There’s evidence that lush vegetation was once common in the Sahara Desert. “The Sahara Desert – Yes, That One – Remarkably Grows Green Every 21,000 Yearswas the headline of an article in the Oct. 17 edition of Popular Mechanics. Writer Tim Newcomb explained that this historically famous wasteland apparently greens itself with vegetation about every 21,000 years. Despite its rarity, this periodic “greening” of the Sahara still provides plenty of opportunities for perspective on the desert.

Crop Comments: Dodging desertificationClimate scientists used models to show historic intervals of a green, vegetated Sahara that occurred over multiple millennia. During these peak verdant periods, rivers, lakes and water-based animals proliferate throughout the previous wasteland. Newcomb wrote that past “greenings” of the desert had provided avenues for animals and humans to disperse across Africa. This alternating between greening and desertification is “all due to how Earth wobbles on its axis.”

But with mankind’s meddling, this process of desertification can rear its ugly head much more rapidly and frequently. According to Oxford Dictionary, “desertification is the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agriculture. Nearly one-fifth of Earth’s land is threatened with desertification.”

While learning more about global desertification issues, I met Allan Savory in 2002, when he was keynote speaker at the 19th Annual Farm Diversity Conference in Norwich, NY. Savory was an early pioneer of holistic management (HM), a land use discipline which attempts to combat and reverse the desertification of the world’s grasslands. This reversal is achieved by the proper management of livestock to ensure that grasslands continue to thrive in tandem with current food production needs. Savory’s work began in 1955 after he earned his degrees in biology and botany in the Union of South Africa. He has since labored to influence decision-makers on environmental policy.

Born in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), Savory spent his early career as a farmer, game ranger and research biologist. In that role, he witnessed the devastating effects that mismanaged livestock had on ecosystems. After serving in the Zimbabwean government in the early 1970s, Savory was exiled for his opposition to the racist policies of the white-led Rhodesian Front Government. He then immigrated to America, where he continued scientific research and developed the HM methodology. He stressed that how humans manage livestock determines the speed with which desertification takes place – and that we need to use livestock to manage our soils to make what meager precipitation we do receive perform more effectively. Moreover, he noted that drought doesn’t cause desertification – it’s the other way around.

Savory said that the American Dust Bowl during the 1930s was full-blown desertification in action. This man-made disaster is starting to repeat itself in recent decades, as rangeland cow/calf operations are fewer and smaller, and with most calves being weaned earlier, often pulled off their dams at six weeks. As recently as the middle of last century, calves usually stayed with their mothers a full year before being moved to feedlots for finishing. With fewer bovines harvesting forage by mouth, the eco-cycle is severely disrupted. The loss of grazing bovines is not offset by equal numbers of wild ruminants, like deer, antelope and bison. As a result, soil integrity in the U.S. suffers.

Savory’s Center for Holistic Management (CHM) is in east-central New Mexico. He showed how much of that land near CHM is becoming even more desolate than before. Such land – which once thrived with cow/calf operations, and during earlier times with buffalo and antelope – isn’t suffering from over-grazing, but rather from under-grazing. The critical linkage – from soils to crops to animals – had weakened, rapidly approaching breaking point. The whole ecosystem had suffered, including the creatures at the top of the food chain: humans.

In his part of the Southwest, cow/calf grazing operations continue disappearing as steers are moved off pasture onto paved confinement feedlots at much younger ages. Such confinement operations are increasingly corn-centered.

Savory stressed that this fragile land suffers from reduced animal numbers. The land there needs to be grazed. Wastes from grazing animals provide organic matter and other soil nutrient benefits that sustain grassy-type crops, maintain soil’s water retention capacity and enhance biodiversity. Losing biodiversity causes loss of agricultural land and ultimately civilization. He noted that throughout history, 20 major civilizations have collapsed due to loss of biodiversity. Moreover, the continuation of this loss will qualify the U.S. sooner rather than later to become the 21st member of that questionable “Hall of Shame.”

Savory has conducted experiments at CHM that successfully demonstrate that cattle grazing practices can successfully reverse these disheartening trends. He’s shown that cattle fenced in an area greatly improve its sward health, compared to un-pastured land on the other side of the fence. Certainly, the grazed paddock and the adjacent non-grazed parcel – one barbed wire strand away – received the same meager 10 to 12 inches of rain. Color photographs show that the grazed portion puts limited precipitation to much better use.

Quoting Savory: “Large quantities of urine and feces, voided by huge herds, catalyzed the microbial activity necessary for healthy soil. Trampling broke the soil surface cap, permitting more water to flow into topsoil … not off it.”

On May 1, Mother Nature spotlighted the folly of practicing farming without grazing livestock. An article titled “Illinois Dust Storm Disaster is a Warning for Agriculture” explained how a freak dust storm on I-55 caused many vehicle pileups, several fatalities and many injuries. According to Illinois State Police, the mishap was caused by “excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway, leading to zero visibility.”

Quoting one USDA official, “Farm fields in the area had been tilled for planting … or had just been planted … leaving soil exposed, so that topsoil was primed to be lofted into the air by short-term dryness. Additionally, that locale had received half the normal rainfall for April.”

There was no mention of pastures.