Oh give me a home where the bison roam …
for The Fence Post
A fascinating regenerative energy of holistic health management is propelling a thundering herd of 400 bison to flourish across the vast eastern Colorado plains of Arapahoe County, while strengthening the root system of the plants that the animals graze.
Forty minutes east-southeast of Denver International Airport, the forward-thinking Savory Institute is making an impact at a ranch in Strasburg, Colo., and is offering the same holistic program at 47 hubs around the world, training farmers and ranchers to mimic the way that more than 40 million bison (or buffalo, as some call them) roamed across North America in the early 1800s. The bison are managed through a grazing methodology known as Holistic Planned Grazing, developed by Savory Institute founder Allan Savory, which is a process that mimics ancestral grazing patterns of wild herbivores that co-evolved with healthy grassland ecosystems.
“Similar to how bison used to roam North America in tightly bunched herds to stay safe from predators, we move our bison to create a similar effect on the land, we just do it through (16) pasture subdivisions, and herding on four-wheelers. We match the number of animals to amounts of available forage, honor the recovery rates of grasses, plan movements in line with the natural rhythms of the land, and then adapt those plans based on the changing conditions of the environment, including available precipitation. By doing so, we are regenerating the health of these grasslands and increasing soil health,” said Bobby Gill, director of communications for the Savory Institute, a non-profit organization that owns the West Bijou Bison Ranch, and is one-fourth owner of the bison herd, with three other owners.
There are usually 400 bison roaming across the West Bijou Bison Ranch. The spring calving season produces 100 of them, although herd owners then sell off about 100 bison in the fall — yearlings or bulls — whatever is needed based on the changing conditions.
Bison are similar to buffalo, although by definition buffalo have a larger body than a bison, a bigger horn and a bigger head than the American bison. The buffalo also has a smooth coat while the bison has a shaggy coat.
At their 47 Savory hubs around the globe that are independently owned and operated, holistic health trainings and workshops are typically offered. Events are advertised in various ways. The Colorado Savory Hub is the Coldharbour Regenerative Network, a network of Holistic Management Practitioners in the Colorado/Rocky Mountain region based in Gunnison, Colo. To read more information about the institute, go to http://www.coldharbourinstitute.org/coldharbour-regenerative-network.html.
“I actually sat in the 10-day class twice, where you’re inside and also out in the field, and we use these practices on the ranch,” said David Wentz, one of the bison herd owners of the West Bijou Ranch, who’s also a certified school teacher in Colorado. “We basically rent land from Savory. We manage the land as far as what Savory wants us to do with it,” Wentz said. All four bison herds on that shortgrass property run together as one herd.
“We let them run together. The property is divided into 16 pastures, but Savory uses planned grazing through a formula based on the number of animals and acres — you move the animals from one area to another,” Wentz said. “The whole purpose is regenerative grasses. We want to continue to develop a strong root system.”
Savory Institute also offers the educational aspect so they can specifically teach farmers and ranchers the principles behind regenerative grasses, and they gear their worldwide training programs for people who want to improve grasslands.
“Yes, we have 47 Savory Hubs around the world that support farmers, ranchers and pastoralists of all types in becoming better land managers for food, water and climate security. This is the core of what we train folks to do. More info about our network is at http://www.savory.global/our-network. This is all based on Allan Savory’s work in developing Holistic Management,” Gill said.
As for the opportunity to work with Allan Savory, Gill said Savory is still actively involved in both the organization and ranch operations. The Savory Institute is named after its founder Clifford Allan Redin Savory, who was born in September 1935 on a 40,000 acre ranch in Zimbabwe and is a Zimbabwean ecologist, livestock farmer, as well as president of the Savory Institute.
“Allan originated Holistic management (agriculture), a systems thinking approach to managing resources,” Gill said. “He’s now 84, and is a rangeland ecologist. Allan worked with wildlife, and Holistic Management is the core principle of Savory Institute’s work of regenerative agriculture, of managing complexity. The program was originally developed by Allan Savory in the 1960s with inspiration from French agronomist Andres Voison’s rotational grazing combined with South African Jan Smut’s concepts of holism,” Gill added. “There were several co-founders of the Savory Institute, so Allan is one of a few. Allan is the sole creator of Holistic Management,” explained Gill.
“In short, the Savory holistic program is a systems-thinking approach for managing complexity based off a decision-making framework,” Gill said. “Most people associate Holistic Management with grazing livestock, as that is where it has been most widely used over the decades, but it can be applied toward managing any complex biological system — a farm, ranch, organization, government, family.”
“Allan merged these two combinations in Zimbabwe (which used to be Rhodesia) and in the late 1960s, came up with these methodologies and now you train these farmers and ranchers — and have influenced 25 million acres to date,” he said “It helps producers gain access to have healthier land,” he said.
In a notable development, the Secretary of the Interior proclaimed the West Bijou Bison Ranch to be the 599th National Natural Landmark in 2017. Interestingly, on the West Bijou property, there is a point of geological interest known as the K-T Boundary.
“The K-T boundary is a preserved layer of ash from when the dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago,” Gill said “The Denver Museum of Nature & Science discovered this K-T Boundary on the property back in the early 2000s and has been doing research on the property since. That led to additional research in other disciplines since the ranch is a large undeveloped parcel of shortgrass prairie. With all the research happening on the site and its unique properties, the National Park Service offered to add it to their National Natural Landmark list,” Gill said.
The Savory Institute was given the West Bijou Bison Ranch as a donation from its previous owner in early 2017, the Plains Conservation Center.
“They (PCC) realized they were not able to provide the land the proper stewardship it deserved, and eventually they dissolved as an organization, so they transferred ownership to the Savory Institute to ensure long-term stewardship of this untouched shortgrass prairie. Savory Institute is the sole owner of the ranch,” Gill said.
Savory’s goal is to make the piece of property in Strasburg its showcase, so they’re spending a lot of time working with it to show people the holistic impact.
“Numerous government officials, federal, state and local have come out to look at the property to get an understanding of the Savory Institute and what its intent is with this piece of property,” Wentz said “They’re putting a lot of effort and focus in. I happen to be here on a daily basis, I get to see a lot of that.” The whole idea is to create thriving grasslands, and here, the property is grazed year-round.
Due to COVID-19, a couple of smaller tours were cancelled and no training has been recently scheduled.
Meanwhile, the herd’s holistic feeding and care continues as per usual. In Colorado, Savory officials discovered it takes plant roots 30 to 40 days for full maturation.
“We have the animals on the pasture for a certain amount of time, so that when they take a bite, before they bite that same plant, we move them off the pasture, so the roots have an adequate amount of time (one month in Colorado) to allow the above-ground grass to fully mature again,” Wentz said. “Over time, you want the plant to become stronger, so you get more coverage over the ground. Eventually, the purpose, is where you have pasture land that’s all filled in with grasses and the pasture is very healthy.”
Wentz said the property has both cool weather grasses, and warm weather grasses, and the more variety of grasses the better. “We don’t plant grasses; it all seems to work,” he said.
There’s also the contribution from the animals directly to the land.
“The animals go to the bathroom on the property so they fertilize it, add moisture to it, and their hoof-prints make little pockets, so when it rains, water collects in the footprint pools instead of washing away. Hoofed animals have multiple stomachs, and they are little fermenting machines, so their bodies — with a male weighing 1,800 to 2,000 pounds and a female bison weighing 1,000 pounds — have humidity coming off of them and provide an environment for the pastures to hold water, fertilizer and all types of things,” Wentz said.
The land, is healthier now, which has been a significant goal.
“Yes, the land is more productive and healthier than before we acquired it, and this is our main goal (both for the West Bijou Ranch, and globally as our nonprofit’s mission is to regenerate the grasslands of the world,” Gill said. “We actively monitor land health using our Ecological Outcome Verification protocol that we use around the globe.”
Experts have found that when people set intentional goals, they’re more likely to focus on following through with that plan. At Savory and the West Bijou Bison Ranch, as Gill puts it, “Our big audacious goal is to influence management and regenerate one-fifth of the world’s grasslands.”
The goal for most livestock producers
“If people can make their own land more productive, with healthier grasses, by increasing the quality and quantity of their own land, they could add additional animals to their land,” Wentz said. “For business, it increases profit. It also helps producers gain access to have healthier land.”
Witnessing these animals in motion is an experience that Wentz appreciates.
“I just enjoy the animals, and working with them, they’re big, they’re athletic, I think they’re beautiful especially if you’re in the landscape with them,” Wentz said. “They’re still wild animals, and not something many see everyday. People contact us from all over the world, from Australia, Japan. It’s still a pretty neat thing that people enjoy seeing.”
Tours are on hold at this time. For a future tour Byron Shelton, West Bijou ranch manager, recommends contacting them through their website at https://savory.global/ and for Bobby Gill’s recent TEDx talk, go to http://www.savory.global/tedx. ❖
— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at email@example.com.