Holistic Management

Spring 2005
by Diane Schivera

Allan Savory of the Savory Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, spoke about Holistic Management® during the keynote address at the 9th annual Vermont Grazing Conference. The book he wrote with his wife, Jody Butterfield, Holistic Management: A New Framework of Decision-Making (Island Press, 1999), explains the method he discovered while working in Zimbabwe attempting to reduce poverty and improve the plight of vanishing wildlife. He thinks his management method will help reduce the desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems, and says it also applies in “less brittle” environments, such as the northeastern United States.

Agriculture makes civilization possible, but agriculture also degrades environments. Savory described this progression of symptoms based on his study of history: soil erosion, silting and drying of rivers, increasingly severe floods, diseases of plants, animals and humans, noxious weeds and insect and rodent pests, frequent fires, poverty, social breakdown, movement of young people to towns away from farms, petty crimes, violence, genocide, resource scarcity, religious fanaticism and other conflicts, changes in atmospheric gas composition, wars, government breakdown and failure of civilization.

Sustainable or organic agriculture is a step in the right direction but not the lone answer. Early agriculture in Egypt or the Roman Empire wasn’t petroleum-based but still destroyed its civilization.

Savory began his working life as a biologist and game warden and was convinced that livestock caused all environmental decline. After observation and much thought, he realized that cattle could actually help heal the land, but a good plan was needed to conserve the natural complexity of the ecosystem. He used the British army’s training manual, which gives the structure for effective and efficient thought processes, as the basis of his plan.

The Holistic Management® framework differs from the universal framework for decision making that most people use, according to Savory. The universal method is sufficient for simple decisions: You move toward a landscape management objective, goal or vision using such tools as technology, fire, and resting water or land resources. Decisions are based on past experience, expert advice, research, cost law, peer pressure, expediency and cash flow. You assume you are correct, monitor results and constantly adapt.

The Holistic Management® framework works in wholes. You create a holistic goal for the farm using a four ecosystem process (community dynamics, water cycle, mineral cycle and energy flow) that is sustained by photosynthesis and realizing that the ecosystems sustain human endeavors, establish objectives and use technology: rest, fire, animal impact, grazing. You use seven decision filters: learning and practice, organization and leadership, marketing, time stock density and herd effect, cropping, burning, population management. (These are explained in Savory and Butterfield’s book.) Decision making in this framework is a proactive process in which wrong assumptions result in a feedback loop to help you start again.

Holistic goals describe how you want your life to be. Quality is based on your most important values, and forms of production ensure such a life for you and for the future resource base – both human and land – thus ensuring that your descendents can live in the same manner. Using the holistic focus rather than the goal to guide decisions ties the values of life to the support system. You move toward improving your life, business and farm with guided decisions ensuring that your decision is in your own self interest and results in harmony, profitability and improvement of the land and biodiversity. If this is not seen in 18 months, you look for a “log jam” where you lapsed back to the old decision-making process.

Abe Collins, the new president of Vermont Grassfarmers Association, said he is using Holistic Management® on the farm he shares with Teddy Yandow (the other keynote speaker for the day). The management-intensive grazing system for their seasonal dairy uses no grain to produce 42 pounds per day of milk. Collins did a great job of explaining how they use HM on the farm to make decisions. One key factor in their grazing plan is that they plan the periods of grazing for each paddock by first determining the necessary recovery period for each paddock – instead of the other way around, as is the common practice. This method gives you an idea of how HM will improve the ecosystem when used correctly.

These talks were inspirational, and this winter I’ll try to read Savory’s book. Holistic Management® seems like a good tool. Look for HM workshops in the future, sponsored by MOFGA and the Maine Grass Farmers Network. Let me know if you are interested in the topic.

About the author: Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s assistant director of agricultural services. You may contact her with questions about your farm animals at 568-4142 or [email protected].

Scroll to Top