Science, Tech & Environment

Brown Revolution: Preserving soil quality by changing grazing patterns

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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By changing how cows like the ones pictured, above, graze, ranchers think they can start a brown revolution and save the soils. (Photos by Flickr user kiwanja, cc-by-sa.)

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As environmentalists talk about the need for a Green revolution, ranchers are talking about their desire for a Brown revolution.

And, ultimately, they may be talking about the same thing.

"The brown revolution is to refocus our efforts on the soils, hence brown, rather than focus on the plants that grow on top of the soil," said Jim Howell, Colorado rancher and co-founder and CEO of Grasslands LLC.

According to Howell, the way livestock use the ground now is far too damaging — and it's unnatural too. Wild animals tend to stay in tight bunches, for defense, and they move often, both because of predation and because the tight bunches lead to packed ground covered in animal waste.

But, with domestic animals, there's often more room and little movement which is actually more damaging to the ground, Howell said, because the grass and plants underhoof doesn't have any time to recover.

Brandon Dalton, a rancher and wildlife biologist in South Dakota said these practices can help stave off and even reverse the desertification of grassland that happens after intensive grazing.

"We're trying to prevent the creation of new desert," he said. "Soil is being lost at a rapid pace."

Howell said the key to making this work is to educate people, particularly in the developing world. So far, the majority of his work has involved buying up grazing land in the U.S. and using detailed grazing plans that mimic the behavior of wild animals.

Where the real difference comes in, though, is in the developing world. In those areas, productive land is rapidly disappearing, but these processes could change that, Dalton and Howell said.

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