SMI Grazing Recap for 2023

The 2023 season was marked by unprecedented weather conditions and operational expansions that caused us to shift our grazing strategies and experiment with new techniques for managing the land and cattle. As in years past, we relied on our ability to innovate and adapt our systems and expectations to maintain the health of the land and the animals in our care. 

Despite an extended cold and wet period that delayed the spring flush, we had one of our best years of cattle health and weight gains on record. We managed for improved biodiversity, with minimal long-term damage to the soil during the wet season. We also secured $665,000 in grants from stakeholders that will support infrastructure development at Triangle G and aid us in retaining our team. Through it all, we remained focused on developing a responsive, thoughtful, resourceful team deeply committed to the land and animals in our care.

The 2022-23 grazing season was ​​defined by a dramatic increase in precipitation, colder-than-usual winter temperatures, and an unprecedentedly delayed spring flush. For context, the 55 inches that fell this year was a 68% increase from the previous season and over 300% from the 2020-21 season. The orthodoxies in managed intensive grazing maintain a hard line around density and duration as a necessary tool for increased biodiversity and pasture health. However, from wet periods in previous seasons, most notably 2016-17, we have observed that forced density in high moisture periods results in hoof damage to the soil structure (pugging) that has taken many years to heal. While some pugging/disturbance is good for the soil, too much seems to promote the proliferation of invasive species and reduce the biodiversity of a given pasture. 

Furthermore, we experienced abnormal temperature fluctuations this year that brought a late summer heatwave with temperatures nearly 30°F above average, followed by a fall and winter with temperatures dipping 10-15°F below average. This season also featured the third coldest average temperatures in recorded history in the region. These weather patterns and the above-average precipitation delayed the spring flush by nearly a month. As always, we were able to innovate and work with our partners to be flexible and overcome these unexpected challenges.

The plan was to receive 16 50,000-pound loads of cattle total, with eight loads going to the Triangle G complex, four to Hilltop, and four to Cayetana and Eames. We pushed receipt of the cattle as late as suppliers would allow, receiving eight loads in January and another two in April, for a total of 1,660 head (~758,000 lbs) across the management portfolio. Based on conditions, we decided to spread the cattle out to minimize pugging as much as possible, given the constraints of water supply and fencing. We waited for soil saturation to reduce before bringing the herd back together. The cold, wet spring meant that this moment, roughly coinciding with the spring flush, was later than we are used to.

Our calculations paid off, and the pastures in the Triangle G complex experienced little excessive disturbance, the cattle gained well on the forage, and our biological monitoring showed increased biodiversity (especially in TG proper). When the ground dried out, we brought the herd together and rotated them as usual. The end of the season was characterized by late-season green material and a reduction in cattle as the supplier needed them back at the home ranch. We used the cattle they allowed us to keep late into the season for targeted grazing in ACC1 and SMI. Because of the late moisture in the soil, we left behind record amounts of residual material at TG, which will allow us to take receipt of cattle earlier than usual for the 2023-24 season.

At Cayetana and Eames, we spread the cattle out as much as possible to reduce the negative impacts of too many animals bunching up on overly wet soil, which paid off. If ever there was a year to wince at the mess we made during the stormy cold period, it was last year, and amazingly, there wasn’t a single paddock in which that occurred! At the end of last season, we adjusted the amount of dry forage left behind to be better prepared for this El Niño year should it be a wet one with similarly slow spring growth.  

Last season, we got to use the newly designed and built corrals at the Eames Ranch for a variety of purposes. There were sick animals that got treated in our new squeeze chute. There were unexpected calves that were sorted and held with their mothers until Jay Russ could come down to pick them up, and of course, we had a very smooth and safe load out at the end of the season. This year, we look forward to trying out the newly graded and graveled Eames barn lot, where the semi-trucks will be able to deliver or pick up cattle safely in all weather conditions. 

Similarly, to our experience on Triangle G, the new steel water drinkers we installed on the Eames Ranch worked splendidly while hooked up to the spring we redeveloped the summer before. Although they did have more rust formation than expected, these may become our new gold standard for supplying water to cattle and wildlife. 

We gained new allies in land management when Elliot and Julliet purchased the 190 acres directly west of Cayetana and hired our friend and long-time San Antonio Valley resident, Jessica Barron, to manage their property. As an act of neighborly goodwill, we spent some time helping them assess their property for future development of livestock/wildlife water and internal fence design. We built a temporary electric fence and brought the cattle from Cayetana to demonstrate high-density cattle grazing and where it could be applied on their mostly steep and wooded property. 

​​                           A person standing in front of a large truck

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At Hilltop, cattle arrived in mid-January to abundant stockpiles of forage left over from the 2022 grazing season and were put into a broad rotation at mild density to work through a heavy thatch layer. Despite the increased precipitation of 2023, Hilltop’s higher mountain soils seemed to drain well and dry up faster, allowing the cattle to remain in a rotation at density throughout the season in contrast to lower SMI properties where cattle had to be spread out to avoid soil damage. A freezing winter storm covered all of Hilltop with five inches of snow in late February; although visually dramatic, it seemed to have little impact on the already frost-dormant grasses. The cattle made two rotations at Hilltop with little regrowth as temperatures remained cold through March. Early April brought warmer temperatures to the saturated landscape, producing a rigorous spring flush that quickly outpaced the cattle. As a result, the cattle were brought into an increased density rotation to work through the material before summer. Late rains extended the growing season into June, but ample forage grew back, even heavily impacted paddocks grazed in May. A good feed stockpile was left behind for the 2023-24 season.

In the Sonoma County Park (Walsh) section of Hilltop, a Yellow Star Thistle infestation is beginning to spread by the cell towers. We used targeted high-density (more than normal at increased effort) cattle pressure before the spring flush to break down the thistle skeletons and promote a more favorable grass germination environment during the flush. In late spring, high-density cattle was again used at Walsh to graze off the burgeoning thistle plants. Continued observation in 2024 will evaluate the results of this increased pressure. 

In response to the slow growth between February and April, we adapted our mid-season grazing strategy by taking three loads of heifers from the SMI and Triangle G grazing complex to Taylor Mountain. While this reduced the herd by a third, it also substantially increased the workload of the grazing team. We had planned not to graze Taylor Mountain in 2023 as it is the farthest property we manage and, in many ways, the most stressful. So this shift, while seemingly good for the cattle and the grass, was hard on the team. However, we all voted to do it, and in retrospect, we are glad we did. 

The combination of a late start at Taylor Mountain and only having a couple of paddocks to rotate through meant we understocked it for the amount of forage produced by the spring flush that was occurring when we arrived. However, it was dry enough to avoid excessive pugging when the cattle self-collected into density at water points, and none of the pastures were overgrazed. We also stayed at Taylor into the middle of June, which meant the areas the cattle did concentrate their grazing on (valley bottoms, hilltops, proximate to water) ended the grass season with an ideal amount of residual material. We left early enough that the patches of perennial grasses didn’t get overgrazed. The parks were happy with the ecological outcome and our overall presence on the Park. 

Before we shipped the cattle out, Sonoma County Parks requested that we graze a new 50-acre parcel they had recently spent a lot of money to fence in. Their concerns were mostly centered around fire load management, as this parcel was backed up to a suburban neighborhood. Because of the vandalism the fences have historically experienced in that section of the park, we rented a small RV, and Aaron Gilliam posted up there with the entire herd for 3-4 days. We grazed that section as hard as we felt comfortable while maintaining the health of the herd. The results aligned with the park’s desire to leave as little residual material as possible.

Cattle

Overall, we had a good season of cattle health, resulting in our best year of weight gains on record. Both cattle suppliers sent us animals in excellent health, which, combined with a rigorous mineral supplement program, meant that overall, we had a low incidence of major health concerns. Each herd was checked at least weekly for overall health. Most health incidents this season were related to pink eye, and we treated affected animals with enough regularity that the problem remained contained and only a small percentage of the herd was affected. No animals went blind in both eyes, and when we shipped the herd, pink eye was not endemic in any significant way.

Much of the success in herd health management this season resulted from Byron’s institution of new dart gun technology. We purchased a PneuDart long-range kit that we took in the field each time we checked animals, allowing us to treat any sick animals as they were discovered without excessive labor and with minimal stress to the animals. The new dart gun technology was especially helpful in preventing the spread of pink eye in the herds, as it dramatically increased effective and timely treatment while cutting out much of the cost to the team. 

With the size of the herds we manage, there will likely always be some herd loss. As sometimes happens with suppliers that have pairs, a couple of the Russ cattle turned up pregnant and dropped calf in our pasture. The heifers and calves were healthy, and we were able to sort them off and ship them back to their home ranch without incident. We also had a few fatalities; however, this year, the loss was kept to a very low number (<1%), and the ailments that claimed the lives of those animals remained isolated cases. This season’s low mortality was due to the overall health of the animals initially combined with the consistent application of the excellent management detailed above.

This year, a new stock-handling training program for the cattle and team was instituted to respond to the challenges presented by our increasing herd size. In the past, none of our individual herds had exceeded around 500 head of cattle. The addition of the 1,700 contiguous acres of Triangle G has meant that the herd needed to manage the TG complex is closer to 1,000 head, and that number may increase again this year as we try to dial in the correct stocking rate. A herd that size requires a different style of stock handling. Before, 500 head could be moved over distance with one or two stock handlers on foot, especially with the addition of cattle dogs. In doubling the herd, we have reduced the effectiveness of individual stock handlers. Put simply, when 1,000 head of cattle string out across the landscape, any hope of influencing the direction of the head of the herd is lost. After working the cattle for an hour, that head can be half a mile ahead of where you are working the cattle and well out of our sphere of influence.

The solution we needed was one that stayed in line with our values around low-stress stock handling but created a level of efficiency that allowed for moving the herd within the bounds of a single workday. After talking with other operators with similar values, we developed a program to train the cattle to follow a whistle. Soon after new cattle arrive with us, we bait an ATV with hay and drive slowly through the herd, blowing a whistle. The cattle follow because of the hay but associate it specifically with the whistle. Before we set off to move the cattle, we spread a small number of bales out on the other side of a gate, so as the cattle follow the ATV/whistle through, they are rewarded with hay. After a few days, you can produce directional movement in the herd. After a few weeks of training, it’s possible to lead the cattle without the hay just using the whistle. Combining whistle training with our previous low-stress stock handling practices allows us to maintain the strung-out cattle as a single herd and facilitates movement across distance. With this new program, we have moved the cattle to pastures 5 miles apart in a single day without leaving any cattle behind, which we intend to repeat in the upcoming season. 

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