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.

New Native Grass Plugs Planted

We have been busy at the Ranch the last couple of weeks.  We recently planted  2,400 one sided blue grass, 2,400  purple needle grass, 2,400  california melic, and a 1,000 idaho fescue native grass plugs. The planting continues next week as we will be sowing 9,600 danthonia native grass plugs next week.
 planting 2014

Come Join Us At A CNGA Workshop!

The Sonoma Mountain Institute Staff is looking forward to many of the workshops that the California Native Grassland Association is about to offer.  We welcome you to join us in supporting this association that brings education and awareness to the importance of restoring and preserving California’s native grasslands.  Please click on the following link for more detailed information on the workshops available in 2014.

California Native Grassland Association- workshops

2014 Here We Come!

As the trailer doors shut, and the truck heads off the property with the last of the cattle, a certain amount of relief sets in for us. Another grazing year closes without incident, much is learned and positive changes have happened along our landscapes. We let go of the focus we have had on obtaining proper densities of cattle and stimulating animal impact. We let go of trying to achieve the optimal graze and recovery periods while maintaining the health of the cattle. We sink in and appreciate the opportunity we have had to steward the land and begin to turn our focus for the months ahead….with no cattle.

 

We have chosen to bring other ranchers cattle onto our properties for limited periods for several reasons. One of the most important is that it much more closely resembles the way nature did it for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. In the not too distant past herbivores grazed a location for short periods of time at high densities with intense impact and then did not return for months or years at a time. Herbivores followed the vibrant and healthy grass, moving on to greener pastures and left the areas they just grazed to rest and recover. The wolves, and American cheetahs and sabertooths kept the herbivores moving and the landscapes healthy.

 

Most ranches are built on a continuous system that has cattle on a piece of ground all year round. While that wouldn’t have typically been the case in evolutionary history, a competent grassland manager can manage cattle on the same piece of ground year all round in a sustainable or even regenerative fashion. However, for us,  we find it easier and more effective for our landscape if we bring a higher number of cattle in seasonally and then send the animals off when we have achieved our desired level of impact. We are also fortunate to not have production pressures that many ranchers have so we are able to be much more flexible with our management.

 

So the question that naturally follows after hearing that we only manage cattle seasonally is,  “what do these guys do when the last trailer leaves property and the last piece of fence is rolled up.” A few years ago I learned a pretty valuable lesson at the Ranching for Profit School (http://ranchmanagement.com/) about the difference between working in your business (WITB) and working on your business (WOTB). When Nate and I are moving cattle on the landscape, setting up and taking down fencing, troubleshooting water issues, and separating animals to be worked…typically we are working in our business/organization. When the trailer pulls away and the cattle leave we have the ability to start asking questions about how we are running the business/organization. At least when we aren’t thinning brush, fixing fence, planting plugs and harvesting grass seeds. We have the ability to ask should we even be using this type of fence? Who should we get cattle from next season? How should we monitor and why? How could we standardize the infrastructure process so we are not wasting time? What is the fastest way to set up fence through dense brush? What goals and objectives do we have for 2014?  All these questions are WOTB questions and it is how we spend a good deal of our time when the cattle leave for the season.

 

Ranch Management Consultants (RMC) who teach the Ranching for Profit course have a set of ten meetings that they recommend ranching businesses conduct when they leave the school (http://ranchmanagement.com/nl68.pdf).  These meetings range from conducting a grazing plan to having a mission statement and purpose to organizing your workspace to be effective. We have been trying to do at least one of these meetings per month and they have been very helpful. In addition to the meetings there is a bunch of pre and post meeting work to do surrounding the meetings that requires a fair amount of time. Our grazing chart is one of those products which you can see below, but it will need to be revised due to the drought.

 

One of the things that was clear to Nate and I this grazing season was that if we ever want to expand we need to standardize and document a good deal of what we do. One of the areas we wanted to standardize and document were how we go about collecting, storing and presenting our monitoring data. SMI has historically conducted a fair amount of monitoring activities. We did some work around getting clearer on what the goals of our monitoring program were and the types of data we wanted to collect. This required a fair amount of work and we eventually came to a rough beta operations protocol for the monitoring data that will help to simplify all the work that needs to be done regarding our monitoring program.

 

Another large area that we needed to standardize and document surrounded our infrastructure materials and how we used and interacted with them. In order to do this Nate and I conducted time trials under a variety of conditions in order to clarify what methods and tools we were using that worked best. We were also interested in developing better tools and methods which we thought would be easier when we could work with infrastructure without having to worry about caring for cattle. You can see a more detailed summary of those time trials linked here: Infrastructure Time Trial Summary

 

There are quite a few more items that we have done since the cattle left the property (such as Nate continuing to crack away at his writing project), but those were some of the bigger items we have gotten through. Now we are turning our heads to look into the coming grazing season and what we see are the dominant impacts of drought. 2013 was the driest year on record for California (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/31/2013-dry-california_n_4525573.html). Which means that nobody alive really understands what the grass growth for this upcoming year is going to look like.

 

One of the frustrating things for us as grass managers in California is that it takes a full year too really see the impacts from your management. It is a pretty delayed feedback cycle due to the Mediterranean climate patterns we have here of six months of a rainy season, followed by a six-month dry season. This rain pattern creates a short growing season followed by a long dormant season, which slows down biological activity and how fast organic matter can be cycled through and improve the system. It is not something you can speed up in any way, which slows down how fast you can learn and obtain meaningful data. In climates with a more evenly distributed rainfall pattern you can see results and impacts quicker then in California.

 

The drought we are currently experiencing could push that feedback timeline out a whole other year making us wait to see the impacts from the grass management in 2013 out two years to 2015. In truth though, not being able to see the total results of our management pale in comparison to what is happening to many ranchers out there on the landscape. A lot of people who make their living off grass are going to loose animals, money and possibly their land if they are not able to pay bills through the grass that rain brings, or doesn’t bring. There are some tough times ahead for the brave folks who participate in rangeland agriculture if we don’t get a decent amount of rain from January – May.

 

A general way to think about grass growth is that grass needs both moisture and temperature to grow. In California we typically get our moisture during the coldest part of the year, which isn’t the greatest. Therefore there are two times per year when we really get growth on the grass, October through early November, and then again in February through April. Typically the grass begins growing in October and then slows until February when it then takes off for it’s biggest flush of the season. This year we have almost no growth to start with from October, as the rains have been so sparse. If it does rain soon, we are not sure what the grass will look like, as we have no real head start from October rains. This means while we have a grazing plan here at SMI the drought is causing us to have to delay our plans as we see what really happens on the landscape and adjust accordingly.

 

Dealing with drought is a serious and constant part of management. You can be sure that if you make your living from grass that drought will impact your business at some point or another. The RMC folks have some very helpful drought planning tools that they use at their school. A synopsis of them can be found here: (http://ranchmanagement.com/nl65.pdf). For us at SMI we are continuing to work on different projects; fixing fences, building relationships, building tools for grazing, writing, building out monitoring info hosting websites, while we wait and look to the sky. If we don’t get enough rain then we will have to forgo grazing this year and look to support others who have land to manage and ranchers that could use our support. The Chinese character for crisis is a combination the characters for danger and opportunity. As adversity will always present itself I think it is important to view those circumstances as chances for growth and cultivating new and dynamic opportunities. So 2014 here we come!

A New Video Created by Cultural Conservancy

The Cultural Conservancy has completed a short film called, “Guardians of the Waters-Native Youth Explore Cultural and Ecological Health” in collaboration with Sonoma Mountain Institute and the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC). Aside from the cultural preservation that the Cultural Conservancy projects, much of the boat building and paddling processes occurred at OAEC pond as they worked on Tule projects from the Tule’s harvested at SMI’s lake. The video was produced by Mateo Hinojosa, Nicola Wagenberg and the youth.   The world premiere was held at the recent Indigenous Forum at Bioneers. Please see the link below to view their hard work and inspiring message.
Cultural Conservancy Video

2013 Annual Board Meeting

We had our annual board meeting at the ranch in Petaluma on October 15, 2013.  The board meeting reviewed all that was accomplished in 2013 and discussed future projects planned for 2014.  It is our hope to increase our tree and grass propagation, train new shepherds, expand our compost building capacity, and take over the insurance and the care of Godfrey Ranch. The annual budget was passed and all attendees were in agreement of the projects to come. Overall, all the board was happy with the progress made in 2013 and they, as well as, our great team of staff are excited for the upcoming projects in 2014.

 

Another Successful Tule Harvest at S.M.I.

In late August of 2013 another Tule Harvest happened at Sonoma Mountain Institute in Petaluma, CA.  This year’s harvest was a great collaborative effort made by Occidental Art and Ecology Center for their onsite management and assistance with tying up some of the bundles of tules, S.M.I. assisted with cutting, drying, and hauling our clean, healthy, and beautiful tule, as always The Cultural Conservancy team gifted the project their experience in the creation and design of a Tule boat, and lastly the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria and the Kalliopeia Foundation have provided their support of building Tule Boats for years. The Cultural Conservancy will also be debuting at Bioneers this year alongside the Tule Boats that will be on display. Sonoma Mountain Institute is grateful to take part in the continuing preservation of  indigenous cultural traditions.  IMG_7595 IMG_7615 IMG_7632 IMG_7633

Going Back in Time

We at Sonoma Mountain Institute have been searching for information on the history of this beautiful land in which care for here in Petaluma, CA.  Luckily, we found California’s Coastal Prairies website that takes us back in time to the Pre-History and History of Sonoma County.  The website begins about telling how grasses started to develop 80 million years ago and then leads to describe how California underwent climate and geology changes that diversified grassland environments. Summaries regarding the last 10,000 years and our current history, explain the evolution of megafuana grazing the land, the arrival of Europeans and Native Americans, and the historical timeline in which non-native grass and forb species have invaded the historic space in which native species primarily resided. Although we found additional websites that offered information about our historic location, we found that the California’s Coastal Prairies website did an efficient job of encompassing the longest time period and had the most detailed information within their historical timeline.  If you are interested in reading more about the Pre-History & History of Sonoma Counties Prairies feel free to click on the hyperlink above.

 

 

The Shepherd’s Summary of the Grazing at S.M.I.

Written by: Byron Palmer – S.M.I. Shepherd

The theme of this ecological treatment could be considered tranquility and ease. The importance of this first time event was to ensure that it went well for the cattle, the people and the land. It was important that all three of those participants felt good about the process and the results of the activity. I would say that through the efforts of the whole team at SMI we achieved just that.

An important element of the project going well was making sure that the majority of the rainy season had passed before we introduced the cattle to the property. We wanted to make sure we avoided unaesthetic mud pits around the property. As a result of that concern we introduced cattle onto the property April 1st which gave us 40 days or so of good grass. Due to the uneven distribution of rain in the 20012/13 rainy season with heavy rains in December and not much else following it seemed like SMI’s grass didn’t really get going until April 1st anyway. As I have not been here in previous years I can only guess at this, but I think that the uneven precipitation distribution had something to do with the late onset of rapid growth in the vegetative state of the annual and perennial grasses on the property. The uneven distribution may have also impacted the length of the growing season as well.

As was stated we introduced the cattle onto the property on April 1st. Nate Chisholm had gone down to the property the cattle had come from previous to this date to make sure the animals electric fence training was going well. Nate’s review was that the training was going to our satisfaction and when the animals arrived they seemed to have an understanding of the nature of an electric fence. Having the corrals to intake the animals into when they arrived at SMI and train them a bit more to the fence was key in having a peaceful transition into a completely temporary infrastructure system based off of a single strand of .7 mm poly-wire.

When we introduced the animals into management unit A, getting the animals used to regular handling and constant electric fence containment was our goal. As a result our paddocks were a little larger than they ended up being the majority of the grazing event here this season. Once we made it through management units A and part way into B we began working with the animals more to achieve higher densities.

There are many ways to achieve higher densities and I received a wonderful education from Nate this year on different ways to achieve that density. He began by explaining to me the variations within high density that happen in the natural world. I will not attempt to explain those here (not that I could), but it was an interesting contrast to many of the systems I have seen by people attempting to use solely infrastructure to achieve ultra high densities.

Some practitioners of planned grazing will spend 2-4 hours a day setting up and breaking down temporary fencing in order to move animals as many as ten times per day, achieving a relatively uniform impact, of at times 800,000 pounds of animals per acre. This is applying a linear system of a regular type of density to a given area, and seemed after further reflection, less natural then the types of density present in the natural world. What was interesting to me in Nate’s approach was that instead of taking 2 or 4 hours setting up and taking down a lot of fencing, he preferred spending that time using stockmanship to achieve those densities.

This has many benefits, including working the cattle to become more calm and responsive as well as developing our stockhandling skills. By walking the animals and placing them where we want them on the landscape we achieve the highest possible densities while also being able to target areas that might need it the most. We regularly set up our fencing so that they had enough grass in a given paddock for a day or so. We then both would come in once a day and work with them for a portion of time to achieve higher densities and impact high value target areas such as poison oak groves.

As we moved further into Management Unit B we stopped putting pink flagging on the poly-wire as they became used to the heard seeing the fencing. We also started working with the animals on a daily basis to achieve higher densities and impact areas that we wanted to target. Specifically, there were some grassland/woodland borders that had quite a bit of brush build up and we had a lot of fun marching the cattle back and forth through them to bust it up and open the transition area between the borders.

As we moved through the woodland I was interested to see what kind of forage availability we were going to get. After reviewing most of the heavily wooded management units it looks like the woodland areas produced on average 15 ADA’s (animal days per acre) or so. Better then what I expected. It will be interesting to see how they perform next year. In these wooded areas we still set up paddocks that had enough forage for a day or so, but it was much harder for me to estimate the forage needs in those areas compared with the grasslands. In some of the areas of Unit B we might have set up fencing that placed the cattle at a density where they needed to be moved 2-4 times per day. We ended up varying it up a bit through Management Units B & C, but a day’s worth of forage was usually the upper limit in size in these Units.

As we rounded the corner on the property and headed into Units D & E about May 1st or so the grass started really transitioning into the less nutritious reproductive phase of it’s life cycle. It was interesting to note that at this point in time and the later we got into May, the cattle’s behavior began changing. If they did not have vegetative grass available in a paddock for the day, they were much more vocal and their movements were much more agitated. They would often rather stand around and bawl then put there heads down and make something out of the mature grass. It started becoming more and more unpleasant to be around the cattle. It was at this point that Nate initiated the much needed discussion about balancing body condition and getting optimum impact on the ground.

What we came to was that in order to be in line with our goal of the whole operation going calmly and easily we needed to begin to move the cattle around on the property where there was still grass in a vegetative state. We needed to preserve body condition on the cattle to maintain a good relationship with the cattle owners. Nate has had plenty of experience attempting to force cattle to eat mature grass while sacrificing body condition and animal performance. Based on his experience we should avoid this situation at all costs. It never ends well. As a result of the changing life cycle of the grass, using stockmanship to trample down large amounts of grass that had gone into a reproductive phase became a focus of much of the time we spent with the animals. We would make sure that they had quality feed and they would impact those areas evenly. However any areas in proximity that were in reproductive phase that we wanted to impact we relied on walking them over those areas again and again.

We decided to start grazing insets of Management units F, G and I where grass was still in relatively good quality. In Management Unit M the woodland understory still had a good mix of nutritious grasses so less stockmanship was needed to achieve our desired impact. We eventually jumped back into new areas we hadn’t planned on grazing (Units N and O) as the grass was more nutritious and in a vegetative state which the cattle prefer. As we moved into unit N we got word that the cattle were going to be pulled off the property in the next few weeks. As a result we began moving the cattle through areas a bit faster hoping to get wider impact on the back of the property and trading off in some cases the more targeted and intense impact we were getting before. That being said we were still working with the animals daily, but the overall paddocks they were in day to day were bigger. At this point the velvet grass and harding grass in Unit D had recovered (30-33 day recovery) and were hoping to walk the cattle over to that area to graze and impact once more to see how it performed with two shearings. However we got word that all the cattle were needed back on their home property by June 10th.

Overall the data was encouraging. We averaged about 15 animal days per acre in the wooded areas and anywhere from 30-45 ADA’s on the grasslands during the vegetative stage of growth with the SMI grasses. It’s really difficult to estimate How many ADA’s we could get or were present on the taller reproductive phase annual grasses as we never truly pushed that type of diet on the cattle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was 60 + ADA’s there in some areas. The grasslands performed in terms of forage as to be expected in this region. It will be exciting to see how they adjust over time with this renewed regenerative grazing regime. I think next year if we get better rain distribution we will see much more forage then we saw this year and it will be easy to forget the relationship between this years ADA’s and the poor rainfall. However I will do my best to remember and not get too excited, attributing the possible increase in forage solely to our treatment.

It was sad to see the animals go Monday morning June 10th, but overall I’m pretty satisfied with the execution of the entire grazing treatment. Any time you try something new you will always be readjusting on the fly and recalibrating your desired outcome. I think that we met our goals of having happy cattle, people and land. The cattle gained on average 2 pounds a day which is pretty respectable considering how quickly the quality of the grass changed once the cattle got here. The land was impacted well and we got some good baseline activity to work off of over the coming years. A good deal of the understory of the wooded areas was impacted with P.O. being hit hard in certain areas. We have a better understanding of the seasonal pattern of grass maturity on the property which will help us inform a more effective grazing plan next time around. We also obtained some valuable data on the amount of ADA’s we can expect off different parts of the property at different times of the year. I think overall the cattle owners and the team at SMI were all happy and satisfied with the outcome of the experiment and we look forward to getting it going again just as soon as makes sense for us!

 

S.M.I. Grazing Summary:

Total Acreage: 209.1
Average Animal Units = 41
Total Days at SMI = 104
Animal Days based on average of 44 AU = 4270
Average ADA on part of property grazed = 20.4

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