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Holistic Management and Research: Reviewing the Literature by Frank Aragona


MI is currently in the process of conducting a literature review. This process is unique because of the technological tools now available to us. We are using Joomla!, the open source content portal that is the engine for HMI’s website, to conduct the literature review in a way that is transparent, participatory, and useful to the organization and to our community as a whole. When you visit our Data and Documentation Blog, you will find a series of blog posts that form the basis for this review. Each post has been tagged with a set key of words relevant to the information included in the post. On the right hand side of the page, you will notice a tag cloud. This useful tool displays these key words graphically; larger words appear in more posts, smaller words in fewer posts. In this way, we are in the process of creating a searchable database available to all with summaries of some of the most pertinent research in the area of Holistic Management. Whether you are interested in a specific topic like stocking rates, or a particular study like the Charter Trials, or relevant research conducted in Australia, you now have this information just a few mouse clicks away.

Scientific literature relevant to Holistic Management falls into three general categories: positive, negative and neutral. There are some articles that view Holistic Management in a positive light, like the research published by Stinner et. al. in 1997. In this paper, entitled “Biodiversity as an Organizing Principle,” the authors provide evidence of a dramatic shift in the land manager’s perspective of biodiversity: 9% of participants believed biodiversity to be important before being exposed to HRM (Holistic Management); 100% believed biodiversity to be important after practicing HRM (Holistic Management). This shift in perception was accompanied by increases in profitability. 80% of research participants reported increased profits from their land with the application of Holistic Management. Clearly, the relationships between perception, practice, and profitability are important. The second category is research that views Holistic Management unfavorably. This research has focused primarily on the use of high stocking rates and animal impact as a tool to heal land. Some of these studies though cited often, have serious methodological shortcomings that call into question their final conclusions. One example is an article entitled “Effects of Livestock Grazing on Infiltration Rates, Edwards Plateau of Texas,” published in the Journal of Range Management in 1984. This study concludes that short-duration, high-intensity grazing (SDG) dramatically decreases water infiltration rates when compared with medium stocked continuous grazing. When analyzing the reported numbers in the paper, however, we quickly realize that SDG paddock stocking rates varied from 3.2 ha/AU/yr to 4.9 ha/AU/yr.; treatment paddocks were 6 ha 8


each. This then means that around one or two AU (animal units) were placed in each paddock for each grazing event! This is hardly the type of density required to achieve herd effect, nor is this the type of management intensive grazing one would find on a ranch that practices Holistic Planned Grazing. Unfortunately, for logistical reasons, it is often the case that highly controlled research is incapable of reproducing the conditions one would find on a ranch, or in wildlands. Some research, without intending to, causes us to question some of our assumptions about land response to management. The article “Livestock, soil compaction, and water infiltration rate” by Castellano and Valone is one such article. In it, the authors report soil compaction and perennial grass data from three livestock exclosures established in 1958, 1977, and 1993 in southeastern Arizona. Surprisingly, perennial grasses improved dramatically within the 1958 exclosure, but no changes were detected for the other two exclosures. This improvement was accompanied by similar changes in soil compaction: “…the soil was approximately 84% more compact outside compared to inside the 1958 site but differed by only 39% and 27% across the fences at the 1977 and 1993 sites, respectively.” This research is a cautionary tale about the potentially negative effects of the soil compaction associated with animal impact, and would suggest that sometimes, especially for soils that are particularly vulnerable to compaction, perhaps total rest isn’t always a bad thing. On the other hand, other empirical evidence, like the degraded Drake Exclosure in central Arizona, warns us of the dangerous assumption that resting land will always result in ecological improvements. In the

September / October 2010

complex field of ecosystem management, there are always anomalies and phenomena which we don’t fully understand. Research from these types of exclosures helps us to understand the biotic and abiotic forces at play within these complex dynamic systems. Finally, there is an entire category of research that is relatively neutral or agnostic when it comes to the debate on total rest, stocking rates and animal impact. This research is often the most relevant for improving our practice of Holistic Management. An article by Fuhlendorf et. al. published in Ecological Applications in 2006 provides useful insights into the management of avian diversity through the combined use of fire and grazing. The researchers implemented a patchwork system of rotational burns in which some areas were burned one year and left to recover the following years while other patches were burned. Through this type of management, the researchers created a diverse landscape characterized by a patch-work of bare ground and covered ground, high grasses and low grasses, areas of high animal impact/grazing and areas of low animal impact/grazing. This patch-work landscape dramatically increased the diversity of bird species within the treatments by providing different types of habitat. Research of this type greatly expands our ability to conceptualize and manage biodiversity on the landscape. Other research provides similar insights, like a paper showing the potential to use grazing planning to improve sage grouse habitat. And another paper demonstrates the relationship between grazing ungulates and symbiotic mycorrhizal soil fungi, which were associated with a 34% increase in perennial grass productivity. One paper points towards potential strategies for managing dung beetles in brittle environments. All of this and more is now available to you via the Data and Documentation Blog at our website, Updates are regularly posted via HMI’s Facebook page. There is also an RSS Feed on the blog if you’d like to receive updates on your desktop or mobile device. Please join us and leave your comments on the blog. Help us develop a spring board for synergy and collaboration as we assimilate and apply the results of research towards the common goal of healing the land and delivering results on the ground.

#133 In Practice,, SEP/OCT 2010