I wasn’t sure what I would learn from Hoofprints on the Land—How Traditional Herding and Grazing Can Restore the Soil and Bring Animal Agriculture Back in Balance with the Earth by Isle Köhler-Rollefson when I first started reading it. Given that most of my focus is on production agriculture in the U.S., I thought it would help me broaden by perspective and understanding about international pastoralism. While the book delivered those results, what I also took away from reading Hoofprints was a deeper understanding of how the knowledge of both herding and grazing is in such great peril because of the negative views of animal agriculture and the “social station” of pastoralists that has led to the misguided worldview that humans must evolve beyond our cultural connection with and physical dependence on livestock.
The foreword for the book is written by Fred Provenza and he notes that the current global food situation is dire given that we now use 2 calories to produce 1 calorie of food—an unsustainable situation. On top of that, we use 8-12 calories to process, package, deliver, store, and cook our food. Obviously, if we utilize locally-adapted animals with the pastoralists, gauchos, cowboys, farmers, etc who are attuned to their animals and their environments, and who ideally are connected to local processing and markets, we are more able to reduce the number of calories needed to produce our food as well as create resilient landscapes that provide a host of ecosystem benefits. As Fred notes: “Pastoral knowledge will thus be essential as we transition from fossil-fuel based economies to the sun-driven economies that have sustained life for millennia.”
As I read about the level of discrimination and violence that many of the pastoralists around the world face as ethnic groups with less standing in society, I could see how the more subtle forms of that paradigm play out in the U.S. in the stereotype of the “dumb farmer” or a “country yokel.” Köhler-Rollefson covers a host of topics such as the efforts to create breed diversity and the communication between animals and humans as well as how herding can help with stewarding biological diversity, regenerating land, cooling the climate, and feeding the world.
Köhler-Rollefson also spends some time focused on educating the reader on how regenerative grazing has adopted many pastoral principles, yet the pastoralists are stigmatized as poor land managers. Köhler-Rollefson notes that much of the degradation was a result of misguided government policies and interventions that disrupted traditional pastoral cultures.
She also addresses the criticism that livestock uses so much water. She notes that 98% of the water footprint for cattle is the result of the growing of feed for grain-fed cattle. But if cattle graze on pastures and natural vegetation then their footprint is only 1.1% of what is true for grain-fed cattle.
Köhler-Rollefson concludes her book with the comment: “Our problems with livestock started when we began to treat animals as if they are plants. Nature designed animals to move, and movement is what distinguishes them from plants…If [animals] stay put, they exhaust resources and die. If they want to live and reproduce, they have to move TO the plants to obtain energy. Furthermore, from the perspective of the planet, the role of animals is to dissipate the energy the plants keep accumulating (thereby preventing fires) as well as to return carbon and nutrients to the soil, so the plant cycle can start anew.” According to one risk management expert, pastoralists are “reliability professionals” because they create reliability and stability in a host of natural and social systems. And as Köhler-Rollefson notes, animals are the ideal upcycler of crop by-products and organic fertilizer.
Hoofprints made me appreciate even more deeply the incredible knowledge of those managing working lands and what vital work this is. It helped me see that the work being done to acknowledge the value of herding and pastoralism in developing countries or in European countries where they are educating the larger public about the herding routes and their interactions within urban areas is just as relevant in the U.S. where animal agriculture is either under attack or being ignored as irrelevant in a modern society. Nothing could be further from the truth as people are blinded by their love affair and dependence on technology as our nursemaid and savior. Perhaps we can all be more like Mongolia who is the only nation that regards pastoralism as part of their natural identity.
After I read Hoofprints I had to whole heartedly agree with Brad Kessler, the author of Goat Song: “In Hoofprints on the Land, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson shows us how, since prehistory, grazing animals literally knit together the world’s biosphere—its soil, earth, and air—and how traditional herding cultures today, often impoverished and overlooked, might still save the planet. This is a passionate, important book, a must-read for anyone interested in ecology or food or our future coexistence with wild and domestic animals.”
You can purchase this book at Chelsea Green for ½ off right now during Chelsea Green’s summer sale.