Cattle as Land Healers

Written by Chad Adams

At Bio-Logical Capital, we believe in taking the time to fully understand the natural systems in which we work. As we are in awe of the elegance, resiliency and complexity of nature, we try our best to emulate the patterns, forms and processes that we observe. Nature is our model for sustainably producing food, cleaning water, supplying energy and shaping our built environment. We are testing these ideas on the ground at Hana Ranch in Hawaii.

We strive to ensure the ongoing health of the ecological systems that are the foundation of our agricultural operations. Agriculture is one of the most destructive acts on the planet, so this is no small task. Regenerative agriculture provides solutions. Simply put, we return more to the system than we extract. This is not easy, and the actions necessary are often completely counterintuitive.

Here’s a counterintuitive example: We use cattle to repair damaged ecosystems and manage invasive plant species.

Stay with me here. Hana Ranch, like most places around the world, has a long history of land degradation through agriculture, from the tillage, erosion, and burning of sugar cane production, to the overgrazing and aerial herbicide spraying of conventional cattle ranching. We inherited a legacy of damaged agricultural land. It came with thousands of cattle.

We surround ourselves with smart people and build teams, partnerships and networks to best answer complex problems in robust ways. Allan Savory’s Grasslands, LLC, works with us to use cattle as a tool to manage the transformation of sunlight into grass and healthy, living soil. We are grass farmers. And, by the way, we sell amazing grass-finished beef as a by-product.

Savory’s work over many decades has focused on understanding the role of massive herds of herbivores, like elephants, wildebeest, and bison. Moving seasonally, pursued by predators, they have shaped the ecosystems of every continent. Grasslands co-evolved with these herds as they ate, trampled, and fertilized their surface, creating rhythms and pulses of disturbance and rest. Planned grazing mimics these historic patterns and behaviors, by “getting the animals in the right place, for the right reason, at the right time, with the right behavior.”

Conventional ranching theory presumes that cattle destroy land. Indeed, many deserts around the world once hosted thriving civilizations, usually described as verdant, bountiful paradises. It is commonly thought that there is some connection between conventional agricultural practices and ecosystem failures. In reaction, ranching theory prescribes that to avoid overgrazing, we should spread animals over as much land area as we can. Except that the result is often a proliferation of invasive weeds and a decline in healthy forage.

Think of it this way, the cattle lounging about in large pastures with no predators to worry about, will seek our their favorites, the “ice creams” of grasses, and eat them to the point of irreparable harm to the plant. Non-ice cream-like plants, which may have been palatable while young, are left to grow larger, tougher, bitterer and suddenly able to broadcast their seeds widely over the fields. You see where this ends up.

To get the desired results – more grass, healthy ecosystem, healthy animals – we need to manage the system and train the cattle to behave as the wild herds once did. Planned grazing uses flexible fencing systems and flexible human minds to achieve success. Stock density is a critical piece of the puzzle. By concentrating the animals as tightly as is feasible (as their wild forebears naturally did), and moving as large a group as can be effectively managed, as frequently as possible, to the right places on the land, we have seen noticeable change.

Some numbers. We have about 2000 cattle, divided into 2 herds:

  1. Growing/finishing steers and heifers, and
  2. Mother cows, calves and bulls.

Grazing on 3000 acres in around 60 paddocks, they eat about 40 acres of grass in a day and are moved every day. If a paddock is greater than 40 acres, it is subdivided with portable electric fence to equal one day’s feeding needs. Each paddock ends up “resting” for a full 2 to 3 months before the herd returns. The rest period allows the grasses to recover after the stimulation of disturbance (herd movement) and natural fertilization (manure), before another massive trampling and feeding shock. This is how nature works: A rhythm of disturbance and rest.

Diagram of a planned grazing method used at Hāna Ranch.

Diagram of a planned grazing method used at Hāna Ranch.

Here’s an anecdote. When Ian Davidson, our Senior Agronomy Manager at Hana Ranch, mentioned to a local university expert that we were attempting to eliminate weeds with cattle grazing, he was met with some skepticism. Which, to be fair, is a response many conventional grazing experts might have. In practice, we have noticed a dramatic reduction in spiny amaranth and inkberry in our nine months of planned grazing. Grazing in such close proximity increases the competitive nature of the cattle, causing them to eat faster and with a less refined palate.

Put yourself in this situation: If you are waiting in line at a buffet and you see 65 hungry football players behind you, wouldn’t you be more likely to indiscriminately load up your plate for fear of the buffet running out of food later? If a cow has an acre of grassland to herself, she is going to move slowly and choose the species of plant that she feels like eating. But, if every other cow around her is chowing down on everything, she will too.

There are entire fields of study dedicated to understanding animal grazing behavior and psychology, most notably by Dr. Fred Provenza at Utah State, and planned grazing is just one of many techniques we are exploring at the ranch. One interesting thing we have noticed, because of their invasive and aggressive nature, some weeds accumulate high levels of micronutrients that the grasses often do not. Historically at Hana, it has been difficult to finish beef cattle on grass, but who knows? Maybe these weed-eating cows are the future of food.