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Rancher Puts Allan Savory Principles into Action

By Tracy Frisch
This article also appears in the 2019 September issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gene Goven is a dryland farmer in the center of North Dakota. He has owned and managed 1,500 acres of shortgrass prairie and cropland for the past 51 years. In 1986, the ideas of Allan Savory changed his life.


When I reached out to him about visiting, he informed me of his deceptively simple mission: “To manage diversity for soil health enhancement.” Toward that end, he promotes biodiversity at every level and aims to capture rainwater and to deepen roots. As we will see, he has succeeded by a variety of measures.

For Goven, the quest for a better way to farm has been a journey toward greater understanding. Learning occurs in steps rather than as a continual uphill climb. “All of a sudden another light comes on,” he said.

“No one big thing made the difference,” he said of the evolution of his farm “It was many different little things. Nothing stands alone. If you change one thing, you change everything.”

Bringing along fellow farmers and other people that interface with land management has been an important complement to Goven’s own learning. He has made presentations in 22 states and 3 foreign countries, and he continues to take pleasure in the positive changes he has witnessed among farmers in his immediate neighborhood and far beyond.

People have to be shaken up a bit in order to rethink their belief system, he’s learned.

“If the edges of someone’s paradigm aren’t ruffled, why would anyone want to change?” he asked. “Eighty percent of people are followers. Twenty percent are adapters. Less than a half of one percent are innovators.”

Goven falls into the latter category. He just thinks differently about creating agricultural systems. And he isn’t the only one.

Goven observed that more than half of the mentors in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition are left-handed. He also has dyslexia. For many years, he considered it a disability, but over time he has come to see it as a gift.

“There’s a little contrarian in me,” he said.

western wheatgrass
Gene Goven holds western wheatgrass, grazed and ungrazed. Western wheatgrass is another important native cool-season rhizomatous grass.

SHIFTING THE PARADIGM

Goven credits his decision to cross-fence his paddocks with putting him on his lifelong path. He installed his first cross-fencing in 1980. Within a few years of starting to cross-fence his land, he had increased the stocking rate by 20 percent. And that was just the beginning. Subdividing his rangeland allowed him to more intensively manage cattle grazing, which boosted forage production.

But cross-fencing wasn’t enough of a change to resolve his grazing issues. “I still couldn’t get the animals to eat uniformly,” he said. He continued to look for solutions.

Goven found what he was looking for in November 1986 when he took his first Holistic Management class. Taught by founder Allan Savory, the course cost $1,500 and took Goven away from the ranch for five-and-a-half days. He questioned whether it would be worth it.

“But I never looked back. I started thinking and not just acting,” he said.

The biggest revelation came from Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing concept, through which Goven was able to steadily increase forage production on native prairie. It taught him the importance of giving land an adequate rest following grazing. He began to understand that “we need to feed the soil first” and that livestock come second.

Before 1980, with set stocking and no cross-fencing, an acre of Goven’s native prairie would only produce 450 pounds of dry matter in a good year. Now, even in a drought year, Goven says he counts on each acre yielding 2,000 pounds.

For years now, Goven has managed his cattle so that they only harvest a fraction of his increased forage production.

“I used to be puzzled by the concept of take half, leave half in rangeland management. Then it dawned on me that the severity of leaf removal means the plant has to start again,” Goven explained.

If cattle are left in a paddock for too much time, they will munch on the regrowth of plants that they’ve already taken bites from. “I’ve kept livestock in a paddock too long. I’ve thought there’s enough forage for another day,” he said. That mistake can devastate a paddock for the next two or three years.

Goven considers weather (moisture and temperature) and the rate of plant growth, as well as the quantity of standing forage, when determining how frequently to move the cattle. When plants are lush and growing fast, he doesn’t let the cattle stay in a given paddock for more than three consecutive days. But in dry weather, when plants are barely growing, he may leave cattle in the same paddock for 7 to 10 days, or even 14 days, depending upon the paddock size.

Gene Govern monitors soil health
Gene Goven monitors soil health. Although he’s semi-retired, Goven still never stops learning new things about his land in North Dakota.

‘MANAGING FOR CHAOS’

Goven cautions graziers to be conservative when grazing forages in the fall, after they green up following summer brown. Taking off too much grass can effect the next year’s production by as much as 50 percent, he warns.

Around a decade ago, Goven added an interesting twist to his planned-grazing sequence. He fittingly named it “managing for chaos.” Every year he changes the approximate date of grazing in each paddock. If he grazed a particular paddock around June 1 one year, he won’t graze it again in early June for another 10 years.

This approach has enriched the species diversity of his native prairie. While 50 or 60 percent of the local farmers have native prairie on their ranches, continuous grazing and other non-optimal practices simplify the species composition of these grasslands.

CARRYING MORE CATTLE

Changes in his grazing management have boosted the carrying capacity of Goven’s land. “Prior to 1980, we’d be able to run 55 to 60 cow-calf pairs on a good year,” he said. Back then a drought would force him to drastically reduce the herd to 35 or 40 cow-calf pairs or “there’d be nothing to eat.” In the 1980s, after he started putting up cross-fencing, he increased his herd size to 72 cow-calf pairs. By 2000 he was up to about 105 pairs. These days he often grazes 150 to 180 pairs, though it varies by year.

Besides native prairie and hay, Goven’s farm provided other sources of feed for the herd. After cash crops were harvested, his cattle would graze the crop aftermath. Cover crops also provided forage for later grazing.

TWIN PROBLEMS

On rangeland, two opposite management scenarios produce equally negative outcomes. A study by the Agricultural Research Service at Mandan, North Dakota, found that under continuous grazing and in the absence of grazing, native prairie grasses have very shallow roots — just 3 to 5 inches in depth. Under a planned rotational grazing regime, the roots of these grasses extended 6 to 10 times deeper and were much fuller, with obvious implications for withstanding drought.

This research supports the notion that idle rest brings harmful consequences. The Conservation Reserve Program rested land for 20 years. However when standing grass or grain stubble is left alone over the winter, it loses up to 20 percent of its weight through oxidation.

The quality of standing vegetation and the health of the soil reach their peaks within five to eight years, before declining, Goven said.

SOIL HEALTH

Grazing converts forage into something that’s more readily marketed in the form of livestock. For Goven, the value of cattle also lies in its ability to enhance soil health. Grazing animals fertilize grasslands with urine and manure and feed the soil-food web.

Animal hooves also can produce a positive impact on soil. Animal impact, when managed appropriately, causes carbon to be slowly released into the soil. Trampling vegetation puts plant residues in contact with the soil, where the soil-food web can break them down and recycle them.

Soil microbes have a very low browse line,” Goven explained.

RETIREMENT PLAN

More than 20 years ago, Goven stopped keeping cattle as property. Instead he custom-grazes other people’s bovines. He likes using someone else’s equity to market forage. Like other custom graziers, he charges by the head per day, adjusted by the size and type of animal.

Taking in disparate groups of animals managed under different regimes can present serious handling challenges. That hasn’t been a problem for Goven. Rather than herding or chasing the cattle, he trains them to follow him.

In his slow process of retiring, Goven has been gradually cutting back on his farming obligations. He currently rents cropland to two brothers. In the lease, he put in some stipulations about stewardship. He cautioned the farmers not to use any fungicides because of their impact on microorganisms in the soil-food web, like mycorrhizal fungi. They use herbicides at a drastically reduced rate — in line with Goven’s practice — and they hire Goven to plant cover crops on his own land.

BUILDING THE SPONGE

A Natural Resources Conservation Service study site in South Dakota compared soil properties of pasture under two management regimes: continuous, season-long grazing versus rotational grazing. With rotational grazing, the top 12 inches of soil gained an additional 1 percent organic matter. One percent of soil organic matter equates to about 20,000 pounds per acre.

The soil in the rotationally grazed pasture infiltrated water almost 10 times faster than continuously grazed pasture. It took 12 minutes for an inch to infiltrate under the rotational grazing treatment instead of 109 minutes on the continuously grazed land.

Goven’s farm also reveals this contrast, though in time rather than space. Decades ago, monitoring by agencies such as NRCS (then known as the Soil Conservation Service), North Dakota State University Extension and the Agricultural Research Service showed that his farm infiltrated water slowly, at the rate of around 0.8 to 1.2 inches per hour. Over time, as a result of dramatic changes in grazing and cropping practices, water infiltration improved greatly. “Now my poorest rate is 6.5 inches per hour. The best is 12 inches per hour,” he said.

He referred to the example offered by his late friend Neil Denis of Saskatchewan, who converted his cropland to perennial forages. “The mob grazier king of the world” was also an early adopter of Holistic Management. His soils infiltrated at the rate of 15 inches an hour, while his neighbor’s cropland clocked in at a mere half inch per hour.

COVER CROPPING

Goven grew up with his family growing cover crops and doing companion planting.

“In the middle 1930s my grandfather, Ed Goven, was paid to plant sweet clover in with his grain crops,” he said.

One year of his crop rotation had to include clover as a companion crop. But then overproduction emerged as a problem that threatened to destabilize the economy. The federal government responded by penalizing practices such as cover cropping. Farmers were directed to leave a certain amount of acreage fallow. By taking land out of production, the government hoped to prop up farm gate prices. After World War II, agrochemicals came along, further pushing cover crops and intercropping out of favor.

Goven remembers his dad and granddad using cereal rye “to clean up the fields,” making use of its allelopathic properties. They would harvest some of this rye for hay and turn under other fields of rye.

MULTI-CULTURAL

Long ago Goven started experimenting with bi-cultures and polycultures on his own farm. For example, he might interseed lentils with a cash crop of sunflowers. Planted at the rate of 10 to 12 pounds per acre, the lentils serve as “the fertility program” for the sunflowers. Field peas play that same role with oats. And instead of broadcasting commercial fertilizer, Goven became accustomed to interseeding lentils and turnips into winter wheat at spring green up.

Dr. Jill Clapperton of Hamilton, Montana, has studied the synergy between legumes and grasses and how it affects plant behavior. Legumes will share up to 70 percent of the nitrogen they fix with a grass-type crop. When lentils and/or field peas were planted together with a grass, they nodulated within 5 days of emergence. At just an inch tall, lentils already had pink nodules on their root to fix nitrogen. In monoculture plantings, it took up to 30 days for lentils to nodulate. Grown with ample nitrogen fertilizer or in the absence of a hungry grain crop, the legume has no need to fix nitrogen. “The legume is lazy” is how Goven put it.

Researchers at North Dakota State University and the Agricultural Research Service looked at the rooting depth of oats and inoculated field peas grown together and separately. They found that in intercropped plantings they rooted four times deeper than either species did when grown alone. That’s more good evidence for growing legumes and grains in combination.

INFLUENCING FARMERS

Influencing fellow farmers to improve the environment has long been central to Goven’s mission. He quotes Allan Savory’s instructions to him: “Work with your neighbors. Don’t antagonize them.” Goven has taken this counsel to heart. He wants to help guide his immediate community and takes great pains not to insult or alienate any of his neighbors. Several times during our conversations, he reminded me, “You won’t catch me doing boundary line comparisons!”

His efforts have borne fruit. Most of his neighbors who work smaller farms practice no-till and use cover crops. Goven has been instrumental in bringing about this shift.

Goven encourages fellow farmers to not let the cost of seed get in the way of adopting cover crops. He tells them to start with whatever is at hand. “What do you have left over in your grain bin – corn, oats, sunflowers?” he asks. He recommends buying individual species separately and making your own cover crop seed mixes.

He also custom-seeds cover crops for other farmers. They contract with him to plant no-till cover crops following the combine. “I’ve even had requests to seed cover crops from 50 and 70 miles away,” he said.

He also has made it easier for his neighbors to adopt no-till practices. “I’m willing to lend out my no-till drill to neighbors. I lent it to one neighbor. A year ago they bought their own,” he said.

REACHING NON-FARMERS

Goven is pleased to have been able to influence people outside of agriculture that are in a position to support better approaches to farming. Kent Linney first visited Goven’s farm as a high school student. He later became a plumber and a leader in Ducks Unlimited. Today he promotes livestock as a component of the organization’s program for habitat enhancement. “Seeing my farm must have really impressed him,” Goven quipped.

He went on to list other individuals who have come to recognize the value of regenerative agriculture for its ecosystem and public health benefits. A North Dakota big game biologist told him, “Because of you, I have the career I have, using livestock as a habitat management tool for wildlife enhancement.” And Greg Sandness, the state’s water-quality specialist in Bismarck, told Goven, “If everyone was doing what these guys are doing, I wouldn’t have a job!” That’s because farms like Goven’s so dramatically reduce runoff and leaching.

TRICKLE DOWN

Goven rejects the notion that water quality starts at the edge of a lake or stream. He holds a more expansive view of what it takes to protect water resources.

“For me, riparian management starts at the top of the hill and extends over to the next hill,” he said.

As he sees it, protecting water quality must address water infiltration, through-flow and re-flow. Goven’s views are relevant because his farm is bisected by Crooked Lake, a beautiful water body that is used for recreation. The farm contains almost four miles of shoreline.

Some years ago, the presence of Goven’s cattle near the lakeshore sparked complaints from several “cabin people” on the lake. An extension water-quality specialist stopped by to investigate. When Goven took her around, she could not find any visible evidence of erosion. That evening, she called her husband and told him to start cross-fencing.

PRAIRIE POTHOLES

Goven composed a bold goal for rain on his land: “Every raindrop shall infiltrate where it falls, no matter steep the hill is.” After he intensified his grazing management, he noticed welcome changes in the behavior of water on his farm. Water infiltration kept improving, resulting in less risk of run-off, erosion, flooding and drought.

The ranch sits in the middle of the Prairie Pothole region, the waterfowl nesting and breeding capital of North America. The region stretches northwest from Iowa through large portions of the Dakotas and into three Canadian provinces.

Three decades ago, Goven began noticing an odd phenomenon. His potholes would stay empty while his neighbors’ potholes were brimming full of water. This confounded him.

A breakthrough in understanding came in 1990. Following two years of drought, four inches of rain fell in less than an hour on the evening of July 3. There was immediate flash flooding, and fences were torn out. But not on Goven’s farm. “All the slews and potholes filled with water on my neighbors’ land. I didn’t have any standing water and my potholes stayed empty,” he recalled.

Seven days later, water started showing up in the ranch’s potholes and wetlands. Goven had captured every raindrop.

“My wetlands and potholes hold water longer and better than they used to, but they also don’t fill up as much,” Goven said.

This periodic drying up of prairie potholes is beneficial. When potholes constantly hold water, they go anaerobic. As a result they smell like a sewer. But if their water levels go up and down, when they do dry up, they re-vegetate. And when it next rains and the potholes take up water, that vegetation provides food for invertebrates and they in turn feed migratory waterfowl.

WILDLIFE REFUGES

Goven is proud of his work in helping U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recognize the use of livestock as a management tool for achieving its mission of habitat enhancement. The agency’s wildlife refuges in North Dakota aim to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

During the serious drought years of the mid and late 1980s Goven was looking for a way to avoid having to liquidate his cattle herd for lack of sufficient forage. He came up with the idea of grazing wildlife refuges, one of which is only 15 miles from his ranch. When he and a neighbor rancher went looking for duck nests on that refuge, they couldn’t find any. “Initially the only place we found nests was outside the refuge,” he said.

Goven proposed using cattle grazing as a land management tool to improve habitat on the refuge. The agency’s regional director flew to North Dakota from Denver and gave him the go-ahead to “prove” that his idea would work. Goven and his neighbor did the pilot project, sharing labor and resources. They ran their cattle together in the refuge using temporary electric fencing powered by battery-operated fence chargers.

Using livestock brought refuge lands back to health by enhancing nutrient cycling, energy cycling and water cycling, Goven said. “In three years we turned it from a biological desert into a preferred nesting area,” he reported. As a result of this success, “all refuge managers in North Dakota were required to attend sessions with me on prescribed grazing in the WPA Waterfowl Production Area,” he said. As a cooperator with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Goven received the extra grazing land he needed, thus solving his feed problem.

A national outcry (“Cattle-Free by 1993”) calling for the removal of all livestock from public lands had no effect on Fish & Wildlife practice in the U.S., as the benefits of the grazing program were so well-established. The program has had one big limiting factor however; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can’t find enough cooperators willing to bring livestock in.

CATTLE WITHOUT CHEMICALS

For 25 years, Goven hasn’t used pesticides of any kind to control insects and parasites on his cattle or pasturelands, including insecticidal ear tags. He doesn’t worm his cattle or use products like Ivermectin. He stopped using these biocides to avoid collateral damage to non-target species. If he were to turn to insecticides, he estimated that 80 beneficial insect species would be destroyed for every cattle pest insect he killed.

He strives for rapid nutrient cycling on his farm, and giving up these biocides is consistent with this aim. At the Goven ranch, dung beetles, other insects and earthworms begin colonizing and breaking down cow patties within three days. In the absence of these small manure-loving animals, fresh cow paddies become dried up cow “Frisbees.” Nutrients remain tied up in them for months or years. Nitrogen in this desiccated manure is readily lost through volatization into the atmosphere, however.

“For fly control, I’ll skip a paddock so there’s a quarter mile gap,” he said. This “leapfrog” approach creates a big enough distance between cow patties to limit fly populations.

Similarly, moving cattle frequently to new paddocks can be an effective means of interrupting the life cycle of internal parasites. Cattle excrete internal parasite eggs in their manure. Newly hatched larvae climb up stems, waiting to be ingested by a host animal. Young calves are most vulnerable to the effects of parasites.

The key to managing these parasites with grazing involves not returning animals to a paddock when the worms are in their infective stage. New Zealand data show that graziers can attain up to 90 percent parasite control with planned rotational grazing, Goven said.

GETTING THE DRIFT

If you’re trying to enhance biodiversity, pesticides of any kind can pose a threat.

Over the course of his farming career, Goven said, “I got more and more disturbed by the increasing use of chemicals. It seemed like the landscape was going dead.”

He’s been particularly dismayed by the use of herbicides, most commonly glyphosate off-label, as desiccants to dry-down crops shortly before harvest.

Sixteen years ago, Goven’s ranch experienced herbicide spray drift damage. An aerial applicator, hired to kill weeds in a wheat crop on neighboring croplands, neglected to shut off his booms while circling out beyond to go back to the field he was spraying. The spray mixture contained Roundup and other herbicides used off-label.

“I’m still suffering from chemical residual,” he said.

A TRUE ECOSYSTEM

Some ranchers attempt to improve the productivity of native prairie rangelands by no-tilling in purchased forage seed. Goven has never seen a need for such intervention. Rather, he works to retain and enhance the diversity of prairie species. “For every grass-type species, I want to have at least five forb species because they have deeper rooting systems, some down to 15 feet deep,” he said.

Goven has identified some 200 different native plants growing in his shortgrass prairie. Years ago, he created a slide show of these plants and their historic uses. He especially enjoyed taking this program to senior citizens, including Alzheimer’s groups, because many elderly people would come alive seeing the plants of their childhoods.

One June around 25 years ago, the National Audubon Fish and Wildlife Refuge held part of its annual field day on Goven’s ranch. That day, when bird watchers did a noon bird count on a quarter mile stretch at the ranch, they counted an astonishing 112 different bird species in one hour. The varied habitats on that site included brushy ground, lakeshore and prairie potholes.

“I was told that there are very few places in the world with that concentration of species,” Goven said.