2020 Grazing Recap

The 2020 grazing season was marked by drought and plague…..you know…..the usual. That being said while the decision making was extremely stressful at times during the season overall went about as good as it ever has despite those challenges from the perspective of vegetation management, animal health and sheppard well being. Past years of experience set us up to have better developed relationships with cattle owners and suppliers as well as improved infrastructure and processes that made dealing with the challenges of 2020 much more manageable. 

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In 2019 during the Grassfed Exchange Conference that we hosted tours for and participated in we met an amazing team at the winecup gamble ranch from Elko, Nevada (https://winecupgambleranch.com/), which stands at 1 million acres. While much bigger than us they have similar values around ecology and people. So we partnered with them to send us a little over half of our cattle. One of the nice things about working with a large outfit is that they can accommodate with much more flexibility our need for flexibility in management as dictated by the needs of the ecology. 

In the 2020 season we planned for around 12ish semi loads of cattle to come. In December we had around 1000 head of cattle, as many were very small at about 400lbs. We were then supposed to receive about 400 more or so in March and April to handle the huge spring vegetation flush of annuals that we are always trying to stay on top of. Managing these annuals who crowd out so many of the other diverse plant species has been a core of our management program and having partners that can send herbivores in spring is very key to making the program work. Getting the right number of herbivores across the 7ish properties we manage and over 4500 acres requires strong relationships, solid infrastructure, and the ability to adjust on the fly to manage adaptively. 

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The challenge of our season was really defined by rainfall, both quantity and timing. We didn’t receive our first sizable rainfall event until the end of November. We waited about 30 days or so until after that first event to receive cattle so we were on average about 3 weeks later then we planned on the inbound cattle. Having the flexibility in relationships to push these dates later as it was what seemed right for the ecology was very helpful. 

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The rains did come and it was a warmer than normal through January which created huge vegetation flushes late January and early February. However, we essentially received no rain from January 26th until March 7th and then it was only 1/10th of an inch. The extreme lack of rain meant that grass growth really ended up slowing in late February and we were moving into an over stocking situation quickly. We made two decisions in early March that allowed us to adapt. We sent home about 25% of the cattle from each ranch. Not an easy call or a fun one to make. However, our relationships allowed for this flexibility and people understood. 

Additionally, we reached out to the neighbors to the south Mike Green and Avery Hellman and received permission to graze both of their ranches to get us through the drought. This proved an amazing disastertunity as we are slotted to graze both of those properties this coming season in 2021, which will offset the loss of Hardy for this season. The rains came back through March intermittently with some rainfall in April. However overall we received around 14 inches on the rainfall year or about 36% of 2019 numbers. 

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Despite the lack of precipitation the adjustment we made to animal numbers and the expansion of management made for an overall great year. We had the healthiest animals we have ever had with literally 1 animal death out of the 1400 plus animals that were with us at the height of the season. That is .07% death loss vs the 2% industry standard. On a majority of the ranches we were able to stay in front of the annual vegetation flush that comes on hard in the spring. Since 2013 we have relatively increased species diversity at SMI over 300% in grazed plots. Managing this flush seems to be important to improving those numbers. 

Glen Ellen received three grazing rotations this year for the first time in a while. It was grazed twice in March and once to close out the season in June. We were able to pull cattle from our other properties back and forth throughout the season to make this happen. 

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The cattle team Byron, Ben and Matt with the occasional visit from Nate had a great year in terms of safe handling and effective management. The improved corrals and handling facilities, holding pens and improved truck access really paid off this season. Logistics were as smooth as they ever have been and spirits were high despite the drought and the pandemic. 

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