When grassland has either been overgrazed or grazed unnaturally, bare ground starts to show. The bare ground is hard and dry, and when it rains, the water doesn't soak in, but washes away.
When the grassland has been grazed in a way that mimics nature — large herds bunched up and moving frequently — the hardpan is broken up, the grass is fertilized and the dead grass is tramped down rather than blocking the sun from the sprouting grass below it, and grasses thrive, filling in the bare ground and restoring life to the soil.
Healthy grassland is full of diverse plants and other organisms: Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, tiny insects, etc. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains more living organisms than there are people on the planet. All these living things and all the decomposing (formerly living) things allow the soil to hold many times its weight in water when it rains.
All of this material is made of carbon. The restoration ecologist Steven Apfelbaum says that for every 1 percent increase in soil carbon, the soil holds and extra 60,000 gallons of water per acre.
With less of the water washing away, there is less erosion, of course, but it also means that there is more water for everything else — the plants, the many living things in the soil, and the aquifers down below ground.
Healthy grassland resists erosion and reduces the impact of droughts.
In her book, Cows Save the Planet, Judith Schwartz writes, "I spoke to Zachary Jones of the Twodot Land and Livestock Company near Harlowton, Montana, where in spring 2011 the Musselshell River, a tributary to the Missouri River, saw thirteen times its usual spring runoff. 'The most water we've ever seen in that creek in the five generations my family has ranched here.' While the flood closed highways, washed away barns and corrals, and drowned livestock, Twodot's land remained unscathed, with very little runoff. Jones attributes this to its having been under Holistic Management for twenty-five years. Compared to its neighbors, Twodot's twenty-four thousand acres had a greater variety of grasses and other plants with deep roots (for efficient nutrient and water cycling) and rich, aerated, highly absorbent soil. Rather than streaming off and causing erosion, the water stayed on the land."
Healthy grassland absorbs and holds more water. It doesn't erode when it rains. And when it is dry, it doesn't blow away as dust either. And, of course, more plants means the soil is more shaded, which means it cools the soil and helps prevent evaporation.
One thing that is absolutely necessary for healthy grassland to thrive is large grazing animals (as long as they are grazing in a way that mimics nature, or in a way that is natural — that is, with large wild herds being relentlessly pursued by pack hunters like lions, hyenas or wolves). Or using holistic planned grazing.
That's what grasslands need to flourish. It's already happening in many places, but you can help it spread. Use your six degrees of separation and let more people know about this work. Join us on Facebook and share our posts with your friends and family. Or subscribe to our updates and share those updates with your friends and family. And do the same with the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. Like them on Facebook (Savory Institute here, HMI here) and subscribe to their updates and share their posts. On both of those web sites, you'll see plenty of opportunities to get involved. At the very least you can help make this information more widely known, and that will make a difference.
One simple and practical thing you can begin immediately is to seek out and buy meats that have been grazed regeneratively. Support that industry. Put your money where your mouth is. For example, Applegate Farms has a new line of sausages that are from regeneratively grazed pork. Read about that here. The Savory Institute has a certification program now (certifying that the meat was grazed Holistically), and more and more companies are getting certified all the time. You can track that here: Land to Market.