Beyond partial management

From the Holistic Resource Management Quarterly, Winter 1994, number 42. (Now called Holistic Management In Practice; see the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management website at http://www.holisticmanagement.org/.

I'll confess it outright: when I bought my copy of Allan Savory's Holistic Resource Management I was just looking for a better grazing system. We had tried several over a 10-year period, but none had worked well enough to satisfy our needs. [Note: the new edition, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, was published by Island Press in 1999.]

Our ranch, Estancia Nazareno, lies some 120 miles north of Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, in a high rainfall, fairly nonbrittle environment. A little over half the ranch is native prairie. On the other half, up until 1991, we rotated crops--mainly linseed--and planted pastures. That year we attempted to push linseed production to the maximum (1,000 acres) and hit our ceiling economically, organizationally, and ecologically. Weed and insect outbreaks, adverse weather, and personal stress finally convinced us that we had to develop a more environment-friendly management, and that we had to cater also for our personal needs.

We quit farming altogether after that in favor of livestock production and a more natural land base. Our native prairies had already demonstrated that a more natural land base could yield astonishing results: over 1100 pounds of meat per acre. Yet we couldn't get these sorts of results consistently. We had used French pasture specialist Andre Voisin's rational grazing principles in managing our pastures, but they produced disastrous results when transferred to the natural grasslands. Conventional range management was of little use in our nonbrittle environment.

Then came Holistic Resource Management. After looking in vain for fencing layouts and ready-made prescriptions as I skimmed through the book's pages, I had to resign myself to reading all 545 pages, one after another. I didn't find the grazing system I was looking for, but I found something better: a new thought model. I felt like a two-dimensional being who had suddenly stood up and become aware of the third dimension!

I learned that I had been practicing not only partial rest, but something worse: partial management. I had been managing livestock, or crops, or grasses--all in isolation, and my work on the ranch was disassociated from my life with my family. All of those parts, I realized, belonged to some larger whole, but only after much reflection was I able at last to begin to see what that whole was and to reorder my priorities as a rancher and as a person.

How our operation changed

The book enabled me to understand that time--Voisin's discovery--rules equally the management of pastures and native prairies, although in the latter the main danger is not overgrazing, as I had thought, but overrest and lack of animal impact. Our overrested prairie grasses had led to poor animal performance and undesirable successional levels. We had wasted far too many resources mowing grass that we should have grazed. Our weak link was product conversion--too much grass for too few animals, but we also had an energy conversion deficit--too much old grass no longer converting sunlight--due to our mismanagement of grazing and recovery periods.

Increasing livestock numbers by 50 percent and increasing the number of paddocks from 146 to 1,017 has since given us greater animal impact (stock density) and a better graze-to-recovery ratio. (We use some permanent one-wire electric fences but create most of our paddocks with temporary fencing that we move daily.) Our native prairies now yield as much forage annually as our planted pastures.

After some practice with the day-to-day assessment of grass growth rates and livestock condition, we've learned that no piece of land responds like the neighboring one. We now understand why grazing rotations give so much trouble.

During the months when growing conditions are poor (April through August), we no longer strive to improve animal weight gains by supplementing. We've realized that this costs too much and renders too little. Pounds gained in the better months more than compensate.

We're far from content with current results on the land. They are much better than last year's but hopefully worse than next year's.

How I changed

Most of those visit our ranch pay little attention to my explanation about wholes, three-part goals, guidelines, planning, monitoring, decision-making, etc. Usually, they leave the ranch full of admiration at the amount of grass and cattle they've seen, and with notebooks full of sketches. This is very frustrating.

We've not achieved what we have by means of a grazing system, but through a different way of managing grazings by planning, monitoring, and controlling that in turn belongs to a larger management model (HRM).

Once I was able to view myself as a part--and only a part--of larger wholes, all the tenets of conventional management began to fall one after another: nature as a passive object, engineering as a godlike endeavor; species divided into "good" and "bad"; weather as a problem; technology as the paramount solution; my family and my personal life as something apart from the way I make my living.

My approach to problems--my diagnostic framework--has also changed. Now when I detect a "problem," I take it rather as a symptom, or indicator, of an underlying, less visible problem. Instead of asking myself how I can overrule it, I ask what I have done to create it in the first place.

Finally, the way I make decisions has changed accordingly. I now assess every decision in the context of how it affects the whole (cattle, grass, environment, people, my family, myself) and relate it to the never-ending question, "what do I want?" (my goal). For me, Holistic Resource Management hasn't been a static cure-all recipe, nor even a final answer to my questions, but it has provided a framework for my decisions and place from which to start. After so many years of uncertainty, I now feel the best is yet to come.