Grasslands account for 40 percent of the globe's land, 70 percent of which is used for pastoral systems that support 1 billion people worldwide. This population, inhabiting some of the world's poorest regions, is poised to face devastating food shortages if their land continues to suffer as a result of overgrazing. But this desertification is preventable, and even sometimes reversible--the same herds that cause degradation can restore arid regions into fertile farmland.
Intensive grazing, as it is called in rancher-speak, keeps herds dense and moving frequently to avoid overgrazing, a task which requires a lot of cowboy labor. When managed properly, it can restore damaged grasslands.
Common evolutionary wisdom is that flora and fauna co-evolved on grasslands. Cattle or goats can be made to mimic bison or antelope, the large wild herbivores of yesteryear. Applying the same logic that keeps a mowed lawn verdant, trimming wild grasses down lets light reach the soil surface, allowing new shoots to grow and new seeds to germinate. Land with only the tallest plants means gaps, leaving the soil surface exposed and primed for erosion. Because plants grow better under intensive grazing, their roots systems are more robust, and animal hoof action helps rainwater better penetrate the soil. Plus, animals fertilize, water, and spread seed while serving as happy mowers.
A goat-lending program, run by a Zimbabwe-based nonprofit called The Africa Centre for Holistic Management, is the source of many striking before/after photos of dry land adjacent to lush, productive land. Where people were once accustomed to walking 3 miles for water, some healed lands now provide running water year-round. Healthier soil and water benefit not only livestock, but food crops as well.
The 8 million acres of public rangeland in the US should be regulated according to intensive grazing principles. The American West, visually iconic for its dry, cracked fields and bristling tumbleweeds, is a perfect laboratory for animal husbandry on desolate landscapes globally. And with more education efforts and livestock lending programs in the developing world, ranchers can reverse desertification and transform pastoral lands into carbon sinks. The evidence in favor of intensive grazing suggests that more ranchers should be singing "Home On The Range," and more consumers should be grilling free-range burgers this summer.