What animal tracking can tell us about healthy soil and climate change

Judith D. Schwartz never expected to write about soil. She grew up in the suburbs and didn’t see what dirt had to do with saving the planet—until she learned that over time the disruption of soil for agriculture had sent more C02 into the atmosphere than the burning of fossil fuels. This fact launched her on a quest to learn more, and ultimately brought her to FERN. We partnered with Discover Magazine and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to send Schwartz to the heart of soil innovation: the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe. Allan Savory, the Centre’s founder, has led a quiet revolution by teaching pastoralists and ranchers around the world to alter their grazing practices in a way that advocates say heals the land. The secret Schwartz discovered from Savory wasn’t just restorative livestock grazing or traditional agriculture, but also the ancient art of tracking—that forgotten ability to hunt animals by observing and interpreting nature with all our senses. She tells FERN’s Kristina Johnson that the ideas behind tracking, which sparked Savory’s insights about grazing, can be invaluable to today’s farmers and ranchers.

What does tracking have to do with agriculture?

Tracking is all about keen observation, which is really an unheralded aspect of both farming and ranching. It can be tempting to rely on a formula, but when people train themselves to observe, they see where they need to make adjustments before they run into problems. Keen observation is at the heart of what Allan Savory teaches through holistic management, which depends on constant vigilance and reassessment.

What is ‘holistic management’?

Ultimately, it’s a decision-making model. Many ranchers apply it to land management, but it’s essentially a set of questions that can help you decide what to do next when you’re under a lot of stress to make the right choice. For instance, if rainfall and humidity are low, then you might need to move animals to fresh pasture sooner. It’s a way of working with ever-evolving complexity, which farmers especially have to contend with in terms of climate, the state of the soil, rainfall, and a thousand other factors. One South Dakota rancher told me that holistic management takes the pressure off of always being right, because you assume you’re wrong from the start. You’re constantly looking to see where you need to make adjustments.

What did you find when you visited Savory at the Africa Centre?

It was extraordinary. The land around the Centre had been a dry wasteland, but now the Dimbangombe River runs a mile longer than in living memory, because the soil on the banks retains so much more water. On the Centre’s side of the river, the land is like a sponge. Instead of just one watering hole for elephants, there are now many. In Sianyanga Village, there was so little food that families didn’t dare send their children to school for fear they weren’t strong enough to walk there and back. But by working with the Africa Centre to adapt their grazing practices, they’ve restored their land. Now instead of being on food aid, they have enough food to share with their neighbors.

What does grazing have to do with climate change?

Yes, this could seem like a stretch. Once I got the connection between soil and climate, the question was: How do we bring carbon back into the ground? One answer that kept coming up was Holistic Planned Grazing. In short, grasslands and grazing animals evolved together, so the land needs the animals just as animals need the land. Grasslands—about 40 percent of the world’s land—have deep, rich soil that holds a lot of carbon. But this is lost when the lands desertify, something that’s happening around the globe. We can manage livestock to act on the land the way their wild counterparts did—fertilizing the ground, pressing in seeds and trampling down plant matter as they bunch up and move as a herd, chipping hardened soil so water can soak in, all of which supports diverse, deep-rooted grasses that build soil carbon. Without carbon, soil is just dirt. For every gram of carbon, soil stores about eight grams of water. Having fertile soil that retains water is what allowed the villagers in Sianyanga to grow crops. I’ve spoken to several experts who say this relationship between animals, soil and carbon is going to be a critical part of the conversation around climate change.  

Holistic management isn’t just used in Africa, right?

Not at all. Some 50 million acres on six continents are managed according to this framework. Allan and his colleagues have trained men and women all around the world in this approach, poor farmers and wealthy cattle ranchers alike. Holistic Planned Grazing is getting increased attention, among climate activists as well as ranchers.  When people are in crisis—and climate change is definitely a crisis—they are more open to solutions.