Alan Savory gives a popular and very misleading TED talk

Holistic grazing guru pieces together false assumptions to produce ineffective but popular recommendations on climate change-

Allan Savory is a name not well known to most people concerned about climate change. However, he has been preaching his gospel of holistic grazing for a generation now and is somewhat loved by the Western livestock grazing industry, but not by other scientists in the field. Read, Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk.

Last month he brought his message to an audience at a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk. He was warmly received. He had changed his usual message a bit, now not only to justify livestock grazing on arid and semi-arid lands, but also as an important measure to capture carbon that is being lost to atmosphere and forcing climate change. You should listen, but be prepared in advance to question his assumptions and facts.

Savory begins by speaking of the specter of “desertification,” which he says is the spread of bare ground into grasslands due to bad land use practices and also misconceived methods of restoring desertified lands — by removing livestock. Instead he advocates the use of more livestock(!) and at high density, but only over relatively small parts of the affected land for brief periods of time. Then the livestock are to be moved to another part of the degraded land for a short time, and so on. As all of us should, Savory comes down hard on the unmanaged year-round grazing of indefinite numbers of livestock. The surprise is, he says, that even more livestock, herded his way will restore grasslands — bare ground will fill with grass. He produced some photos to show the change using his methods, all in Africa where he developed his ideas.

Savory’s narrative is compelling if you accept his idea that deserts are but rarely natural. For him ground that is bare, without grass, is desert and desert is not natural. However, deserts are indeed natural, and they are not simply bare ground areas. Secondly, he believes that deserts and desertification are the same thing. They are not. In fact there is much dispute over the definition of desertification. Wikipedia says there are over a hundred definitions.

Deserts are indeed natural. They have existed for millions of years before any human influence. They have their own ecosystems, and they, like grasslands, can be degraded by human activity and in a sense be “desertified,” if one insists on using that word. Lands that have sufficient rain to support grasslands can be and are desertified by irrigation followed by salinization (salting) of the soil, direct human disturbance, repeated burning beyond the natural rate, and especially livestock grazing beyond the area’s meager capacity, or by grazing animals that differ from those that naturally (originally) grazed the area.

The huge Sahara desert was as dry and bare soiled at the end of the Ice Age as it is today. Twice since the Ice Age, changes in the monsoons (natural climate change) brought rains for a thousand or so years, but then 5 to 7-thousand years ago the rains receded and the desert returned. It changed from desert to grassland and back again apparently without human intervention or the presence or absence of livestock.

Today there is land degradation (desertification) around the edges of this greatest desert and much of it is human caused or aided. The same is true over almost all the planet’s deserts and their degraded margins.

The four deserts of North America are the Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan. They all have some grasslands within their borders, especially the Great Basin and Chihuahuan Deserts. Savory believes that grasslands are maintained by “proper” grazing — grasses evolved along with grazing animals, and lack of grazing destroys the grasslands.

It’s likely the grasses did evolve with grazers, but Savory also believes the grazers of importance were always large mammals. Further, he believes that sheep, goats, and cattle (the latter a completely human produced animal) acceptably mimic the departed wild grazers. This is not true. Over millions of acres of North America deserts, bison, elk, javelina, and pronghorn never roamed and never grazed the deserts or the patches of grassland within them. These deserts were and are grazed, but by small mammals like rabbits, mice, reptiles such as desert tortoise, and insects. Grasses that evolved being eaten by tortoises and rabbits are not likely to respond well to being eaten in intense, even if short termed, bouts of grazing by the artificially created cow, or Old World animals such as sheep, goats, or horses.

While deserts are characterized by some people to be only so much bare ground or moving sand, true desert is a complete and ancient ecosystem. Of course, moving sand, grit, salt or rocks do not store much carbon, but when the bare ground of North American deserts is not trampled, biological crusts form on top of almost all bare soil. In other words, they are not really bare. The crusts hold the soil in place and sequester carbon. If you are caught in a desert dust storm, head not for the disturbed soil but for the areas with crusts for your own sake.

U.G. Geological Survey (USGS) writes: “Crusts generally cover all soil spaces not occupied by green plants. In many areas, they comprise over 70% of the living ground cover and are key in reducing erosion, increasing water retention, and increasing soil fertility. In most dry regions, these crusts are dominated by cyanobacteria (previously called blue-green algae), which are one of the oldest known life forms. Communities of soil crusts also include lichens, mosses, microfungi, bacteria, and green algae.”

However, Savory doesn’t like crusts. He even calls them “cancers.” He thinks they suppress grass and that rain runs off of them, but it does not.

Every kind of desert develops its own assemblage of crusts. On ungrazed Great Basin desert near where I live (Pocatello, Idaho) every winter the crusts expand, grow, soak up moisture and nutrients, which are full of carbon. In the springtime, grasses and forbs grow right up through them, and they seemingly disappear to those who are not aware of their nature. These crusts are destroyed by trampling, but often come back after not too many years.

Lush Great Basin Desert biological crust with grass and forbs coming through on the foothills of the Bannock Range above Pocatello, ID. Copyright Ralph Maughan.
Lush Great Basin Desert biological crust with grass and forbs coming through on the foothills of the Bannock Range above Pocatello, ID. Copyright Ralph Maughan.

The crusts of the hotter and drier deserts are less resilent, and one footstep or cow print can destroy them for many years, even for more than a century. They retreat to live around the cholla, mesquite and thick creosote that livestock avoid.

While Savory shows some photos of lands that show little recovery even though livestock were removed (location not given), annual grasses can grow back quickly in some cases in hot desert. Consider below this photo I took in late February 2013 in Sonoran Desert National Monument near Phoenix, Arizona in an area that had been subject to relentless cattle grazing.

Greenup in late February on desert floor. Formerly grazed area Sonoran Nat'l Monument, Arizona. Copyright Ralph Maughan

Greenup in late February on the desert floor. A formerly grazed area in Sonoran Nat’l Monument, Arizona. Copyright Ralph Maughan

Unfortunately, in many places, especially the Great Basin Desert, recovery of degraded desert is complicated even more by the invasive cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, from Eurasia. This annual grass grows very rapidly in early spring, ripening in late May or June. Then it is ready to burn. It greatly accelerates the Great Basin desert fire regime, destroying eventually all the shrubs and native grasses. The result is a cheatgrass monoculture that gives back all the carbon it drew from the ground and the air about every other year when it burns.

Cattle are able to eat the cheatgrass only briefly before it goes to seed. Grazing it does not even prevent it from setting more than ample seed. You can experiment with it yourself if you have some. Mow it, once or twice from when it begins to grow in early October and resumes growth in March. You will find its abundance undiminished next year. Unfortunately, removing cattle does not reduce the cheatgrass, but it might slow or stop its spread because the cattle are not eating and weakening the remaining native grasses in the area while they trample the cheat grass seeds into the ground and spread it to new places.

Conservationists, like many people, usually do not prefer the desert. They may see it as waste, fit only for bombing ranges and solar farms. 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.

Degraded arid and semi-arid lands can sometimes be restored, especially if there are still native seeds in the soil and few invasives, but the best we can probably do in the current situation is try to protect what we have and confine pastured livestock to the humid fertile, open areas where the grasses really do respond favorably to proper levels of grazing.

Arid places on the planet just do not produce that much annual biomass. However, they can slowly sequester large amounts of carbon. It is very important that this carbon storage not be squandered trying to produce livestock.



  1. Ken Cole Avatar

    Another essay that should be given recognition is the one Chris Clarke wrote last week.

    TED Talk Teaches Us to Disparage the Desert | East CA | SoCal Focus | KCET.

    1. J Weibel Avatar
      J Weibel

      Unfortunately the key to the system is a suficcient recovery period. Some area might require a decade before livestock return or less depending upon conditions that exist.

      Savor using term term desertification of lands refers to many different landscapes. Unfortunately for the indoctrinated you fail to see the fact that every system is different and so are the variables and so managing from the halls of indoctrination will always fail. One needs to actually view every situation for its individuality in nature. I have seen the benefits of planned grazing in increased sage grouse numbers and other species in western colorado where the deer and elk migrate to.

      He is suggesting mimicking nature and its systems. Using electronic gates to open hourly moving livestock more closely resembling a natural system. That has increased forage production eight fold. That increased production is the extraction of co2 from the environment.

      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        “That increased production is the extraction of co2 from the environment.”

        Which is then converted to methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas. Why not just native ungulates?

        1. Murray Avatar

          All ungulates – native or introduced, produce methane. Methane is indeed a gas with greater atmospheric effect however keep in mind that it is part of a cycle.

          The ungulate (!) consumes foliage to grow – that same foliage that extracted carbon from the air with which to grow. The Law of the Conservation of Energy applies. Nothing is added, nothing is lost.

          As opposed to dairy cattle – those bread for beef exhale (!), much less CO2 and methane.

          In being cropped (eaten), native perennial pasture reduces its root-system, the dead roots providing both food for soil biota (and the carbon necessary for them to grow) and micro-channels for water movement. On re-growth the grass roots penetrate deeply again, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere – at the same time releasing the excess oxygen back into the atmosphere.

  2. Ken Cole Avatar

    An important part of the essay that you cite is the fact that Savory’s method has failed numerous times. When it fails Savory merely blames it on those who fail to implement the method properly because of their misunderstanding of it. When it is his failure alone he doesn’t blame the method he blames his own misunderstanding of the method.

    It is also important to note that for all Savory’s insistence that his methods work, it has been associated with a number of failures. For instance, Hadley mentions a test farm in Zimbabwe, which collapsed as soon as Savory fled that country. Whereas those on the farm blamed the collapse on drought, Savory blamed on their lack of proper planning in his absence.

    This is typical of Savory’s response to failure. The fault never lies in his methods but in people’s implementations of them. For instance, in a 1990 paper in the journal Ecological Economics, Savory explains away “15 years of frustrating and eratic [sic] results” with the admission that “we had confused the integrated approach with the holistic approach, thinking that the terms were synonymous,” emphasizing that “the breakdowns we were experiencing were not attributable to the basic concept being wrong but were always due to management–of the people and the finances.” Even after Savory realized that “the integrated approach and the holistic approach were opposites,” he had to struggle with “understanding not only what ‘holistic’ meant, but even more difficult, how to apply such an approach in day-to-day management.” Even when his own implementation of his own ideas leads to failure, he believes that the problem isn’t that the methods were flawed but that he didn’t fully understand them. It is this kind of convoluted reasoning that allows him to claim that his methods work.

  3. mememine69 Avatar

    The deniers, believers and former believers must stand together and demand that the world of science says a climate crisis is as eventual as they say comet hits are because 27 more years of a “could be” crisis is unsustainable. Science needs to be crystal clear is it a crisis or not? Yes or no not more “maybes”.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Climate scientists haven’t changed at all on saying it is a crisis. The details of what might happen change with new discoveries. World wide climate change has already happened, and it will continue.

      1. JB Avatar

        To add to what Ralph has written, you will never see 100% agreement from scientists on an issue as complex as climate. With that said, the IPCC documents near consensus a several issues. They spell out the following risks:

        Risks to unique and threatened systems. There is new and stronger evidence of observed impacts of climate change on unique and vulnerable systems (such as polar and high mountain communities and ecosystems), with increasing levels of adverse impacts as temperatures increase further. An increasing risk of species extinction and coral reef damage is projected with higher confidence than in the TAR as warming proceeds. There is medium confidence that approximately 20 to 30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5 to 2.5°C over 1980-1999 levels. Confidence has increased that a 1 to 2°C increase in global mean temperature above 1990 levels (about 1.5 to 2.5°C above pre-industrial) poses significant risks to many unique and threatened systems including many biodiversity hotspots. Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals. Increasing vulnerability of indigenous communities in the Arctic and small island communities to warming is projected. {5.2}
        Risks of extreme weather events. Responses to some recent extreme events reveal higher levels of vulnerability than the TAR. There is now higher confidence in the projected increases in droughts, heat waves and floods, as well as their adverse impacts. {5.2}
        Distribution of impacts and vulnerabilities. There are sharp differences across regions and those in the weakest economic position are often the most vulnerable to climate change. There is increasing evidence of greater vulnerability of specific groups such as the poor and elderly not only in developing but also in developed countries. Moreover, there is increased evidence that low-latitude and less developed areas generally face greater risk, for example in dry areas and megadeltas. {5.2}
        Aggregate impacts. Compared to the TAR, initial net market-based benefits from climate change are projected to peak at a lower magnitude of warming, while damages would be higher for larger magnitudes of warming. The net costs of impacts of increased warming are projected to increase over time. {5.2}
        Risks of large-scale singularities. There is high confidence that global warming over many centuries would lead to a sea level rise contribution from thermal expansion alone that is projected to be much larger than observed over the 20th century, with loss of coastal area and associated impacts. There is better understanding than in the TAR that the risk of additional contributions to sea level rise from both the Greenland and possibly Antarctic ice sheets may be larger than projected by ice sheet models and could occur on century time scales. This is because ice dynamical processes seen in recent observations but not fully included in ice sheet models assessed in the AR4 could increase the rate of ice loss. {5.2} “

    2. ADoubtingThomas Avatar

      Meme: you require too much of scientists. They are human, and get caught up with popularity and politics. In a 1922 newspaper article they warned us that the warming climate would be our undoing. ( About every 10 yrs since 1970 we have been told we have passed peak oil. Complex solutions which involve grazing, solar energy, as human causes don’t sell well especially when no real alternative is presented. Dr. Maughan is a professor of political science, not a hard science like climate so his best shot is to go after people who are working on step by step solutions, like Savory.

      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        Since when is it too much to expect independent verification of a hypothesis using the scientific method?

      2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan


        You don’t like my discipline. If you want to play, who is the expert, then read this that just went up on the web about Savory’s TED talk. It is written by Guy McPherson, Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources AND Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona:

  4. Jon Way Avatar

    This is bizarre. He doesn’t think that humans and their cows cause desertification and that increased grazing accelerates this process? Look at countries like Iraq, Iran and other “wastelands”. Cows could actually help that?

    It must be April Fools Day…

    1. Harley Avatar

      Hey Jon!

      You’re still alive! How goes the coyote research?

      1. Jon Way Avatar

        Been busy, thanks Harley. Finishing up a few projects, some of which will eventually be posted here – in the near future…

    2. baden Avatar

      Continuous stocking will do damage. Limited Grazing and restocking can accelerate revegetation in certain areas. The key is to move the animals and allow disturbed areas to recover.
      If they weren’t disturbed, depending on the ecology, the area would recover more slowly or not at all.

  5. Wolfy Avatar

    I fear the hooves and stomachs of our domestic beasts have and will continue to destroy far more lands than the chainsaws, bulldozers or atom bombs.

  6. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    About twenty years ago, I went camping in Muldoon Canyon in Copper Basin while hunting elk. There were way too many cows. I called the Mackay Ranger Station about my concerns and was told not to worry, they were practicing “Extensive Grazing” and the cows would be removed in two days. Everything had been grazed to the ground. Any sage grouse chicks had long ago been captured by predators. There was nothing left for deer or elk. It was a cowshit covered mess!!!!! It was early September, way to late for any vegetation recovery that year.
    When the cowboys showed up two days later, they opened the gate at the mouth of the canyon and left. When the cows were still there the next day, I removed the cows by starting at the head of Muldoon Canyon and throwing rocks and yelling “sic em boy”.
    Once I got those hungry cows started moving, all of the cows(hundreds) headed out through the gate. I didn’t care where the hell they went. I hope they went all the way to Mackay.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Good for you Larry.

      Grazing management in Copper Basin is one of the most irritating things in Idaho. This basin and the surrounding mountains could be one of finest and scenic wildlife areas in the Rockies. Without cattle the potential for meadow creek and small river fisheries is great too.

      Instead it has always been given over to low value cattle grazing which produces very little economic product and looks much worse if you count opportunity costs.

      Western Watersheds has tried hard to improve Copper Basin. As far as I can tell, the only success has been to save one aspen grove.

    2. baden Avatar

      cows are handy where you have an abundance of grass that will otherwise rot or burn. such is the case in a significant part of inland australia where i’m from

  7. Nancy Avatar

    I removed the cows by throwing rocks and yelling “sic em boy”

    LOL when I read that Larry.

    Had to remove a more than a few cows the same way, on my own property, what with that pathetic Open Range BS, STILL on the books in Montana.

    1. savebears Avatar


      The open range laws are still on the books in the majority of the states, you knew it was open range when you moved here, it has always been open range, as it is in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, California,etc.

      You are not going to change it, it has been the standard for well over 125 years now.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        NO………. I didn’t know it was “open range” SB when I moved here. And, I’d be willing to bet, those that have had “run ins” with loose cattle, milling around on highways, didn’t know it either until they were either injured or presented with a bill for damages – for a damn cow.

        1. savebears Avatar

          Well, it was disclosed to me in my purchase agreement when I bought my property, 47 of the 50 states have laws concerning open range, I even had to deal with it when I lived in Hawaii, if it was not disclosed then your realtor didn’t do the job! That should have been disclosed when you purchased.

          1. savebears Avatar

            Don’t blame the rancher because the person selling your your place didn’t do their job, Montana as well as the majority of states have always been free range, and all Native American Reservations are free range, has been since the beginning of this country.

            1. Nancy Avatar

              SB – Nice to know that realtors make the effort (although I’m owner financed) but how bout the thousands who rent property (which I did for years) and those who are just traveling thru the state(s) on “open range” highways who don’t have a clue til they hit a cow?

              1. Elk275 Avatar

                Nancy, the last I heard Montana was not a nanny state — buyer beware. If one has questions go to the courthouse and research.

              2. savebears Avatar

                Nancy, there are thousands of signs, big yellow ones that say watch for range animals, watch for range cows, watch for livestock on the road, etc. If you are not paying attention, then as Elk said, Buyer, or Visitor Beware, it is every single drivers responsibility to be paying attention!

                As far a s owner financed, you still had to have a title search, didn’t you? As with the open range laws, it is your responsibility to be aware of what the laws are in the area you live in.

              3. topher Avatar

                Idaho has open range signs on the roads in some places.

              4. savebears Avatar


                Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, etc. They all have open range signs up, they are big and Yellow and quite hard to miss!

              5. savebears Avatar

                Rent or own, it is still your responsibility to know the laws where you live.

              6. savebears Avatar

                Sorry, I should have said topher

              7. Elk275 Avatar

                Save Bears, I was e-mailed two title reports today and I have read both of them. I did not see any mention of Montana being a open range state on either report. Both of these reports are on million dollar plus second homes on large sites, one in the Madison Valley and the other in the Upper Yellowstone Valley. I have have read hundred of title reports and never a reference to open range laws.

              8. savebears Avatar

                Don’t know what to tell you Elk, it is pointed out prominently in my paper work.

      2. Ken Cole Avatar

        There you go again. Don’t challenge the status quo. It can’t be changed.

        1. savebears Avatar

          That is BS and you know it Ken, I didn’t say it couldn’t be changed, I said it won’t be changed, not by our legislature.

          Knock it off with the Bull Ken.

          1. Brian Ertz Avatar

            Open Range is a resounding example of the most basic rancher exceptionalism to persist in the western United States, allowing ranchers to avoid accountability for both criminal and civil (tort) liability for which every-other person is held.

            It’s an absurd law – one that confounds the most basic tenets of fairness, justice, etc. — how long it’s been around and how likely it is to be overturned/reformed has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is ‘right’ or not.

            saying that one should accept a wrong because your realtor (and even your state legislature) told you “that’s how it is on your land, and how it’s always been and probably is always likely to be” is a weak argument.

            1. savebears Avatar


              I will say the same thing to you that I said to Ken, Bull Shi*

              You guys and the extremists on the ranching side is why we can’t get a god damn thing done!

              1. savebears Avatar

                And to add, I never made a judgement on whether it is right or wrong, I simply stated what it is now, you guys read to much shit into a statement, you think your way is the only way to do things, and every single other jerk off does as well.

                1. Ed Loosli Avatar
                  Ed Loosli

                  “Open Range” EXCEPT for wild bison, which by law shall be slaughtered when they leave the open boundary of Yellowstone Nat. Park. (Another gift to the private livestock industry).

  8. Nancy Avatar

    Okay boys, I do believe we’ve covered this subject “ad nauseum” in a previous thread. Have a good evening 🙂

  9. Keith T. Weber Avatar

    There seems to be some confusion. Allan Savory’s ideas are not just concepts, rather there is strong empirical evidence (and peer-reviewed scientific journal articles) demonstrating the benefit of very carefully planned grazing in arid and semiarid regions of the world. Please see (Journal of Arid Environments) as well as work by Teague.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      There is no confusion. Savory’s methods are completely bogus and are just distracting from real reform of public lands grazing. These methods don’t work in the arid west.

  10. Bernard Foy Avatar
    Bernard Foy

    Thank you for a thoughtful essay that points out the numerous oversimplifications of Savory’s talk. Let’s hope that people will take a look and question some of their prior beliefs on the subject.

  11. Nick Xing Avatar
    Nick Xing

    While Savory’s methods might not be perfect, I never heard him state plans to greenify all deserts everywhere. He clearly stated in the beginning that there are zones which alternate each year from humid to dry, and that because of poor management these lands tend to “desertify,” or become arid and lose water and carbon. Your article is almost entirely based on the premise that Savory aims to alter natural, completely desert environments, which I feel is somewhat misguided.

    I’m not saying everything in your article is wrong, I agree with some of what you say.

  12. Scott Avatar

    The biggest problem I see with this article is that although you do somewhat acknowledge Savory’s management system, later in the article you use unmanaged open range grazing as examples to try and prove he is wrong.

    It is a logic fallacy. Proving one style of grazing can be destructive does not in any way prove Savory’s holistic managed grazing destructive. In fact the opposite is true.

    All you proved is that the conventional land management systems don’t work. Just more reason to change the model.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I do not, I use areas where the cattle have been removed. Savory specifically says no livestock is very bad, and I think he is almost always wrong, at least in the U.S. where I have extensive desert/arid land experience.

  13. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Valley fever cases increase significantly since 1998” By Robert Herriman, Infectious Disease Examiner. Examiner. “Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis is a fungal infection that is endemic in the southwestern US (Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah), plus arid areas Mexico, Central and South America.”

    Coccidioidomycosis is one of the non-climate change things that increases in the Sonoran Desert when the biological crusts in that desert are broken apart by livestock and the sand and fungal spores can then blow about freely.
    – – – –
    Addition. Since I wrote this, there is evidence that climate change is directly or indirectly serving to increase the incidence of coccidioidomycosis. So is the large disturbances of desert ground by solar and wind farm construction billed as measures to fight climate change.

    See News on wind and solar farms keeps getting worse-

  14. Rebecca Vitale mandich Avatar
    Rebecca Vitale mandich

    Thank you for writing this piece… I found him to be quite an “unsavory ” character after I heard more of his bad science allowed the mass murder of over 30,000 elephants ..
    Who would listen to this fellow again?
    Not me ! And thanks for debunking his current myth! I love Deserts! Save them don’t graze them!
    Rebecca Vitale Mandich

  15. Jenny Pearce Avatar

    I am an Australian farmer successfully using Alan Savory’s grazing methods to rehabilitate my land.

    I think the misunderstandings that are happening with Savory’s talk are happening because he has done a 20 minute super compressed TED talk on how a change in grazing management for livestock can save the world and then people are making up the detail.

    He IS NOT talking about grazing the real desert. You are right – that beautiful eco-system should not be touched. Savory is talking about working with land that has been degraded and desertified by grazing in the first place.

    And his method works.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Try telling those ubiquitous ranchers in the western USA who claim how wonderful their “holistic livestock management” is for the landscape with Savory’s encouragement. It IS being used in the “real desert” and it has been an abject failure.

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Since I wrote this piece about Savory, I have taken care to examine biological crusts in deserts and semi-arid areas.

    Recall that Savory made the argument that these crusts are like “cancers” on the soil, shielding the soil from rain and promoting runoff instead of absorption.

    My experience tells me that without exception this is not true of the crusts I examined. They were all absorbent, often highly so. They did not promote run-off, and given rain, many of them quickly swell up and green, no doubt engaging in photosynthesis and probably sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

  17. Jack Wittman Avatar
    Jack Wittman

    I heard about the TED talk from some goofy woo-woo non-scientist on Colbert. In the early 1980s I spent 2 years collecting data comparing the effects of short-duration grazing (the Savory Method) to standard grazing in Western Utah. My data was unequivocal. Infiltration rates were lower and soil bulk density was higher in the Savory pastures. It wasn’t even close. I went into the work carefully and with no biases. He is a sham, a charlatan and a preacher. He is not a scientist and he should be ignored. There is no controversy here.

  18. Jim Seko Avatar
    Jim Seko

    If grazing animals and grass have a symbiotic relationship, under-grazing can be as detrimental as overgrazing. It’s that simple. The only people who don’t get it are vegetarians. I believe vegetarians are well-meaning people but I feel compelled to bust some vegetarian myths.

    Myth #1. Killing animals for food is unethical.
    It’s not unethical for a naturally omnivorous species to eat animals. There is a mountain of evidence that our ancestors were omnivorous going back millions of years.

    Myth #2. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for our health.
    When vegetarians make this assertion they make no distinction between confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and pasture raised animals. The difference is huge. Grass fed beef is every bit as healthy as wild-caught salmon.

    Myth #3. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for the environment. Again, vegetarians make no distinction between CAFOs and pasture raised. The difference is huge. CAFOs are an environmental nightmare. When vegetarians will not even acknowledge there is a viable alternative to CAFOs, other than abstaining from meat, it’s probably due to their strong feelings about myth #1.

    It’s obvious vegetarians want myth #2 and myth #3 to be true because it supports myth #1. As far as I can tell, the vegetarian belief system is based on confirmation bias.

    If you want to exclude meat from your diet you’re free to do so but stop trying to convince others to follow your belief system based on concepts proven to be false.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Jim Seko,

      If you want to argue with vegetarians fine, but you should know that most people who read and comment here are not vegetarians.

      As for myself, I don’t see much evidence that sparingly eating red meat is bad for you, but regular consumption is bad for you, and the most recent finding about this involves the quaternary ammonium cation, carnitine which is abundant in red meat — beef. Carnitine is essential to the body. You need it, but a healthy body makes it. Most do not need a supplement (from red meat).

      Carnitine in large amounts on a regular basis seems to alter the microflora of the digestive tract. Some types of normal gut bacteria (e.g. species of Acinetobacter) in human’s gut convert dietary carnitine to Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO strongly promotes atherosclerosis.

      I eat chicken about 2 days a week.

  19. Cedric Avatar

    Ralph Maughan deserves credit for a useful counter to Alan Savory’s long-standing, single-minded campaign into grassland Ecology – promoting the stomping of cattle on anything that could be called grassland and expecting the result to be a huge and instant increase in plant and farming productivity. If, as Maughan suggests, Savory had contained his thesis to natural grass-growing regions and their several ecologies he would be on safer ground. Better still would be an analysis of the topic limited to grasslands created mechanically from forests (well-watered lands) and found to clap-out soon after. In that case the narrower topic might be quickly researched and dealt to.
    Also as Maughan makes clear, Savory does not seem to understand Deserts. The Sahara is one of my stomping grounds – 5 years in Libya with some extensive research trips – so I believe I can add to the debate. As Maughan states, true deserts are ecosystems in their own right. Little mentioned ecological facts include: light penetration in sand is considerable in the absence of coatings of Humic acids on the sand grains; and water retention is great where sand particles are on the small side – surface tension holds much water which plants alone can access many months after a rain shower has dried at the sand surface. Add to these that Cyanobacteria are motile – able to travel several centimeters vertically to be in optimum conditions, and there is a basis for an ecological community of considerable complexity. One only needs to try to interpret footprints in the sand in the early mornings to appreciate this. I’ve witnessed great biodiversity in Libya – three species of Eagles in one day; Toads 30km from the nearest surface water in a sand-sea; and road-kill (of snakes and Foxes, etc) many times greater than on a night-time road journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Desert life exists in specialized, complex ecosystems; it should not be thought of as waste or degraded by anyone. Anyone unaware of this should not be pronouncing on how to change the agricultural face of the earth.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      How fascinating! I’m interested to know what would you say about gigantic desert solar and wind farms?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan