Company Aims to Profit From Restoration of Globe’s Devastated Grasslands, One Ranch at a Time
March 5, 2012 | Noelle Swan
Jim Howell thinks cattle get a bad rap. They have been charged with decimating grasslands, polluting the atmosphere with emissions, and competing with humans for food crops. That does not have to be the case, says the CEO of Grasslands, L.L.C., the for-profit arm of the Savory Institute that purchases ranches and grasslands in hopes of restoring them through holistic management practices.
Howell believes that holistic management of pasture grazing cattle could restore the grasslands of the northern plains and similar landscapes all over the globe and provide tremendous potential for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change.
Lessons From Africa
Holistic management practices were born out of the experiences of Allan Savory in Africa, in the countries that we know today as Zimbabwe and Zambia. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the region was known as Rhodesia. Savory worked in the pristine forests of Zambia and watched the land beneath ranches slide into decline. He thought he hated domestic livestock, blamed them for destroying the land. Through careful observation of herbivores living in the intact savannah and forests of Zambia, he soon realized that cattle were not the problem with cattle ranches, ranches were.
In a wild and pristine environment, complete with pack hunting predators like wolves or hyenas, large herbivores stay bunched together in groups and move around frequently as a defense mechanism. Savory discovered that this behavior plays a vital role in the larger ecosystem. After wild herbivores graze and move on, the nibbled grasses call upon their stored carbohydrate reserves to initiate new growth. Once the leaves have returned, the plant can begin to replenish the carbohydrate stores. If the animals return to graze again too soon, the plant will have fewer reserves to grow new leaves. If this happens repeatedly, the grasses will die.
These behaviors were components of a complete ecosystem that is hard to find today. Packs of hunting animals have dwindled and few pristine environments exist. Savory realized that he had to find another way to recreate the herbivore behaviors of the past. Through his work in Africa, Savory devised a detailed system of managing and moving animals from pasture to pasture.
Here’s how it works: Ranchers divide the land up into paddocks, utilizing as many natural boundaries as possible. Animals may graze an area freely during the day under the watchful eye of ranchers, but at night, they are penned into a portable corral, or kraal. Every night for a week, the cattle return to that same kraal, covering the ground with manure, until by the time they leave, not a spec of ground can be seen. The ranchers take down the kraal and push the herd onward to the next paddock as outlined in the management plan. The plants left behind will have time to replenish before the herd returns for more. When the rains finally come, that carpet of manure left behind will begin to break down and enrich the soil.
In addition to Savory’s work in land management, he also served in the Rhodesian Parliament. When civil war broke out, he crossed the floor of Parliament in support of the black-majority uprising challenging the white-ruling powers. He was soon exiled. It was in exile that he first came to the United States and began to collaborate with American ranchers on ways to integrate his techniques into the American cattle industry.
Transforming America’s Grasslands
Thirty years later, many of Savory’s ideas have been adopted by groups of ranchers. Howell estimates that 40 million acres are currently being managed holistically worldwide. Still, some 5 billion hectares of grasslands are seriously degraded. That’s more than the Earth’s entire forest cover. Howell hopes that Grasslands can help to actively “heal” as much of that land as possible while providing a case study for others to do the same on their own.
Howell started Grasslands, LLC just two years ago. The company is mostly owned by Savory Institute (which Howell and his wife Daniela helped to found with Savory) and Capital Institute, a non-partisan collaborative aimed at facilitating economic development supporting a sustainable future. Today, Grasslands manages 53,000 acres and anticipates adding an additional 106,000 acres in April. For now, most of the land is in Montana, though Howell says that Grasslands is open to seeking out land anywhere “that makes sense.”
To make money the company raises capital from and engages in long-term contracts with outside investors to buy degraded grassland and stock it with livestock. As stated on the company’s Facebook page, “Value is added to forages and land by contracting with third party livestock owners, managing their livestock on investor grasslands, and charging a management fee for this service. HPG (Holistic Planned Grazing) results in a significant increase to the land’s productivity (typically doubling it, thus doubling land values), while increasing soil organic matter and biodiversity.”
Grassland’s goal, according to its website “is to create low risk stores of capital, solid investor returns (in the form of both annual dividends and an appreciating land base), and a high value management service to the US beef industry, all in the process of restoring biodiversity and soil organic matter to degraded grasslands, and creating economic opportunities in rural communities.” The company hopes to eventually expand to manage grasslands worldwide and in addition to the Northern Plains foresees expansion into other regions of the United States, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and regions of South America.
In five years, Howell says he hopes to have close to 1 million acres under management.
“We can really only grow as fast as we can get solid, competent people on board.” He says that the kind of planning involved in holistic management requires a different skill set than the traditional cowboy. For now, he does not see this as a limiting factor. “We have enough guys in the pipeline to take care of managing what we can foresee needing in the next several years.” He added that he has seen increased interest from interns and young people looking to get into the business.
In hopes of making a major ecological impact on the northern plains, Howell says that he has reached out to big landholders like the Nature Conservancy in hopes of connecting. He believes that adding public lands to a grazing schedule could have as positive an impact as it does on ranched land. It turns out that grasses growing in dry or cold environments needs to be grazed as well. A lack of humidity prevents biological decay. Plants also become overgrown, preventing sunlight from reaching their bases and eventually they turn grey and die. Howell believes bringing herds of cattle onto protected land will help to restore the ecosystem.
In the long term, Howell believes that holistically managing livestock, either through Grasslands, LLC directly or through separate management, could ultimately reverse global warming, restore the world’s grasslands, and increase global food production.