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The Grazier's Gazette

Holistic probably isn't what you think

Alan Newport group discussion on a ranch
To think holistically means in decision-making you consider all the members of your managed community, all people, all animals, all plants, all soil biology, and so forth.
The word "holistic" actually has an important and useful meaning that could pay you handsomely to understand.

Even though the term "holistic management" has been in common use in agricultural circles for several decades, some people are still uncomfortable with the phrase.

People involved with agricultural education or research seem particularly reluctant to mention the word holistic.

This is unfortunate because "holistic" is a precise term defining a type of management that is sorely needed in modern agriculture; indeed needed in all human endeavors, from developing government policy to rearing children.

Holistic means all-inclusive.

As applied to farm and ranch management, it means that all parts of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex we call a farm or ranch will be considered when designing management practices. To achieve success, this is a necessity because every member of the complex affects every other member, which is in turn affected by all other members. As the old gospel song says, "The head bone is connected to the neck bone." Right down to the smallest toe bone. Sadly, this fact is seldom recognized by conventional agriculture. We don't have a weed problem or a disease problem or a predator problem, we have a management problem. It is impossible to devise a management practice that will affect only weeds or only horn flies.

Reducing damage from cotton root rot, from grasshoppers, or from coyotes becomes much easier if we can change our focus from killing the pest to changing the conditions that allow populations of these (and other) organisms to grow to the point that they become problematic. One hundred rag weed plants per acre (or woolly croton or leafy splurge or knap weed) is probably beneficial rather than harmful; it is only when these plants are present in large numbers that we see problems.

Every organism, from the smallest microbe to human beings, has needs and the abilities to fulfill these needs that are different from those of even close relatives. When many different kinds of organisms are present (known as biodiversity), available resources  such as sunshine, moisture, mineral nutrients and space, will be fully but not over-utilized, and no one type of organism will develop sufficient numbers to reach pest status. This stability comes about not from competition but rather from the uncountable multitudes of mutually beneficial relationships that form between organisms of all types.

It is only when these relationships are destroyed by outside influences such as tillage, abusive grazing or poisons, that nature calls forth "invasive" species better suited to the degraded growing conditions in an effort to heal the ecological processes (water cycle, nutrient cycles, energy flow, and biological succession) and to restore stability.

Our reaction to crises, ranging from weed explosions to predator losses, has traditionally been to kill the offending organisms as rapidly as possible. This would seem to be a logical approach but usually, after an apparently successful initial result, it brings about a further reduction in biodiversity and sets the stage for future problems. A more logical approach is to change the conditions that have allowed the pest species to become problematic. Weeds do not "invade," they only increase where growing conditions are favorable to their existence. (Poor grazing management is such a condition.) Weeds do not cause range degradation; range degradation causes weeds. 

Most people can readily understand how good grazing management can improve the health and productivity of both the land and the animals feeding on the land. Understanding the role of predators and parasites is not quite as straightforward. Understanding of the relationships between prey, predators and the whole ecological system is found in the meaning of holism.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. In the natural world, if predators become too numerous, prey becomes scarce, predator nutrition declines and predator numbers drop. If predator numbers decline, prey is more plentiful and predator litter size and pup survival will go up.

There is not room here to go into this in great detail, but if you are interested go to my website at and look under Articles for "Diary of a Serial Killer (Retired)" for a more complete explanation.

We are all prone to looking for the silver bullet that will solve our management problems. It does not exist. The closest we can come is to try to manage to promote the health of the entire soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex we call a farm or ranch using holistic management. This is completely feasible and can solve many problems before they occur.

Don't be afraid of the term; it simply means management that considers all factors.


TAGS: Beef Forage
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