Cows are Turning Desert Back Into Grassland by Grazing Like Bison

Ranchers have transformed 40 million acres of desert back into prairie by “training” cows and other domesticated animals to graze like their wild ancestors – in tightly packed herds

Two thirds of the land on Earth is now desert or in the process of becoming desert, according to world-renowned ecologist and environmentalist Allan Savory.

If you know anything about deserts, you know that’s not good news, as neither humans nor many other species can survive very well in them.

Responsible for the collapse of many civilizations and now threatening us globally, Savory says humanity has never understood the causes of desertification. But the fact that it began around 10,000 years ago and has accelerated dramatically in the last 200 gives us a clue, he says.

Agriculture also made it’s debut on the planet around 10,000 years ago, and industrial agriculture began around 200 years ago.

The combination of desertification, an exponentially growing human population and climate change leave humanity facing a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions,  Savory says in the famous Ted Talk below.

But not to worry, he says, cows, buffalo, sheep, goats and other grazing animals can save us… if they are allowed to graze the way they did before they were domesticated.

We’re told desertification is only happening in arid areas of the world, Savory says.

“But if you look into the soil of much of the remaining grassland, you’ll see that it’s bare and covered with a crust of algae, leading to increased runoff and evaporation.”

When we damage soils, we release carbon into the atmosphere, he says.

Livestock: the problem and the solution

Savory grew up in Africa loving wildlife and hating livestock because he was taught they were to blame for grassland destruction.

But when he moved to the United States years later, he was shocked to find national parks desertifying “as badly as anything in Africa” and there had been no livestock allowed in the parks for over 70 years

He looked into all the projects where cattle had been removed from prairie land to stop desertification, and found they had accomplished the opposite:

Climate change researchers attributed the change to “unknown processes.”

Eventually, Savory came to understand it wasn’t grazing animals themselves that were the problem, it was the way they were grazing.

Since the dawn of domestication livestock have over-grazed one area after the next, because of sedentary farmers that rarely allow them to move.

And in the last 50-years, well-intentioned environmentalists have only made the problem worse by over-correcting and removing grazing animals from “protected” lands altogether.

Over-grazing is destructive, but apparently under-grazing can be just as bad or worse, according to Savory.

What we have failed to understand, he says, is that grasslands were created, over millions of years, by very large herds of grazing animals.

They traveled in large herds to protect themselves from predators. The difference between large herds of wild grazers and factory-farmed cattle today, is that the former were constantly on the move.

“Large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, so they have to keep moving.”

It was the movement that created the perfect balance of grazing to keep grasslands thriving, he said.

In short, “when you take grazers off the land and lock them away in vast feedlots, the land dies,” said Prince Charles, summarizing what he’d learned from Savory’s research in his 2012 address to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Where grazing animals have been removed, governments have resorted to burning decaying grasslands in a desperate attempt to regenerate them. Savory says the process that leaves the soil bare, releases carbon, and creates devastating air pollution.

“We are burning in Africa, every single year, more than one billion hectares of grassland,” he says. “And almost nobody is talking about it.”

Savory believes desertification is a bigger contributor to climate change than fossil fuels. And, if it continues, we will be unable to stop climate change even after we have eliminated the use of fossil fuels, he says.

“Only livestock can save us”

Because wild grazing animals have been mostly wiped off the planet, Savory says there is “only one option left” for humanity:

“To use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature.”

“There is no other alternative left to mankind,” he says.

The Savory Institute is in the process of restoring nearly 40 million acres of grassland on 5 continents, by doing just that:

A ranch in the Karoo Desert of South Africa, saved by natural grazing methods.

The organization reversed desertification in Zimbabwe by increasing cattle and goats by 400 percent and integrating them with elephants, buffalo and giraffes:

It put a flock of 25,000 sheep in Patagonia and saw a 50% increase in the production of the land in the first year.

“This land in Mexico was in terrible condition,” Savory points out in a slide show;

Pastoralists in the violent Horn of Africa say Savory’s rotational grazing method is their only chance for survival, as 95 percent of their land can only feed people from animals.

If we do this to even half the world’s grassland, Savory says we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere to take us back to pre-industrial levels of CO2, while feeding far more people than we are currently capable of.

The US Department of Agriculture (which many of us realize is basically a trade organization for Big Ag) published a series of studies attempting to refute Savory’s methods, concluding rotational grazing systems found “few, if any, consistent benefits over continuous grazing.”

The Savory Institute published it’s own portfolio of independent studies in response to its critics, basically providing modern-day evidence that mimicking the way mega-fauna have grazed for millions of years works.

For more info, grab a copy of Savory’s book The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth:


43 responses to “Cows are Turning Desert Back Into Grassland by Grazing Like Bison”

  1. Kathleen Pelley Avatar
    Kathleen Pelley

    Is this issue connected to the effort to remove “wild” horses from the west? I always figured they wanted to remove them because the cattle ranchers wanted to use the grassland for their herds.

    1. Devin Parker Avatar
      Devin Parker

      Grasslands? You ever been out here where the mustangs actually are? No grasslands here. It is an arid climate.

      1. Sara Burrows Avatar

        That’s because Europeans have destroyed 99 percent of them, duh.

        1. DJ Avatar

          Europeans did it, Sara? A bunch of Germans and Frenchmen came out to the deserts of the American West and pulled all the grass and cut down the trees?? Really? That’s how it happened? Those Damm Europeans! Good thing YOU’RE not of European descent!

          1. liz Avatar

            Oh not the Europeans..Had to be the Native Americans then…

          2. Isabelle T Avatar
            Isabelle T

            Wild horses have actually been released (accidentally) by Spanish settlers in New Mexico, so they are not native and have never been abundant in numbers that would justify the conclusion it was their removal that might have let to the desertification. I suggest it was more the mass murder of bison and buffalo by settlers, for fun, with shotguns out the train window…and then after that the decades of agriindustrial use that stripped the soil until the dustbowl we know today had been created. Dear DJs out there, calm down and show some brains. European settlers cut a lot of trees, for roads, houses, fuel. All of this is about overuse and this clearly did happen in the history of European Settlement, not before.

          3. Chris Crews Avatar
            Chris Crews

            Actually it was the U.S. Army that wiped out the bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, etc. All legally as directed by the War Department. It was necessary to subjugate the plains tribes.

        2. PaulID Avatar

          most of the west was arid desert BEFORE the evil horrible ancestors of yours came here a little knowledge and a lot more humility will serve you better than smarmy condescension.

          1. Jason Bolter Avatar
            Jason Bolter

            Balony, the west was not desert… Please take a look at the Lewis and Clark journals.

        3. Ardith Scheetz Avatar
          Ardith Scheetz

          Rude with the “duh” comment, comes from people who think they know it all. Also farmers in the US are not sedentary but have to be practical and answer to banks usually.

    2. LC Avatar

      Horses aren’t native to the Americas though, the early versions of them died out in the pleistocene (specifically Paleoproterozoic era). Its arguable they aren’t doing anything to help since they are an invasive foreign species.

    3. Egan Avatar

      Mostly government wants to move animals to reintroduce wild game animals. To create revenue from hunting licenses. Thats what happened in suffeild block of alberta 2002. Mustangs rounded up. Some sold. Some moved. Some slaughtered. Then elk where transplanted by fish and game to build elk herd for huntings. Then tb out break took place in 2016. And rancbers had tb brought in from elk fecus and urine in there hay stacks. Which caused the outbreak.

  2. Marcelo Avatar

    I thought that was all fine and dandy when I read the reports of George Monbiot, and how when he interviewed Allan Savory, he simply mumbled non-sensical answers and nothing was substantiated.

    Which is unfortunate because it would be nice that this would be actually backed by proven science.

    1. Alice C Flynn Avatar
      Alice C Flynn
  3. Ayla Avatar

    This is a total lie! Cows turn prairies into desert not the other way around. I’ve lived in cattle country all my life and raised horses. My pastures were always in better shape than the cattle fields. This is just propaganda to support the removal of our (we the people’s American Mustangs to allow the welfare ranchers to run a few more head of cattle. If you want to talk about revitalizating the prairies you better be talking bison and not domestic cattle.

    1. Sara Burrows Avatar

      Try reading the story. You are misunderstanding the problem. Captive cows are destructive, but when allowed to behave like their wild bison cousins, they are restorative.

      1. StaN Nassano Avatar
        StaN Nassano

        what about what ‘s being said about the wild horses there…?

        1. Greg Avatar

          What was stated in the article is that it would be a good idea to mix the herds and make them large enough to make a real difference. They did not state that the intention was to remove the mustangs

    2. Adrian Avatar

      It’s not the cows dude. It’s how you move them around. Did you mis that? Just like you have to do with your crops. You can’t grow corn in the same field year after year you will start to get bad crops and kill the field. You move them around. With the cows and other livestock you have to plan where to move them and do it every day or so. Not a hard concept to grasp.

    3. LC Avatar

      I have to agree with Ayla, I find it hard to believe that domestic cattle can just be “trained” to ignore centuries of selective breeding in order to change their grazing habits to match a feral cow. Reintroducing Bison in a huge way would make far more sense, and we have the means to do so since they have been tamed for meat (and are thus in significantly recovered numbers), but aren’t far genetically from their wild origins.

      1. Alice C Flynn Avatar
        Alice C Flynn

        Watch the TED talk by Savory and other videos of how this method succeeds all over the world. The Savory Institute has much information online. Any ruminant can be managed correctly with how they are bunched and moved by the ranchers to graze the way wild ruminants like bison were bunched and moved by predators. The Savory method of regenerative soil fertility works.

      2. M Sharp Avatar
        M Sharp

        LC, the farmer does not train his cattle to move, they have to be moved by the farmer. (There is no such thing as a feral cow, unless you count range cattle which are pretty wild.) Bison are not tamed. They are the same as they were before the herds were decimated. A large herd of Bison is pretty hard to contain. They require very strong and tall fencing. The smaller herds being kept now can learn to live in their pastures and tolerate humans to a certain extent, but they are not domesticated. Being much, much stronger and harder to handle than domesticated cattle, they haven’t been a viable option for large scale meat production.

        1. Chris Crews Avatar
          Chris Crews

          There are feral cattle in Alaska.

      3. Sam Avatar

        Its not training the cattle. Its managing them. You have different padocks that you rotate them through giveing the land a chance to recover and regrow before returning the cattle to that area. There is many different systems for it and they allow you to have higher stocking numbers then if you just plant the cattle in one big padock.

      4. Isabelle T Avatar
        Isabelle T

        But this, in the end, is a question of how to deal with Mr Savory’s findings, it doesn’t oppose them. I guess what is far more important to discuss (rather than which species), is the question of landownership and how to remove legal and literal barriers and fences to get the cattle or bison moving again.

      5. Scott Avatar

        Sorry Ma’am. It’s not the cows that need training. It’s the people that manage them.

      6. Wacey Avatar

        I think you might be missing a big point here. My raised buffalo and in today’s world with fences roads and development, it is not even possible for buffalo to migrate the way they used to. I have seen buffalo damage the land just as bad as any grazing animal. To regenerate the land they have to be able to graze an area and then move on to a new area, leaving the last spot to rest and for the plants to fully recover. This is where most people error. They either only give partial rest or not enough for the plants to make a full recovery. And contrary to popular belief, cows and horses, and even other animals managed in a correct manner will regenerate the land.

    4. Clay Avatar

      You are an idiot ..No rancher gets a check from the government..Look up holistic management

  4. James Kubicki Avatar
    James Kubicki

    Is it possible to get a PDF of this article I can use in class? I came across your story, and an article that calls the soil C sequestration theory into question (
    I teach at UTEP and am planning on visiting the Jornada Experimental station in the near future, so I’d like to have both sides of the issue for my environmental science course.
    I have a long-term research interest in soil C sequestration, and I think exploring methods for increasing it are critical.

    1. Sara Burrows Avatar

      Maybe you could take screen shots?

    2. Caroline Avatar

      Have a look at book by Charles Massey ‘call of the reed warbler’ he is advocating regenerative farming some things similar to this but has references etc. might be more use to you. Oh he is Australian

    3. Velma Avatar

      Try copy/paste into an office word program and then print.

    4. Steven Behm Avatar
      Steven Behm

      My money is on Savory. The results from reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park were very similar, if not more dramatic.
      As an environmental technician myself I am interested in hearing the results of your work!

  5. Luke Avatar

    There won’t be any hope to change things until modern science stops thinking they can synthesize everything in a lab. Lord help us, they think cattle are the problem.

  6. Nick Avatar

    The data in this article seem to be from 2012. The USDA (with US, and Australian, and Canadian contributors) paper is even older (2006) I guess that depends on the scientific field, but a lot can happen in 10 years, I cant help but wonder what has happened since. Anyway, Savory in the article refers to Allan Savory (

  7. Bruce Avatar

    Return the buffalo, antelope, elk to the wild…the Buffalo Commons.

  8. Antoinette Reyes Avatar
    Antoinette Reyes

    In the future, you can print the page to pdf.

  9. Kerrie O’Des Avatar
    Kerrie O’Des

    We have cattle on the grazing stock routes in Australia. & they graze along wide road verges to huge paddocks. They fertiliser the lands as they pass through, remove dry forage which reshoots after they pass with the next rain. They do not damage the route as they are not in each area long enough. The herds may pass by only two or three times per year. There is no degradation.

  10. Lauren Avatar

    Look up Polyface Farms. They manage rotation quite well.

  11. roger Brown Avatar
    roger Brown

    I includes Allan in a film we made called ‘Western Ranching: Culture in Crisis’ Son Nick featured him in a film on grazing in Africa.
    It’s been a struggle for him to go up against self styled enviros who don’t understand how grazing lands function, but Allan has been tenacious.

    The wolves keep the buffalo moving and that’s what has to be done with cows. Grassland vegetation thrives with the right amount of grazing just as a lawn stays green if it fertilized and cut regularly.

  12. Helen AUSTEN Avatar

    Very interesting. I noticed when living in Kygyzstan that horses are left out all through winter even though the snow is deep, so I wondered if their moving the snow to get to the frozen grass below was a way that the earth was churned up and other animals could get to some nourishment in winter, but despite all that animal dung the soil there seems poor. Any thoughts?

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