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What is Holistic Management?

The street definition of Holistic Management

It’s fun to ask people at conferences or in everyday conversation if they’ve heard of Holistic Management. The responses generally come in three categories: totally unfamiliar, have read some articles, are whole systems thinkers and get the concept. For instance:

  • No, what is that?
  • Yes, isn’t that the African guy who uses livestock in big herds to mimic nature and heal land?
  • Yes, I’ve read Allan Savory’s book/I practice Holistic Management. In fact, I am working on my Holistic Grazing Plan now. Tell me, in the new book do Allan and Jody discuss regenerative cropping systems? I’m concerned that our entire food system is largely based on the production of annuals. How do we shift to a perennial diet? I’ve been thinking and thinking about this…

Holistic Management in real life

The TED Talk by Allan Savory spread awareness of Holistic Management, “more in 20 minutes than 40 years,” Allan often says. While many concepts and Allan’s story is covered in the talk, currently with almost four million views on the TED website and more than six million on YouTube, most people gravitate to the concept of large herds roaming across grasslands. I don’t know why. Maybe because it is tangible. Visible. What is Holistic Management? Well isn’t it using livestock to heal grasslands? After all, the mission of the Savory Institute is to promote large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through Holistic Management.
There are great graziers who have focused on the grazing aspects of Holistic Management and developed a technique that worked for them. A new name for this grazing technique is developed and the founder hits the road selling the concept. There is mob grazing. There is Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing. These are great, if they fit your context.
Your what?
 Ah, that is where the term Holistic comes in. Holistic Management is the container–the framework that ensures these techniques are applied in the right ways, at the right time and place and for the right reasons. Is a single herd of tightly-bunched cattle the only way to manage land holistically?
 No.
There are many factors to consider. Bunching cattle is a decision that must be filtered through context checks. For example: Is it addressing the root cause of the problem? Is it addressing the weakest link in your production model? Does it lead you toward the quality of life you, and other decision makers such as your family, desire?
The cornerstone of Holistic Management is the Holistic Context. It is a powerful document that defines the Whole Under Management, the decision makers, the resource base, the statement of purpose (if an organization), the Quality of Life Statement and the Future Resource Base. The creation of the Holistic Context is a powerful process and a step that cannot be overlooked if sustainable outcomes are desired. It brings together all decision makers and puts to paper their most deeply held values. It is a unifying process. It empowers people.
There is much more to learn on the path to managing holistically. A great first step is to purchase the book by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield. A next step is to take the online courses—a rich, deep exploration of the Foundations of Holistic Management.

Holistic Management defined

 The Savory Institute website states that Holistic Management is a process of decision-making and planning that gives people the insights and management tools needed to understand nature: resulting in better, more informed decisions that balance key social, environmental, and financial considerations. I interpret the word “nature” to mean the natural ecosystem that we are all part of and our own nature meaning our behavior and actions. In other words, the practice of Holistic Management allows us to be fully and completely aware and observant so we can make the best decision. This work to build awareness reminds me of another practice that is both simple in concept yet requires daily discipline.

Holistic Management as a daily practice, like meditation

Another daily discipline that has had profound impact on my life is my daily mediation practice. My cherished yoga teacher ,Marie, said, “if you change the way you breathe, you change the way you experience life.”
We all breathe (and we all make decisions). How could this most ordinary and obvious function of our lives as humans transform us?  Our experiences? Our relationships? Our memories? Could a daily practice of meditation (and decision-making) help me feel more satisfied with life? Enrich moments? Enhance flavors, scents and movement? I had to find out.
I developed a daily mediation practice  during a time in my life when I felt extreme frustration and anger toward my health . I had always been healthy, I did everything “right,” (so I thought) and I didn’t understand on a spiritual level why I was being “punished” with an autoimmune condition. I was not raised in a religious household. I didn’t have the capacity in myself to process spiritually unexplained and emotionally overwhelming life events. So I listened to my yoga teacher and focused on my breath, because I didn’t know how else to process these events. I practiced. Five minutes, then eight, then 10, then 20. Everyday. This was five years ago. Last year, I discovered Headspace  when a close friend recommended it. I’ve enjoyed a daily practice with Headspace since then.  I notice a significant difference in how I engage with everyday life. I allow myself to be more accepting, more kind, more relaxed and realize moments of happiness. It didn’t happen over night. Similarly, the results of Holistic Management show over time. It is not a quick fix or a patch.
Like the concepts of Holistic Management (make decisions holistically), the concept of meditation is simple: Quiet the mind, focus on the breath, work with a visualization. The practice is extremely challenging to develop (like any good habit I suppose), but priceless when established. The outcome is also elusive at first: quiet the mind? Are you kidding? Impossible. 
How similar this is to: heal land and improve soil health with livestock? Consider social, economic and ecological factors before making decisions? Are you kidding? Impossible.
Like mediation, Holistic Management provides a practice that allows new ways of viewing and understanding the world to emerge. It requires a behavior shift and a dedication to practice. Both resulted, for me, in a greater sense of curiosity about the world, a humbleness in my approach to interacting with people and nature and a profound sense of joy in knowing my own heart and living it fully.

How we practice Holistic Management

I call Holistic Management a practice because we are constantly learning and it is something you do everyday to realize the rewards.  Every time I read the Holistic Management book, I learn something new. I understand a concept in a new way. I see new application of the principles and philosophy.

The hardest shift, but the most significant for Spencer and me, was learning to see systems and wholes. We grew up learning linear and mechanical systems. In complex systems like nature and human relationships, everything is connected. An action in this system has “compounding and cascading effects,” said Allen Williams .  This is why we must consider the social, environmental and economic aspects of our decisions—because, in truth, the actions that result from these decisions impact all aspects of our lives.
Spencer and I have a Holistic Context for each of the wholes we are part of: our marriage, our business, the family ranch. We revise them once a year and use them to make big decisions and small. Here is the Quality of Life statement from our Holistic Context as a couple:

We will live in truth. We will feel happy, free, independent and share our work and lifestyle with our children. We will feel connected to each other, our family, community and place through dedication to each other and our shared vision of meaningful work. We will see our children pursue their passions and become happy, confident people. We will live enriched, full, stimulating and healthy lives.

Our business conversations around decision checks may go something like this:
Spencer: What do you think about buying a milk cow for Maezy and helping her grow her herd of cattle by raising drop calves? Sam called us with an opportunity to get good Jersey cows from a dairy in Fallon. 
– Abbey: Let’s test the decision. Will it create any social weak links? Does it fit our financial plan for the year? Is it the best marginal reaction? 
– Spencer: Since we planned for this expense when we created our financial plan at the beginning of the year, it is in line with our plan. In fact, the price is lower than we budgeted. Of all the enterprises we can support Maezy with now that she is interested in, this one has the most potential to benefit her economically and emotionally. For me, it passes the marginal reaction test. 
– Abbey: Does this pass the sustainability and gut feel test? For me it does. It is leading us toward our Quality of Life and it supports other enterprises on the ranch. 

Holistic Management planning procedures

Holistic Management requires thought, observation and planning. The planning cannot be skipped. We think it is best completed with paper and pencil (with an eraser!). Each year in January, we dedicate our mornings to creating our financial plans for the year. This is a process of creating a budget, as usual, and then organizing it in a way that plans for profit first. It is amazing how this process brings out creative solutions. We also create our grazing plan for the year. We are working on a long-term land plan for the ranch and recently completed a brainstorming session as part of the process. We learned a lot!

Holistic Land Planning, Holistic Management, Springs Ranch, Jefferson Center

Holistic Land Planning at the Springs Ranch where creative new ideas were shared.

  • Monitoring: We conduct our Ecological Monitoring each year in July. This process examines the soil surface to see the first signs of the impact of management decisions. Are we decreasing bare soil? Increasing community dynamics? We collect data to find out.  Not only do we monitor once a year to collect data on improvements we also have honed our skills to monitor for the everyday changes in biological capacity of our pastures or the health and well being of our social and family life.
  • Decision checks: These filter questions should be asked quickly, Allan Savory says. If you get hung up on one, then you don’t have enough information to make the decision. With practice, they come quickly. Not all of the checks apply to every situation or decision. The decision checks are:
    • Cause and effect: are you addressing the root cause of the problem?
    • Weak links:
      • Biological: are you addressing the weakest link in the organism’s life cycle
      • Financial: are you addressing the weakest link in your chain of production
      • Social: could this decision create a social problem or personal problem for your whole
    • Marginal reaction: Considering all possible actions, which action will yield the best results for time and money invested?
    • Gross profit analysis: Which enterprise creates the most profit?
    • Energy/money source and use: does the energy or money needed come from a contextually acceptable source and it is being used in the most efficient and acceptable way?
    • Sustainability: Does the decision support and move me toward the Future Resource Base described in our Holistic Context?
    • Gut feel: After all of this is considered, how do I now feel about the decision?

There is no rule that each decision must pass all the decision checks. The decision may fail some of the checks, but you can decide to make it anyway. You are the boss! There is a difference, though, between making a decision without any context or consideration, and thinking through it thoroughly before making a decision.

We feel healthier and happier using Holistic Management and it is proving to us to be the best way to manage complex systems like biological communities on the land or even human communities, like a family. We are hopeful that it will create a bright future and healthy land, which is why we want to help others adopt it. Holistic Management is not a recipe, it is a practice, which makes applying it to life exciting. No two decisions are ever the same!

The full practice of Holistic Management includes these components listed below. Click on each to read examples of Holistic Management in real life.

Contact us to learn more about Holistic Management and how to develop your daily practice to create the outcomes in life you deeply desire. Our calendar provides learning opportunities throughout the year. Join us!