plan". Country World Friday, 31 August 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  18. ^ Ferguson, Bruce; et al. (18 June 2013). "Sustainability of holistic and conventional cattle ranching in the seasonally dry tropics of Chiapas, Mexico". Agricultural Systems. 120: 38–48. doi:10.1016/j.agsy.2013.05.005.
  19. ^ Schwartz, Judith D. "Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?". Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  20. ^ Sanjari G, Ghadiri H, Ciesiolka CAA, Yu B (2008). "Comparing the effects of continuous and time-controlled grazing systems on soil characteristics in Southeast Queensland" (PDF). Soil Research 46 (CSIRO Publishing), 348–358. Retrieved 7 April 2013.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ Fairlie, Simon. "Maximizing Soil Carbon Sequestration: Carbon Farming and Rotational Grazing". Mother Earth News August 21, 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
  23. ^ "The First Millimeter: Healing the Earth". Santa Fe Productions. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  24. ^ Archer, Steve, Fred E. Smeins. Grazing Management an ecological perspective edited by Rodney K Heitschmidt and Jerry W Stuth. p. Chapter 5.
  25. ^ a b Fairlie, Simon (2010). Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Chelsea Green Publishing. pp. 191–193. ISBN 9781603583251.
  26. ^ K. T. Weber, B.S. Gokhale, Effect of grazing on soil-water content in semiarid rangelands of southeast Idaho, Journal of Arid Environments 75 (2011) 464-470
  27. ^ J. N. Clatworthy, Results of the Botanical Analyses in the Charter Trial, Rhodesian Branch of the South African Society of Animal Production, Zimbabwe Agricultural Journal 1984
  28. ^ Nilsson, C.; Renöfält, B. Malm (2008). "Linking flow regime and water quality in rivers: a challenge to adaptive catchment management". Ecology and Society. 13 (2): 18. doi:10.5751/es-02588-130218.
  29. ^ Dagget, Dan. "Convincing Evidence". Man in Nature. Archived from the original on 6 March 2001. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  30. ^ Bush, Cole. "Holistic Managed Grazing at Soda Lake". Graniterock. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  31. ^ Leu, Andre. "Mitigating Climate Change With Soil Organic Matter in Organic Production Systems" (PDF). Trade and environment review 2013, Commentary V pp.22-32. UNCTAD. Retrieved 28 September 2014.
  32. ^ Bradley, Kirsten. "Why Pasture Cropping is such a Big Deal". Milkwood. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  33. ^ Tallman, Susan. "No-Till Case Study, Richter Farm: Cover Crop Cocktails in a Forage-Based System". National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. NCAT-ATTRA. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  34. ^ a b Fears, Robert. "NRCS Adopts Holistic Management" (PDF). Lands of Texas Magazine. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  35. ^ Terry, Quenna. "NRCS in Texas presents at Holistic Management Seminars". USDA-NRCS News room. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  36. ^ "Whole Farm Systems". United States Department of Agriculture. National Agriculture Library. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  37. ^ "Holistic Management International Education Programs". National Agricultural Library, USDA. Archived from the original on 29 April 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  38. ^ Sullivan, Preston. "Holistic Management: A Whole-Farm Decision Making Framework". The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service - ATTRA. National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Retrieved 16 April 2013.
  39. ^ Savory, Allan. "Principles of Holistic Management, Empowering Caretakers of the Land". Savory Institute. Archived from the original on 9 January 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  40. ^ Monbiot, George (2014-08-04). "Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle | George Monbiot". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-10-28.
  41. ^ Briske, D. D. "Origin, Persistence, and Resolution of the Rotational Grazing Debate: Integrating Human Dimensions Into Rangeland Research" (PDF). Rangeland Ecol Manage 64:325–334. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  42. ^ D. D. Briske, J. D. Derner, J. R. Brown, S. D. Fuhlendorf, W. R. Teague, K. M. Havstad, R. L. Gillen, A. J. Ash, W. D. Willms, (2008) Rotational Grazing on Rangelands: Reconciliation of Perception and Experimental Evidence. Rangeland Ecology & Management: January 2008, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 3-17.
  43. ^ Briske, D.D., editor. {2011}. "An Evidence-Based Assessment of Prescribed Grazing Practices." Conservation Benefits of Rangeland Practices: Assessment, Recommendations, and Knowledge Gaps. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. p.32: "These results refute prior claims that animal trampling associated with high stocking rates or grazing pressures in rotational grazing systems enhance soil properties and promote hydrological function."
  44. ^ Briske, D.D.; Derner, J.D.; Brown, J.R.; Fuhlendorf, S.D.; Teague, W.R.; Havstad, K.M.; Gillen, R.L.; Ash, A.J.; Willms, W.D. (2008). "Rotational Grazing on Rangelands: Reconciliation of Perception and Experimental Evidence". Rangeland Ecology and Management. 61: 3–17. doi:10.2111/06-159R.1.
  45. ^ Teague, Richard; Provenza, Fred; Norton, Brien; Steffens, Tim; Barnes, Matthew; Kothmann, Mort; Roath, Roy (2008). "Benefits of Multi-Paddock Grazing Management on Rangelands: Limitations of Experimental Grazing Research and Knowledge Gaps". In Schroder, H.G. (ed.). Grasslands: Ecology, Management and Restoration. New York: Nova Science Publishers. pp. 41–80. ISBN 978-1-60692-023-7.
  46. ^ Skovlin, Jon (August 1987). "Southern Africa's Experience with Intensive Short Duration Grazing". Rangelands. 9 (4): 162–167. JSTOR 3900978.
  47. ^ "Holistic Management Research Portfolio" (PDF). Savory Institute. March 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  48. ^ Maughan, Ralph (2013-03-18). "Alan Savory gives a popular and very misleading TED talk". The Wildlife News. Retrieved 2015-02-03.
  49. ^ "Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene: Commentary on Savory TED Video". RealClimate. Retrieved 2018-10-28.
  50. ^ Itzkan, Seth. "Key Research Paper Summaries Germane to Holistic Management". Google Drive. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  51. ^ [1]
  52. ^ GHG, as well as an [2]
  53. ^ [3]
  54. ^ [4]
  55. ^ [5]
  56. ^ [6]
  57. ^ [7].

Further readingEdit

  • Savory, Allan; Jody Butterfield (1998-12-01) [1988]. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-487-1.
  • Adams, Ann (1998-12-01) [1999]. At Home with Holistic Management (2nd ed.). Albuquerque, NM: Holistic Management International. ISBN 978-0-9673941-0-7.
  • Hudak, Mike (2015-02-01). Comments on Allan Savory’s Proposed Application of “Holistic Management” to Grasslands, Including Desert Grasslands, for the Purpose of Increasing Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon. Revised 13 Nov 2013; 1 Feb 2015. Public letter to Sierra Club contains many online references critical of holistic agricultural management. 7 pages.

External linksEdit