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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The future price of beef may depend upon the health of soil. Ecologists say vast swathes of cattle grazing land are at risk of turning into hard-packed desert unless land management practices change.

In Eastern Colorado, ranchers hope plodding hooves will help, as Luke Runyon reports from member station KUNC.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: For a long time, the thought was if you're seeing less grass, you should rein in the cows. Nature Conservancy ecologist William Burnidge says that's not entirely true.

WILLIAM BURNIDGE: Plants actually respond to grazing. It actually stimulates growth, in some ways.

RUNYON: We're standing just beyond a fence at the Fox Ranch, a few miles west of the Kansas border. The 14,000-acre property, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is part of a grand experiment. Researchers are putting in practice something called holistic management, or planned grazing.

BURNIDGE: So here's the ranch.

RUNYON: I'm guessing a map like this probably plays pretty heavily into the planning process?

BURNIDGE: Boy, we use the map a lot. Yeah, the yellow lines on the map are the fences.

RUNYON: The fences keep the cattle in concentrated packs, and allow them to be moved around quickly. That's the crux of planned grazing. The thought is by tightly herding the animals, the hooves push on the soil, which then retains more rainfall. The cow manure aids in the grassland revival, too.

BURNIDGE: You're only ever approximating what wild animals did when there weren't any people or fences to tell them what to do.

RUNYON: The most common word tied to the planned grazing movement is mimicry, as in mimicking wild herds of large mammals that used to move across the Great Plains.

NATHAN ANDREWS: When I learned about that style of grazing, you know, the basis was everybody was producing more grass.

RUNYON: That's Nathan Andrews, who leases the Fox Ranch to graze his cattle.

ANDREWS: It's hard to, as a producer, to argue with more grass, because we never have enough grass.

RUNYON: The godfather of planned grazing is Allan Savory. He's a world-renowned activist, who wants to pull ranchers across the world out of poverty using this technique.

ALLAN SAVORY: We really get the animals in the right place at the right time, for the right reason with the right behavior.

RUNYON: Savory says his style of grazing management focuses on the soil and how the cattle interact with it.

SAVORY: We're getting the rain that falls on the ground to soak in more, runoff less, but to remain in the soil and leave the soil through the vegetation or to underground water.

RUNYON: But the entire ranching community is not singing "Kumbaya." Savory's methods are controversial. Most of contemporary rangeland science says Savory's basic tenets - increased cattle numbers and rapid-fire grazing - have no basis. Some rangeland ecologists didn't want to go on record for this story, fearing blowback from planned-grazing proponents. Their studies have shown the only way to improve grassland is to reduce, not increase the number of animals on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

RUNYON: Back at Fox Ranch, the experiment is just in its initial phases. Last year, even in the midst of drought, rancher Nathan Andrews was able to build up his herd, while many other ranchers were reducing their numbers.

ANDREWS: So if we can benefit from it in two of the worst years on record, then I think moving forward with it will be even more beneficial than what we're seeing now.

RUNYON: Beneficial for his bottom line, because he can put more cattle on the land. And more cattle could eventually mean a lower price for beef down the line.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and food-production issues.

This is NPR News.

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