Paper critiques Savory HM ideas

The paper Commentary: A critical assessment of the policy endorsement for holistic management published by David Briske and colleagues challenges proponents of Holistic Management advocated by Allan Savory. You can find the paper at this link.

This paper by Briske et al. 2014 confirms and reiterates many of the observations and conclusions I’ve made about Savory and Holistic Management over the years. See my piece in Welfare Ranching on the Donut Diet or more recent publication in the International Journal of Biodiversity.

In particular, Briske et al reiterate that livestock grazing of any sort, is not likely to increase soil carbon sequestration to any significant degree–a direct counter to the latest claims of Allan Savory about the benefits of HM grazing practices.

The Briske paper is another rebuttal to Allan Savory and his HM livestock management. For those unfamiliar with the issue, Allan Savory argues that his intensive grazing management whereby animals are stocked at high density and moved quickly from pasture to pasture with rest periods between the next grazing event is vastly superior to other grazing management.

Furthermore, he makes a number of claims that many of us have refuted and/or challenged over the years including that tramping of soil crusts is needed for water infiltration, that livestock mimic bison or other native herbivores in grazing effect, that without livestock grazing plants will be “over rested”, thus die and disappear, and most recently the claim that livestock grazing can save the planet by sequestration of carbon in soils to such a degree that it will wipe out all the carbon from industrial development–and thus argues that if we had more livestock, we could solve global warming issues.

Due to this last claim, Savory has won many converts among liberals and progressives who want to feel good about eating meat and advocating for more livestock production.

The Briske paper does not address all these claims, but it does challenge many of the claims made by Savory and HM proponents, and thus ads to the growing scientific evidence that finds many of HM claims to be nothing but smoke  and mirrors.

The paper looks at Intensive Rotation Grazing (IRG) which is the heart of HM grazing management. The authors find that ” IRG represents one of many viable grazing strategies (Briske et al.,2008; Tanaka et al., 2011), but insufficient evidence exists to support the occurrence of consistent ecological benefits relative to other less intensive grazing strategies.”

Basically what the scientific literature demonstrates is that there is little evidence to support the notion that HM practices are superior to other well-managed grazing systems. The improvement that is reported is more often due to greater attention to livestock management and the desire of HM proponents to “prove” it works, than to anything inherent in intensive rotational grazing per say. Well managed rest rotation grazing, for instance, often produces the same results as IRG in experimental trials. .

They also conclude that many of the benefits attributed to HM can be achieved within more traditional grazing management through various grazing strategies such as herding, placement of water, patch burning, etc.

They also caution that results from mono cultures of forage grasses in high precipitation regions (i.e. say pastures in eastern US or France, etc.) cannot be compared to arid rangelands.

They identify five points where conclusions about HM lacks strong support. Insufficient evaluations of the contradictory evidence, limitations of the experimental approach, additional
costs associated with IRG, and heterogeneous capabilities and goals of graziers’ to manage intensive strategies—that challenge the policy endorsement of HM

1. Much of the purported success of HM they attribute to its “adaptive” management. I.e. monitoring of results and making changes. This is a strength of HM, but it is not a result of intensive rotational grazing practices. In other words, as I postulated in the Donut Diet, much of the improvement is that HM advocates are more motivated and pay closer attention to the interaction of livestock grazing and the land, and because they are paying greater attention to the effects of grazing, they may get better results. However paying attention to what you are doing can be done with any grazing management strategy even continuous grazing, so is not something that is inherent to HM.

2. There is a lack of experimental evidence for HM showing any superiority. But there has been a lot of research on IRG and the authors concludes that “Collectively, these experimental results clearly indicate that IRG does not increase plant or animal production, or improve plant community composition, or benefit, soil surface hydrology compared to other grazing strategies”

In other words all the hype by HM proponents that intensive timed rotational grazing would improve water infiltration, plant vigor and animal weight gains, etc. are not supported by controlled experiments.

3. The idea that HM can contribute to soil carbon sequestration is also not supported. Soils in arid rangelands have limited ability to increase soil carbon due to the low productivity of such sites in the first place. The best way to preserve soil carbon is to make sure you don’t lose it. And many studies suggest that no grazing is the best way to preserve existing soil carbon.

4. They note that proponents of HM tend to be a different demographic than traditional ranchers. They tend to be better educated, younger, and more flexible. Thus success of HM may have little to do with the grazing strategy as much as those advocates of HM are more willing to try different approaches. And as they note, proponents work hard to “prove” these methods work so greater effort may account for the improvements that are noted by HM proponents. .

5. The infrastructure and capital investments needed implement IRG or HM are typically greater than traditional grazing methods. I.e. more fencing, water developments, etc. and this may limit the applicability of HM even if it did work better. And it could encourage proponents to increase stocking rates (with negative consequences) in order to recoup these investments. Not to mention all these “range developments” have negative impacts on wildlife–fences for instance are well-known to harm wildlife, and water developments can negatively impact natural springs and wetlands.




  1. Sue Avatar

    I note that you used “success of Hm” is due to …several times…so this is an admission that it’s successful…but you argue for reasons other then HM.
    It’s successful. Go visit the sites.

    Lack of evidence is not the same as disproving…it just needs more time.

    Change is hard and humbling.

  2. Jroo Avatar

    Thank you Sue, there is no lack of evidence, just a lack of desire to see or accept the evidence. In fact there is an abundance of evidence available to those who have not made up their minds to back their previous stance no matter what. I have had this debate countless times now and without fail what is shown is not the holes in the method but the lack of a true understanding by it’s opponents. I see it work on a daily basis. This article points out that the arid rangelands have little potential to sequester carbon due to limited productivity, somehow missing the fact that the point is DRAMATICALLY INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY in these management systems. But that’s ok, deny it til you’re blue in the face while I watch it work. When you’re all out of hot air we’ll see who has had the truly positive impact.


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George Wuerthner