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2017 Annual Board Meeting

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The 2017 Board meeting was held at our Petaluma Property on November 6, 2017. The meeting introduced the 2017/2018 board members including new board member Jim Coleman. Brock Dolman, invited Mark Sindt to review the accomplishments from the properties that were under supervision in 2017. Mark reviewed how the wet winter we experienced this year affected the overall grazing plan and growth of grass. Mr. Sindt described what the plan for the 2018 grazing season is, where the cattle come from, as well as the number of animals we can expect to see SMI use on various properties in 2018.

Mark Sindt went over the budget. He mentioned the plans to clean up the brush and debris at the Sugar Bowl property in the upcoming year. Mark also discussed the arena beautification and Catchment projects that have recently been added to the list of projects for 2018. The catchment system is something that will take time to plan and install. The idea is that the catchment system will help relieve the wells on the property and maybe save Sonoma Mountain Institute some money. The Proposed budget and projects were approved for 2018. The board enjoyed a nice lunch and then headed our separate ways.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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