Restoration

res·to·ra·tion |restəˈrāSHən|
noun: The action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition.


California Red Legged Frog

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The California red-legged frog (CRLF) is the largest native frog in the state. The frog is appropriately named as the underside of its stomach and legs are marked with a red coloring. However, the CRLF vary a lot in color, so color alone is not a good way to identify them. Also, the red on the legs is on the underside and most often not visible unless you pick up the frog (which is not advisable without a permit). The best way to identify them is by confirming the presence of a dorsolateral fold, a fancy name for the raised line that runs down either side of their backs. It looks like piping that’s been sewn on. Also, younger frogs often have a white mustache above the corner of the mouth, and under the eye (like the one with duckweed on its head).

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The California Red-legged frog is currently on the endangered species list and for a variety of reason of which are, but are not limited to: the harvesting of frog legs for food (introduced as a delicacy by French gold miners), placer mining, filling in of wetlands, stream diversions, plus the introduction of bullfrogs and non-native fishes are the major threats and/or causes of decline. Disease has been a problem in the past as well but currently is not known as a big issue.

Some exciting news in regards to the California Red-Legged Frog is that people such as Jeff Willcox; a Managing Ecologist for the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, is on the continual lookout and advocate for the protection of the CRLF species. The Sonoma Mountain Ranch preservation Foundation’s mission is: “Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation is a charitable, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to preserving the natural beauty and biodiversity of the Sonoma Mountain area, and providing education and guidance, through research, for the preservation and enhancement of agricultural, natural, scenic, and open lands. The Foundation promotes best grazing practices and management activities that preserve, steward, and enhance Foundation land and maintain habitat for special-status species present there.” Jeff’s work with SMRPF is reflected in their mission as he has reported that from his findings he has seen, “an averaged 11 red-legged frog masses in ponds that were averaging 3.” Jeff has been more than happy to provide awareness and education to all with like-minded missions within the Petaluma area.

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Like our Neighbors at SMRPF, we at Sonoma Mountain Institute strongly focus on the benefits of cattle grazing over the land in a holistic manner for a variety of benefits, which also can impact species such as the CRLF. Grazed natural rangelands are the places you can find healthy populations so we have to assume there are no conflicts between responsible grazing and healthy CRLF populations. For grazers, we ask you to please keep doing what you’ve been doing. Stock ponds have become the best places to find these frogs in good numbers. The worst thing you can do, aside from whole scale development, is introduce bullfrogs and fish to your ponds and creeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grazing Report for Hill Top Properties in 2016

This was our second grazing season having brought on an additional three pieces of property to manage using cattle as a regenerative restoration tool. These three pieces of property are contiguous and together total just over 1037 acres on the top of Sonoma Mountain. The first of the properties is Mitsui Ranch and it is the largest piece of property at 632 acres. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation (SMRPF). The second property is owned By James and Sophie Gray and is 128 acres. The third property is called Walsh and is owned by the Sonoma County Regional Park System and totals just over 280 acres.

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It should be noted that in this report we reference grazing in various paddocks for certain lengths of time. It should be noted that when we refer to these areas, we are only referring to a small portion of them. We subdivide the larger interior paddocks into much smaller areas with temporary electric fencing. We do not in this report go into detail of the specific location of temporary fencing as that can be found in our grazing reports and management location pages on the Sonoma Mountain Institute Website:

(http://sonomamountaininstitute.org/management-location/).   

Last grazing season in March – June 2015 we ended up getting started quickly as the lease wasn’t finalized until right before the season and we didn’t have as much time to use more robust holistic planning process before getting started. However this new grazing season coming up would be different as we had a good deal of experience under our belts with the property and some time to plan and upgrade the interior infrastructure in order to support better ecological management.  

We worked together with the resident biologist and property manager to come up with a long term infrastructure and management plan on the Mitsui ranch for the coming season. We used a modified version of the Holistic Land Planning Protocol and developed our future ideal landscape and the infrastructure necessary to support it. After putting together a robust design in collaboration with the SMRPF team they committed financial resources to the materials for the fencing portion of the design and we (SMI) committed the labor and technical expertise for installation. Additionally the SMRPF team had been working for years on a water system of tanks and troughs independently that was also going to be mostly installed by the beginning of the grazing season which we truly appreciated. We also carried out a similar process on the Walsh property as well using similar tools, strategies and materials for permanent interior electric fence design.

We finished the construction of the infrastructure mostly by December as we were getting ready to receive our cattle for the year. We were receiving a heard this year from two different operations, one a local organic dairy and the second from a very large grassfed beef supplier to Whole Foods Market. We had about 156 cattle total on Hilltop that weighed about 92,000 pounds to begin with. We had decided after the end of the 2015 grazing season in June of that year that we wanted to come back earlier to graze this next season than we had in the past.

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Grazing after June and July becomes more difficult in our area as the streams and ponds dry up, the forage loses quality and the electric fences do not work as well due to decreased humidity in the soil. We decided that it would be better to leave a good deal of forage behind in June of 2015 and come back and graze that older standing forage with the short green forage that comes in the late fall with the rains. We ended up receiving cattle in December of 2015 for the 2015-2016 grazing season and we had a large stockpile of grass we had left behind. The new green grass that was coming up with the early rains made for a good ration for the cattle of longer older more carbohydrate rich grass from the previous season, and short protein rich grass from this new season.

The season got going in December and our hypothesis of a smoother grazing season with starting earlier began to pan out overall. One of the interesting benefits of grazing older material in the rains is that the cattle integrated that material into the soil better than if we had grazed it in the summer. Grazing at this time of year seemed to increase the overall positive effects of trampling in forage, though we will have to look at our monitoring records in the future to validate this theory.

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We started our grazing for the season on the Mitsui property. As we moved through the property we chose to keep the animals moving into new paddocks at a fast clip and chose to leave behind a lot of the material they trampled. We chose to do this, so the animals would stay on a high plane of nutrition and that the trampled material would be left for cover and integrated back into the soil. We could have gotten more feed out of the material, but for the sake of the animals and the soil we thought it best to keep them moving. As a result the animal days we harvested in the fall/winter were a lot less then were actually there on the landscape. So while our grazing records indicated we grazed 11 animal days to the acre on the first rotation we likely had 20 to 25 ADA’s present.

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As we progressed through the Mitsui property it became clear that permanent infrastructure allowed us to achieve density and precision management much more effectively. The cattle were not getting out of their paddocks at all, and the fences were much more resilient to weather. Additionally, we could set up more paddocks with ease as the permanent electric fence made division shorter, straighter, and more resilient.

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We finished grazing the first rotation on the Mitsui Ranch on February 5th and moved onto the neighboring Walsh property. We had stockpiled forage on Walsh from the summer of 2015; however, by February of 2016 the weather had diminished its feed value on top of the fact that Walsh doesn’t have great feed value to begin with. So we decided to move the cattle quickly through Walsh, making sure to get the impact we needed, getting thatch on the ground, cattle fed, but not at the expense of animal performance. All that being said it was looking like there was a lot more grass species coming in than the previous year and less thistle overall, so we were feeling very encouraged.

We moved out of the Walsh property and back on to the Pangea property on February 18th. This year Jeremiah Stent had built us an amazing 1000 gallon portable water trough trailer and we used it at the Pangea property with great success. Pangea is a beautiful ranch and it was visually looking better than the year before as well. Setting up Pangea to graze is the most labor intense of the properties on Hilltop as it doesn’t have secure perimeter fences for the cattle, any internal fencing, and has many areas that need to be fenced out. However due to it’s small size we only have to be there 3 – 5 days at a time, and we get to help create a more unified and beautiful landscape across the mountain.

We ended up back at the Mitsui property on February 22nd to finish grazing a few paddocks we passed on they way to Walsh. By March 2nd we were back where we originally began grazing in December of 2015. The pasture had 75 days of recovery, and the grass had 2 or three new tillers of leaves after the last grazing event, however the new growth was still fairly short. We had planned on the grass really starting to pump growth by this point, but it looked like the season was behind a little. We were supposed to get another shipment of cattle around this time to address the huge surge of growth that takes place in spring. As the grass just looked a little farther off for more robust growth we decided to shift those additional cattle that were supposed to arrive on Hilltop to land at the newly acquired Hardy property instead. Luckily, we work with great suppliers and they were flexible and amenable to sending the additional animals to another location.

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We performed another full rotation around Mitsui and by April 1st we were were back to the Walsh Property for a second rotation. However, before we moved the cattle to Walsh we had installed a similar permanent electric fence on the Walsh Property as the one we had on Mitsui. It also made management more effective, simple, safe and fun. Also by this point in the season it began to look like a lot of the species that were coming up where new, and replacing some of the thistle that dominated the Walsh landscape.

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As we moved back into Pangea off of Walsh on April 17th it seemed like more biodiversity was showing up here as well. Clovers and wildflowers and native species that we hadn’t seen. By april 21st we were back to Mitsui and the ranch was pumping with more grass than we were going to be able to handle with the size herd we had. While it was the right decision to send the second group of cattle to Hardy as the ecology was not ready at Hilltop for them, we were now ready and had more feed than we needed.

You never get it perfect and there is always tradeoffs. However, we knew that we would be able to have a great stockpile of forage for grazing early at Hilltop the next winter season. At that point we would be able to integrate a lot of this now growing material back into the ground nurturing the organic matter and life in the soil. So all the forage now growing was like ecological money in the bank for the following years to come from our perspective.

When we moved back to Mitsui on the 21st of April we were back into Middle pasture for a second rotation and by that point Middle pasture was simply gorgeous. We only grazed a small portion of Mitsui for a third rotation and that was High Knolls which at that point was well recovered and ready to go. The Cattle shipped out for the season on June 7th and the loading and shipping and weighing went off without a hitch. It felt like a great successful season.

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We had only one animal that needed to be treated with medicine all year and the animal performance and health was great. The cattle as to be expected did not gain weight through december to February. However, after that they started to pack on weight with some months of 2.5 pounds a day and others 3.5 pounds a day. The overall season average was 1.7 pounds gained a day, which considering we had them over winter felt pretty good. All the owners were satisfied with the performance and overall animal health as well as how calm the cattle had become. All owners appreciate the low stress livestock ethics we have and mention how calm the cattle seem to be upon shipping.

As for the ecology, the monitoring results looked favorable. After 1.5 grazing seasons all three properties showed increases in native species, biodiversity and decreases in invasives like thistle. Mitsui showed a 29% relative increase in Native species and a 59% relative increase in overall species. Walsh showed a 37% relative increase in Native species and a 39% relative increase in overall species. Pangea showed a 72% relative increase in Native species and a 102% relative increase in overall species. It is looking like the needle is moving in the right direction.

Overall 2015/2016 was a great grazing season on Hilltop. We are learning how to become more effective at using infrastructure to support ecological management. The animals and land showed indications of health and improvement. We also had a lot of fun making it all happen. While we had a few hiccups to learn from we are excited at what the next years have instore for us managing land at Hilltop and beyond.
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Annual Reports for Glen Ellen, Hardy, and Petaluma 2016

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The two properties where we have been grazing the longest, SMI and Glen Ellen, received a little less grazing as we focused resources on the Hilltop and Cayteanna properties and we took this opportunity to give parts of those properties a little longer rest period. We also used these properties to conduct several interesting trials.

The first of those experiments was a compost application. We applied a half to a quarter inch of compost, using the Marin Carbon Project application protocol, in an effort investigate the effects this compost has on soil carbon processes in order to test its potential to  promote soil biodiversity and sequester atmospheric carbon. We don’t yet know what it did for soil carbon but the above ground results have been very interesting. There was a stark contrast in the area where the compost was applied. A distinct rectangle was visible where the compost was spread, the area inside the rectangle being mesic grassland from top to bottom, while the control area remained sparse forb cover on top and anaerobic soil in the bottom. The cattle were enthusiastic about the site and we harvested an estimated 3X forage in the composted area.

We also used the a no-till drill to apply a variety of seeds at SMI this year. We planted some annual plants in an effort to inject more energy in the soil, as well as a variety of native perennials. The natives are hanging out and doing their slow but steady native thing. The annuals did not do very well. We assume this is because there was so much grass this year, due to rain, that our planted annuals were not able to compete with the other vegetation. This is a good problem to have. Another factor is that at the last minute we acquired the Hardy property which gave us a big new grazing resource. However it meant that it took us much longer to graze SMI and we did not get to graze our seeding trial until later in the season then we would have liked.

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The Hardy property was another success for the year. Due to very rough topography we opted for a simplified rotation sequence for hardy. We divided the whole property into two paddocks on the only logical line we had, and we grazed either side for about two weeks at a time. This was about how long it took for the cattle to eat half of the grass in the low accessible areas. That grass then grew back quickly and was ready to graze two weeks later. As soon as growth started to slow, we pulled the cattle off of Hardy. This left abundant grass on the steep slopes that we hope will catch fog, a common phenomenon on Hardy because of the slope and aspect. All in all we were pretty happy with what we were able to achieve given the challenges.

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Upon cattle arrival at SMI we focused our grazing on the high production areas to make sure we could get the biodiversity effects we wanted to see there. In these high production areas we were able to lay down a lot of material on the soil surface and buildup our litter layer and allow for more plants to grow in that environment. In the lower production areas, we were less worried about heavy competition. Both at SMI and Glen Ellen we have seen some positive effects from an extra long rest period, in the form of new, taller native forbs and in tree regeneration. We will need to return to these areas soon to address brush encroachment and to make sure that we do not go backwards of the plant biodiversity gains we have seen over the last six years. However added woody species and the taller forbs might add more species to our species count next year. We will anxiously monitor those results, though we think that, periodically, these longer-than-one-year rest periods will be a valuable tool in our mission to increase the number of species we have on these properties.  

Educating about Soil Carbon at SMI

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Soil carbon sequestration offers one of our best chances of reducing green house gases in a cost effective way. On top of that it provides a myriad of other benefits; preventing droughts and floods, increasing ranch yields, and boosting biodiversity in the place where it counts most, the soil.

At SMI, we do our best to boost soil carbon, but as a society we are just starting to learn how to do that. Even before we can learn how to increase organic matter we need to learn how to properly measure it.

We were glad to have Peter Donovan out to SMI’s Petaluma property to perform and teach his preminent method to folks from a half dozen different agencies and non-profits.

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2015: Another Successful Year Comes To An End

As we say good bye to another great year we want to take a moment to share the successes we came across through our hard work and dedication to holistic land management techniques used here at Sonoma Mountain Institute.

Propagation and Planting: We feel like our grass propagation system is working really well.  With many more years of this we will see the overall health of the property improve significantly. We were able to propagate and plant 9,600 POA, 9,600 purple needle grass, and 300 White Oak Trees on our property in Petaluma, CA.

 

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Star Thistle: With many years of great effort with hand pulling Star Thistle, this year’s man-hours were significantly down from previous years as shown below.  With the new grazing protocol, access to many places that were challenging to pull in previous years are now easily accessible.

2012: 380 hours, 2013: 350 hours, 2014: 276 hours, 2015: 124 hours

Compost: In 2015 we will have made 1 batch of regular feed stock compost using rice straw, wood chips, and green hay and 1 batch using azola and oak leaves. The compost when finished became the feedstock for the 20,000 gallons of compost tea that we applied on a rotation to the sudden oak death effected trees, and also sprayed all grasslands post grazing. In 2016 the spraying will be continued on the sudden oak death effected trees and we will continue to spray on as much grassland as possible.

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Grazing: In 2015 we continued to bring the impacts of large animals to the vegetation at the Glen Ellen Property and Petaluma Property. Since this is the fourth year we have been able to manage cattle grazing on the property we were able to fine tune our management protocol while working with grass-fat beef cattle this year.  We saw many positive results in regards to the numbers of native species verses non-natives, annuals species verses perennials, and non-invasive species verses invasive.

As we have previously shared this grazing season we brought on an additional three pieces of property to manage using cattle as a regenerative restoration tool. These three pieces of property are contiguous and together total just over 1,037 acres on the top of Sonoma Mountain. The first of the properties is Mitsui Ranch and it is the largest piece of property at 632 acres. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation. The second property is owned by James and Sophie Gray and is 128 acres. The third property is called Walsh and is owned by the Sonoma County Regional Park System and totals just over 280 acres.

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Godfry: We had another good year at the Godfry!  All 160 acres were covered in a round of invasive species removal. Thinning in the old plantations of pine and fir, were greatly advanced with the aide of the new tractor. Much old debris from the mastication of 10 years ago were raked, piled, and burned. This allowed the planting of native grass seed, Blue Wild Rye, California Melic, and Idaho Fescue to be planted in these areas. A covert was installed and a small access road was grated to reach one of the last areas we will be restoring next season.

Board Meeting: Last but not least, our annual board meeting was held on November 7, 2015 were these annual recap numbers were discussed and the next year’s budget was passed to allow us to continue another year of dedication to restore land as holistically as possible.

 

Grazing Report for Hill Top Properties in 2015

This grazing season we brought on an additional three pieces of property to manage using cattle as a regenerative restoration tool. These three pieces of property are contiguous and together total just over 1,037 acres on the top of Sonoma Mountain. The first of the properties is Mitsui Ranch and it is the largest piece of property at 632 acres. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation. The second property is owned By James and Sophie Gray and is 128 acres. The third property is called Walsh and is owned by the Sonoma County Regional Park System and totals just over 280 acres.

We secured these leases in February and were intending to put cattle on the property in March so we did not have a great deal of time to prepare for the cattle’s arrival. In an ideal world we would have had 6 months or more to work on the water and fencing systems to support our style of management which focuses on greater herd density and longer rest periods to support ecosystem health and restoration. As a result of the accelerated timeline we did not have the water systems developed to support flexibility in management and fencing and to be able to provide access easily to water across the landscape for the cattle. Additionally, there was quite a bit of perimeter fence work that needed to be done before we could trust they would keep the cattle in. Needless to say we were extremely busy from February to the end of the season in June.

In order to begin thinking about how we were going to manage the landscape, we began by using elements of the holistic land planning process as developed in the Holistic Management Handbook. The process helped us think about our future landscape and imagine how it would look if it was fully ecologically healthy and functioning. From there we are able to make better choices about how to manage, and where to place infrastructure to help meet our land management goals.

What became apparent quickly in the process is that water was going to be the limiting factor for herd size and density. We had great volume of water on the properties located in ponds; however, the distribution of that water across the landscape was limited. We had some springs scattered across the landscape and creeks that ran winter/spring, but it was difficult to ascertain how the supply would flow over the year. This meant that for this 2015 grazing season it would be very difficult to put the cattle in tighter paddocks because they would not have access to water if we did so. Additionally, while we had a great deal of grass on Hilltop we weren’t sure if we were going to have the water supplies to match it so we decided to bring less cattle this season to be on the safe side. Slow and easy is a good way to learn a new property and we knew that we would learn a great deal this year about how we would want to set up infrastructure for next year, but just getting started.

One of the first steps we took after planning was to establish a few baseline monitoring points. We ended up establishing 3 points on Mitsui, 2 on Pangea and 7+ on Walsh. These points were developed using the Rapid Assessment/Releve plant monitoring protocol from the California Native Plant Society (http://www.cnps.org/cnps/vegetation/pdf/protocol-combined-2014.pdf). We additionally sampled 3 separate soil locations to get a baseline of the soil conditions before we took over management. Making sure we know where we are at in regards to species composition, thatch depth, biodiversity and soil health is essential to our management practice. We do not assume we will always be correct in our treatment protocols regarding grazing. It is essential to know where we start and where we are headed so that if we vere off course we are able to correct our approach as we move forward. Our partnership with Jim Coleman from OAEC as an independent biologist who conducts our vegetation monitoring allows us to be able to better adapt and respond to our approach as we move forward with our mission of unleashing the value of savanna landscapes by mimicking evolutionary processes.

As we have done in the past, we planned on getting the density we wanted with the cattle using a completely temporary fence set up. We knew that this would be more of a challenge on 1000 acres then it had been in the past on a smaller scale, but it would give us flexibility and the chance to learn the landscape before making anything more permanent. We ended up deciding to use ATV’s this season to set up and break down the gear as the greater number of acres made doing it all on a foot a very time consuming prospect. One of our team members Jeremiah Stent built out a system that allowed us to carry a great deal of materials and roll out fencing directly from the ATV which proved to be key as the season wore on.

We began the grazing season by securing a contract with an organic dairyman in Sonoma County to stock the property. We began on March 20th, 2015 recieving 148 head weighing in at 91,884 pounds on the Mitsui property. For planning purposes we called them about 92 animal units (92 1000# equivalents)

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We received the cattle in 3 deliveries of 5 truck and trailer caravans. One of the wonderful new benefits to the mitsui property are their large corral systems which we spent a good time customizing using the Bud Williams designs to facilitate good animal movement.

The Mitsui property consists of 5 main paddocks as seen in figure 1 (High Knolls, Calf, Middle, 85 acre, Horse). The corrals are in paddock named calf pasture. Calf pasture has a spring and functioning trough system and is about 13 acres in size with great perimeter fences. It is an ideal electric fence training pasture and we set it up as such. The cattle stayed in Calf pasture for about 2 days before we put them into middle pasture for 10 days on our way to 85 acre pasture seen in figure 1. On our way through middle pasture we grazed a controlled burn/grass planting treatment experiment that Mistui’s head biologist Jeff Wilcox was managing. Following that grazing treatment we headed toward 85 acre grazing along the way.

Figure 1. A map of the the three contiguous properties on Hilltop: Mitsui, Pangea, Walsh and their larger paddock area break downs. 

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It should be noted that in this report we reference grazing in various paddocks for certain lengths of time. It should be noted that when we refer to these areas, we are only referring to a small portion of them. We subdivide the larger interior paddocks into much smaller areas with temporary electric fencing. We do not in this report go into detail of the specific location of temporary fencing as that can be found in our grazing reports and management location pages on the Sonoma Mountain Institute Website:

(http://sonomamountaininstitute.org/management-location/).   

We decided to go to 85 acre pasture early on in the season for a few reasons. The first is that it looked as though cattle were not in 85 acre during the 2014 growing season so it had A LOT of residual dry matter to get through. We wanted to get to it early on when there was still very palatable green forage coming through the dry material. In addition, we wanted to get through Pangea and Walsh properties earlier on in the season as well and the 85 acre pasture sits alongside Pangea and we knew it would be a smooth transition from one property to the next.

The cattle spent 17 days in 85 acre pasture. Out of all the pastures at Mitsui we were able to get some of the best density we achieved on hilltop that season in large part due to the logistical support of the Grey Family who own Pangea. They let us place a siphon in their pond which fed down to 85 acre and allowed us to get better water distribution throughout the paddock. We felt great about the density and impact we got in 85 acre.

Below: Photo of residual at 85 acre we needed to get through. 

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Photo Below: An area in 85 acre with a large amount of star thistle thatch after grazing

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On April 15th we moved the cattle from the Mitsui Property in 85 acre through gate at the top of the pasture to the Pangea Property. The Pangea Property has amazing views, beautiful woodlands, and a gorgeous set of grapevines. It hadn’t been grazed in a very very long time  and as a result the forage quality and quantity of the plants present in the open spaces on Pangea was very low. We estimated that it was ¼ of what we would be able to get off of Mitsui. We were worried about the ability of the cattle to get appropriate nutrition if they were at a tighter density on the property. So in order for us to make sure the cattle were getting the nutrition they needed we gave them more physical space than if the quality and quantity was higher. More space means less density and less trampling.

Photo Below: Cattle grazing at Pangea above the pond.

 

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Photo Below: Cattle entering into Pangea 1, from 85 acre at Mistui.

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One of the big winners of the drought this season across Sonoma County seemed to be thistle of all types. By the time we made it to the Pangea property a great deal of thistle was already moving into reproductive phase. If the forage value was higher we would have been able to achieve higher density, more impact, and possibly get a larger mechanical trampling effect on the thistle by the cattle. However, even if the cattle were at a higher density, thistle in April wants to stand tall to spread seed, and the physical structures in the plant, (lignin) make it tall and hard to knock over, so it is not the best time to trample it onto the ground. Later in the season after it releases its seed, it becomes more amenable to being trampled in say July/August so the timing of the impact wasn’t ideal.

Photo Below: Cattle in North West corner of Pangea 1, grazing in a paddock that seemed to be 90% italian thistle.  

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Photo Below: A photo standing in the same spot as above, but looking straight down. A lot of Italian thistle!

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For us to get the type of density we would need to knock more of the thistle over we would have to have been moving the cattle in tiny paddocks maybe 10 times a day, as the forage quality and quantity was so low we couldn’t keep them at tight densities without moving them very often. That being said we had them at tighter densities on Pangea then most managers would have had them. Our thoughts were that it made more sense to get some impact in year 1, let the forage improve in year two, and slowly be able to do more with density on the property. We try and let nature do the work as much as possible, or else the scope of work involved in getting that density can be very cost prohibitive.

All that being said on a very positive note we ended up getting twice as much forage off the property then we expected in the planning phase. The cattle did a great job of making due with what was there. Our stay at Pangea was made a great deal easier by the support and assistance of their onsite caretaker Peter Perez who was always quick to help with technical support, tools, on site knowledge, and advice.

We spent a total of 10 days at Pangea and then headed for the Walsh Property which borders the Pangea Property. We moved the Cattle from Pangea to Walsh on April 24th. By April 24th a number of things were happening on Walsh worth mentioning. Three of the ponds located on the property we intended to use for water for the cattle had dried up. Also, by April 24th Italian thistle which seemed to be the dominate species on the Walsh landscape seemed to be in full bloom and in the reproductive phase creating vast oceans of unbroken chest high aggressive vegetation that we had to pull temporary fences through.

Photo Below: A picture from the ATV on Walsh as we attempt to pull temporary electric fence through the chest high thistle.

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Once again the team at Pangea came in with support by letting us use their water supply to give the cattle water over the fence at Walsh in strategic locations where it made sense. They also let us keep our infrastructure trailer and materials on their property to stage our daily work routine for a total of 3 weeks which proved to be very helpful.

Overall on Walsh, we really only had four watering points to work with on the 280 acres which meant that it was hard to get the density we wanted as time moved along. That aside, we were still able to get above average density across the property giving the cattle a new paddock on average every three days. We were able to get a water point in Walsh paddock 1 (W1) seen in figure 1 from using the water system at Pangea. After grazing  W1, we moved to Walsh 2 (W2), and were able to water a significant portion of the W2 from the larger north pond.

Just before we got the dairy herd to Walsh we ended up making another large management decision in bringing a second herd to Hilltop. While the above was happening we were also managing herds at Glen Ellen and Moon ranch in Petaluma. We overestimated the amount of forage we had at Glen Ellen and after a week or so of having cattle at that property we started to realize that after the first full rotation we may need to get the cattle off the landscape. We performed a recalibration forage use calculation about a week or two into delivery that allows us to determine how close to our original estimates of grass we were in the planning phase. Performing this calculation showed us that we would be coming around for the second rotation maybe just a few days too early at Glen Ellen.

Simultaneously at Hilltop we were beginning to realize after performing a recalibration forage use calculation that we were going to have more grass than we needed for the season. After conferring with the beef cattle owners whose cattle were at Glen Ellen we determined to move the beef cattle to Mitsui. The beef cattle arrived at Mitsui on April 19th and spent their first few days in Calf Pasture. On April 22nd they moved on to Middle Pasture where we let them cream so of the best forage we had since the goal with these particular animals was to put on the pounds and gain body condition. We knew that we would be able to come back and get the impact we wanted with the dairy cattle. The dairy cattle where better cattle for management then the beef as the dairy cattle ate a much wider selection of forage and seemed to be always eating. The beef cattle almost had to be invited to dinner with the best of the best as they were heavy finishing weight animals who wouldn’t eat if it wasn’t tasty.

Photo below: Keeping the beef cattle on a high plane of nutrition

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Our goal with the beef cattle was to keep them on a high plane of nutrition and to add a few more mouths and hooves impacting the landscape to keep the forage under control. We only had 30 head in the beef herd that weighed on average about 800 pounds. The beef cattle moved out of a selection of Middle pasture into a part of High Knolls on May 6 where we had them grazing off of Bonnie’s pond on stands of mature annual ryegrass. The beef cattle stayed there for a little over a week and around May 15th we moved them to the southern corner of High Knolls to water off of leaky lake. We began with smaller paddocks around leaky for the beef cattle but as time wore on we ended up back grazing them over larger paddocks back to the water. By the time the beef cattle shipped out of Mitsui on June 12th they hadn’t put a dent in the forage in High Knolls. They topped most of the annual rye grass, which by this point in the season was very lignified. By middle May and early June the grass had become so lignified that it became less digestible and the cattle started slowing down as they moved through it. The same acre of grass can take twice as long to cover in June then it does in February when the grass is younger and is more digestible.

Photo Below: Walking the Beef Cattle to the shipping corrals on June 11th at Mitsui

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Overall we were glad to have more mouths and hooves on hilltop this season so the beef cattle were a welcome addition. Every little bit helps. However, the beef cattle didn’t gain as well as we were hoping and we have a variety of hypothesis about why that is. We are taking those hypothesis into the following planning for the winter 2015/spring 2016 grazing season.

Returning back to our Dairy herd on the Walsh property, they were eating a hugely wide variety of mature plants that ranged from: oats, to brambles, to thistle, to brome, and to clovers. The Dairy herd moved from W2 into W3 where they watered from a water point we installed near the old homestead. At this point in the year the flow from the spring which supplied the water to the holding tank was at around a gallon a minute or 1440 gallons per day. The herd demand for water at this point was from 1000 to 2000 gallons a day so we had to be careful to watch the supply. As it turned out we were just about running close to the edge of empty when the cattle left from Walsh on about June 8th. We left probably a week or two worth of grass behind in W3 as we didn’t want to run out of water and we also wanted to get the main herd back to Mitsui to get through a great deal of the standing dry material.

Photo Below: Cattle eating yellow star thistle and loving it on Walsh

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The Middle Pasture had not been grazed during late in the growing season in 2014 so the standing residual from the previous season was substantial. We chose to move from W3 to Middle Pasture as they were adjacent and the grass in Middle Pasture needed impacted before the rains were expected to come during the Winter of 2015. The managing biologist at Mitsui Jeff Wilcox had just installed a water storage system at Middle pasture a few days before we moved the cattle there which was very timely. Jeff was instrumental during the entire season to making this endeavour work with his assitance varying from: onsite advice of the landscape, helping move the cattle, getting eyes on problems, providing support with tools, and with resources Jeff made the whole undertaking possible.  

Photo Below: Cattle grazing along Copeland Creek in Middle Pasture

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The Dairy Cattle spent the rest of their time on Hilltop in Middle Pasture cleaning up most of the upland areas and also grazing along the flats that border Copeland Creek. Copeland Creek just started drying up about the day we shipped so the timing was accidentally impeccable.

The Dairy cattle shipped out and back home June 24th. We spent time refining the setup of the corrals a little bit and configured an alley for the cattle to be loaded though the silders of the cattle trailers. It all worked out well and the cattle went home, happy as could be, calm and in good condition. The cattle owners commented that it was a good arrangement for them to be able to let us take their cattle as it gave their pastures time to rest and recover during the season. The cattle looked great in terms of body condition on their way out and we were very happy with the results.

Photo Below: Reconfigured Corrals with an Alley to load the cattle better

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Looking back on this season grazing Hilltop we learned a great deal. One of the most important things we began learning was the landscape itself. The topography, vegetation, forage quality and quantity, roads, logical fencing breaks, animal corridors, weather patterns, and water resource capabilities and locations. We gained knowledge of who our partners were on Hilltop and their commitments to supporting a vision of a healthier and thriving landscape.

We learned we were correct to not bring too many animals because the water resources were at their limit towards the end of the season. If we had more cattle we would not have been able to get any density at all, and would have had to essentially open the gates during May and give the cattle huge areas. We discovered that the dairy animals are excellent managers and have a broad pallet and aren’t fussy about their forage. As long as they have enough forage they do well. We reaffirmed that one herd is most definitely better than three and whatever we can do to make sure that we have as few herds as possible is key. The travel time between properties and between herds was a killer this year.

We also decided that having some semi-permanent infrastructural fencing elements are essential to scaling. Specifically, having an energizer that is powered on a main power line rather than a deep cycle battery is key. Developing a skeleton system of high tensile powered by 110 volt power, from which we can pull off temporary fence will be key as we add more acreage under management in the future. The amount of time spent charging and changing batteries can be very time consuming and creates possibilities for all sorts of fencing failures.

I think most of all we learned that just getting inertia is key. Tripling your land base in one season can be intimidating and it can be tempting to want to plan everything to a T, and have all your I’s dotted before you get going. However, learning a new piece of land takes time. While it is essential to perform a detailed site analysis before you begin, it takes time to let the land reveal it’s patterns and ecology to you. We were excited to begin that process this last year and look forward to take the information we learned and put it into play as we move forward in the grazing seasons to come.

 

Grazing Reports for Glen Ellen and Petaluma Properties 2015

Glen Ellen Property Grazing Report 2015:

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In 2015 we continued to bring the impacts of large animals to the vegetation at the Glen Ellen Property. However, because we were growing our property base and our number of enterprises we had dramatically, we did not achieve the sort of vegetation management results we had achieved in past years. Because we were taking on grass-fat beef cattle and because we were busy bringing on other properties we did not have as much time as we have in the past to manage this property. We expect to see this drop in management quality in the vegetation monitoring results next year, if we aren’t already seeing them this year.

Overview

In order to diversify and experiment with our enterprises we felt like it was important to bring on a grassfed beef finishing herd this year. In previous years we have had younger beef cattle, but in order to get a premium price for grassfed beef we would have to be able to hold on to older cattle. We received these cattle from panorama and they were very wild. They spent the first week running from any and everything and this probably damaged wet ground early in the season. There is some correlation with increased thistle populations and these heavily pugged areas. These cattle strained our infrastructure. We didn’t have any major wrecks but there was a lot of luck involved with that. Because the cattle were so heavy and were used to having a premium diet, we had to move them much faster than we would have if vegetation management was our only goal. As a result we ended the rotation without being able to effect the grass very much. We were certainly unable to have much impact on the weeds and brush. In addition we ended up going through the forage faster than we otherwise would have. This made it necessary to move these cattle to the hilltop properties, where they should have been all along.

Preparing the hilltop properties for cattle was a time consuming business and it prevented us from dedicating as much time to the Glen Ellen property as we have in the past. Throughout the whole season we had three herds and we had to split our attention between all the different properties which prevented us from taking as much time as we usually do on the properties. This was necessary in 2015 because we only closed the deal on the new properties when the grazing season had already started, so we found it necessary to graze all three properties at the same time. As a result, where we might have moved cattle three times per day in previous years, we only moved them once this year.

As a business it is important for us to grow to a sustainable level by the year 2018 and if those business goals are not attained than it doesn’t matter what sort of results we achieve on the land, they won’t be sustainable. But we need to figure out how to re-configure the situation so that we get better results in the future.

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Modifications

  1. Reduce the number of herds under management-The first and most important way for us to get these results is for us to consolidate herds, and as much as possible have one herd of animals. This will reduce our labor needs significantly, while still achieving the same herd size. This will always be a problem at Glen Ellen because of the size of the property, but we will work to figure out the best way to get as close as possible to this goal.
  2. Choose class of livestock carefully- Another lesson that we learned this year was that we need to choose our class of livestock carefully. The Glen Ellen property needs to be managed by a class of livestock that will be able to eat tall grass, brush and weeds. We had hoped that we could use it as an experimental property but we compromised our management quality to do that experiment.

With those two changes we could have achieved the sort of vegetation management that we had the years before. The bigger issue is that we are still not seeing the sort of vegetation changes on these sites that we had hoped for. We are still seeing the precursors of the vegetation changes we are hoping for ( thatch reductions, etc.) but we are not seeing wholesale conversion towards perennial grasses. Early positive changes in vegetation composition seem to have stalled out and we are not making new gains in monitoring results. This is going to take more work. We plan to analyze the data better in the coming months and have an in depth assessment of the factors influencing vegetation at Glen Ellen. Then we will have a comprehensive plan for adjusting management protocols to turn things around.

By staying honest with ourselves, looking at the results on the land and looking for ways to positively change our management we are going to achieve the best conditions possible on the Glen Ellen property.

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Petaluma Property Grazing Report 2015:

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As opposed to the Glen Ellen property, our vegetation management at the Petaluma property in 2015 seemed to be the best yet of the three years under ecologically based grazing management. We are starting to learn the ins and outs of this property.

Overview

We brought the cattle in about the same time we did in past years, just before the spring flush of grass really took off. We started by going over the open ground twice early in the season, before moving to the woodlands later in the spring. In this way we were able to stay ahead of the grass in the front portions of the property. By keeping the grass shorter, we were able to make our job easier by keeping the grass in a vegetative state, where it was more palatable to the cattle and easier to manage. By keeping the grass short we were also able see the beginnings of good recruitment of both native forbs and perennial grasses. This schedule also enabled us to achieve relatively good impact on the poison oak and coyote brush by getting cattle into the wooded areas when those species are most desirable, after the other vegetation had already started to dry up.

Using the dairy heifers this year has also been helpful in achieving our vegetation management targets. The dairy heifers seemed to be a positive development for us. They have been the best animals we’ve gone through so far for eating brush and weeds without being picky.

We continued our customary practice of leaving part of the property un-grazed, this year reserving the northwest corner of the property (west of the big pond and north of the front field that that we call paddock “F”). This area has historically had very little grass and heavy impact from gophers. It seems to have responded quite well to having a solid year without grazing.

Vegetation Management Results:

We are starting to see more positive vegetation changes at the Petaluma property than we are at Glen Ellen. We are not sure why this is exactly, whether it is due to a higher level of sampling on the Petaluma property or if it comes down to some fundamental differences in management on the property. We aim to figure out what these differences are and start addressing them.

We saw some important specific changes in vegetation over the year. We saw a significant increase, overall, in native perennial grass cover in the grazed monitoring plots at the Petaluma property. The random subset that we analyzed increased perennial native grass cover by 14%. This was compared to the un-grazed exclosures, which saw a 20% decrease in perennial grass cover.

The even more interesting result comes from the total species change on the plots. The number of plant species found on the grazed plots increased by 69% over the three years of management, whereas species increased 42% on un-grazed exclosures. Why there is a species increase even in the un-grazed exclosure is just another piece of information that we need to explain. It is very possible that the effects of the on-going drought are creating significant background conditions that we will only tease apart from the effects of management after the return to normal levels of precipitation.

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Modifications:

  1. The main things we would change going forward would be to bring in more of the people involved with the property early in the season so that we can make sure that we communicate operations at the Petaluma property to all relevant parties and to make sure that we are meeting everyone’s needs regarding management at the Petaluma property.
  2. There were a few minor view sector changes that we would make involving getting fences and corrals moved in a timely manor, and changing the placing of some of that infrastructure. We will also change the timing and priority of our grazing to maintain a visual harmony. For the most part we feel that management at the Petaluma property adhered to our grazing principals.

Next year we hope to continue with the things we have learned at the Petaluma property and see similar positive changes in vegetation on the other properties under our management.

 

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Managing Three New Properties!

We are excited to announce that our grazing management for 2015 has expanded to three additional properties, which is a total of 1,037 acres, all located on Sonoma Mountain in Petaluma! Our Grassland Managers enjoyed working with the three property owners/managers to ensure that everyone’s vision of having cattle graze on their property were in alignment. This first year on the properties was about learning the landscapes, their ecology, water resources and topography so that we can figure out how to best manage them moving forward.  Below is a little bit of information about each of the new properties we are now managing with a word or two from their managers. If you are interested in following the grazing results any further, please know that the monitoring data for this year will be available to you soon. The results can be found under the management locations tab on our home page.

The Mitsui Ranch is the largest piece of property we have recently added to our management portfolio. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation whose board members, Chuck Mitsui and Robert Edmiston, have been a delight to work with. The ranch is managed by talented biologist Jeff Wilcox who oversees the monitoring, and restoration efforts on the property with a focus on birds, plants, and amphibians.  Jeff has been very helpful all season with logistics in a variety of settings. The property is 632 acres of beautiful landscape that includes: three  ponds, wooded areas, mostly gentle rolling topography, and a good amount of quality grass that has had a decent amount of rest over the last year.  Jeff had this to say about the project: “The SMI folks use cattle in a way that mimics the selective pressures under which grasses evolved; large numbers of cattle graze a small area, but for a short time. This way, many mouths compete for the same plants, causing cattle to be less selective. Also, cattle are moved before they get a chance to take too many bites of one plant, preventing overgrazing. This method restores grasslands, builds soils, soil nutrients, and increases the water holding capacity of soils. Better soils grow better grass, and the cycle gets stronger. Perhaps most important, is the quality of the people at SMI. The grassland managers are easy to work with, have collective experience and talent beyond their years, and they work very hard…with grace. Their ability to adapt to the changing landscape through the season and move the cattle for forage quality reasons or water supply reasons is impressive.”

Mitsui Property

Mitsui Property

 

The Pangea Property covers 128 acres and is owned by James and Sophie Gray, who have been fantastic people to work with. The Grays have made this season much more logistically possible for us as they have supported us by providing water for grazing at both the Mitsui and Walsh properties, in addition to their own Pangea property. The landscape has beautiful views of Sonoma Valley and has a lot of potential for increased biodiversity. Their caretaker, Pete Perez, was also extremely helpful logistically while we were grazing on Pangea, and on the Walsh property next door.

Pangea Property

Pangea Property

 

The Walsh Property is a total of 280 acres, owned by the County of Sonoma, and is managed by Bert Whitaker through the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department. Walsh has not been grazed in 15 years and the dominant species found on the property are invasives and thistles.  However, the cattle are eating a good amount of the thistle and we are excited to see what biological changes will come next year from this year’s grazing. We hope, in the non-grazing season this year, to better develop the water resources on Walsh. The water distribution system there was limited, thereby making it more difficult to get the density and impact we would like. When we asked Bert about his experience in working with us at SMI his response was: “We are so pleased this innovative partnership has developed with Sonoma Mountain Institute inspiring property managers near the summit of Sonoma Mountain to cooperate and work towards developing a sustainable organic cattle operation that balances the needs of ranchers while achieving critical grassland restoration.”

Walsh Property

Walsh Property

 

In addition to implementing regenerative grazing methodologies on the three properties, our team at SMI helped all three of these properties get certified Organic through CCOF, and registered through the CDFA.  Also new for SMI was that our grazing management service was also certified organic through CCOF! These certifications are imperative in meeting the needs of the Certified Organic cattle we use from various local ranchers.

Petaluma’s Grazing Report 2014

The cattle stepped off the truck on April 7th a week later than we planned in our grazing plan. We actually tried to get the cattle in as early as March 22nd in Petaluma as the grass was ready to go however the rains kept coinciding with our shipping days again and again and we ended up having to push things back a few weeks to let our land dry out a bit. However, we were happy to get cattle this year at all with the drought so we were chomping at the bit at 5:30AM on the Morning of April 7th ready to receive them.

One of our objectives for the year was to obtain daily weight gain data so that we had a better handle on what type of weight we are capable of putting on the cattle at different times of the year. This will help us structure better agreements in the future with cattle owners and help us decided what sector of the cattle business to be in. When we received the cattle on april 7th we tried to weigh most of the animals we received before sending them out into their new paddocks.

(Photo Below: Some of the cattle in corrals waiting to be weighed on their way out to pasture)

 The portable corrals we have are amazing in their quality, customization capacity and versatility. However, while the corrals contain an alley they were not specifically designed to be used with a scale so we had to experiment with the configuration of the corrals and the placing of the scale to figure out the most effective arrangement. It took some time, but as always when you work the cattle calm with proper stockmanship they are pretty forgiving of your mistakes.

 

(Photo Below: Getting ready to weigh in the animals with our new field scale system.)

 While the weighing went pretty well, it became apparent within a few hours that these cattle were not as trained to single strand electric fence as we were accustomed. By about 3:30 in the afternoon we had put back into the paddocks a large number of escapees. We decided by the end of the day we should set up a two wire training fence or when we arrived back in the morning who knows where the cattle would be. As it turned out the two wire fence did the trick and the cattle seemed pretty well trained after interacting with that set up.

Within a few days of the cattle’s arrival most of the grass on the property was still vegetative and had not gone to seed. We began working our way from the initial receiving location in unit 2, north towards unit F. Our priority target areas for the growing season graze event were the common viewsheds on the property. We had to triage some of our desired target locations and acreages, because due to the musical chair nature of the rain pushing our receiving dates we ended up getting 20 less animal units then we planned on as our suppliers had constraints of their end regarding where to put cattle. Over 50 or so days 20 less animal units can add up to 40 to 50 less acres grazed than planned. However, that is life in a living ever changing system.

Around April 12th we ended up moving the cattle from Unit 2 to Unit 3 along the main driveway. We moved them across wonderful quality grass, and uphill which was a challenge. It went well, but it just took a lot more walking and a lot more time then it would have if it were downhill over poor quality feed.

 

(Photo Below: The beginning of the move, the real work started off in the distance)

 While grazing in unit 3 the cattle were let into a paddock which had a about a 900 square foot patch of solid fiddleneck. We were interested in what they were going to do with it. When we came back the next morning they had trampled most if it into the ground and ate the rest. (See photo to the left). It was really great to see them standing on flat vegetative material that was almost chest high the day before. I can’t wait to see how the composition in that area changes next year. About april 15th we stopped short of the end of the road in unit 3 as it was waterlogged and moved over to adjacent area in unit F. The oats had really gone to seed as this point and where much more shaggy. It was that time of year when things start to feel like they are changing, the plants are going to seed and loosing protein. While much of the grass was still vegetative, you could just feel the reproductive phase coming onto the land with yellows in the grasses becoming more pronounced. This is why we wanted to get onto the ground sooner to take more advantage of the growing season.

 

(Photo above: Cattle grazing in Unit F)

 

By about April 24th we had tidied up unit/paddock F and where headed to unit 3. Unit 3 had some beautiful quality grass in it and had a location where we could weigh the cattle to see how we were gaining. It turned out that the cattle were gaining 3.7 pounds a day in April. Pretty amazing gains given we were shooting for 2 pounds per day. Also about the time we began weighing I got a new cattle dog named Elle. I bought her as a started stock dog at 11 months old. She is a hangin tree breed. Check out the breed at: http://hangintreecowdog.net/. She was trained at auction yard and got a ton of experience in a short amount of time while at the yard. We started her in late April and she picked up on our operation really quick.

(Above: Property Map with Units and paddocks)

 

(Below: Elle our new stock dog relaxing after some hard work on a hot day)

We Left unit 3 on May 4th headed for the north west section of unit 4 which is a primary viewshed on the property. About this time much of the grass began browning out. While there was green still left in the grass it was plain to see the growing season was coming to an end. By this time Elle and the cattle really started getting along well and she was doing an awesome job. She helped me get the cattle over a hill through the woods without help, which in that type of situation wouldn’t be possible for me alone. On May 10th Elle and I pushed the cattle over to Paddock/Unit M which is mostly wooded.

The cattle seemed to be enjoying the grass, forbes and poison oak that was living under the tree canopy.  The grass under the tree canopy seemed to be holding on to it’s quality and protien longer than other areas on the ranch without tree cover. On May 20th the cattle moved back into Unit 4 to begin their grazing journey back to the corrals in Unit 2 where we received them earlier in the season. The area the cattle were grazing in Unit 4 was forested and hadn’t seen hooves the previous season so it looked to really need it. There was quite a bit of locked up material that hadn’t been cycled into the soil in a long time. The forested areas had quite a bit of poison oak in them as well.

On May 26th, we weighed the cattle again to see how their gains were in May. We had an average of 3 pounds per day of gain which we were really surprised with. The primary forage the cattle had been eating in the past few weeks, about 70% of their diet, was mature oat grass. Not the best quality forage, but apparently the mix with other forages was enough to really keep them gaining. On May 27th, we shipped the cattle out to close out the growing season graze rotation. All in all, I would consider it a success. While we would have liked to have more pounds on the ground we got the densities, impact and recovery we were looking for on a large part of the property. The grass we didn’t get to would be great for the non-growing season rotation and the cattle we had lined up for June. We received great data on weight gain and made strides with using dogs more effectively in our operation. We appreciated the opportunity we had to work with the suppliers of the cattle Markegard grass fed and were grateful that we once again were able to effect the land in positive ways. Nothing is more fun then restoring the relationships between large animals, the grasslands and the predators or shepherds that keep them moving.

 

(Below: Cattle on May 26th waiting to be picked up the next day)

 

SMI IS Certified Organic!

CCOF Sign

We at SMI have been very busy in the last couple of months working on becoming certified organic through the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization.  We are proud to announce that we just became certified on 373.2 acres of grasslands at our Petaluma site and 84.35 acres of grasslands at our Glen Ellen site.  We are excited to be organic  suppliers of grass for certified organic cattle to graze upon as often as our shepherds feel necessary.  We have a variety of ranchers who have certified organic cattle that now have a place for them to graze.  While we of course are always looking to improve the aesthetic and the environmental aspects of the land in which we manage.

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