Glen Ellen Grazing Project Manager Notes

Overall, the first treatment of the SMI Glen Ellen grazing project went really well. The end ecological conditions achieved were very close to what I would view, at this point, as optimal. Our aesthetic senses are conditioned by evolution to appreciate the look of a healthy ecosystem, so when we work for ecological health we also get beauty. At this point, I think that we are well on our way toward obtaining beauty on the property since aesthetics are an important aspect. In addition to the positive ecological effects achieved on the land, the cattle also did very well while they were “working” on the property.

One of the largest aspects to achieving successful grassland restoration is understanding the limitations of the cattle that are on your property.  It is imperative to monitor the level of stress a herd of cattle can be under while on your property.  We at SMI believe that we achieved so much success within our first cattle grazing experience at the Glen Ellen property because the cattle were calm and had plenty of food and water.  When cattle don’t have the basic food and water requirements met, they try to reach under or over the fence, eventually resulting in cattle going through the electric fence, or by creating other infrastructure problems. In general the pacing, calling, and restlessness is not good for the cattle and is uncomfortable for people to be around. It is important to understand that when cattle are hungry and given new grass to feed on, they typically will move too quickly over the land which is; yet another, stress that could have a negative effect on their well being.

One way to obtain a less stressful lifestyle for the cattle is by moving them on the property often to keep them full. Although this is an easy enough step, it is one that is often not taken because land managers may believe that if the cattle are moved too quickly they won’t finish clearing the grasses within the desired area.  However, that theory results in an uneven look as well as unsatisfactory ecological results throughout the property.  The practice I found to work well was to go and gently bring them to a patch of grass that I wanted them to eat and suggest that they try it.  Before moving them to the next desired patch I would walk them around, using low stress handling techniques, until they had at least trampled down all the old dead grass and brush.  I would stand there with them for a few hours sometimes, suggesting that any restless cattle just return to the designated spot. Due to the fact that I brought them there in a low stress manner, they felt comfortable there and they would stay there even after I left. By doing this, I was able to achieve the ecological objectives without compromising on the well-being and performance of the livestock that we were in charge of.

Another important aspect of this project was the type of fencing infrastructure used.  Our goal was to minimize the visual imprint of the fence infrastructure necessitating the use of temporary fencing; however, temporary fencing can be less dependable.  Luckily, we were able to use a type of temporary fencing that did work well as there was practically never a single animal where it shouldn’t be. This is essential for good landscape management, for reducing stress on animals and people, and for reducing the liability risks for SMI. The fence energizer was also a critical aspect of our process. It was a very large energizer, larger than some people would say that we needed, but it ensured that the cattle respected the fence to the highest degree. The equipment worked very well for our purposes and was important for the success.

It’s important to give you a more in-depth description of what the area grazed has transformed from to ensure it’s aesthetic beauty.  All of the old grass material has been laid down so that grass and forbs can grow through it, soil is completely covered by litter and underneath the litter the soil cap has been chipped and loosened providing a good seed bed. Manure has been evenly distributed over the surface of the pasture so that nutrients will be efficiently recycled, many of the “invasive” forbs (weeds) were eaten or laid down, heavy brush has been browsed so that it will recover and provide thick habitat for nesting birds etc., but will not continue to expand over the rest of the open area.

How We Got Lucky and What We Should Do to Not Depend on Luck Next Time

Loading cattle was the glaring problem with the process this time around as I set up a very minimal loading pen to get them out of the pasture. This worked well enough, I suppose, if the situation had been free of unexpected events, but the motto for the project should have been, “Plan for the Worst Case Scenario”.  As such, when we had a blind cow that had to be let out of the trailer for the safety of the calves, she wouldn’t have been able to smash right through the minimalist facilities. When this happened we had to wait to load the rest of the cattle until we had more cattle panels. I’m glad that I didn’t try to force the situation with the insufficient loading facilities and I am glad that I had planned conservatively with the grass so that we had plenty of grass until we were able to finish the job. Yet, it doubled the cost of the cattle removal and put significant stress on the cattle. On top of that, had the cattle not been around, we would not have had the problem that resulted the next day, when Chewbacca the Benzinger bull crashed over the fence and got in with cattle. Which could have ended really bad as he had no idea about the electric fence and easily could have chased cattle all over the property. There was also a soft spot on the Narvez property line, and we could have had cattle throughout even more places.

I was also not very happy with the facilities I had for treating cattle. The cattle were around longer than anticipated. That was good; it meant the cattle were comfortable, but it became necessary to treat animals when they got pink eye or foot problems. The way I had to do that was not very safe and wasted a lot of time. I look forward to spotting issues such as these before they become a problem in operations to come.

As we move into our next grazing operations I look forward to working with our SMI staff members on improving our grazing infrastructure. I anticipate we’ll be ready to bring the cattle back shortly after the first rain. The perennials will probably all be ready to graze before that, but there are so few perennials they would only give each animal a few bites. We’ll have to wait until we have annuals too, which will be good. That will allow us to open up the annuals and let light down to any perennial seedlings that are germinating. We might also get some more perennial seeds. I’m pretty confident that if we stick with what worked last time and fix a few easy things that next time should go a little better and we will have a system that can be sustainable in the long term.

Leave a Comment