Seth Itzkan [ TEDxSomerville ] It is my pleasure to tell you about a remarkable innovation to restore grassland to reverse climate change. This innovation, however, requires an unlikely ally in one of the world’s most vilified creatures: cattle.

Raise your hand if you are suspicious that cattle can be an ally in reversing global warming.

Well you feel that way, of course, because cattle have a history of being an ecological wrecking ball. But, as you will see, they can also be restorative and this is because of a new form of livestock management that simulates the behavior of wild herds, including bison and wilderbeest, that the grasslands the world co-evolved with.

To find out more about this innovation I recently spent six weeks at the Africa Center for Holistic Management — in Zimbabwe (in southern Africa). What I found there expanded thinking about possible for restoration. Here are two sets of pictures taken on the same day, on neighboring properties.

Which property do you think has four times the cattle density as the other? Four-times.

Conventional thinking would say: the degraded property. But, in fact, it’s the healthy property. How is that possible? Here’s a picture, from Zimbabwe, but it’s indicative of desertification the world over — including the United States.

The typical explanation is: too many animals, overgrazing.

But there hasn’t been grazing here for decades, and the great herds that used to run through here have long been decimated. So, is this the result of too many animals or perhaps too few?

In 2002 they began restoring this land with livestock. Watch the transformation. This is 2002. 2005. 2006, 2007. Let’s watch this again quickly.

Before livestock. After.

Let’s look at a river restoration example. This is an aerial view Dimbangongwe River at the ranch in Zimbabwe. The blue star represents the historic high-water mark for that river in the dry season.

Elephants would bathe there.

After several years of treating the land, with their modified livestock practice, new surface water is available now — in the dry season — 1.5 kilometers upstream from where it has ever been. Because if this, there’s new watering holes for cattle, and they no longer need to run the pumps in the dry season.

Here’s how it looks on the ground. I took these pictures. We’re driving north, upstream, with the river on the left. Here’s the new year-round pools. Throughout the dry season, 1.5 kilometers up stream. And here’s cattle watering. They no longer need the pumps now.

This is reversal of desertification.

How is that possible, and what is the relationship with global warming?

Let’s step back for a second talk about grasslands.  Grasslands are the largest terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, and they love carbon.  In fact, there’s as much carbon in grassland as there is in the atmosphere. So they’re vital to climate stability.

They store the carbon in the soil through their root systems — which can be 15 feet deep.  The more carbon in the soil, the greater the capacity to hold water. 

The more it holds water, the quicker it replenishes the water table.

The higher the water table, the more the surface water and the longer into the dry season you get the surface water.

Often overlooked, in grassland health, is the role of herding grazers. These animals eat plants the way nature intended. They biologically recycle the nutrients and they aerate the soil.

In fact they are essential to the carbon water cycle that you saw in the previous slide. They co-evolved with the grasslands. In the presence of predation, such as lions and wolves, they run in packs — and are continuously moving — and there is no over-grazing.

And that brings us to our next take-away point. Overgrazing is a human invention. And  seeing as we invented it, we can solve it.

In a natural grassland ecosystem, animals, plants and soil are in balance.

In pre-European North America 35 to 75 million Buffalo contributed approximately a billion pounds of fertilizer a day. 35 million pronghorn and four billion prairie dogs provided similar ecological services.

Together with the predators, the wolves and the coyotes, it was an animal planet — continent — and the animals made the prairy the fertile grounds that it was.

How do you feel when you see this picture? This is a mountain of buffalo’s skulls. Three stories high. A football field deep. How do you feel? This is Buffalo genocide. And I would like you to consider that this represents the end, not just of buffalo and prairie animals, but of the soil itself — and the beginning desertification.

Because  soil needs animals. 

A few decades later we get this: the dust bowls. Is there a correlation?

Recognizing the essential role that animals play in grassland ecosystems, a new practice called holistic management is using livestock as a proxy for the wild herds.

Some of the specifics of this management practice include running livestock in dense packs and continuously moving them the way natural herds would behave in the presence of predation.

And mobile corrals. Every 7 to 10 days, they move the corral, in order to maximize the land covered with dung and [inaudible].

And of course a Grazing Plan.

This prevents over-grazing and, as they like to say, get the cattle to the right place, at the right time, for the right reason.

A final example from Sonora, Mexico.

Before. After. Which do you prefer?

The takeaway: changing livestock management can restore grasslands. and we need to restore grasslands to reverse global warming.

The final take-away, that I am most encouraged by, is this presents a new face of climate heroes. People who are actually making difference. Putting the carbon in the ground. Village herders, doing what they’ve always done, although now doing it in a way that is restorative and that offers hope future.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Ben Christenson

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