What Can Bison Teach us About Carbon and Climate?

February 18, 2018

Reposting Allan Savory’s talk on cattle and climate above.
The Weather Channel has profiled ranchers on the American plains trying to replicate his ideas – they say successfully.
Not everyone agrees.

Weather Channel:

To hear Mimi Hillenbrand tell it, American bison are more than just the majestic creatures that once graced the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains by the millions until we nearly wiped them off the face of the earth. They may very well play a role in saving us from ourselves.

“They’ve have been around for millions of years …” Hillenbrand says. “They are just so American, so us.”

Hillenbrand owns and manages 777 Bison Ranch in Hermosa, a 26,000-acre ranch that has been the site of the several movie productions, including “Dancing With Wolves” and “Wyatt Earp.”

The ranch has been in her family since the 1970s, when it was still a cattle ranch. The land, at the time, was in bad shape and overgrazed, she told weather.com.

For a time, the family grazed both cattle and bison, but a particularly brutal blizzard in the 1980s prompted her family to make the switch completely to bison and to employ different grazing methods that has made a difference in the health of the land. They now grass-feed just under 2,000 bison.

“The switch fits our goals of trying to bring back native grasses and trying to leave the land in a better state for the next generation,” she said.

One of the added benefits of making the switch, she said, is what she learns from the massive animals that at one time numbered upward of 60 million in North America but have now dwindled to some 400,000.

“They teach me something every day,” she said, adding that she admires the animals named America’s national mammal by Congress last year because “they are still wild, they are intelligent and curious, and they know the land and the weather,” perhaps even better by instinct than humans.

They may also have a role in healing the land and reducing global warming.


Average temperatures in South Dakota have already shot up by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and the number of triple-digit temperature days is poised to double by 2050, Wright reports. The concern is that these rising temperatures will lead to more severe droughts, which in turn will harm the livestock this state relies on heavily for its economy.

South Dakota has about five beef cattle for every one of its 865,000 residents, and they’re worth almost $2.8 billion to the state’s economy.

The value of livestock in South Dakota.
South Dakota Department of Agriculture

And using bison as a proxy for cattle, one study found that every degree Celsius of average temperature rise would cost the livestock industry an additional $1 billion as the market weight of cattle declines.

Projections show that under a business as usual trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions, the region will see average temperature rise by 4.65 degrees Fahrenheit by 2065, which will take a big bite out of the state’s cattle industry.

Bison are being harnessed as carbon engineers

While greenhouse gases from transportation and power plants (rightfully) dominate the discussions about the causes of climate change, agriculture, and, more fundamentally, the way we use land, also produces a lot of emissions.

Take a look at this chart from the Environmental Protection Agency on the sources of greenhouse gases in the United States:

Environmental Protection Agency

Conspicuously absent from this chart is land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF, in environmental policy jargon). Cutting down forests and paving over grasslands destroys organisms that naturally breathe in and hold onto greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

But the United States has managed land in a way that has made it a net carbon sink, soaking up more carbon dioxide than it releases. Trees, shrubs, and grasses drink in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen as they stretch their branches and spread their leaves. And as a result, LULUCF offset 11.8 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

An overview of the carbon cycle in forests.
S. Luyssaert Et Al./Global Change Biology – 16, 1429–1450 (2010)

That means putting more thought into how we cultivate pastures, grasslands, and forests could help bring down the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. (The United Nations also counts LULUCF as an important tactic for fighting climate change.)

Wright profiles 777 Bison Ranch, which is deploying a holistic grazing method that proprietor Mimi Hillenbrand says will help restore topsoil, cultivate grasses, and draw carbon dioxide out of the air. The approach was pioneered by biologist Allan Savory, who argued that rather than reducing the amount of livestock to curb problems like climate change and desertification, animal herds should be cultivated in a way that mimics their ancestral habits.

Conventional pasture grazing, with animals pent up in one area, can denude the soil of vital grasses, reducing its carbon dioxide uptake and leading to soil erosion. However, the 777 Bison Ranch is home to just under 2,000 bison that graze, trample, and defecate as they travel through 35 pastures in search of fodder, enriching and aerating the soil while allowing native grasses to regenerate.

Some scientists have criticized Savory’s ideas, finding flaws in his foundational research in Africa, like the fact that that livestock in his initial experiment received supplemental feeddue to weight loss, and that grass cover didn’t improve much despite unusually high rainfall in the region. And other researchers have found that Savory’s short-duration grazing tactics yielded disappointing results when tried in the United States, which is why it hasn’t caught on more.

Regardless of whether or not bison can go hoof-to-hoof with carbon dioxide scrubbers on power plants as a climate change mitigation strategy, it’s worth remembering that fighting climate change is more than a matter of hardware.

Weather Channel again:

Last year, a team from the Wisconsin-based Applied Ecological Services conducted testing to see how much carbon 777 Bison Ranch was sequestering, along with the plant diversity and water infiltration as compared with other ranches in the area that use traditional grazing methods.

“We had twice as many native species in our grass than our neighbors,” Hillenbrand said. “We created inches of topsoil and when you think how long it takes to build topsoil and we did it in 30 years, it’s kinda cool.”

She noted that the study found that the ranch’s water infiltration was superior and the dung beetle population, a sign of healthy soil, was expansive.

“They found 10 different species of dung beetle,” she said. “Everything, our plants our root systems, is functioning really well.”

Steve Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Systems told weather.com that 777 Bison Ranch has seen significant improvement.

He noted that in areas where there was intensive grazing over very short durations, followed by a long period of recovery, soil carbon, infiltration rates and protective plant cover increased.

“Some of the highest  increases are being measured in the locations with cattle stocking rates that are very high compared to the normal stocking rates used by most ranchers,” he said.

He added that the greatest difference occurs “where ranchers are going well beyond the holistic management philosophy” by encouraging the “restoration of deep rooted native cool and warm season plant communities comprised of native plant species, not just any green plant that provides forage,” like alfalfa.

A healthy earth system relies on global methods that “emulate historic ecosystem functions — such as large herds of bison, caribou and wildebeest,” he said.

Large herds stimulate both vegetation above ground and to the roots below, which “appears to rapidly extract CO2 from the atmosphere.”

“This we have documented to date in some parts of the North American grassland ecosystems.”

Sierra Club:

Skepticism is not a new challenge for Savory. When, in 1998, members of the Department of Range and Forage Resources at South Africa’s University of Natal—Savory’s alma mater—met with him to discuss the particulars of his grazing system, they came away perplexed. “As a scientific body dedicated to the research and development of the sustainable utilization and management of southern African rangelands,” they reported, “the correct approach to holistic management would be to rigorously evaluate the proposals put forward by Allan Savory and others. However, this is extremely difficult.” The reason was “the very inconsistency of the holistic management approach.”

Experimental validation, of course, offers the best process for evaluating whether holistic management works. But Savory rejects that possibility. “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything,” he told a journalist for Range magazine, which profiled him in 1999. “Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.”

Later, reading Savory’s seminal treatise, Holistic Management, I found the same unshakable confidence. Holistic planned grazing, the book claimed, “offers the simplest way we have found for managing the complexity that exists when livestock share the land with wildlife, crops, and other uses. This procedure will lead to the best possible plan in the most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations. Even when the rains have failed to come at all, and even through times of crisis, including war, this planning procedure has never failed me. Nor do I believe it will ever fail you.”

On the Savory Institute’s website, there are links to ample testimonials from ranchers who claim benefits from using the Savory method. “We are excited to share the simple yet effective tools of holistic management with our community,” reads one typical statement, from a California rancher named Kelly McGarva. “It has made all the difference in our management practices, and the results can be seen on the land.” The attraction for ranchers is Savory’s promise that they can double, even triple, stocking rates while improving soil and vegetation cover. But the tales of success are self-reported and anecdotal. When scientists have conducted the rigorous evaluation suggested by the University of Natal researchers, the results have not been favorable.

In 1969, the Charter Estate, a London-based company, donated land, funding, and cattle to conduct a seven-year study of Savory’s “short-duration grazing” on 6,200 acres in Zimbabwe. Savory stated in 2000 that the Charter Trials, as the experiment was called, was “the only trial ever conducted” about his work and that it “proved what I have always advocated and continue to advocate when livestock are run on any land.”

But a 2002 review of the Charter Trials concluded that the Savory grazing method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The study’s authors found “no definite evidence in the African studies that short-duration grazing . . . will accelerate plant succession.” The re-greening from cattle didn’t happen. (Savory has since disavowed short-duration grazing, saying that it was flawed and that holistic management, despite its similarities to the short-duration model, now offers the best option.)

Since that initial study was conducted, Savory has faced a new wave of scrutiny. A group of United States-based rangeland scientists, led by David Briske, a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, stated flatly that the Savory method “can not green deserts or reverse climate change.” Savory’s claims “are not only unsupported by scientific information, but they are often in direct conflict with it.” Briske’s study, published in the journal of the Society for Range Management in 2013, concluded: “We find all of Mr. Savory’s major claims to be unfounded.”

The Briske team found that Savory misrepresented the photos of landscapes he presents as evidence of the alleged desertifying effect of removing cattle. One of the photo series he often uses features Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. But the land, the Briske report said, was not desertified from lack of cattle. Instead, the landscape was slowly recovering from decades of abusive overgrazing. (I emailed Briske for an interview, but he declined to talk. “Frankly, I have grown weary of the grandiose and unsubstantiated claims of Mr. Savory,” Briske replied.)

Andres Cibils, a professor of range science at New Mexico State University, looked at Savory’s claims of rangeland regeneration in Patagonia, among the highlights of the TED Talk. “In the case of Patagonia,” Cibils told me, “there are no credible data to support Savory’s success assertions.”

Before coming to the United States, Cibils lived and worked in Patagonia for 13 years. Many of the region’s ranchers, hard-hit by desertification that had resulted from decades of overgrazing, were worried for their future. “They were hungry for a miracle,” said Cibils, who is familiar with several of the ranches where the Savory system was attempted. “They were willing to try this thing. But it’s the same old story. I visited ranchers in New Mexico where Savory has consulted. These are people who tried it and who either modified or abandoned it because the results were a train wreck.”

One of the tenets in Savory’s argument is that soil becomes unhealthy—less carbon-rich—without the concentrated hoof action of cattle. By increasing the number of cattle on the land, ranchers can boost soil carbon sequestration. But this claim also founders under close inspection.

Briske and his colleagues looked at Savory’s assertion that revitalized rangelands could help reduce atmospheric carbon to preindustrial levels. This would be a 30 percent drop, from 400 parts per million of CO2 to 280 PPM. The idea, the researchers concluded, is fantastical, amounting to “an enormous misrepresentation of the global carbon cycle and climate change science.”

With global greenhouse gas emissions at roughly 50 billion metric tons a year, rangelands would have to sequester 13.6 billion tons annually, the report concluded. There are 5 billion hectares of rangelands; the most widely accepted estimate of potential soil carbon sequestration is less than 0.25 tons of carbon per hectare per year. That’s eightfold less than Savory’s claims would require.

23 Responses to “What Can Bison Teach us About Carbon and Climate?”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    methane a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more heat-trapping than CO2

    This number is outdated for years! Even the conservative IPCC cites a factor of 34 to 86. Some scientists even claim a factor higher than 100.

    This article is from 2013 => IPCC increases greenhouse gas multiplier for methane

    • It may be outdated for years, but that is about how long methane remains as methane before it is converted to CO2 (~15 years). Not very long in the scheme of things, considering that CO2 may stay for ten millennia.

      The contribution of methane to AGW is relatively small, and the contribution of beef cattle burps to total methane emissions is minor. When you realize that whatever the cows ate to produce that belch, would have produced some methane in its own natural way of rotting away anyway, the realization should come pretty quickly to those paying attention that this is an issue that is being hyped up way beyond its true significance.

      There are now a ton of people who think that all we need to do to solve AGW is get rid of meat. And that by doing so themselves, they are doing their part to fight AGW. Which, of course, is absurd.

      And it, no doubt, makes the Koch brothers extremely happy to see that so many have taken their effing eyes off the effing ball.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        The contribution of methane to AGW is relatively small, and the contribution of beef cattle burps to total methane emissions is minor.

        Sorry, Roger, but I call this plain bullcrap.

        What is methane’s contribution to global warming?

        What the science says…

        While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is over 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere. Hence the amount of warming methane contributes is 28% of the warming CO2 contributes.

        28% is anything but “relatively small”.

        For a few years now and due to fracking, oil and gas exploration has become the highest emitter of methane in the US. Nonetheless, stock farming is playing a significant – and not just a “minor” – role in terms of methane emissions:

        (Source US EPA)

        You better get the facts straight before posting again, Roger.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          Here is what the EPA, says about contributions of agriculture and methane:

          First – GHG emissions corrected to CO2 equivalents:

          You can see that that “28%” is bogus. It is based on the U.N. FAO report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which exaggerated the impact of livestock farming so badly the authors apologized for it. I have brought this up multiple times here.

          And, in the chart above, that is *total* methane, of which the contribution of cows is a minority percentage. And, most of that methane is attributed to their lifetime of eating grass – which rots away all by itself if not eaten and produces some methane too.

          Most methane emissions are from melting permafrost, thawing peat bogs and lake bottoms, and the fracking industry.

          Now, look at that chart again – at all the orange. Virtually all of that is greenhouse gases that are being generated for no good reason whatsoever. Meanwhile, growing food is something good that does produce some GHG’s, but we NEED food.

          Once again, I would urge you to consider priorities here. Should we break our attention off of the huge, needless GHG emissions, or instead should we obsess about a relatively tiny contribution from food sources?

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            And, btw, sorry for the confusion, but Roger Lambert and Gingerbaker are the same person – me.

          • Sir Charles Says:

            Interesting: “Roger Lambert and Gingerbaker are the same person”. Well, let’s leave that aside for a while.

            The 28% is anything but “bogus”, Roger. And such number is not just based on one single report which would have “exaggerated the impact of livestock farming”. Here another source:

            About 25% of the manmade global warming we’re experiencing today is caused by methane emissions.

            The problem is that most older sources (e.g. US EPA) are still calculating with outdated multipliers for this very potent greenhouse gas. I explained that in my previous post. And when you take the graph you just posted, Roger, and apply the correct multiplier, you must admit that 25 or 28 percent are realistic numbers. I think nobody here claims that livestock farming is the sole source of methane emissions. But, as I also explained in my previous post, cattle farming is playing a significant role. No more, no less. It’s neither a “tiny contribution” nor am I “obsessed” with anything. All I’m after is getting the facts straight, Roger. BTW, it takes some 1,800 gallons of water to obtain one pound of beef.

          • MorinMoss Says:

            So almost no goddamn progress in 25 yrs??
            FFS, we’re so screwed

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            “Here another source:

            “About 25% of the manmade global warming we’re experiencing today is caused by methane emissions.””

            That’s not a source, Charles, it is a blog post.

            “The problem is that most older sources (e.g. US EPA) are still calculating with outdated multipliers for this very potent greenhouse gas. I explained that in my previous post. And when you take the graph you just posted, Roger, and apply the correct multiplier, you must admit that 25 or 28 percent are realistic numbers. “

            I’ll take the EPA numbers, thanks. Here is their explainer. Perhaps you could offer us and them a rebuttal?


            Meanwhile, real scientists are not concerned at all about cow belches, or about methane itself very much – unless there is an explosion from clathrates and permafrost, etc. (In fact, they are rather pissed off that right-wing denier sites like o hype methane and water vapour numbers so as to “defeat” Al Gore) Here is some perspective on methane from Real Climate. Notice that livestock does not even deserve a mention:


            Now, consider this:

            All cows are grass-fed. Most meat cattle do not receive “grain” until they are finished off at the large factory-farms everyone loves to hate. So, ~90% (?) of a cow comes from grass. -> That grass is made of carbon that the grass pulled from the atmosphere as CO2. So, 90% of a cow is carbon neutral.

            Then they go to factory farms. And here is the kicker:

            The vast majority of the methane attributed to cows comes not from their belches, but from their manure pits, which for some reason are aqueous ponds full of manure and which are anaerobic fermentation factories. If factory farm cows were simply allowed to poop on natural grassland, their methane contributions (which again I stress are nominal compared to fossil fuel CO2 emissions) would be reduced greatly.

            No doubt the factory ranchers are up to their elbows on cow patties and have to do something. But perhaps we could regulate that the manure be spread over grassland and not collected into wet pools.

          • Sir Charles Says:

            I don’t think that spreading the manure changes anything concerning methane release. It only would more endanger ground waters, Roger. Nitrates aren’t good for drinking.

            What do you mean with “real scientists”? Just the one David Archer? He believes that methane could even have a net cooling effect on the atmosphere. I respect David Archer, but his view on methane is anything but mainstream. IPCC is mainstream, and they put the multiplier (GWP) for methane at 34 to 86. When certain EPAs have still not updated their datasets then someone should tell them (assuming they would listen). Real Climate, the blog David is posting, is a reputable blog, but so is the Environmental Defense Fund which base their calculation on the IPCC AR5 WGI Chapter 8, BTW, the same report I am referring to in my previous post.

            Growing food is certainly a “good reason”, Roger, but intensive cattle farming is anything but “growing” food. And your claim a cow would be “carbon neutral” is as misleading as it can be, Roger. Chemistry tells us a different story when it comes to GWP.

            Enough said.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            “I don’t think that spreading the manure changes anything concerning methane release. It only would more endanger ground waters, Roger”.

            Do you have feedlots/industrial livestock operations in Ireland? Do you understand how “unnatural” they are?

          • Sir Charles Says:

            BTW, your EPA had done fuck all to protect your citizens and the environment from the frackers.

            => US EPA altered conclusions of fracking study to downplay water contamination risks

            And that was before Tramp started dismantling this agency.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Chucky once again displays his anti-American bias with “…your EPA had done fuck all to protect your citizens and the environment from the frackers”—–is he a Russian troll seeking to divide us? And as proof he cites a piece from SGBI that shows how an apparent fossil fuels mole in the EPA was thwarted and the EPA eventually did the RIGHT thing? WOW!

            Too bad he didn’t point out the piece in the SGBI link that says Ireland is going to FAIL miserably at meeting its 2020 emissions goals under the Paris Agreement. Or is that fake news?

            Shale Gas Bulletin Ireland has been one of my favorites for news and perspectives from “over there”. Carbon Brief, Unearthed Today, and The Guardian are good sources too.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        BTW, don’t underestimate the warming potential of methane. Mind the positive feedbacks. We still don’t know when and where the tipping point for runaway global warming is!

        Have a look at this page and search (Ctrl + F) for articles that deal with ‘methane’ => Shale Gas Bulletin Ireland

        All we’re heating up now can’t just be cooled again anytime in the future.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Just because a TED talk gets a standing O doesn’t mean it’s based on the best science. Savory is not all wrong, but he’s off on a tangent that is not very significant.

    I don’t know how Roger and Chuck got off into cow burps and eating meat again, but the real concern with methane is the massive amounts that may be released from subseabed clathrates (methane hydrates) and melting permafrost and the runaway feedback loops that may occur.

    A good site for info on methane—-lots pf good graphics—–check out the various pages also.


    • Sir Charles Says:

      I don’t know how Roger and Chuck got off into cow burps and eating meat again

      Well, it could be the subject of Peter’s article including this graph here, dumbo:

      I suppose we’re not in a race now whose methane is best… I agree with you that methane hydrate is a positive feedback which we still aren’t aware how bad it could become. I totally agree here. It’s like playing with fire. And of course fossil fuel companies are already in for exploitation.

      Thanks for the hyperlink, BTW.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        I saw the chart, Chucky, and I will repeat that the methane that really matters is not that associated with any foods but that “known unknown” that may bite us in the ass and be unstoppable.

        And CO2 from fossil fuels remains out biggest AGW problem. Please don’t allow your need to try to “one up” me distract you from supporting Roger’s more intelligent remark—-you are indeed helping the Koch Brothers take our “effing collective eyes of the effing ball”.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      When I first saw Savory’s talk in 2012, my eternal inner pessimist was shouting that it was too good, too easy to be true.
      I would have been happy to be wrong.
      I think that he or someone else had a similar plan to improve or restore crop lands in China, again with the use of farm animals and minor changes to traditional practices.
      I imagine that’s also showing underwhelming results.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Nobody is taking my burger off me, and nobody is taking my gun off me…

    I have understood. Here’s one more:

    The “Anti-Patriarchy Movement Will Undo 10,000 Years Of Recorded History”

  4. Sir Charles Says:

    Nobody is taking my burger off me, and nobody is taking my gvn off me…

    I have understood. Here’s one more:

    The “Anti-Patriarchy Movement Will Undo 10,000 Years Of Recorded History”

  5. George Monbiot has criticized Savory’s TED talk. I have also challenged anyone to back up Savory’s claims on the TED talk comments page. So far, only defensive arguments have emerged in reply.

    Here’s my post from fie months ago:

    I’m afraid this TED talk is not backed up by reality. Here’s Geoge Monbiot is today’s Guardian news:

    ” Understandably, those who keep animals have pushed back against such facts, using an ingenious argument. Livestock grazing, they claim, can suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil, reducing or even reversing global warming. In a TED talk watched by 4 million people, the rancher Allan Savory claims that his “holistic” grazing could absorb enough carbon to return the world’s atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. His inability, when I interviewed him, to substantiate his claims has done nothing to dent their popularity.”


    I agree with George Monbiot that TED should place a warning on this talk as it is misleading.

    Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change/discussion

  6. […] I’ve posted Alan Savory’s talk before – he advocates grazing practices that he claims can save soils and sequester carbon. He has many critics.  […]

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