Restoration

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


Fence Improvements at SMI

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At the very end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 we also qualified for a National Resource Conservation Service  (NRCS) grant for fencing improvements on the ranch in order to increase ecological outcomes. One of the very helpful lessons our grazing team has learned over the last 5 years is that good infrastructure is very important for executing ecological management plans. As we’ve expanded to managing eight ranches and 4500 acres, things that worked when we were simply managing 500 acres  into properties no longer scale well.  When you’re managing 800 plus cattle, using temporary fence or smaller corrals that aren’t designed well start to cause a lot of problems on the ground. We have found that using permanent electric high-tensile fence in combination with temporary fencing makes for stronger fencing, which allows us better control over the animals, and is less susceptible to continuously failing in bad weather.  We have spent the last number of years honing different materials on other properties and have taken that learning and brought it to Sonoma Mountain Institute with our new interior electric fence system. It has allowed for more streamlined and effective management for people and cattle.

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Healthy Soils Compost Spread


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We are very excited this year to have applied for and been approved to be part of a matching grant program from the state called the Healthy Soils Initiative (https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/healthysoils/). It is a program that was inspired by the research done by the Marin Carbon Project. The research showed that compost application on rangelands in combination with grazing can turn California rangelands into a net carbon sink.  Our project has us spreading about 800 yards of compost across 53 acres at Sonoma Mountain Institute each year for the next 3 years.  There are also several exclosure plots where compost was not spread and we have taken extensive soil samples from both the treatment and exclosure plots to compare the results of the  program. We are also excited that we are a demonstration site for the research and so over the next three years every year we will be doing a chore that talks about our results and lessons learned with the community. We hope that the treatments overall will improve the soil health at Sonoma Mountain Institute and if for some reason they do not we have the monitoring protocols in place to demonstrate that as well. Either way we will learn quite a bit.

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2018 Annual Reports for SMI’s Managed Properties

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Petaluma
This was our 6th year grazing on the Petaluma Ranch, managing 25 paddocks on over 390 acres. After securing an NRCS grant to install a permanent electric fence system throughout the ranch, we were able to install a state of the art electric fence system. This enabled us to have better and more consistent control over animal movements, which aids in making management more simple. This is very helpful as we had four herds this year and improving infrastructure is key to making sure we can manage well and smoothly.  Overall this year we had a total of about 170 dairy and beef cattle that were brought upon our property to graze. 50 of those beef cattle ended up supplying Whole Foods as organic, animal welfare certified, grass fed and finished beef. 

 The average animal days per acre was 26. Overall, we were happy with how this grazing season turned out and with all of the management decisions made. 

Glen Ellen Grazing
Since Glen Ellen was the first property we ever managed the grazing on, this was our 7th year having cattle graze upon the property.  We brought 29 dairy cattle to come over the 115 acres for four weeks in June and July. We chose to graze the property late as we knew that we wanted to make sure the tall thatch that grows in May and June was trampled. Additionally, since Nate Chisholm’s home burned down on the ranch we did not have onsite cattle care. So our plan was to have a fast and effective grazing event due to the smaller nature of the property and it’s limited infrastructure onsite. We were mildly concerned about the health of the cattle grazing such a quantity of  lignified feed that late in the season. So we worked with the cattle owner to provide them with a high protein supplement during their time at Glen Ellen. This worked very well as the animals ate and trampled the grass and also maintained great health during their stay.

Hardy Grazing
This was our third year managing the grazing on now 3 paddocks which cover the  200 acres of rough terrain.  About 80 Angus cattle and 50 Dairy Heifers were brought to graze on the property for two rotations. One rotation was for 10 days the other for about 25 days.  It’s useful for us to use this property as a secondary place to the Petaluma Ranch to place the cattle during high rain events. It’s also useful in case we run out of grass at the Petaluma Ranch and need to go somewhere for a second rotation. 

Cayetana Grazing
2018 was the third year for grazing on the 1500 acres of Cayetana.  Between December 12th and June 8th there were 284 Angus cattle to graze the 8 paddocks.  Historically, this property had been extremely overstocked with animals and the entire 1500 acres was run as one paddock. Having improved the paddock numbers to 8 has improved the management impact. We also secured an NRCS grant this season to further subdivide the ranch with a few more paddocks which we are carrying out this Fall. Overall, the cattle did well and had an average ADA of just over 23. Helped support 275 organic and animal welfare certified cattle to end up in Whole Foods market. Our vegetation monitoring program we run in partnership with Jim Coleman has shown encouraging results in terms of changes since we began management including:

  • A 54% average relative increase in the total number of plant species (biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 105% relative increase in the canopy coverage (space the take up) of native plant species (native biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 50% relative increase in the total number of new native plant species (native biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 75% relative increase in the canopy coverage of perennial species across 7 of the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 37.23% relative decrease in invasive species plant composition across the 8 plots we annually monitor.

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Hill Top Grazing 
This was our fifth grazing season having cattle graze the Mitsui, Walsh, and Pangea properties.  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 (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. 

With a total of 35 ADA, 175 Dairy heifers came and grazed over the three properties/ 23-27 paddocks for another successful year.  This year we worked with a organic dairy who supplies clover milk and his dairy supplied all the cattle for hilltop. We were able to stagger the cattle (deliver) onto the ranch starting in November and staggered off (de-stock) in July. Working with this local producer allows us flexibility to get onto and off of properties easier than with other remote producers. We considered 2018 a real success on the ranch as our partnership with SMRPF and Sonoma County Parks is very strong and we are getting better at managing each location effectively. 

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Taylor Mountain
Because of the work we have been able to do on Hilltop with the Walsh property and the success we were able to achieve in regards to vegetation Improvement, the park system offered us the lease at Taylor Mountain. Taylor mountain is in 1,100 acre ranch, that is open to the public. Historically, the ranch was run as one paddock, and sections of it were seriously overgrazed while others were left un-grazed.  We obtained the lease in 2017; however, it took us into 2018 to get the infrastructure sufficient for any sort of grazing. 35% of the perimeter fence was almost non-existent, and there were no interior fences at all.

We worked with the parks over the fall and early winter to repair and replace sections of perimeter fence as well as install permanent and temporary electric interior fence. It took us until about February to get the ranch serviceable to bring  cattle as well as to organically certify the property. We worked with the dairy producer who supplied us with cattle for Hilltop to provide the majority of the cattle. Additionally, we had some cattle that were purchased beef animals that made up the total cattle group of almost 80 head. The cattle started grazing in February and stayed until July. We only grazed the 65% of the ranch that we could actually get fenced this season. With the internal fences that we installed we were able to get much more grazing impact across parts of the ranch that were previously un-grazed. 

Initially, we were concerned about the interaction with the public, and problems that could arise. However, after a season of grazing at Taylor the public has actually been fantastic. The dairy cattle were very calm and enjoyed interacting with people. Parts of the property that were overgrazed finally got some rest and parts that were under grazed finally got some impact.  The parks have done a fair amount of vegetation monitoring on the property so we did not perform any baseline assessments; however, we look forward to seeing the parks observations as they move forward in their monitoring program. So far the feedback from the parks has been very positive and they have enjoyed having SMI as a restoration raising partner.  One other success is that we are actually considered a service provider with the parks and they pass a nominal fee in order to do so which, to our knowledge hasn’t been done with cattle before in Sonoma County. We are either the first or one of the very first organizations to be paid to provide a restoration grazing service. This is a huge success in our opinion, and we’re excited for what the future holds.  

Species Count
Each year that we have grazed on a piece of managed property we have compiled a list of all of the species found within our monitoring points.  It has been truly exciting to see through collected data the impact that grazing has had as the number of total species found on each property has only increased every year since we started managing grazing. 

Glen Ellen:                         Petaluma:                               Caytana:
2012: 57                           2013: 49                                 2016: 52
2013: 67                           2014: 82                                 2017: 66
2014: 72                           2015: 96                                 2018: 74
2015: 83                           2016: 119
2016: 94                           2017: 134
2017: 97                           2018: 146
2018: 100
Total Gain: 43                   Total Gain: 97                         Total Gain: 22

 

Pangea:                            Petaluma:                               Caytana:
2015: 21                          2015: 45                                2015: 42
2016: 28                          2016: 64                                2016: 58
2017: 32                          2017: 68                                2017: 62
2018: 34                          2018: 75                                2018:71
Total Gain: 13                  Total Gain: 30                         Total Gain: 29

 

 

2017 Godfrey Report

The days are cooling off, and the gentle fall sunlight are making it beautiful at Godfrey Ranch at this time of year. Last winter’s rainfall was over 100 inches! Which really helped the grasses to expand under the pines and oaks. Now the waist high stems are a wonderful golden color.

We had been experiencing the pine beetle outbreak pretty badly last year. It may be too soon to say, but it seems to have abated. I have only noticed a few single trees die this year. Last year there were three or four areas where we lost groups of 10 – 15 trees. Some of the best of these, I logged and milled into boards, but most of them will go to waste. The wood is only good for a few months after the tree dies, and there really is no market for it around here. This year I have noticed that several trees whose tops had died, have survived. They will grow a new top. This is how the trees usually respond to the pine beetle, instead of completely and rapidly dying, so it seems like a good sign to me. Hopefully, we will get another good wet winter, to help the forest recover. All in all, our land suffered very light damage, compared to other areas of the Sierras.

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I have enjoyed seeing all the birds that have benefitted from the food supplied in the dead trees. There have been hairy woodpeckers, chestnut nuthatches and mountain chickadees working away on the beetles. The sandhill cranes are migrating now, which is always a cheerful sound. The wild turkey population continues to grow. My goal is to continue to improve the habitat by thinning out trees and encouraging the grasses. There was a mother mountain lion (with at least one kit) that was prowling around for most of the summer. My dog Mattie and I had one startling face to face with her, walking along at the top of the property. Happily, she looked at us and ran off, and Mattie didn’t chase her.

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Last fall I did a lot of raking of forest litter into burn piles, with the skidsteer, in the more open stands. This seems to help the bunch grasses a lot. So I am continuing that this year. I also spent time cutting off the little cedars and pine trees that keep popping up in the areas we have cleared. This is just going to be an on-going job. Naturally, I guess low-intensity fires would do this, but allow the grass to re- grow the following year. That is what I am trying to replicate but raking, pile-burning and cutting.

I cleared the heavy old Manzanita along the SW property line. This was not masticated, when we cleared most of the brush in 2004, because it was on steep banks or up against the fence. It really looks nice now, improving the site-line. I was then able to re-build the fencing in that area. The fence was 35 years old, and all the wooden corners had rotted away. I plan on completing clearing the last brushy fence line along the Old Camptonville road, and re-building that section of fence this winter. This is good winter work, as I can burn the brush then, and the ground is soft enough to dig post-holes. I also thinned out the pine plantation (planted 1982 ) on that west side of the property. I will burn the slash this winter, now that it is all dried out. That plantation suffered badly from having competed with the Manzanita until we cut the brush in 2004. The soil is very thin on that site. I originally thought that the plantation would be a total failure, because the trees were so stunted. I only spent the time and money to clear the brush to reduce the fuel load. However, now that the trees have been thinned twice it is looking really great. There has been no beetle kill in that area. So that is very rewarding.

In the NorthWest corner I have continued to work on clearing the steep slopes below the power lines. This seems to be a critically exposed site, fire-wise, with the steep grade and the proximity of the power lines. Power lines have caused at least 5 fires around here, that I can think of, including the disastrous 1959 Mountain House fire (25,000 + acres ) that burned down Pike City. This area was too steep and dense with over-crowded hardwood to machine clear in 2004, plus we were running out of money. Since then I have been beating back the brush and berries and thinning the trees by hand. The results have been amazing. We now have a beautiful stand of oaks with a grassy under-story, and long-range views of the Yuba canyons and hills. I plan on continuing with this work this fall, when I hope to tie it in with the meadows below.

My invasive weed removal work also continued this past summer. I spent about half the time removing weeds this year, over last, which is good. Most of the property is now pretty much free of invasive weeds, though constant monitoring is essential to keep them from getting a foot-hold again. For instance, last year and the previous years, I spent about two weeks, hand-pulling star thistle. This year I spent one day.

Now the dense blackberry thickets that once covered half of the property, are virtually gone, replaced by meadows and wild-flowers. The fire hazard has been reduced, and the wild-life habitat is improved. Mechanical removal of live blackberries is ineffective, as it only encourages dense re-sprouting. Hand grubbing works pretty well on small spots, but these were huge bramble patches. Although I have deprived the bears of one of their favorite foods, and the rats of a happy hang-out, they can certainly find plenty of blackberries other places.

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Well, that pretty much sums up what I have been doing this year. I plan tree-thinning and pile- burning this winter. The mowing, brush-whacking and invasive plant mitigation are just the on-going maintenance that we will have to always due. But gradually I think that land is returning to a more natural state. The Godfrey Ranch was heavily modified by the human activities of the pioneers and miners, over one hundred years. I think we are making good progress in restoring it. I hope we can continue to do so – Dan

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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.

 

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