ArticlePDF Available
Sustainability of holistic and conventional cattle ranching
in the seasonally dry tropics of Chiapas, Mexico
Bruce G. Ferguson
a,
, Stewart A.W. Diemont
a,b
, Rigoberto Alfaro-Arguello
a
, Jay F. Martin
c
,
José Nahed-Toral
a
, David Álvarez-Solís
a
, René Pinto-Ruíz
d
a
Departmento de Agroecología, El Colegio de La Frontera Sur, Carretera Panamericana y Periférico Sur s/n, María Auxiliadora San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, San Cristóbal de Las
Casas, Chiapas, CP 29290, Mexico
b
Department of Environmental Resources Engineering, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, 1 Forestry Drive, Syracuse, NY 13210, USA
c
Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, Ecological Engineering Program, The Ohio State University, 590 Woody Hayes Dr., Columbus, OH 43210, USA
d
Facultad de Ciencias Agronómicas, Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, Apdo. Postal 63, Villaflores, Chiapas CP 30470, Mexico
article info
Article history:
Received 30 September 2012
Received in revised form 11 March 2013
Accepted 12 May 2013
Available online 18 June 2013
Keywords:
Dairy farming
Ecological restoration
Farmer-to-farmer training
Fire
Rotational grazing
Silvopastoral systems
abstract
Conventional cattle ranching in the lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico typically employs extensive grazing,
annual pasture burns and frequent applications of agrochemicals, threatening biodiversity and long-term
productivity. A small group of innovative ranchers in the Central Valleys are converting to holistic man-
agement through careful land-use planning, rotational grazing, diversified forage, and diminished use of
purchased inputs. We compared the sustainability of 18 conventional and seven holistic, dual-purpose
ranches, using three sets of sustainability metrics. First, we combined semistructured interviews and field
observations to better describe the two productions systems and to calculate an ‘‘Organic Conversion
Index’’ (OCI), combining economic, social, technological and environmental indicators. Holistic ranchers
have more pasture divisions, higher grazing pressure, greater lengths of time between pasture burns,
greater milk productivity, larger forest reserves, lower cow and calf mortality, purchase less hay and feed,
and use less herbicides and pesticides than their conventional neighbors (T-tests and Fisher’s Exact Tests;
all p< 0.05). OCI was greater (T-test, p< 0.0005) for holistic ranches (81.8 ± 4.6% compliance with organic
standards), than for conventional ranches (32.1 ± 9.0% compliance), with holistic ranches demonstrating
superiority for nine of ten OCI indicators. Second, drawing on data from the same interviews, we con-
ducted ‘‘emergy’’ analysis to quantify the embodied energy of inputs, outputs and sustainability of the
ranching systems. The Emergy Yield Ratio, an index of a systems emergy throughput relative to the emer-
gy in purchased inputs, was marginally higher in holistic ranches (T-test; p= 0.07), but became significant
when only ranches P40 ha were analyzed (p= 0.04) and when government assistance (mostly in the
form of machinery) was removed from the calculations (p= 0.008). Holistic ranches exhibited marginally
higher Emergy Sustainability Indices, a measure of system yield relative to environmental impact, for all
ranches combined (p= 0.07) and for ranches P40 ha (p= 0.06). Third, we sampled vegetation and soils
on seven holistic and seven conventional ranches. We found higher soil respiration, deeper topsoil,
increased earthworm presence, more tightly closed herbaceous canopies (all p< 0.05), and marginally
greater forage availability (p= 0.053) in holistic ranches. Other variables, including soil compaction, soil
chemistry and pasture tree cover, did not differ significantly between groups. These data are a snapshot of
long, complex processes. Nonetheless, these complementary metrics combine to suggest that holistic
management strategies are leading to greater ecological and economic sustainability. This production
model merits further study for potential broader application as well as greater attention from decision
makers concerned with ranching and the environment.
Ó2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Livestock production is among the fastest growing economic
sectors in the developing world (Delgado et al., 1999; Steinfeld
et al., 2006) and constitutes a pillar of the rural economy in Chiapas
(Jiménez Ferrer et al., 2003). Raising livestock contributes to the
food sovereignty of farm families and is a savings strategy for small
producers that allows them to confront emergencies and better
capitalize on their production systems (Delgado et al., 1999;
Jiménez Ferrer et al., 2003; Kaimowitz, 1996). Extensive ranching
is also attractive to large producers as labor costs are low in
0308-521X/$ - see front matter Ó2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2013.05.005
Corresponding author. Tel.: +52 967 674 9000x1406; fax: +52 967 674 9021.
E-mail address: bgfecosur@gmail.com (B.G. Ferguson).
Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Agricultural Systems
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/agsy
relation to the land area managed (Hecht, 1993; Kaimowitz, 1996;
White et al., 2001).
Cattle ranching in tropical Latin America has been based
largely on extensive monocultures of grass, a production model
poorly suited to the region (Murgueitio et al., 2011; Sánchez
et al., 2000). These artificial grasslands are inefficient and fragile,
exhibiting low productivity and nutritional value while being
highly susceptible to soil and pasture degradation, especially
when subjected to over- or under-grazing (Van Soest, 1982;
Savory and Butterfield, 1999; Serrão and Toledo, 1990; Szott
et al., 2000). This deficiency is particularly marked during the
dry season, when ranchers must allow livestock to forage over
a larger area and/or increase feed supplements (Szott et al.,
2000), increasing their negative impact.
Frequent burns exacerbate pasture degradation and threats to
the surrounding landscape. Pasture burns provide multiple short-
term benefits, including elimination of unpalatable plants and lig-
nified grass, promotion of tender new grass growth, a pulse of
nutrients released into the soil and control of herbivorous insects,
plant pathogens and ticks (Savory and Butterfield, 1999; Villanu-
eva Avalos et al., 2008). However, burns can also diminish soil fer-
tility and the structural and biological diversity of the plant
community (Savory and Butterfield, 1999; Vieira and Scariot,
2006). These fires often get out of control, burning neighboring for-
ests and farms (Román-Cuesta et al., 2003).
The combination of low productivity, rapid degradation and fire
contributes to the extensive nature of tropical cattle ranching, and
its association with deforestation and biodiversity loss (FAO/EMB-
RAPA, 2001; Murgueitio et al., 2011; Villafuerte et al., 1997). Soil
and pasture degradation and biodiversity loss lead to increased
dependence on herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and feed supple-
ments, which in turn reduces profit margins.
In the face of these limitations, a small group of dual-purpose
(milk and meat) ranchers in the Central Valleys of Chiapas have
turned to the holistic management (HM) decision-making frame-
work described by Savory and Butterfield (1999). Under HM, man-
agement decisions are based upon relationships among the
landscape (including wild and managed biodiversity, water, soil
and other resources), people (farmers and ranchers and their fam-
ilies, neighbors, suppliers, customers, advisers, regulators and so
on), the broader community in which they live, and the services
available in that community. In ‘‘brittle’’ environments like our
study area, where humidity is particularly uneven throughout
the year, HM advocates managing high densities of large herding
animals to produce heavy grazing and trampling impact for brief
periods at appropriate intervals.
With support and training from FIRA (Avalos Flores et al., 1996),
visiting Cuban extensionists and faculty at the Autonomous Uni-
versity of Chiapas, the ten ranchers formed an ‘‘Intensive, Technical
Grazing’’ club (‘‘PIT Las Villas’’) in 1994. Seven of the original club
members continue to practice HM. Core elements of their manage-
ment strategy include: holistic decision making, farmer-to-farmer
training, Voisin-style rotational grazing (Voisin, 1959), reduction
in the frequency of burns, major reductions in agrochemical use,
careful record keeping, diversification of forage resources and
maintenance of forest reserves.
Proponents of HM present empirical evidence of its potential for
simultaneously improving productivity and protecting the envi-
ronment (Savory and Butterfield, 1999,www.holisticmanage-
ment.org). However HM has not been widely studied from a
scientific perspective and findings have been contradictory (Tea-
gue et al., 2011). To evaluate HM’s sustainability, we compared
the ranches of the members of PIT Las Villas with those of their
‘‘conventional’’ neighbors using three sets of metrics: compliance
with organic standards used to calculate an Organic Conversion
Index (OCI), emergy analysis of inputs, outputs and overall
sustainability, and measurement of vegetation diversity and soil
parameters that indicate system health.
2. Materials and methods
2.1. Study sites and participants
We worked on ranches in the communities of Cuahtémoc, La
Sirena, Joaquín Miguel Gutiérrez, Villa Hidalgo, and Dr. Domingo
Chanona in the Villaflores Municipality and Emiliano Zapata and
Revolución Mexicana in the Villacorzo Municipality. These sites
are located between 540 and 580 masl, between 16°10
0
and
16°14
0
N, and between 93°02 and 93°16
0
W(Fig. 1). This area, in
the Frailesca region of the Central Valleys of Chiapas, is classified
as hot and humid but has a marked dry season (INEGI, 2011).
The dominant native vegetation is tropical deciduous forest; selva
baja caducifolia in the Rzedowski (1981) classification (SEPLAN,
2000). Average annual temperature is 24.9 °C and precipitation is
1168 mm per year. Alluvial and colluvial soils dominate (INEGI,
2011).
Participating ranchers included all seven members of the ‘‘Club
de Pastoreo Intensivo Las Villas’’ who are still practicing HM (holis-
tic ranchers or the HM group), having modified their management
as a result of short courses and the exchange of experiences among
ranchers. Eighteen conventional ranchers (conventional ranchers
or the CM group), chosen from the membership of the local ranch-
ers’ associations for their proximity to the holistic ranches and
their willingness to contribute to the research, served as a compar-
ison group.
2.2. Sampling
2.2.1. Description of the production systems and their approximation
to the organic model
We conducted semistructured interviews (Vela, 2001) with the
25 participating ranchers between June and September 2007 to
document resource use, productivity, and management techniques
within their cattle production systems. Except where a longer-
term focus was appropriate, we requested information specific to
the previous calendar year.
As one indication of sustainability, we integrated technological,
economic, environmental and social information to calculate or-
ganic conversion indices (OCI) for each farm. The OCI was based
upon international organic standards (UE, 1991; IFOAM, 2005)
and the consensus of a group of experts (Nahed et al., 2009; Mena
et al., 2012). It consists of 10 composite indicators, including feed-
ing management, pasture management, weed control, pest control,
and animal well-being. Each indicator is scored from 0 to 100%,
weighted according to its importance in the organic standards,
and finally all of the indicators are averaged to obtain the overall
OCI.
2.2.2. Emergy analysis
We have published detailed methods and findings of our emer-
gy analysis in Agricultural Systems (Alfaro-Arguello et al., 2010),
and summarize them here to facilitate understanding of the suite
of methods employed. Emergy analysis evaluates diverse flows of
energy and materials through systems using common units (solar
emjoules, sej) to provide a broad view of the impact of manage-
ment choices on sustainability. This is accomplished by converting
all aspects of a material or product’s embodied energy into solar
emjoules (sej). Conversion of other embodied energy measures to
sej, through previously calculated conversion factors, permits all
inputs to the system to be quantified, allowing meaningful evalu-
ation of entire systems. Important outcomes of emergy analysis
B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48 39
are measurements of resource use efficiency and environmental
impact, including the Emergy Yield Ratio (EYR), the Environmental
Loading Ratio (ELR) and the Emergy Sustainability Index (ESI). The
EYR is a measure of the emergy the system receives from local
renewable or non-renewable sources and purchased inputs rela-
tive to the emergy input purchased from the broader economy.
The ELR is the ratio of non-renewable to renewable resource con-
sumption. ESI, the ratio of EYR to ELR, balances the yield of the sys-
tem in emergy terms against the impact of the system on the
environment (Brown and Ulgiati, 1997). Thus ESI differentiates
more sustainable systems from less, by accounting for the environ-
mental load when examining the emergy output.
Based on interviews, we constructed a generalized scheme of
the inputs, outputs and stores of energy on the ranches (Fig. 2).
Questions were incorporated into our semistructured interviews
to quantify each element of the emergy diagram for each ranch. Lo-
cal climate data was obtained from SAGARPA, the agriculture and
livestock secretariat.
2.2.3. Evaluation of pasture vegetation and soils
The survey data was complemented with a set of measurements
quantifying several indicators of soil and pasture health. Between
May and August, 2007, the first months of the rainy season, we
sampled the seven holistic ranches and seven conventional
ranches. We selected larger conventional ranches to minimize dif-
ferences in ranch size between the groups. To further maximize
comparability among ranches, we sampled only pastures domi-
nated by African star grass (Cynodon plectostachyus) the most com-
monly planted pasture grass in the region. At each ranch, we
sampled two pastures; one freshly grazed, and the other approach-
ing the maximum recovery period allowed by each rancher’s graz-
ing system (26.6 ± 14.9 d in the conventional systems and
26.4 ± 4.8 d in the holistic systems). Following Herrick et al.
(2005), we sampled soil and vegetation along three transects, mea-
suring a total of 150 m and radiating from a central point in each
pasture. By default, transect length and angles between transects
were equal, but were modified when necessary to adapt to the
shape of the pasture. Transects began 5 m from the central point
to avoid overlapping measurements and the effects of trampling.
In smaller pastures, some transects ended at fence lines.
2.2.3.1. Vegetation cover and diversity. The herbaceous stratum of
the vegetation was characterized utilizing the line-point intercept
method (Herrick et al., 2005). Sampling points were distributed
uniformly along the three transects to achieve a sampling intensity
of 150 points/pasture sampled. At each point, we dropped a thin,
1 m rod vertically to the ground and recorded the soil cover at
the rod tip as well as the plant species touching the rod in the low-
er (<50 cm) and upper (50–100 cm) canopy of the herbaceous
layer.
Along the same linear transects, we applied the gap intercept
method (Herrick et al., 2005) to quantify gaps in the herbaceous
Fig. 1. Study area with locations of ranches where vegetation and soils were sampled (map produced by Laboratorio de Informacion Geográfica, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur).
40 B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48
canopy. As an indicator of susceptibility to wind erosion, we re-
corded the beginning and end of each patch of exposed soil
>20 cm intersected by the transect using a vertical projection from
the herbaceous canopy to the soil surface. We also measured
patches of exposed soil at ground level >20 cm as an indicator of
susceptibility to water erosion and weed invasion.
Woody vegetation was censused using six m wide belt transects
(Mostacedo and Fredericksen, 2000; Herrick et al., 2005) along
these same lines (900 m
2
/pasture), recording species, height, DBH
(for individuals P1 cm dbh) and crown projection area over the
transect for each individual P25 cm tall. Based upon these data,
we calculated woody stem density and basal area of each species.
2.2.3.2. Available forage. We estimated forage availability using the
comparative yield method (Haydock and Shaw, 1975). For each
pasture, we selected five 50 50 cm reference quadrats to define
the full range of forage conditions. Following the sample size rec-
ommendations of Mostacedo and Fredericksen (2000), we visually
estimated pasture availability in 30 randomly placed quadrats by
assigning each a value from one to five according to the reference
quadrat to which its biomass was most similar. Aboveground bio-
mass from each reference quadrat was harvested, dried at 28 °C,
and weighed. We then calculated a weighted average of the dry
weight of available forage by multiplying the number of visual
sampling quadrats assigned to each reference quadrat,by the bio-
mass of that reference quadrat and dividing by 30.
2.2.3.3. Soil sampling and analysis. We took 28 subsamples from
each pasture using a 35 mm diam. soil corer at a depth of 20 cm,
in a zigzag pattern along the same transects used for vegetation
sampling. We combined these subsamples in a composite soil sam-
ple for each pasture that we then air dried and sieved (<2 mm for
all the analyses; <0.5 mm for organic matter and total N). Samples
were analyzed for apparent bulk density (cylinder), texture (Bou-
youcos hydrometer method), organic matter (wet digestion of
Walkley and Black), total N (micro-Kjeldahl), pH (1:2 soil/water ra-
tio), electrical conductivity (1:50 soil/water ratio), extractable P
(NaHCO
3
0.5 M, pH 8.5) and exchangeable potassium (ammonium
acetate 1 N pH 7). Management can be expected to have little influ-
ence on soil texture on the decadal scale relevant to this study.
Thus any differences in soil texture between management types
would indicate differences existing prior to adoption of HM. We
measured depth of soil horizons in one 30 cm cubic soil pit in each
pasture. We counted earthworms and white grubs in soil removed
from these same pits. We took 200 g samples from the pits for soil
microbial respiration analysis. We air dried the samples, sieved
them through 2 mm mesh, and quantified CO
2
production using
Stotzky’s (1965) method. Analyses were performed at the El Cole-
gio de la Frontera Sur laboratory in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in
accordance with Mexican standards (Norma Oficial Mexicana
NOM-021-RECNAT-2000).
2.2.3.4. Statistical analysis. We performed T-tests to compare con-
tinuous, descriptive variables, organic conversion indicators, emer-
gy indices, resource use, and the density and basal area of tree and
shrub species between ranch types. Where variances were unequal
(alpha = 0.05), we applied T-tests for unequal variance. We used
Fisher’s Exact Test to identify differences between ranch types for
binomial descriptive data. The relationship of emergy indices to re-
source use and management techniques was examined using Pear-
son’s linear regression and ANOVA. For variables that could be
affected by the rest period of the pastures (erosibility, invasibility,
ground cover, available grass forage, and soil parameters), we ap-
plied repeated measures ANOVA’s to look for differences between
ranch types and rest periods. When data did not meet the sphericity
criterion, we report F and p values using the Greenhouse–Geisser
Fig. 2. Generalized emergy diagram of ranching systems in the Frailesca region of Chiapas, Mexico.
B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48 41
correction. We report statistics for ranch type-rest period
interaction only for the single variable for which the interaction
was significant. We performed all analyses using SPSS 12 and 14.
3. Results
3.1. Ranch descriptions and OCI
3.1.1. Descriptive data
As is typical for the region, most of the participating ranchers
produce animals for both milk and meat, including cattle that are
shipped from the state live for fattening elsewhere. One of the
holistic ranchers is recognized for his skill as a livestock breeder
and boosts profits by sale of breeding stock and semen. Most of
the holistic ranchers are members of a cooperative that produces
the feed supplement they use (Albafrai), using mostly inputs that
they grow themselves. Two of the holistic ranches studied essen-
tially act as intermediaries, purchasing cattle from local producers,
fattening them for a few weeks or months, and then exporting
them directly to the United States. These ranches have high cattle
turnover, use more feed supplements, and enjoy higher profits
than the rest of the ranches; consequently, their business and pro-
duction models differ in important ways from the other holistic
ranchers. For this reason, we excluded them from elements of
the analysis for which they were outliers (Table 1).
As Table 1 indicates, holistic ranches differ from conventional
ranches in many ways. Holistic ranchers have more land and pas-
ture area, and dedicate more of their pastures to CT-115 (a Pennise-
tum purpureum variety developed in Cuba for cutting or forage
banks), and more of their land to forests. They use electric fences
more often, have more pasture divisions/ha, run larger herds, apply
greater grazing pressure, provide more feed supplement, and de-
pend less on baled hay. They also apply less herbicide, have gone
without burning for longer periods, and have lower mortality of
calves and cows than conventional ranches (Table 1). The mea-
sured differences stem from the HM approach. For instance, holis-
tic ranchers described forests as productive land, and two of them
have registered forest management plans that allow for rotational
timber harvests. One rancher mentioned that he leaves his hills
forested to protect the springs that irrigate his pastures below. An-
other allowed forests to regenerate to protect a riparian area. They
also mentioned use and conservation of trees in pastures, including
guanacastle (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), guava (Psidium guajava),
caulote (Guazuma ulmifolia), and espino blanco (Acacia farnesiana).
Holistic ranchers, in contrast with most of their conventional coun-
terparts, noted the presence on their land of wildlife including wild
boars, deer, ocelots, and anteaters and actively protect these
animals.
On average, holistic ranches are substantially more productive
and profitable than conventional ranches, but because of the vari-
ability in these economic data, the only statistically significant dif-
ference (p= 0.026) was for milk productivity. Expenses on a unit
area basis were about the same for the two groups. Variation in
profitability among ranches may be largely a result of differing
livelihood strategies. For some ranch owners the ranch is a primary
source of work and income, while others work off-farm, investing
much less time and effort in their ranches.
3.1.2. Organic conversion index
Holistic ranches had higher and less variable weighted organic
conversion indices (OCI) than the CM ranches (Table 2;T-test,
p< 0.0005). OCI was positively related to ranch size when all
ranches were pooled (linear regression; R
2
= 0.43, p< 0.0005).
However this relationship disappeared when conventional and
holistic ranches were analyzed separately (R
2
= 0.034, p= 0.46
and R
2
= 0.033, p= 0.70, respectively) and can therefore be attrib-
uted to differences between the two groups other than production
scale.
Holistic ranches were substantially closer than conventional
ranches to meeting organic standards for nine of the ten groups
of criteria that comprise the OCI, and these differences were statis-
tically significant (Table 2). Many of the differences detected relate
to contrasting approaches to pasture management. Pastures on
Table 1
Descriptive data for ranches and ranchers and t-tests for differences between conventional (n= 18) and holistic (n= 7) ranches. For binomial data (tstatistics not reported), p
values are for Fisher’s Exact Test. Bold type indicates significant differences between ranch types.
Conventional (
x± s.d.) Holistic (
x± s.d.) tp
Formal education (yr) 10.5 ± 5.2 13.0 ± 3.2 1.17 0.253
Cattle ranching experience (yr) 28.1 ± 10.2 33.1 ± 11.8 1.06 0.300
Holistic ranching experience (yr) 0.0 ± 0.0 10.1 ± 2.3 11.83 <0.0005
Ranch size (ha) 38.3 ± 18.3 88.3 ± 42.9 2.98 0.021
Annual crops (% of ranch area) 0.4 ± 1.2 4.4 ± 7.7 1.39 0.266
Star grass (% of ranch area) 38.4 ± 22.8 22.5 ± 5.8 1.80 0.085
CT115 (% of ranch area) 0.8 ± 1.7 17.7 ± 13.1 3.40 0.014
Pasture area (ha, w/o CT 115)) 34.9 ± 17.7 66.0 ± 30.9 2.51 0.038
Divisions/ha of pasture 0.3 ± 0.1 1.8 ± 0.9 3.61 0.011
Electric fence use (%) 38.9 ± 50.2 100.0 ± 0.0 0.008
Herd size (AU) 58.6 ± 39.2 203.6 ± 113.5 2.57 0.014
Grazing pressure (AU/ha pasture) 1.9 ± 0.9 3.2 ± 1.3 2.93 0.007
Hay bales purchased (T/yr) 144 ± 123 0.0 ± 0.0 4.95 <0.0005
Feed per AU (kg/yr)
a
321 ± 271 830 ± 127 4.02 0.001
Time since last burn (yr) 2.0 ± 1.6 19.4 ± 9.2 5.00 0.002
Herbicide use (L/ha) 0.8 ± 0.3 0.0 ± 0.1 6.43 <0.0005
Pesticide use in pastures (L/ha) 0.036 ± 0.095 0.0 ± 0.0 27.0 <0.0005
Calf mortality (%/yr) 7.0 ± 2.9 2.4 ± 0.9 4.06 <0.0005
Cow mortality (%/yr) 4.9 ± 3.2 1.1 ± 0.2 4.95 <0.0005
Forest area (% of ranch) 7.0 ± 5.9 19.8 ± 10.5 3.04 0.001
Forest management plan (%) 0.0 ± 0.0 28.6 ± 48.8 0.070
Milk productivity ((L/ha pasture)/yr)
a
1760 ± 1909 4310 ± 2771 2.40 0.026
Live weight gain ((kg/ha)/yr) 262 ± 372 1084 ± 1527 0.21
Expenses/ha (pesos/yr)
a
5116 ± 3647 5270 ± 1850 1.43 0.201
Profit/ha (pesos/yr)
a
3829 ± 8372 10,972 ± 7908 1.71 0.103
Net ranch profit (pesos/yr
a
141,117 ± 351,501 1,273,871 ± 1,647,928 1.53 0.200
a
Denotes data that exclude two holistic ranches that export live cattle directly to the United States.
42 B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48
conventional ranches are typically extensive grass monocultures,
while holistic ranchers practice rotational grazing and diversify
fodder with legumes and forage trees. CT-115 is a key resource
on the holistic ranches. Its deep roots maintain forage production
even in the dry season, reducing the need for purchased feed or lar-
ger grazing areas. Holistic ranchers are experimenting with poly-
cropping CT-115 with fodder trees and herbaceous legumes.
Conventional ranchers use chemical fertilizers, while holistic
ranchers rely exclusively on manure and careful grazing manage-
ment to maintain soil fertility. While conventional ranchers use
herbicides and fire to control weed invasion, holistic ranchers pre-
vent weeds through careful grazing management, removing only
those plants that cattle do not eat or that scratch their udders. Only
one holistic rancher uses herbicide, which he applies selectively.
Conventional ranchers control pasture and crop pests including
spittlebugs (Aeneolamia postica, Cercopidae), grass loopers (Mocis
latipes, Noctuidae), cutworms (Agrotis ypsilon, Noctuidae) and cab-
bage loopers (Trichoplusia ni, Noctuidae) with pesticides. Holistic
ranches control pasture and crop pests by maintaining greater for-
age diversity. For example, a cabbage looper outbreak that oc-
curred during our field season devastated African star grass
pastures in the region, but holistic ranchers fell back upon their
stands of CT 115 which was protected by the pubescence of its
leaves. At least one rancher also achieved some degree of control
by sending his cattle into pasture divisions along the advancing
front of the outbreak where they trampled the caterpillars and
competed with them for grass.
Approaches to livestock nutrition, health and well being also
differ between ranch types. While animals on both types of
ranches get most of their food by grazing, conventional ranches
rely more heavily on commercial concentrates and chicken manure
for animal feed. The holistic ranchers also offer supplemental feed,
but this is produced from grains, soy and molasses from their own
farms and other local sources. Although holistic ranchers express
some skepticism with regard to livestock vaccinations, they com-
ply with minimal vaccination requirements, as do half of the con-
ventional ranchers interviewed. Holistic ranchers also protect their
herds by placing newly acquired or sick animals in quarantine, a
practice adopted by only a third of conventional ranchers. Most
ranchers from both groups treat their animals for internal parasites
on an appropriate schedule. Both groups rely upon allopathic med-
icine to treat sick animals and upon chemical control for ticks.
None of the ranchers interviewed uses herbal or other alternative
remedies. All of the ranches use breeds appropriate to the region,
particularly brown Swiss or brown Swiss crossed with Cebu or
other breeds. They rely principally upon natural breeding and re-
new their breeding stock regularly. These facts account for their
nearly identical breeds and breeding scores in the OCI metric. In
contrast with most conventional producers, holistic ranchers pro-
vide adequate space and protection from inclement weather for
their livestock, and dehorn calves to minimize injuries. All holistic
ranchers and more than half of conventional ranchers provide ade-
quate infrastructure for provision of food and water. Few ranchers
in either group allow their calves access to maternal milk for suffi-
cient time to meet organic standards; many holistic ranchers wean
their calves just after they have consumed the colostrum.
Ensuring food safety is another area in which holistic ranchers
set themselves apart, meeting all of the relevant standards. By con-
trast, only 22% of conventional ranchers provide adequate hygiene
in their milking facilities, and none can demonstrate that his or her
products are free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.
Neither group of ranchers performs well according to criteria
for ecological ranch administration. The higher scores of the holis-
tic ranchers stem from the training they have received in organic
production and how they monitor aspects of their ranches relevant
to organic production. However neither group participates in or-
ganic or other markets that ensure preferential prices for ecologi-
cally oriented production.
Table 2
Organic conversion indices and their component indicators. Descriptions typify practices of the majority of ranchers in each category. Bold text indicates significant differences
between ranch types. Nahed et al. (2009) and Mena et al. (2012) explain the indicators, their constituent variables and their weighting.
Indicator Conventional
(
x± s.d.)
Holistic
(
x± s.d.)
Tp Description
(B = Both, C = Conventional; H = Holistic)
Livestock nutrition 59.7 ± 12.5 96.4 ± 9.4 6.98 <0.0005 B: grazing
C: commercial feed, chicken manure
H: locally-sourced feed
Pasture management 28.9 ± 14.1 85.7 ± 25.1 5.66 0.001 C: extensive grass monocultures
H: rotational grazing, legumes, fodder trees
Soil fertility management 11.1 ± 32.3 100.0 ± 0.0 7.18 <0.0005 C: chemical fertilizers
H: manure collected and spread, grazing management
Weed control in pastures and crops 0.0±0.0 85.7 ± 37.8 6.00 0.001 C: herbicides, burns
H: grazing management, selective manual weeding
Pest control in pastures and crops 11.1 ± 32.3 100.0 ± 0.0 7.18 <0.0005 C: insecticides, burns
H: grazing management, forage diversity
Veterinary care, prophylaxis 31.3 ± 24.0 62.5 ± 0.0 5.53 <0.0005 B: internal parasite treatment, chemical tick control, allopathy
C: obligatory vaccinations (50%)
H: obligatory vaccinations, new animals quarantined
Breeds and breeding 97.2 ± 11.8 100.0 ± 0.0 0.62 0.544 B: locally adapted breeds, natural breeding
Animal welfare 26.9 ± 30.9 88.1 ± 8.1 7.76 <0.0005 C: inadequate space, grazing time, water, food
H: adequate space, grazing time, water, food; juvenile dehorning
Food safety 51.4 ± 16.0 100.0 ± 0.0 12.91 <0.0005 B: cattle free of brucellosis, tuberculosis
C: inadequate milking parlor hygiene; hormones, antibiotics, pesticides may
taint products
H: good milking parlor hygiene; products free of hormones, antibiotics,
pesticides
Ecological administration 2.2 ± 6.5 40.0 ± 0.0 15.25 <0.0005 B: no organic commercialization
C: little training,planning or record keeping for organic production
H: training, planning and record keeping for organic production
Weighted organic conversion
index
a
32.1 ± 9.0 81.8 ± 4.6 13.73 <0.0005
B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48 43
3.2. Emergy analysis
Initial emergy analysis revealed tendencies toward greater re-
source use efficiency (EYR) and sustainability (ESI) in the holistic
ranches, but because of high variances we found no significant dif-
ferences (Alfaro-Arguello et al., 2010;Table 3). Although emergy
calculations are normalized for land area, the difference in mean
ranch size between holistic and conventional ranches might have
introduced a bias in the tendencies we observed. To minimize po-
tential ranch size effects, we repeated the analysis excluding the
nine conventional ranches under 40 ha. The remaining nine con-
ventional and seven holistic systems did not differ in size
(p= 0.11), and displayed similar tendencies in emergy indices to
those observed in the initial analysis. In fact, when we compared
similarly sized systems, the tendency toward greater EYR for holis-
tic ranches became significant because of reduced variance within
the conventional group (Table 3).
A more detailed assessment of resource use indicated that gov-
ernment assistance in the form of machinery dominated the pur-
chased resources (F) in holistic systems and contributed
significantly to variance within the group. To better understand
the influence of government assistance on sustainability, we re-
peated the emergy analysis without government assistance. The
result was a wider sustainability gap between holistic and conven-
tional ranches, with significant differences for both EYR and ESI
(p= 0.008 and 0.01, respectively). With government assistance, F
in conventional and holistic systems is statistically equivalent (Al-
faro-Arguello et al., 2010). When government assistance is re-
moved, labor dominates the purchased resources in holistic
systems. In conventional systems, labor, nitrogen fertilizer, and
cattle feed play roughly equal roles in the purchased components
of the system.
We presented detailed findings of the emergy analysis in Alfaro-
Arguello et al. (2010).
3.3. Vegetation and soil sampling
Line-point intercept data revealed no significant differences in
bare soil or in cover of individual species between holistic and con-
ventional ranches (repeated measures ANOVAs; all p> 0.1). Table 4
lists cover by species on the two ranch types and in the two vege-
tation layers sampled (0–50 and 50–100 cm).
The comparative yield method found marginally more forage
availability on holistic pastures than conventional pastures
(Table 5a). There was significantly more forage available on rested
pastures than on freshly grazed pastures (F
1,12
= 34.51, p< 0.0005)
and no significant interaction between management type and rest
period.
The gap intercept method found more space between plants in
conventional than in holistic ranches at both the ground and her-
baceous canopy levels (Table 5a). For the ground level measure-
ments, there were also significant effects of rest period (a larger
percentage of gaps in recently grazed pasture; F
1,12
= 5.76,
p= 0.034) and of rest period-management interaction
(F
1,12
= 6.78, p= 0.023). Subsequent independent-sample T-tests
for ground-level vegetation gaps found no significant differences
between rest periods for conventional or holistic pastures, and sig-
nificant management effects only for freshly grazed pastures,
where conventional pastures exhibited a larger percentage of gaps
(Table 5b).
Basal area of trees (Table 6) in holistic pastures averaged 51%
greater than in conventional pastures, while woody stem density
averaged 3.59 times greater in holistic pastures. These differences
were particularly marked for leguminous species. However vari-
ance among ranches was high and the differences were not statis-
tically significant, either for all species pooled or for individual
species (T-tests; all p> 0.1). The area directly under tree or shrub
canopies averaged 1722 ± 1361 m
2
/ha on conventional ranches
and 1606 ± 1639 m
2
/ha on holistic ranches.
Most physical soil properties (penetrability, bulk density, tex-
ture) did not differ between ranch types (Table 7), although holistic
ranches had significantly thicker A horizons than conventional
ranches (F
1,12
= 7.98, p= 0.015). Soil chemical properties (pH, P,
OM, total N, CEC) did not differ between ranch types (Table 7).
Among biological indicators, both microbial respiration rate
(F
1,12
= 13.5, p= 0.003) and the presence of earthworms
(F
1,12
= 9.72, p= 0.009) were significantly greater in the soils of
holistic ranches, while the presence of white grubs did not differ
between ranch types.
4. Discussion
Murgueitio et al. (2011) call for a new production paradigm for
Latin American cattle ranching based upon increasing plant diver-
sity and biomass, protecting and restoring soils, protecting water
resources and increasing livestock productivity. The holistic ranch-
ers in our study exemplify one pathway toward sustainable cattle
ranching. They appear to have achieved important advances in eco-
logical and economic sustainability as measured by a variety of
indicators. We found significant advantages of holistic over con-
ventional management (p< 0.05) in frequency of pasture burns,
purchased feed, hay and herbicide, cow and calf mortality, forest
cover, milk productivity (Table 1), compliance with organic pro-
duction standards (Table 2), some emergy indices (Table 3), herba-
ceous cover (Table 5), topsoil depth, and soil biological activity
(Table 7). For many other indicators (e.g. profits, tree cover, avail-
able forage), variation within each group was high and we did not
discover significant differences. Conventional ranches were not
superior for any indicator. However productivity and stocking den-
sity data for intensive silvopastoral systems (Murgueitio et al.,
2011) suggest that holistic ranchers could further boost production
by increasing woody plant density and further diversification of
pasture grasses. Intensive silvopastoral systems have >10,000 trees
and shrubs per ha, compared to an average of <700 on the holistic
ranches’ star grass pastures. Their milk productivity can be more
than double that of the HM ranches participating in our study.
Table 3
Results of T-tests comparing emergy indices between conventional and holistic ranches (Alfaro-Arguello et al., 2010.). Bold text indicates significant differences.
Ranch type nEmergy yield ratiio Environmental loading ratio Emergy sustainability index
x± s.d. p
x± s.d. p
x± s.d. p
All ranches Conventional 18 1.6 ± 0.3 0.07 2.6 ± 1.8 0.27 1.0 ± 0.7 0.07
Holistic 7 2.0 ± 0.5 1.8 ± 1.2 1.6 ± 0.9
Ranches P40 ha Conventional 9 1.6 ± 0.2 0.04 2.6 ± 1.3 0.21 0.74 ± 0.4 0.06
Holistic 7 2 ± 0.5 1.8 ± 1.2 1.6 ± 0.9
All ranches, govt. assistance excluded from indices Conventional 18 1.7 ± 0.4 0.008 2.2 ± 1.4 0.09 1.1 ± 0.73 0.01
Holistic 7 2.2 ± 0.4 1.2 ± 0.3 2.0 ± 0.74
44 B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48
The range of indicators we used to explore the sustainability of
the ranches provided complementary insights regarding system
function and the benefits and weaknesses of HM as practiced by
the members of PIT Las Villas. While meeting organic standards
is not an explicit goal of most of the HM or CM ranchers, OCI indi-
cators such as livestock nutrition, pasture management, soil fertil-
ity and weed and pest control are all relevant to ecological and
economic sustainability. The HM group achieved an OCI of 81.8%,
and the CM group 32.1% (Table 2). By comparison, Nahed et al.
(2009), using the same set of indicators, found OCI’s ranging from
53.3% to 61.3% for groups of small-scale, agrosilvopastoralists in
three regions of Chiapas. One of the weak points (62.5% compli-
ance) for the HM ranchers was veterinary care, in large part due
to their continued reliance on chemical control for ticks. Another
low score for the HM group (40% compliance) was for ‘‘ecological
administration,’’ mainly because they have made few advances in
seeking ‘‘green’’ market niches for their products. However their
high overall OCI’s indicate that the HM ranchers are close to meet-
ing organic standards, presenting an opportunity to increase their
economic advantage.
Of the metrics we calculated, emergy accounting provides the
broadest view of sustainability. Environmental Loading Ratios
close to two, as found in both groups of ranches (Alfaro-Arguello
et al., 2010;Table 3), indicate relatively low impacts that can be
absorbed within the system area (Brown and Ulgiati, 1997). Emer-
gy Sustainability Indices were greater than one for both the holistic
and conventional systems (though not the large conventional sys-
tems analyzed separately), indicating that these ranches are net
providers of emergy to the economy when properly accounting
for environmental impact. Although PIT Las Villas was formed in
part thanks to support from government agencies, government
assistance in the form of farm equipment decreased sustainability
as measured in emergy terms. These findings suggest that pro-
grams concerned with sustainability would do well to focus less
Table 4
Ground cover by layer and ranch type as measured by the line-point intercept method. There were no statistically significant differences between management strategies for any
species (p> 0.1). Values for the two pastures sampled at each ranch were averaged before calculating standard deviations (N= 7 for each ranch type).
Family Species % Cover (mean ± s.d.)
0–50 cm layer 50–100 cm layer
Conventional Holistic Conventional Holistic
Convolvulaceae Ipomoea triloba 0.1 ± 0.2 0.0 ± 0.1
Cucurbitaceae Cucurbita sp. 0.1 + 0.3
Cyperaceae Cyperus odoratus 0.1 ± 0.2 0.4 ± 1.0 1.5 ± 2.6 0.0 ± 0.1
Euphorbiaceae Euphorbia heterophylla 0.3 ± 0.9
Euphorbia hirta 0.0 ± 0.1 0.2 ± 0.4 0.3 ± 0.6
Fabaceae Arachis pintoi 0.7 ± 1.6
Calopogonium coeruleum 0.1 ± 0.3 0.6 ± 0.8
Mimosa albida 0.1 ± 0.2 0.0 ± 0.1 0.1 ± 0.3
Mimosa sp. 0.0 ± 0.1
Lamiaceae Lippia graveolens 0.5 ± 0.9 0.0 ± 0.1
Malvaceae Sida acuta 2.2 ± 3.1 2.2± 2.3 0.2 ± 0.3 0.5 ± 0.8
Nyctaginaceae Boerhavia erecta 0.2 ± 0.6 0.1 ± 0.3
Poaceae Brachiaria mutica 0.1 ± 0.4
Cenchrus echinatus 0.1 ± 0.3 0.0 ± 0.1
Cynodon dactylon 0.9 + 2.4 2.4 + 4.1
Cynodon plectostachyus 0.2 ± 0.4 0.5 ± 0.6 79.3 ± 15.4 92.5 ± 14.8
Epicampes macroura 1.7 ± 4.4 2.0 ± 4.7 0.1 ± 0.4
Hyparrhenia rufa 1.7 ± 4.2 0.2 ± 0.3 3.4 ± 5.5 0.6 ± 0.9
Leptochloa filiformes 0.0 ± 0.1 0.0 ± 0.1
Opizia stolonifera 10.0 ± 12.2 4.9 ± 6.2 5.6 ± 6.9 5.1 ± 11.8
Urochloa brizantha 0.5 ± 1.3 0.1 ± 0.4
Solanaceae Physalis pubescens 0.2 ± 0.5 0.0 ± 0.1
No vegetation 82.5 ± 16.3 86.4 ± 11.2 7.0 ± 9.8 0.8 ± 1.7
Total number of species 13 17 11 11
Table 5
Pasture indicators. (a) Repeated measures ANOVA’s for forage availability and gaps in the herbaceous canopy and ground cover as measured by the comparative yield method and
the gap intersect method respectively. Forage availability was greater (p< 0.0005) and ground level vegetation gaps less prevalent (p= 0.034) in rested than in freshly grazed
pastures, while rest period had no effect on gaps in the herbaceous canopy (p= 0.54). The interaction between ranch type and rest period was significant for ground-level gaps
(p= 0.034) but not for canopy gaps (p= 0.64) or forage availability (p= 0.28). Bold type indicates significant differences. (b) Independent sample t-tests for ground level gaps
elucidate the significant management-rest period interaction for ground-level vegetation gaps. Bold type indicates significant differences.
(a)
Indicator Conventional (
x% ± s.d.) Holistic (
x% ± s.d.) F
1,12
p
Forage availability (kg/ha) 24,852 ± 4653 36,277 ± 13,304 4.60 0.053
Ground-level gaps (%) 8.82 ± 9.83 0.10 ± 0.16 5.51 0.034
Herbaceous canopy gaps (%) 9.54 ± 5.36 0.75 ± 1.02 18.16 0.001
(b)
Ground-level gaps (%) (
x± s.d.) T
12
p
Rested Grazed
Conventional 6.5 ± 10.2 11.1 ± 10.1 0.86 0.408
Holistic 0.2 ± 0.3 0.0 ± 0.0 1.55 0.172
T
12
1.63 2.93
p0.154 0.026
B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48 45
on expensive, purchased machinery and other emergy intensive in-
puts. In this case, technical support, particularly farmer-to-farmer
training (Holt-Gimenez, 2005) and simple technologies appear to
have been the drivers of the transition to HM. These kinds of inter-
Table 6
Density (of individuals P25 cm tall) and basal area (of individuals P1 cm dbh) of woody species in transects. Values for the two pastures sampled at each ranch were averaged
before calculating standard deviations (N= 7 for each ranch type).
Family Species Basal area (m
2
/ha) (
x± s.d.) Individuals/ha (
x± s.d.)
Conventional Holistic Conventional Holistic
Annonaceae Annona purpurea 0.79 ± 2.10
Annona reticulata 0.06 ± 0.15 0.11 ± 0.29 0.79 ± 2.10 9.52 ± 25.20
Apocynaceae Thevetia peruviana 0.04 ± 0.10 0.79 ± 2.10
Araliaceae Gilibertia arborea 0.06 ± 0.15 1.59 ± 2.71
Asteraceae Verbesina punctata 0.01 ± 0.02 53.17 ± 91.50
Vernonia condensata 0.02 ± 0.07 0.03 ± 0.09 2.38 ± 4.37 15.87 ± 25.75
Bignoniaceae Bignoniaceae aesculifolia 0.04 ± 0.11 0.01 ± 0.03 1.59 ± 4.20 0.79 ± 2.10
Tabebuia pentaphylla 0.67 ± 1.65 11.11 ± 17.86
Tabebuia rosea 1.53 ± 2.47 0.01 ± 0.02 5.56 ± 6.42 37.30 ± 89.05
Burseraceae Bursera simaruba 0.26 ± 0.59 2.38 ± 4.37
Chrysobalanaceae Licania arborea 0.50 ± 1.31 0.37 ± 0.98 0.79 ± 2.10 0.79 ± 2.10
Clusiaceae Calophyllum brasiliense 0.01 ± 0.04 5.56 ± 12.42 0.79 ± 2.10
Cochlospermaceae Cochlospermum vitifolium 0.15 ± 0.39 0.79 ± 2.10
Dilleniaceae Curatella americana 0.22 ± 0.59 0.79 ± 2.10
Euphorbeaceae Jatropha curcas 0.06 ± 0.16 0.68 ± 1.14 25.40 ± 34.52 104.76 ± 221.56
Fabaceae Acacia cornigera 0.06 ± 0.11 0.57 ± 0.87 20.63 ± 26.58 78.57 ± 98.36
Acacia pennatula 0.09 ± 0.23 <0.01 3.97 ± 5.28 15.08 ± 20.21
Andira inermis 1.58 ± 4.20
Bauhinia ungulata 5.56 ± 14.70
Caesalpinia velutina 1.52 ± 4.02 3.17 ± 8.40
Diphysa robinioides 0.56 ± 1.48 0.45 ± 0.77 11.11 ± 19.25 16.67 ± 27.40
Dussia cuscatlanica 0.02 ± 0.06 8.73 ± 23.10
Enterolobium cyclocarpum 0.37 ± 0.92 0.59 ± 1.48 29.37 ± 45.67 55.56 ± 101.33
Erythrina goldmanii 0.04 ± 0.10 1.59 ± 4.20 0.79 ± 2.10
Gliricidia sepium 0.23 ± 0.62 41.27 ± 76.16
Hymenaea courbaril 0.46 ± 1.20 2.38 ± 4.37
Lonchocarpus rugosus 0.31 ± 0.81 0.79 ± 2.10
Machaerium biovulatum 7.94 ± 13.93
Pithecellobium dulce 0.77 ± 1.71 2.38 ± 6.30 76.98 ± 128.52
Platymiscium dimorphandrum 0.15 ± 0.30 0.13 ± 0.26 7.14 ± 11.88 34.92 ± 74.17
Flacourtiaceae Casearia nitida <0.01 1.59 ± 2.71 3.17 ± 6.30
Malpighiaceae Byrsonima crassifolia 0.36 ± 0.65 0.05 ± 0.12 2.38 ± 4.37 0.79 ± 2.10
Malvaceae Sida rhombifolia 2.38 ± 6.30
Meliaceae Cedrela odorata 0.02 ± 0.04 11.11 ± 20.54
Moraceae Ficus cookii 0.90 ± 2.37 0.79 ± 2.10
Myrtaceae Psidium guajava 0.09 ± 0.23 11.90 ± 19.90 8.73 ± 10.57
Psidium sartorianum 0.03 ± 0.09 0.79 ± 2.10
Nyctaginaceae Pisonia macranthocarpa 0.64 ± 1.69 3.97 ± 6.18 11.11 ± 20.54
Rubiaceae Calycophyllum candidisimum 0.08 ± 0.20 0.01 ± 0.04 0.79 ± 2.10 3.97 ± 8.31
Genipa americana 0.48 ± 0.76 3.17 ± 4.37
Salicaceae Salix chilensis 1.58 ± 4.20
Solanaceae Solanum torvum 0.79 ± 2.1
Sterculiaceae Guazuma ulmifolia 0.51 ± 0.78 1.10 ± 2.13 38.89 ± 68.87 62.70 ± 103.28
TOTAL 4.93 ± 2.97 7.42 ± 6.90 186.51 ± 178.73 692.06 ± 837.61
Number of species detected 21 29 27 36
Table 7
Repeated measures ANOVA’s for soil indicators. Neither pasture rest period nor ranch type-rest period interactions were significant factors for any response variable and are not
reported. Standard deviations are for data averaged between rest periods. Bold type indicates significant differences between ranch types for a given variable.
Indicator Conventional (
x± s.d.) Holistic (
x± s.d.) F
1,12
p
A horizon depth (cm) 18.6 ± 8.9 28.8 ± 3.2 7.98 0.015
Penetrability, soil surface (kg/cm
2
) 0.82 ± 0.19 0.98 ± 0.32 0.07 0.792
Horizontal penetrability, A horizon (kg/cm
2
) 0.55 ± 0.17 0.71 ± 0.32 1.32 0.273
Sand (%) 54.1 ± 9.6 52.4 ± 8.8 0.12 0.736
Silt (%) 28.0 ± 6.2 27.1 ± 5.7 0.07 0.793
Clay (%) 17.9 ± 5.3 20.5 ± 3.3 1.19 0.297
Bulk density (g/cm
3
) 1.37 ± 0.10 1.31 ± 0.05 2.21 0.163
pH 5.49 ± 0.49 5.66 ± 0.53 0.42 0.530
P(mg/kg) 35.3 ± 30.2 59.9 ± 43.9 1.49 0.245
Organic material (%) 3.11 ± 0.64 3.33 ± 0.89 0.29 0.601
Total N (%) 0.15 ± 0.03 0.17 ± 0.05 0.78 0.395
Cation exchange capacity (cmol/kg) 19.1 ± 5.1 19.8 ± 5.9 0.06 0.811
Respiration ((kgCO
2
/ha)/day)) 4.98 ± 0.66 6.68 ± 1.04 13.50 0.003
Earthworm presence (%) 14.3 ± 37.8 78.6 ± 39.3 9.72 0.009
White grub presence (%) 14.3 ± 24.4 0.0 ± 0.0 2.40 0.147
46 B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48
ventions may be more appropriate and effective targets for subsi-
dies and assistance.
Our vegetation and soil data provide concrete evidence suggest-
ing that HM is augmenting conservation values on the land.
Although differences were not significant, we found on average
71% more woody basal area and 271% more woody stems on holis-
tic ranches (Table 6), suggesting that HM is increasing tree cover.
We also found significantly deeper topsoil on the holistic ranches
(Table 7), consistent with the assertion of one holistic rancher that
in the 40 years since he took over his ranch and stopped burning,
he has accumulated some 25 cm of dark, rich soil on top of the
red clay layer he inherited. Our data are also consistent with the
common claim that by building soil, HM can contribute signifi-
cantly to carbon sequestration.
Because of potential confounding variables, we have couched
our conclusions with respect to the benefits of HM in cautious
terms. The members of PIT Las Villas were self-selected and even
before their training in HM and rational grazing they were likely
atypical in important aspects. The holistic ranches, for example,
are larger on average than the conventional ranches we sampled.
Although we took steps to control for ranch size in our analysis,
scale effects may have influenced our data.
Moreover, along with their economic advantages, the holistic
ranchers appear to be politically better connected than most of
their neighbors. One, for example, is a former mayor who now
holds an important post within the Chiapas Rural Development
Secretariat. Also, although not a statistically significant difference,
the HM group averaged 2.5 years more formal education than the
CM group. Their wealth, political savvy and education may have
permitted the HM group to leverage support for innovation on
their ranches, and helped them to take full advantage of available
training and technical assistance. This likely explains the difference
in average ranch size between the two groups.
It remains to be seen whether smaller, less connected, less edu-
cated ranchers could achieve the same success as the HM group in
this study. Most of the HM tools we mention here, including holis-
tic decision making, farmer-to-farmer training, elimination of
burning, reduced agrochemical use, record keeping and diversifica-
tion of forage resources, are likely scale-neutral or perhaps more
easily adopted by small producers. Others, however, including
rotational grazing with electric fences and the maintenance of for-
est reserves, could be relatively more costly to implement at a
smaller scale. Furthermore, those with less land to spare may find
the risk of failure prohibitive, limiting their disposition to try new
techniques and technologies. Small holders, many of them ejido
1
members, many of them indigenous, are an increasingly important
component of Chiapas’ livestock sector (Alemán Santillán et al.,
2007). These ranchers typically manage a few ha or less of pasture
(much less than the both HM and CM groups in our study), often
on marginal land at the agricultural frontier. Identifying sustainable
production strategies for these small, impoverished ranchers is a
conservation and development priority for the state.
On the other hand, the holistic ranches we worked on are small
compared to latifundios found elsewhere in Latin America (Hecht,
1993; Kaimowitz, 1996). These large ranchers often have other,
larger sources of income and are most interested in staking a claim
to the land or in maximizing their short-term returns. HM may not
make sense in the context of this entrepreneurial logic. Other large
holders, however, are in ranching for the long term (Kaimowitz,
1996) and might be attracted to the potential of HM’s, and silvo-
pastoral systems in general, to improve productivity (Cubbage
et al., 2012; Murgueitio et al., 2011).
While we acknowledge that ranch size, political connectedness
and other confounding variables may account for some of the dif-
ferences between our HM and CM groups, we also recognize that
our methodology likely underestimated the relative benefits of
HM in several ways. Although the focus of HM is whole systems
and their interactions with other whole systems (Savory and But-
terfield, 1999), we sought comparability among ranches by sam-
pling plant communities and soil in a single component of these
systems; pastures dominated by star grass. Holistic ranchers con-
tinuously seek to diversify their resource base, introducing and
selecting for a wealth of herbaceous and woody forage plants in di-
verse combinations. Many of these were ignored by our sampling
scheme. Similarly, differences in tree cover were not significantly
different between the star grass pastures of the HM and CM ranch-
ers, but when fencerows and forest reserves are taken into account,
tree cover is undoubtedly greater on the HM ranches.
We quantified the social and economic success of the ranches
using conventional indictors such as productivity and profit, but
HM also focuses on goals such as quality of life and risk manage-
ment. The diversification of resources and products, part of this
strategy, confers resilience upon the holistic ranches. The response
of the holistic ranchers to the cabbage looper outbreak (Sec-
tion 3.1.2) is an excellent example. Ranchers attributed that out-
break to an interruption in the onset of the rainy season. In the
face of climate change, strategies that allow farmers and ranchers
to confront unusual or extreme weather and its consequences will
become an increasingly important aspect of sustainability (Altieri
and Koohafkan, 2008; Murgueitio et al., 2011).
Experiences such as that of PIT Las Villas may encourage other
ranchers, large and small, to try rational grazing and HM, and jus-
tify government support for such strategies. Further investigation
will be necessary to identify context-appropriate technology, train-
ing and support mechanisms. Further research could also help us
more fully understand how, and in which contexts, HM is benefi-
cial. Quantifying the ecological benefits of HM for landscape con-
nectivity, wildlife habitat, fire prevention, nutrient cycling,
climate change mitigation and soil and watershed protection (Mur-
gueitio et al., 2011) may help justify investment in HM. Stratified
sampling at the ranch scale would better describe system compo-
nents, their planned and associated biodiversity and their soils.
Longitudinal studies of ranchers converting to HM would help to
document more conclusively the impacts of HM on the land and
its managers. Top priorities for research in support of HM in our
study region are agroecological methods of tick prevention and
control and the development of better markets for the high quality
products of these ranches. The applicability of HM in less ‘‘brittle’’
environments would also be an important avenue to explore. The
suite of practices employed by members of PIT Las Villas seem
appropriate for the humid tropics as well, though perhaps their
benefits would be less pronounced than in the seasonally-dry
tropics.
Despite these knowledge gaps, we argue that there is sufficient
evidence of the benefits HM and more intensive silvopastoral sys-
tems from this and other studies (Cubbage et al., 2012; Murgueitio
et al., 2011) to justify aggressive promotion of transition from con-
ventional ranching. Financial and knowledge barriers typically
slow adoption of such systems (Murgueitio et al., 2011) and both
are likely to be significant for chiapanecan ranchers. Financial bar-
riers could be overcome if agencies charged with agriculture and
forestry production as well as conservation could coordinate their
efforts and orient existing subsidies toward the paradigm shift to
sustainable ranching. Knowledge barriers may be more significant,
because managing a low-external-input, complex system requires
sophisticated planning and observation for adaptive management
as well as access to information. Furthermore, agricultural exten-
sion services in Mexico were largely dismantled under structural
1
Ejidos are the collective land tenure regime established under Mexico’s post-
revolutionary constitutional reforms.
B.G. Ferguson et al. / Agricultural Systems 120 (2013) 38–48 47
adjustment policies (Bello, 2008). Currently, local ranchers unions
and groups of ranchers supported by the agricultural secretariat
called ‘‘grupos ganaderos de validación y transferencia de tecnología’’
or ‘‘GGAVATTs’’ (Galindo Gonzalez, 2009) may be the structures
best adapted for overcoming knowledge barriers. An additional
challenge is likely to be shortage of labor in rural areas. HM and
intensive silvopastoral systems require more labor than conven-
tional ranching (Murgueitio et al., 2006), and in recent years the
Mexican countryside has witnessed an exodus of small farmers
and laborers to cities and to the United States (García-Barrios
et al., 2009). Both ranchers and government agencies have a role
to play in creating attractive living and working conditions for
ranch hands.
Acknowledgements
This work was carried out with financial support from the Euro-
pean Commission through the ReForLan Project, INCO-DEV con-
tract PL 032132, and from the Mexican Consejo Nacional de
Ciencia y Tecnología and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur through a
postdoctoral fellowship for SAWD and a graduate fellowship for
R.A.A. We thank the ranchers who shared their time and knowl-
edge and allowed us to sample their vegetation and soils. Laura Ru-
bio, Lesvia Domínguez, Carlos Sánchez, Wilder Grajales, Juan López,
Jesús Carmona and Miguel López helped in the field and laboratory.
Miguel Martínez Icó and Henry Castañeda helped with plant iden-
tification. Alejandro Flores contributed to data base design. The GIS
lab (LAIGE) at ECOSUR produced the maps. Two anonymous
reviewers provided suggestions that strengthened the manuscript.
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... El potencial de los árboles nativos para el diseño de sistemas silvopastoriles (SSP) ha sido ampliamente reconocido por su importancia productiva y por alta viabilidad para impulsar sistemas competitivos (Palmer, 2014). Asimismo, se sabe de sus múltiples beneficios ambientales en la restauración y conectividad de ecosistemas permitiendo la conservación de la biodiversidad, y otros beneficios sociales y culturales y aportando a la seguridad alimentaria (Marinidou et al., 2013;Ferguson et al., 2013). En las últimas décadas, los SSP también han sido reconocidos como una importante estrategia para la mitigación de gases de efecto invernadero (GEI) y promover la adaptación al cambio climático, mejorando la resiliencia de los sistemas productivos. ...
... La diseminación de estrategias ganaderas sustentables, especialmente aquellas basadas en una combinación de buenas prácticas ganaderas (manejo sanitario, manejo holístico mediante rotación de potreros y cargas animales adecuadas y fertilización orgánica) y prácticas silvopastoriles -como cercos vivos, bancos forrajeros o árboles dispersos en potreros-han mostrado sus bondades en aspectos productivos y ecológicos (Ferguson et al., 2013;Marinidou et al. 2013;Nahed et al., 2013). Aunque hay evidencias de que la implementación de sistemas silvopastoriles requiere de un aumento en el uso y costo de mano de obra durante la implementación, acciones de planificación, capacitación y financiamiento, la rentabilidad se logra en un lapso de tres a cinco años (Ávila-Foucalt , 2014), pero la falta de una visión de los productores para invertir estratégicamente, y poca cultura financiera, hacen que se desaprovechen mecanismos financieros para lograr el cambio tecnológico. ...
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Background: The global community has recognized silvopastoral systems (SPS) as an alternative to contribute to the resolution of various socio-environmental problems derived from extensive livestock farming, deforestation, climate change and the current pandemic derived from SARS-CoV-2. Its technical and social viability has motivated various sectors of society to promote its massification or scaling. However, although there are important advances in agroforestry and silvopastoral scientific research in southeastern Mexico, there are no works that address the experiences of massification of silvopastoral systems. Objective: The objective of this study was to identify the experiences of massification of various projects of SSP, the participation of social actors and the barriers and trade-offs in their implementation in the state of Chiapas (Mexico). Methodology: The study considered an analysis period from 2000 to 2020. A review of scientific and technical documents was made, various social actors were interviewed (livestock producers, technicians from international and national development agencies, technicians and advisers from peasant organizations, technicians from non-governmental organizations, academics from research centers and universities) who have promoted SPS and good livestock practices in Chiapas. Two participatory workshops were held. Results. A timeline was built and five relevant experiences of massification of SPS in various agroecological regions of Chiapas were analyzed: a) Scolel Té Project, b) Puyacatengo Agreement (Red Selva), c) Sustainable Rural Development Project in Biological Corridors , d) Innovative mechanisms for a cooperation program towards adaptation to climate change in the Sierra Madre and Costa de Chiapas, e) Early Action Initiatives for Mitigation in livestock areas (IAT-REDD +) and e) Agrosilvopastoral Biodiversity and Livestock Landscapes Project Sustainable (BioPaSOS). Various socio-environmental barriers and alliances between multiple social actors are shown. Implications: The work makes a contribution to the historicity of the massification processes of SPS and to the process of change in livestock. It is necessary to continue with an in-depth analysis of the social and technological impact that the various massification initiatives shown have had. Conclusions: The massification process that occurred between the years of study has shown the importance of alliances between various social sectors (producers-development agencies-academia-Governments), which has allowed the transition from local projects to projects with broad territorial coverage.
... El potencial de los árboles nativos para el diseño de sistemas silvopastoriles (SSP) ha sido ampliamente reconocido por su importancia productiva y por alta viabilidad para impulsar sistemas competitivos (Palmer, 2014). Asimismo, se sabe de sus múltiples beneficios ambientales en la restauración y conectividad de ecosistemas permitiendo la conservación de la biodiversidad, y otros beneficios sociales y culturales y aportando a la seguridad alimentaria (Marinidou et al., 2013;Ferguson et al., 2013). En las últimas décadas, los SSP también han sido reconocidos como una importante estrategia para la mitigación de gases de efecto invernadero (GEI) y promover la adaptación al cambio climático, mejorando la resiliencia de los sistemas productivos. ...
... La diseminación de estrategias ganaderas sustentables, especialmente aquellas basadas en una combinación de buenas prácticas ganaderas (manejo sanitario, manejo holístico mediante rotación de potreros y cargas animales adecuadas y fertilización orgánica) y prácticas silvopastoriles -como cercos vivos, bancos forrajeros o árboles dispersos en potreros-han mostrado sus bondades en aspectos productivos y ecológicos (Ferguson et al., 2013;Marinidou et al. 2013;Nahed et al., 2013). Aunque hay evidencias de que la implementación de sistemas silvopastoriles requiere de un aumento en el uso y costo de mano de obra durante la implementación, acciones de planificación, capacitación y financiamiento, la rentabilidad se logra en un lapso de tres a cinco años (Ávila-Foucalt , 2014), pero la falta de una visión de los productores para invertir estratégicamente, y poca cultura financiera, hacen que se desaprovechen mecanismos financieros para lograr el cambio tecnológico. ...
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p> Background: The global community has recognized silvopastoral systems (SPS) as an alternative to contribute to the resolution of various socio-environmental problems derived from extensive livestock farming, deforestation, climate change and the current pandemic derived from SARS-CoV-2. Its technical and social viability has motivated various sectors of society to promote its massification or scaling. However, although there are important advances in agroforestry and silvopastoral scientific research in southeastern Mexico, there are no works that address the experiences of massification of silvopastoral systems. Objective: The objective of this study was to identify the experiences of massification of various projects of SSP, the participation of social actors and the barriers and trade-offs in their implementation in the state of Chiapas (Mexico). Methodology : The study considered an analysis period from 2000 to 2020. A review of scientific and technical documents was made, various social actors were interviewed (livestock producers, technicians from international and national development agencies, technicians and advisers from peasant organizations, technicians from non-governmental organizations, academics from research centers and universities) who have promoted SPS and good livestock practices in Chiapas. Two participatory workshops were held. Results. A timeline was built and five relevant experiences of massification of SPS in various agroecological regions of Chiapas were analyzed: a) Scolel Té Project, b) Puyacatengo Agreement (Red Selva), c) Sustainable Rural Development Project in Biological Corridors , d) Innovative mechanisms for a cooperation program towards adaptation to climate change in the Sierra Madre and Costa de Chiapas, e) Early Action Initiatives for Mitigation in livestock areas (IAT-REDD +) and e) Agrosilvopastoral Biodiversity and Livestock Landscapes Project Sustainable (BioPaSOS). Various socio-environmental barriers and alliances between multiple social actors are shown. Implications: The work makes a contribution to the historicity of the massification processes of SPS and to the process of change in livestock. It is necessary to continue with an in-depth analysis of the social and technological impact that the various massification initiatives shown have had. Conclusions : The massification process that occurred between the years of study has shown the importance of alliances between various social sectors (producers-development agencies-academia-Governments), which has allowed the transition from local projects to projects with broad territorial coverage.</p
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... Research on grazing systems should include long-term effects, and be adaptive and multi-disciplinary in nature, which is difficult to achieve through classical experimentation (Teague and Barnes, 2017). Assessing the performance on commercial farms practicing high-density grazing against that of 'conventional neighbours' in so-called fenceline studies offers an alternative approach to comparing systems (Ferguson et al., 2013;Chamane et al., 2017). On-farm research is often complicated by confounding biophysical and socio-economic factors that are difficult to control for. ...
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... Today in Mexico, a high diversity of silvopastoral systems and practices exists. From traditional management systems utilized by local and indigenous communities that are oriented toward the production of food and products for the family (López-Carmona et al., 2001), to silvopastoral systems focused on holistic management for the production of meat and milk for regional markets or export (Ferguson et al., 2013;Marinidou, Jiménez-Ferrer, Soto-Pinto, Ferguson, & Saldivar, 2017), many fodder trees and agrosilvopastoral practices are found distributed throughout Mexico (Figure 18-8). ...
... Nevertheless, to provide robust scientific evidence of IRG benefits is challenging due to the lack of replicated experiments, and the limited results differ greatly form the on-farm observations (Conant et al. 2017). In the Colombian Eastern Plains (Teutscherová et al. 2021), similarly to other tropical areas (Alfaro-Arguello et al. 2010;Ferguson et al. 2013), some farmers initiated to manage their farms more holistically by adopting IRG management, observing increases of both forage and animal productivity. As large areas of grazed grasslands in the tropics are located in remote areas, where soil analysis is logistically and economically unfeasible, onfarm observations and soil assessments have been gaining on importance in evaluation of the management impacts on soil quality (Guimarães et al. 2011(Guimarães et al. , 2017Emmet-Booth et al. 2016). ...
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p> Background. It is agreed that there is a need to work on sustainable extensive livestock production systems. Silvopastoral systems are an alternative for efficient and sustainable grazing systems to increase the provision of ecosystems services and minimize the environmental costs associated to monoculture systems (MS), but the efficiency of intensively managed (IS) and unmanaged or native (NS) silvopastoral systems has never been assessed and compared to MS. The Framework for Assessing the Sustainability of Natural Resource Management (MESMIS) offers a tool to assess sustainability criteria in agroecosystems. Objective. To use MESMIS to compare the sustainable performance of NS, IS and MS and determine the system with the best sustainable performance in the Mexican Tropics. Methodology. One MS IS and NS per municipality (Tizimin, Merida and Tzucacab) were evaluated in the state of Yucatán, Mexico. Based on the MESMIS approach, the evaluation of the critical points of sustainability resulted in the selection of 19 indicators classified according to the attributes also defined by MESMIS (production, adaptability, stability-resilience, equity and self-management) and by sustainability dimensions (environmental, animal welfare, economic and social). After evaluation, indicator scores were obtained and integrated into attributes and dimensions through the assignation of equitable, balanced weights (W). Finally, attribute and dimension scores were aggregated in amoeba graphs to facilitate visual interpretation. Results. NS were better for the dimensions ‘Environmental’ and ‘Economic’ and the attributes ‘Stability, ‘Reliability’and ‘Resilience,’ and ‘Production’. IS were best for the dimension ‘Animal Welfare’ and attributes ‘Adaptability’ and ‘Self-reliance’. MS were better for the ‘Social’ dimension and the ‘Equity’ attribute. Implications. The fact that IS appeared to be more sustainable than MS does not leave out the idea of considering NS as a better option for some criteria such as the biodiversity conservation and the prevention of disease outbreaks, than IS. We suggest that more studies are carried on areas of potential improvement for IS as well as NS. Conclusions. This information will be useful to continue working on the parametrization of sustainability criteria of cattle extensive systems to be used for more efficient policies.</p
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