AoR 118: Safe-to-Fail Experimentation & Regenerative Grazing with Graeme Hand & Kevin Muno

Can grazing be used to help ecosystem function or is 'do no harm' the best we can do? What is meant by the new buzzword "regenerative"? Graeme Hand has been teaching and practicing grazing decision-making for a long time and has championed the idea of experimentation at spatial scales at which failing is not fatal to the environment or a livelihood. Kevin Muno is a rancher in southern California trying these ideas out at the ranch scale. We discuss measuring success using Landscape Function Analysis, a system developed in Australia by CSIRO and similar to the NRCS rangeland health matrix.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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Welcome back to the Art of Range. My guests today are Graeme Hand and Kevin Muno. Graeme is a rancher in Australia and a consultant and an instructor with Holistic Management International and I think the Savory Institute. And Kevin is a rancher in Southern California and works with other ranches on improving landscape function. I'm going to let them introduce themselves in just a minute, but I want to start by addressing some criticism that may come from some listeners for having anyone associated with Allan Savory on the podcast. First, I want to say that my goal with the Art of Range is to explore ideas and holistic management is an idea that has had an outside influence on at least North American and Australian ranchers, and for that reason alone, deserves a hearing. Second, as I understand it, holistic management is a decision-making framework, not a narrowly defined grazing method. And I've seen quite a few ranches in the Inland Northwest with various flavors of holistic management applied and I have yet to see very many wagon wheel grazing patterns. But I have seen improved animal distribution, longer growth periods where plants are not perpetually pruned by cows and probably, most importantly, a lot of attention paid to continual improvement. Don Nelson was WSU Extension beef specialist for a long time. He is now deceased but he liked to say that you can't manage what you don't measure, and I think he might have gotten that from Peter Drucker but I would modify it a little bit for a natural environment. You don't manage well what you don't give your attention to. And regular observation is a kind of qualitative measuring even if it's not recorded or measured directly. And the holistic management practitioners that I've known are constantly thinking about what the cows are eating and where and when and why and asking themselves what are the results in terms of cover that the plants will interphase, species composition, animal health, and other secondary effects like wildlife habitat. You know, are there more songbirds here than there were 20 years ago? And third, this is a soapbox itch that I've been getting to scratch for a while, the older I get, the more I become a big tent person. If anybody thinks they have the corner on scientific truth in the world of range lands, then they're not a good scientist. We need to make room for a wide range of opinions, recognizing that most opinions are related to real-world experience. And particularly, in an applied synthetic discipline like range land grazing, we need to be slow to condemn ideas about practices that somebody else has seen work. So, somebody says, "The research shows that elk won't mix with cattle. They stay spatially segregated." But then, you see elk cows and beef cows grazing together in a single mob or in patches of animals that are close enough to smell each other. And this supposed truth or, you know, natural law falls apart, at least in that context. And the entire history of science is littered with surprising discoveries. Many of them much more important than whether bovines and cervines mix, and these often come from directions we don't expect. So, I have strong relationships with ranchers whose land and livelihoods have been greatly helped by the planning and management guided by what is usually called holistic management. I think it's a great term and, by definition, it's fitting for rangelands and grazing. You know, at face value, holistic means looking at the big picture and in the next bigger picture and the picture another spatial or temporal scale out from there. And that is a healthy impulse and it's scientifically sound. And if the conclusions that we make from that consideration and decision making have bad results, then we do something different. And I have relationships with people who think that holistic management is a bunch of hooey. Then, I guess, I'm a proud hybrid, somebody who's trying to keep one foot in the real world where ideas have physical consequences and one foot in academia where people should be thinking outside of the box and trying on and testing new ideas about how things work and why. But those two worlds don't always see eye to eye, and I actually don't think that's a big problem. So, I don't have much relationship history with Graeme but I have some reliable reconnaissance that indicates he's the right person to go with me on an initial dive into regenerative grazing and how to test the results of that, of whatever that is. Kevin and I don't go way back either but he's trying some new things at scale and seeing whether they work and somebody's got to do it. So, gentlemen, I apologize for the longer than usual introduction here, but I wanted to get my cards on the table so that if you're both crazy, I warned everyone. And if you're on to something, then maybe I prepared people to listen who would otherwise be close-minded. So, Graeme and Kevin, welcome and thank you for your patience.

>> Thanks, Tip. Good to be here.

>> Great to be here, Tip. Thank you.

>> Graeme, let's start with introducing you. What is your background and what is it that you mostly spend your days doing right now?

>> Yeah. Thanks, Tip. My background is, at times, as a scientist and became an industrial chemist in my early 20s. And then, did a lot of things but ended up doing a lot of quality assurance and, yeah, total quality control all through the '80s. And then, went back to ranching in the early '90s and trained with Allan Savory in the mid '90s. And, you know, then sort of went and worked in our Department of Agriculture, worked for our -- on our beef grading system in Australia and continue to work. So, I'm a member of both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. And yeah, so that's about it. At the moment, I'm setting up a demonstration ranch farm in East Gippsland in southeastern Australia and the -- and just sort of that implementing what we talk about.

>> Great. Kevin, why don't you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about who you are and what you're doing.

>> Awesome, Tip, and thanks again. Great to be here. I'm a first-generation rancher. I started ranching in 2016. So, I haven't been at it too long but I've been involved in the regenerative agriculture industry, you could say, since about 2013 and I graduated from business school at University of San Diego, so have a business background. That was back in 2010. I'm 36 years old. And about three years ago, we bought a cattle company with some investors here in San Diego, California and we've been operating that, again, since 2020. So, in the middle of a pandemic, we raised a little bit of money and bought a fourth-generation cattle company that was going through some transition. Both patriarch and son had tragically passed away and they were selling the company. And so, was lucky enough to be frontline to kind of get a chance at that and had enough confidence from some of my previous endeavors in the space to go full on and buy a company. So, we bought 280 cow/calf pairs or Angus Hereford crosses or black baldies and we -- with the purchase of the company got access to about 16,000 acres of land here in Southern California across two leases. So, one is on a water district property which is pretty interesting, that's an 8,000-acre lease. It's a fun conversation around water with them and how the soil surface affects water. They own the ranch to land bank essentially and the whole ranch drains into a reservoir which supplies about 20% of the water to a pretty big city. And then, the other properties are actually federal land which is fun, too, to work with their team over there and the ecologist over there because their main concern is the Endangered Species Act. And so, we've been managing that 8,000 acres, too, which is on a pretty big military base. It actually borders Camp Pendleton which is another about 100,000 acres of rangeland which is pretty rare in Southern California. You don't think Southern California think ranching but, at one point, right, a lot of this was rangeland, still is quite a bit of rangeland in California, just not too much in Southern California. You think more Central and Northern California when we think rangeland. So, past three years, we started a direct-to-consumer business called Perennial Pastures wherein 14 farmers markets we saw online direct-to-doorstep nationwide. Business has grown really well. It's been a great year for us. The reception has been amazing to work with customers that really care about soil health and nutrient density in food. So, Graeme and I teamed up, going on about six years ago. I used to work at Rumiano Cheese and I brought him out to look at the dairy ecosystem out there on the north coast of California and we really kind of cut our teeth and he taught me everything I know about landscape function and grazing. So, that's been really fun to work with him and be able to just really kind of sink my teeth into somebody who's been really, I think, transformational in this space as far as risk mitigation and looking at the soil surface, and really being concerned with ranchers being successful doing this type of grazing. So, it's been fun and we found another consulting company called Landscape Function Management. We have a small little practice here in the states that we're launching currently. And put that out, we wanted to reach out to podcast and let people know what we do and, you know, have a website. And we think it's a bit different from some of the other folks that are out there. So, super excited for this conversation to kind of introduce, you know, what Graeme and I have been doing for some time. So, thanks again for having us.

>> Yeah. Thank you. That's fascinating. Probably, what I like about grazing is that there's no two situations that's the same seemingly. The -- you know, in the Western US and even in places like across Australia, you got such a wide -- you got a wide range of environmental conditions and ecosystem types and plant communities and land ownership, land tenure arrangements, and grazing practices that there's no end to the things to think about and talk about. Maybe a good place to start, Graeme, is the term regenerative agriculture. It seems to be the new buzz word that has maybe replaced sustainable agriculture. You know, buzz words, by their very nature, experience fading meaning over time and sustainability was probably never a very good term, anyway. Nathan Sayre said once that anything that persist could be called sustainable but that's not really what we mean when we say the word. So, I'm a little bit afraid that regenerative is in grave danger of being the next buzz word that has very little meaning, at least not very specific meaning. And I would say that it's somewhat associated with holistic management. So, I said a whole lot of stuff in the introduction including an attempt at the definition about holistic management being a decision-making framework. So, I'm interested in how you would define regenerative agriculture first, and then maybe, secondly, holistic management.

>> Yeah. Thanks, Tip. You know, we have a scientifically valid definition of regenerative agriculture in -- so -- in total. So, what we use and I have to use this when I started working with our Department of Agriculture, I had to find a way of talking about what I was doing that was actually peer-reviewed. And luckily, in Australia, we had -- David Tongway and Norman Hindley developed a soil surface monitoring process called landscape function analysis which is published in peer-reviewed so that I could then point to that is this is what I'm trying to do. So, what is the science of soil surfaces? So, my definition says that money and people, so people's well-being and financial health is nested within a regenerating landscape which is defined by increasing landscape function. So, it -- you can -- each one of those is auditable. So, that was really my whole quality assurance science background which trying to have -- we actually get something here so that we can say, "Yes, that's heading in the right direction and no, that's not heading in the right direction." So, yeah. So, it's using that science of landscape function analysis and I can provide the arrangements for that if people are interested.

>> Yeah. Can you repeat that definition? I just want to mention that that publication by David Tongway and Norman Hindley was produced by CSIRO which is Australia's national science agency, right?

>> Yes, it is. In -- yeah, in 2004, I believe, it was published. I want to look it up but I got too many things in my head, I'm afraid. But yeah, so that definition of regenerative is that I used to do, you know, the Venn diagram and have money, people, and healthy lands and what I found was that people -- if they see that equal-sized circles, they trade one against the other, they don't think about the whole thing functioning. So, now, money and people are nested within that increasing landscape function which is sort of the foundation of biodiversity. So, landscape function tells you if you look and measure the soil surface, is the land stable or eroded? Is it infiltrating water more and is it cycling nutrients? So, it's that foundation of biodiversity. So, that's what I get people to focus on first. So, that's the definition. So, improving farmer well-being would be my -- be a rancher and farmer. We used farmer to rancher as well. And the increasing profit will go down, like stable or increasing profit, but increasing landscape function of biodiversity. So, that's the big circle and those other two are sitting inside it. So, you know, one of the things is -- that I found and if you actually give that an auditable definition, you can actually go and extend sort of into a ranch and say, "Look, this is where you are, this is some possible corrective actions. You know, do a trial and do that." So -- yes, so that's sort of that landscape function. I'll come back to sort of my definition of eco which we see as small like a method or a process. So, I'll come back to how that word slide up. But the -- but then, the definition of holistic management. So, holistic management framework and the decision-making framework is an attempt to try and work in the complex domain. So, we know that we get lots of unintended consequences when we use expert advice in the complicated domain. So, we need to use a framework that allows us to explore complexity. So, that's what the holistic management framework. So, you know, it's sort of you pick, sorry about that, pick a -- what you're trying to achieve and then you see and check whether an action is going to head you in that right direction. But there is no right and wrong answers in complexity and this is why I started to describe, I guess, the definition of insanity does not apply complexity because you can't do the same things twice when you're farming and ranching. You know, the lands changed, the citizens changed, the animals changed, you changed, everything is changing over time. So, you can now be look at trends and dispositions to -- in an attempt to sort of manage complexity. So, that's that whole way we use it. So, it's like a trend and which direction you're heading in. So, managing complexity is Allan's great skill. So, introducing that idea of complexity is what holistic management is about so that we don't end up with unintended consequences from our actions. So, yeah, this -- yeah, people don't have to think very hard. You know, you tried to do some things harder and then it gets worse. So, yeah, trying to increase production at all cost hasn't worked and, you know, and some of those things that I'd like to discuss in detail which as we sort of move along.

>> Yeah. Thank you. Kevin, how would you define those things if you were answering in your own words?

>> Well, you know, as a company, we've adopted really, you know, the definition that Graeme's put forth. You know, it's auditable, you know, the ecosystem health is driven by landscape function and how healthy the soil surface is which, again, as Graeme alluded to, leads to biodiversity and all sorts of other benefits. And then, yeah, it's got to be profitable and the people have to be happy. So, he didn't go into too much detail, you know, about the people side of things but my wife is a clinical psychologist and there are, definitely, auditable ways of, you know, assessing if somebody is happy or not. But usually, you know, one simple tried and truth question is to, you know, see if the kids want to go onto agriculture afterwards, you know.

>> That's the acid test, isn't it?

>> Exactly. If they want to do it, it is probably a good thing, you know. And probably people are happy and, you know, they're making money. So, certainly, I think the profit side is a super interesting conversation, too, with all the tools that we have today from Shopify for e-commerce to, you know, social media to farmer's markets. I think going direct and owning your vertical within agriculture is an important thing. So, certainly, that's not part of the definition that is involved in the profit discussion. So, that's where we're headed kind of as a company, you know, and as a group, literally, with Landscape Function Management and Perennial Pastures. And Graeme is going to get a meat business going over there, too. He's got one, he's made some sales, he doesn't have an online presence yet but we're collective and we're pushing that forward. So, again, it's all about results. We are involved in the -- through Perennial Pastures a certification body called Regenified and that's owned by Gabe Brown and his partners. And so, they've kind of put forth their definition and we're hoping to instill more landscape function analysis foundation into that as well because as you probably know and your listeners probably know, rangelands are highly variable. And when you get to the sort of landscapes that we're managing and want to manage in the future, you know, they're really long -- you know, large properties in Australia, the big station, you know, some of the biggest stations in the world or ranches in the world. And then, the big ranches to the west. Truly hard to quantify those, you know, at landscape scale. The beauty that we have now is things like hyperspectral imagery and, you know, there's another paper at CSIRO published that, you know, we can manage our -- manage and monitor landscape function from space now which is great. So, I think that that is what we're hoping to sort of influence some of these other regenerative certifications that are out there because it is a fast-growing movement and the consumers want to know really what's behind it. And, you know, as ranchers to start, we want to know -- I got into ranching just because I have a love for the environment and making the world a better place and I think there's no better way to do it at scale than ranching. So, I want to know that, you know, we're having success with it and landscape function analysis is one of the best ways that I've seen to do it and also train people doing. As a strat feedback, what are we doing as a rancher? We're managing that soil surface and the litter cover and the basal area, perennial grasses, and, you know, how, you know, severely we're raising and how long we recover. So, I know it's probably a bit more than you asked for but that's, you know, very consistent with what Graeme's already said. Just a few other things to mention on that.

>> No, I think that's right and I feel like we're at a bit of a turning point in terms of both the direction of livestock agriculture as well as the general public's perception of livestock agriculture. You know, we've had a lot of reaction at least in this country to grazing practices from a hundred years ago, 150 years ago that caused degradation, you know, where there were degenerated landscapes and soil loss. And, you know, these things, as you say, this is a complex domain and a lot of those problems were as much related to how we handle money as there were misunderstandings about how to manage livestock. It's not at all simple. But, you know, if we got -- say we got 10 range folks on the line here, we might get 25 definitions of what overgrazing is. And I'm curious, maybe from you Graeme, what would say -- you know, we're trying to define grazing that has a spiraling effect, you know, where you have a positive feedback loop instead of a negative feedback loop. But what is it look like -- if somebody ask you, what is -- how would you define overgrazing? What does grazing look like that causes degradation? What would you say?

>> Yeah. But it's pretty clear that overgrazing is eating the leaf of perennial grasses that has re-grown from the root reserves. So, if the plant hasn't recovered its root reserves from a previous grazing and you graze it again, you actually are overgrazing. So, it's not -- there's a lot of confusion between utilization of the ranch and overgrazing of the ranch. Utilizations can be very, very -- yeah, very heavy and I think that high utilization is important to clear growth points and stimulate germination of other perennial grasses and that's different from them coming back quickly. I never say people failed from staying too long unless if they're moving the animals. If they said stop, they do. But if they're moving the animals, they never stayed too long. They always come back too quick. There's probably some people in the world but I've never met them that overgraze from staying too long. So, yeah, so clear definition. So, I've had a definition of when is a perennial grass recovered because in a landscape function, the perennial grass basal area, the -- yeah, about 50% of new nutrient cycling is driven by the perennial grass basal area and the other 50% by decomposing litter in the inter-tussock space. So, what we're just trying to do is have a definition that allows people to increase landscape function. So, I've used part of Allan Savory. I tried with Allan in the mid-'90s and it just changed my whole career and outlook in life. So -- but the definition is, the first part is Allan's, when it looks like an ungrazed plant and it's -- so, it's ready to be regrowth and I'll just headed to that when it looks like an ungrazed plant and contains fresh yellow litter because it's the litter that provides the ground cover and the decomposing litter in the inter-tussock space. So, at its simplest, you could describe landscape function as increasing perennial grass basal area and density with decomposing litter in the inter-tussock space. There's more to it than that but, yeah, that's the big things and that's what we're sort of measuring and controlling with our management.

>> Yeah. I like that definition. Then, I guess, the flipside of that is what would proper grazing look like?

>> Yeah. This is really -- this is where the argument starts. People will fight to the death over this. So, what I say to people is that if you accept that increasing landscape function in my definition of regenerative grazing or regenerative agriculture is correct, then the way -- the next step is to implement about five what I call and I have got from Dave Snowden from Cynefin, I call them safe-to-fail trials. Now, there's a reason why the fail is in there. So, if you have five, you want trial one and trial five to be at the outer limits and you want them to be failing. Other people who notice it calling them safe-to-try which I don't mind but the whole idea, we don't have a -- it might be a social thing but when I work in states, I switch to safe-to-try because you want some of them to fail. So, you know -- and people go, "Why do I want to do a trial that fails?" Because what you try to do is explore the tendency of your land. So, this isn't to find an answer, it's -- so we find out how does my land respond to the three-grazing lever of stock density, utilization, and recovery. So, I'll try to simplify that down to the -- I'm just saying, you know, recovery drives a lot of, you know, the regrowth and the litter and the health of the plant and basal area, you know. Stock density gives you germination of the perennial grass seed bank and utilization clears growth points and stops perennial grasses dying from choking themselves out and provides light to stimulate the germination of the seed bank. So, I just try to keep to those things. So, my definition of sort of this speak of literacy for farmers is, you know, understanding landscape function, implementing your own trials on your land because there's something else happens when you do it yourself with your own animals, that you actually go, "Oh, OK, that's actually what works for me." And then, from there, expand that, you know, slowly and profitably onto more and more of the landscape. So, it's actually like a loop of a process. So, it's using Allan's framework and then including a clear definition of landscape function and a clear idea of do not adopt something until you can do it in a small scale. So, I see people failing at a small scale and then expanding it whereas I say, "No, no learn to do it at that scale first," and that's what that safe-to-fail trials is about.

>> Then, I read somewhere that that term came from a technology domain rather than natural resources.

>> Yeah, it did. So, the Cynefin company which is a Welsh word, the C-Y-N-E-F-I-N, is started by a -- Professor Dave Snowden. So, in the world who I believe he's one of the experts on complexity and what he did was he says that if you've got things that are simple and clear, then you can, you know, it's just best practice. If you got things that are complicated, you got to get an expert like tax or insurance or some of our medicine. But if you're working in the complex domain way, you have way of managing things basically. So, people and money and the environment, you know, economies and the environment, then you need to find out how it works. So, you've actually got to do a trial to see how this works and you don't adopt until you know that it's heading you in the right direction. So, he's got an expression where he says "More of that, less of this." So, it's -- one of the trials isn't going where you wanted to go, then you do less of it and you dampen that. But the things that are going well, you amplify them and you do that, you know, controlled steady way because as everyone knows, agriculture punishes rapid change. So, you've got to actually be able to do that in a stage thing. So, you've got that from -- he was involved in the computer programming and worked for IBM. And then, he's done a lot of work to -- you know, with the US government all around the world. He works in health, he works in all those complex domains.

>> Yeah. And then, that assumes that we have something by which to evaluate success and you're saying that's landscape function, is that right?

>> Yes. Yes, that's correct. Yeah. As well as the people and the money.

>> Yeah, yeah. How would you define functional landscapes or what are the indicators of that?

>> So, in a grassland and even grassy woodlands and even in forests and bushes we see in, you know, Australia, you have increasing basal area of the perennial species and then you have decomposing litter in the -- between the perennial species. So, in a grazing system, you're basically looking at the perennial grasses and then the litter out of those perennial grasses decomposing in the inter-tussock space. So, basically [inaudible] composting over the whole landscape but you're growing the material, the litter that you're going to compost in situ. So, that's easy in the grassland and in forests and in grassy woodlands. A couple of, sort of all over the states; Brazil, Somaliland, Mongolia, sort of, and it's very, very consistent that in these environments you need 100% ground cover comprising perennial plants and decomposing litter. So, that's the sort of the target in cropping. You know, I think that Gabe Brown soil armor that he introduced into that sort of regenerative cropping, it's the best description that most people have heard of, you know, soil armor. I, you know, I'm a friend of Gabe so he's come over here. We had a great time over in Australia doing workshops and stuff. But I feel like it needs to be not only described as soil armor, it's also going to be described as decomposing soil armor. Because it's that decomposing that switches this litter, the plant material from being inhibitor of growth in the harbor of pasture grubs and insects and slugs and things to being something that's powerfully regenerating the soil. So, the soil armor needs to be decomposing sort of to use the understanding definition.

>> Yeah, yeah. No, this is interesting. For anybody who wonders, these things are not scripted. I'm literally feeling things out as we go. So, I'm just sitting here thinking that this is not new to you that in much of the Western United States, especially west of the Rocky Mountains. But we have a winter time precipitation pattern where during the growing season we have some soil moisture but very little surface moisture during the active growing season for plants. And in many places, including where I live, the above ground biomass is low enough that it's difficult to get much litter cover even with say summer grazing after seed shatter on cured out plants. And so, it seems like there's not a lot of litter decomposition here since when the litter is wet, it's too cold for biological decomposition. So, it -- you know, in theory, you would think that we could create more litter somehow say for -- by increasing the trample-to-graze ratio with really high stock density. But I haven't seen that work in practice. But having just recently been in Australia, I know that quite a bit of that land is quite dry during the times when the plants are actively growing and there are plenty of places where you have semi-arid range lands that don't have a lot of per acre forage production. What -- yeah, what does that look like to try to -- and I think most people would agree that the limiting factor in many of those ecosystems is nutrients, not -- even so much water. Because, you know, you get just a little bit of additional nitrogen through whatever means and it makes a difference even with the same amount of rainfall. And so, how do we graze in a way that, I don't know if amplify is the right word, but optimizes the nutrient cycling and allows litter decomposition in an environment that's really dry or cold and you don't have moisture and heat at the same time usually.

>> Yeah. So, there's a lot of areas in Australia that are very similar but, usually, we complain about [inaudible] for most things. So, I didn't know [inaudible] moisture. So, this is really where I sort of focus on taking people is that you've got to discover this on your own land, in your own situation, and you can't have people sort of describing things to you. So, I've got videos of changing areas in Somaliland right up there in the top corner of Africa, you know, down to that sort of below 10 inches of rain and, you know, incredible evaporation. So, all I get people to do is that if something will grow, grow some biomass, and then trample it at that ultra high stock density because you don't want to wait 10 years for a result. Most people want to get a result in -- of what's happening within 12 months. And so, what I then do is get them to start with as much biomass as they have, trample it onto the soil and leave for 12 months. And I -- and then, look at what's happened. I've got a lot of data on sites that have been grazed like that. And from there, we can sort of start to solve, well, what should we try next? So, at least one of the sites, yeah, you can do -- you know, we do a lot of research on three months, six months, nine months, 12 months, 15 months. But in some of those environments, those low production environments, it could be 24 months. The Mexicans are getting onto this into our -- you know, I know it's different things like that, but it's very, you know, in the Chihuahuan Desert, so it's very low production. And they're able to get this 100% ground cover with decomposing litter. So it's really starting to do your own trials, but you've got to push the boundaries. We have no problem discovering things by accident by pushing the boundaries in conventional agriculture. We did a lot of work at the research station that I was set on, you know, sort of tripling the fertilizer and seeing what happens, but I find it -- people find it really difficult to sort of go for extended recoveries. And when I get upset, I used to say I was in an area that they also had pine plantations. And I got -- everyone knows that the profit point for a pine plantation in this environment is 30 years. But I -- if I suggest that the profit point for a grassland is 12 months, everyone's horrified. So I'd say don't listen to people, do your trials, but try and find the alpha limit. A lot of those very low production environments, it could be 20 formats. But don't worry about that because you're not saying, "That's what I'm going to do." You're just trying to do the discovery. I always go for the MythBusters. Do you know if that bomb doesn't work, get a bigger bomb and see what does work that keep going until you can actually go, "Ah, yes, I can make it work." Now, what does that mean in terms of my business? But I try and get people to do that before they change anything broadacre. I want them to be involved and, you know, they're learning landscape function. They're solving their own issues. So a lot of people will ring me up and say, "You know, I've got this weed, Graeme, can you come and have a look?" And I go, "Well, I'll -- I don't think that's going to work," because all we'll do is -- I'll say this is the cause and you'll say that is the cause, putting some safe to fail trials and I'll come in six months. And then a lot of the time, they bring out quite sheepishly after six months and say, "Don't worry about coming, Graeme." You know, I know what the cause is now. So a lot of those annual forb-y weeds will drop out just because they're starting to give it more recovery and replacing the annual forb-y types with the perennial types and they've germinated them with the highest stock density. So it's really -- this is the secret, I believe, for our future, is how can I rapidly restore landscape function and biodiversity on my land and soil health. I think it's -- as you said, it's -- and we're at a turning point, I think it's very exciting. We're starting to get momentum. When I first started talking about this in Australia in the mid-'90s, I had to pay people to listen to me and now they're paying me to come and help them. And it's really about not being the expert and saying, "This is what this land is." It's giving them some design principles for safe to fail. And that training in landscape function and then assistance with implementation because there really is some significant barriers. Once you discover this, you've got to then start addressing those, you know -- you've got infrastructure. I don't see water as being -- as big an issue as it used to be. I don't recommend cell centers anymore. I go for strips with portable water. Animal phenotypes is a really big issue. The animals have been selected for performance on either young grass will fade in and we're trying to then get them to be fully recovered grass with fresh litter to produce our landscape function. And the cow energy value would be -- is a really big issue that -- just how much energy they need. And then the other thing without supplementing them, giving room stability means that it's a seven day a week job. So what we've been talking about here in the demonstration is doing more like a rolling roster of flying fly out so that -- you know, this isn't easy and I do it. So I had nine weeks, seven days a week until last week. And, yeah, I just go, "Oh my God, this is just hard yakka." You know, it was during carving, it was all that sort of stuff. And if you're doing it, it stops you from over promoting it. But I've been saying, if you're not prepared to put in -- learn about landscape function, put in safe to fail trials, change your infrastructure, select a breeding enterprise with one mob and different phenotypes and be prepared to how you're going to handle the seven days a week, I wouldn't start. So that's what I say, I keep doing what you're doing. And then I usually finish with, I hope I'm not overselling. So -- yeah, so very realistic, very practical, it will work, but it is not easy, so.

>> I really liked the idea of trials and the terminology safe to fail trial. You know, do something crazy and see what happens, but in a small enough area that it's not a fatal error for the ranch and then do something ridiculously crazy and see what happens. And just track it. I think we have this impulse, we want to have everything figured out ahead of time and then implement a fail-safe plan, instead of doing fail to save trials.

>> Yep.

>> But we often don't know because every situation is different. And as you said, every year is different.

>> Yeah. I just think it sort of takes the pressure off you. So I'm working with people that are -- you know, the ranch has been leased out. And they're taking it over in five years. And I go, "You need to be an expert." And I want to do regenerative grazing, I just say you've got to be an expert by the time you take it over. And you've got to demonstrate to your parents and your siblings that you actually know what you're doing. So it's not a talking, it's about doing. And so I just say, "Look, don't talk about this." You know, it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking rather than think your way into a new way of acting. I got that from Jerry Sternin. Forgotten the name of the company. It's called Fast Company. And, you know, so it's that you've actually got to do things and then see how it responds and then adjust from there. But you've got to have everyone's confidence and you need to be able to show that you know. So I've been saying to people when I rock up, and I say, what recovery does your land need or what's the range of recoveries your land needs. I want you to be able to show me the evidence because a lot of people say, "Oh, I think it's this, or "I think it's that," or whatever. I go, "Show me. Don't tell me, show," so. And it's not about beliefs or a mindset, it's actually about practical on ground change that you can actually demonstrate and show people.

>> No, I think that's good. What would you suggest for specific ways of measuring landscape function, say, on a ranch?

>> Well, there is a -- in the material that David Tongway has, and I can provide the link to all the material, there is a scientifically valid measurement. So the way the full landscape function is measured with a transect and you run out of tape and you got to get through repeats of all the different patches and into patches, and you run it downhill because that's the way, you know, nutrients and water tends to move. So -- you know, so the end thing, you can actually go through and measure it in certain areas so that you actually get a valid result that it goes into a spreadsheet and punches out the numbers. So as soon as I saw the landscape function and started talking to David Tongway, I realized that you could do this and develop an expert system for this because it actually produces a number for water infiltration, nutrient cycling, and stability. So I really liked that that worked for me. I've worked on different models out. Our beast eating quality, Meat Standards Australia, produces numbers. And I really liked it and it was really this whole predictive modeling that sort of worked for me. And so -- yeah. And then you're just assessing basically over each meter, you know, or each yard. What -- how much under the tape is covered with perennial grass basal area is fed ground or is decomposing litter? And then you feed those results into the spreadsheet. And, you know, it produces a result. It was developed in the rangelands in Australia, which I know you've been to, Tip, recently, Broome and [inaudible] five hours out, so just a jump out into the countryside. And -- yeah. So it was developed in those areas. So it flattens out pretty quickly. So if you're managing well, you'll be hitting the top numbers for landscape function pretty quickly. And David and I have talked about how we could fund getting it. So it actually starts to really work in high landscape functioning grasslands. But I have not seen anywhere that the target shouldn't be at least 10% perennial grass basal area and 90% decomposing litter in the inter toxic space. So that's what I've been saying is some early target because you know then the stability is very good, the nutrient cycling is very good, and the water infiltration is very good. And, you know, you get all those temperature ameliorations and stables sort of situations that allows you to build something from that.

>> Yeah, and I would say there's a lot of pretty solid in recent research in the states indicating that things like the basal area are really reliable indicators because one of the dangers of measuring canopy, for example, is that it's both -- it's sensitive to both whether or not it got grazed recently, and it's sensitive to variations in precipitation, and the time of year that you collect the information, but the basal area, the amount of the soil surface that's occupied by the rooted portion of the plants, is generally fairly stable. And if there's a trend, it's a reliable trend, meaning that it's not a flash in the pan related to, you know, something that happened recently, whether it was a rainfall event or a grazing event, and that those are highly tied both to hydrologic function and to nutrient cycling.

>> Yeah. I think -- yeah, the salt is really clear. That basal area and sort of in landscape function. What, you know, Dave Tongway and Norman Hindley came up with was that it had to be at least two centimeters by two centimeters or three-quarters of an inch by three quarters of an inch for the base of the plant to be counted because then you knew that it was going to be around for a couple of years. So anything less than that, four square centimeters, isn't counted. So how much of each acre or hectare is covered with the basis of perennial grasses that are more than, yeah, four square centimeters? So that's what you're actually counting. And then -- you know, and then you're filling in the rest of the land with decomposing litter, which, effectively, once it's decomposing and it doesn't wash, you actually sort of massively reduce any erosion. So we had problem in Australia that we accept things like 50% bare ground or 70% ground cover in the high rainfall zones. I just go what -- so only 30% of the lands are roadie. Do you know -- do you think that's regenerative? Yeah, it just -- yeah. So, yeah, is that going to save? It's -- I don't think so. So that's what I tend to focus on, so.

>> Yeah, related to that, there was some -- there was a lot of research that was done in Southern Idaho in response to a big fire several years ago. And it was -- there was a research team that was prepared for this. And so they did -- they had a lot of research projects sitting on go, ready to go, when there was a fire. And one of the conclusions from a whole raft of research results from that was that perennial grass density was sort of a corollary predictor of resistance to things like invasive annual grass, even separate from total basal area. So, for example, you know, we could have -- there's a lot of areas near me that have rangelands with a bunch of grass or touch of grass that has not been grazed or burned for a long period of time. And you can have these giant bunches with nearly a meter of bare ground in between them. And most of the plant material is still held up in the plant crown instead of laying on the soil surface. And so you could have 10% basal area, but it's all concentrated in one big bunch, the middle of which is no longer alive. Or you could have 10% basal area that's spread out among a bunch of plants of a variety of age classes. And those were shown to be, in this research, more effective at protecting the soil and competing both above and below ground with undesirable plants, then the large bunches.

>> Yeah, I agree strongly. So it's about -- you know, typically with those situations where you try and graze it said that we covered the soil and created the conditions for germination of more perennial grasses between those big basal areas. And, you know, it's very -- yeah, if I go to a ranch or a farm and they've got a problem with an annual forb-y sort of weed, I think it's very easy. Because once you start managing in a way that promotes the germination and establishment of perennial grasses, then, you know, it just pushes the weeds out. So -- you know, so we don't attack the weeds directly, especially those annual forb-y thistles and prickly things. And then the bigger issue, I think, is that the other end, you know, from when you're managing with low stock density and you're getting, you know, that switch from grassland to woody weeds sort of situations, that can be hard work to do. But, yeah, the animal forts are really interesting and very easy. I also think -- you know, Tip, you were describing that plant with all the litter up in the air, it's incredibly fire prone. It's got suspended dry material. There's lots of air around you. So you've got -- you know, you've got fuel and you've got oxygen, they go out like a bomb, so.

>> Right. And when those plants burn in a cool fire, it licks the top off and they come back really quick. But in an extremely dry season where the current years of growth as well as the previous three, four or five years growth is all dry, that -- when that burns, it generates enough heat that it kills the plant crown. And now we don't have anything coming back after the fire. And that's a major problem.

>> Yeah, I agree. And it's sort of like what you were saying from what you described when you were in Broome at the rangelands conference.

>> I think I've got one more question then we'll probably go ahead and wrap it up. I still feel like in a semi-arid environment, it can be difficult to get as much trampling as we want. I had some trials here in a, say, a 14-inch rainfall zone. I'm not sure what that translates to in terms of millimeters of precipitation. But, you know, a semi-arid environment, that's just a little bit short of what it would take to begin to grow pine trees, for example.

>> Yeah.

>> We applied 100,000 pounds of grazing animal per acre and still did not get as much trampling as we were hoping for. We were assuming that as you approach some threshold in terms of animal density, that trampled graze ratio would begin to shift a bit, where the animals aren't just eating stuff and then moving on, but that you would get something getting laid down besides just manure. And we didn't get as much traveling as we would like. What would you say is -- is there a different animal density threshold in different environments or would you say there's some rules of thumb that are halfway reliable in terms of how much density is necessary to get more of that trampling with really short-term grazing?

>> Yeah, the -- this is really poorly understood. And I always go to David Attenborough's Great Plains videos and sort of get people to look at those. But basically, the point that the animal behavior changes is the density you need. So when I'm training, and we're in a room or a hole, what I get these people, I say, "Everyone, stand in half of the room, everyone now half it again, half it again, half it again," until they're so tight that their behavior starts to change. So people, once they start getting inside their personal space, they get noisier. So they'll start giggling or making noise. And a few people don't like it and they'll pop out of it. And I just say to them, "If you don't pop back in, you're off to the abattoir." So -- and, OK, you've got -- this is -- that's the density where the behavior changes. So it's observable, but it's very hard to predict. And what I find is that as you start to increase density of animals when they're not used to it, they'll actually start to behave differently, then they get used to it, and you have to keep tightening it up, but it is at a very high level. But I use the safe to fail trials to discover that as well. So what is the threshold on your land? And it's going to be in those arid and semi-arid areas. It's going to be pretty high. So, you know, like it -- and it may not be manageable commercially, but you will see a threshold over which then everything starts to germinate. And, you know, I've got Benjamin from Somaliland that he did what I said and I had to keep [inaudible] and keep talking through it. But 12 months later, went back to all perennial grass. And do you have -- so I could send that over as well, too, because I think once people see it going from desert, you know, with few bushes and occasional grass plant to solid perennial grass in 12 months, it changes their view of the world. But Allan Savory had always taught me, what he taught me about that and about bird effect and animal behavior and, you know, how it changes that higher density because he was fortunate enough to see large functioning herds of wildebeest and other animals. So -- yeah. So there is a point, but it's a discoverable point and it depends what that disposition of the land is. So you've got to discover it's your land, but it's generally where you see their behavior change.

>> Yeah, this is probably what I like about various kinds of monitoring, but particularly repeat photography. There was a range ecologist here in Central Washington State years ago who said that he had a colleague who had been really rigorously collecting repeat photographs, you know, where the field of view was exactly the same, the timing of year was exactly the same. They were really well done. And he said it was unbelievable the amount of change that could happen from year to year in a plant community that you would assume was not dynamic at all. But the amount of change, it looked like it was a whole different plant community. And I really liked your point that you never manage the same landscape twice. Every year that you come back, it's something new. There's some similarities. I mean, their depths to bedrock and soil texture and -- don't change much. But still, there's actually a shocking amount of change from year to year in what might seem like an otherwise boring landscape and observation and testing is always necessary. You talked about temporary water. And I feel like this is the main limiting factor, at least in most of the western United States. You know, we have -- it's expensive to provide water in nearly any form. Water is limiting. There's not much surface water. Wells are not at a high density. And there's only so many ways to provide water. In what ways have you seen -- what creative ways have you seen people provide temporary water in order to facilitate more creative grazing management?

>> Yeah. So there's been some real big changes I found in thinking on water and people are getting much better with it with solar pumps and things, but they consolidate water points so that they've got a bigger reservoir. Probably the most profitable grazer in Australia that's doing regenerative grazing, they have a den in each paddock but they're an area that that works. The other area, they have a stock and domestic allocation out of a river, but it's some -- it's really the limiting factor. I found, you know, weeds in single wire, electric fencing, which everyone understands and knows, but sort of somewhere that if you can't get water to that area, it becomes a really big issue. And Kevin's doing some exploration and trials on novel ways of doing that. But, you know, it'll be really -- it'll be -- the real breakthrough will be if we can put water where we need it. So typically, we would run, you know, a backbone of a big line and then tap off it. So, you know, we've got like a three-and-a-half-inch line through the middle of the property and then tap off that sort of to portable and use a combination of above ground and, you know below ground lines to get to the water to where we need it. So we don't have a problem with freezing, we have a problem with the water getting too hot with above ground pipe. So, yeah.

>> Yeah. Tip, I'll jump in there. You know, as -- after listening to your podcast with Mr. Dave Stukenborg [assumed spelling], we had a call with Genesis Water Systems. So we're going to do a safe to fail trial with one of their cubes and could be a game changer, you know, if we can locate a plant of theirs at the top of the hill and fill a big tank and reticulate from there. I don't think you're going to get away from pipe still, but just having a reliable source really high up on a mountaintop could be a game changer in a lot of landscapes in Australia and in the West. So we're excited for a safe to fail trial there. But, yeah, I think the technology has come a long way. We've put, you know, miles and miles of water pipe in and I think that's the key. And one of the benefits of having our operation, you know, nested in investment structures, we can, you know, get a good reasonable idea of how much water and wire is going to cost because, let's be honest, that's one of the main limiting factors to this type of landscape function grazing. And we've gotten pretty good at installing both and we can get some predictable measurements in terms of the cost to that, you know, and then run our numbers in terms of, you know, sellable beef product, or sheet product, or whatever you're selling off of that, and justify the cost pretty well. So we're excited, obviously. That's our whole investment thesis, but I think there's a lot of promise there, for sure.

>> Yeah, I would agree with that. And it seems that everybody and their brothers working on different ways to implement various flavors of virtual fence right now. If we can get away from putting hardwire on the landscape, which is a pretty recent phenomenon in terms of world history and the management of livestock, and could manage animal distribution using something other than a physical fence, I think that, combined with water availability, would be -- would absolutely be revolutionary.

>> So yeah, Tip, I think time after time, you know, we've identified that as kind of the number one barrier that an animal -- the correct animal phenotype, you know, so it's an infrastructure barrier and an animal barrier. So if we can get smart, you know, we've set ourselves up as contractors that can come in and design your land and tell you where to put the water points in the water pipe and what size tanks you need. And, you know, again, we're doing this at scale. And, you know, we're managing 16,000 acres here. Graeme's got a big lease over there, but he's got some clients that have 5,000 cows and one mob so we're kind of cracking the code on that. I've been down to Chihuahua to see the big ranches and how they're doing it. I went to Las Carretas Ranch in Chihuahua owned by Eduardo Rodriguez and amazing property that is doing holistic management grazing for over 20 years. But then the last 10 have moved to higher density grazing with longer recovery periods and better animal phenotypes after they got some good advice from Johan Ostman in consulting. So, yeah, again, I think it's -- if we could fast track that and get good investment models and get the banks to understand the payoff periods on these infrastructure installs and potentially a couple more technology breakthroughs like this Genesis WaterCube. Again, if that goes through, you know, could be a game changer for reticulation because, again, it is expensive and you need to have a market for it, you know. So again, that's where the direct marketing piece comes in in terms of payoff, it definitely helps to direct market. You got to have a really, really big property for this infrastructure to pay itself back because you just got to have enough cows and be able to run, you know, enough cows with very low full-time equivalents to make it really, really sing. But if you got your own direct to consumer marketing, you can make it work with a smaller herd, which I know is most folks in the state. So that's probably what I just add to that conversation.

>> Yeah, thank you. I think it's really exciting. Graeme, just to kind of close out here, I feel like in the last, I don't know, 20 years, we've moved from thinking about grazing in terms of how do we do no harm more to, you know, what ecosystem improvements are possible using grazing that improves the plant community. So I want to let you have the final word here to pull it all together and then we'll -- I'll let you guys go.

>> OK. Thanks, Tip. You know, the only thing that I really want us to say is there's more than one pathway to profit. And typically -- and it seems to be universal that we focus on increasing stocking rate or increasing production. And what I've found is that I can give people more profit, more money at bank biodiversity, carbon -- negative sequestering more carbon than their sort of methane and all their fossil fuel use. But it's not at increased production. It's actually -- and it's focusing on profit rather than focusing on production. Now, the Australian government started -- went from -- changed its focus from income to production in the early 1950s. And now everything, the universities, the federal government, everything is about production, production, production, and even our resource economics unit in Australia focuses on the gross, not the net. So I think that we may have to reassess that, but that's not a very popular view. But, you know, like -- even though I'm probably saying a few things different from Alan, Alan Seyfried [assumed spelling] is responsible for shifting this whole idea that, you know, that livestock can only do damage because he'd actually seen them do the opposite stuff. I think it's essential that we learn to do that. And if we're going to have a future of the planet, we're going to have to restore all the grasslands and grassy woodlands of the world and start really focusing on making them in certain areas in -- on the planet as the lungs of the earth will be the grasslands, as well as we'll need, you know, the rainforests and all the other forests to be the lungs of the earth in those other areas. So, yeah. So I think that it's incredibly exciting what we can do and they're just restoring the health of, you know, the prairies in the grassroot lands around the world.

>> I have to say, I agree. And I think that's hopeful. Graeme and Kevin, I really appreciate your time today. And I look forward to doing this again sometime. Thank you.

>> All right. Thanks, Tip.

>> Thank you, Tip.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the shownotes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Mentioned Resources

David Tongway's work and documents on Landscape Function Analysis can be explored here

Learn more about Kevin Muno's ranching operation and meat business here.

Article in the European Journal of Soil Science: "Landscape function analysis to assess soil processes on farms following ecological restoration and changes in grazing management".

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