Dispatch From the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands


By Judith D. Schwartz

A drive through Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert grasslands offers vast, near-boundless vistas—and a glimpse of a landscape in the balance. Passing the ejidos, communal farmland given to people as part of land reforms after the Mexican Revolution, one sees land with sparse annuals and brush and the occasional flaca vaca: a skinny cow, often barely alive. Then there are the huge tracts of brown, bare ground, where Mennonite farmers employ intensive agriculture.

Photo credit: Tony Eprile

My guide, rancher Alejandro Carrillo, has watched this landscape degrade, nearly in real time. “When I was growing up this was the best land in the area, with grama grass up to that wire,” he tells me, gesturing to an indifferent brownish weedy plot lined with waist-high fencing and dotted with random brush, a far cry from the lush pasture he remembers. The consequences of land deterioration throughout Mexico’s largest state have been devastating to local communities as well as to wildlife—particularly to migratory grassland birds that winter in the region and whose populations have plummeted, among some species more than 80 percent. And yet Carrillo’s ranch, Las Damas Ranch, is an oasis of bird life. Carrillo, who has holistically managed Las Damas Ranch since 2006 after leaving a successful career in IT, now works with bird conservation groups to create habitat for the endangered birds. He and several other ranchers who practice Holistic Planned Grazing have established research and conservation partnerships with organizations including the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, the American Bird Conservatory and Mexico’s Pronatura.

Central to their efforts is using cattle to build soil so as to ensure that rainfall remains on the land as opposed to evaporating or running off, thereby supporting the growth of grasses. “We’re seeing the land rebound so that there is plenty of grass for cattle, our cattle are healthy, and we’re able to tap in to the growing market for grass-fed beef,” says Carrillo. “Others, including our neighbors, complain that there’s not enough rain. But those of us who manage holistically somehow seem to have plenty of rain.”

Photo credit: Tony Eprile

Carrillo shows me where bare ground has become perennial pasture, and notes the myriad creatures that thrive on the land: hares, quail, horny toads and desert turtles and, within the soil, earthworms and dung beetles. “Each and every living organism on our land is important. The more the better,” he says. “We’ve decided to help protect the migratory birds as they are a good indicator of the health of our grasslands. Diverse, deep-rooted grasses are not merely good for animal health—they enhance the water cycle, which means resilience to floods and droughts as well as protection against soil erosion. Also, birds are pollinators, and certain plants depend on birds to transport or break open seeds with their beaks. Everything is connected and works together. If we listen and are observant, Nature will teach us how to best manage our land.”

Savory Hub leader, Elco Blanco-Madrid. Photo credit: Tony Eprile.

To learn more about the Savory Hub in Chihuahua, Mexico and read Judith D. Schwartz’s full recount of her visit, click HERE.

Savory Institute

Savory Institute

The Savory Institute is on a mission to regenerate the grasslands of the world and the livelihoods of their inhabitants, through Holistic Management. Since 2009, Savory Institute has been leading the regenerative agriculture movement by equipping farmers, ranchers, and pastoralist communities to regenerate land within culturally-relevant and ecologically-appropriate contexts.
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