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S.M.I. Overall Grazing Recap 2021

The 2021 grazing season was marked once again by plague and drought and other non-disclosed horseman of the apocalypse however, the work the team has done over the previous year set us up to make the situation as manageable as possible given the context. The work we have done on infrastructure and relationships in the past allowed us to be flexible once again in the face of very adverse ecological conditions. The defining feature of our last two years and especially this year is the drought. On average our ranches received 65% of normal rainfall last year and 35% of normal rainfall this year and that reality shaped the fabric of most events of the season.

We were planning last fall that we would be receiving about 14ish semi loads of cattle over the entire season with different entry dates. We ended up with more like 12 loads on the season. Additionally, they came a month later than normal and left a month early. The impact was a about a 25% reduction in total planned grazing impact which was significant to our partners. However, the collection of suppliers and partners we have with the cattle have allowed us to maintain flexibility in the face of adversity and the value of solid relationships cannot be overstated. 

We knew it was going to be an exceptionally challenging season because many of the ponds that we have always relied on on different properties were completely dried up or at their lowest levels by anyone’s account. After the first more significant rain events of the season in November and December the creeks that reliably get going, just didn’t run with any consistency or strength. It felt like we were waiting the whole season for the ponds to fill and the creeks to run, but it just never materialized. We palpably felt the impact of last year’s drought in 2020 as it felt like the hydrological cycle was truly damaged. 

With the ponds low and the streams barely running at a trickle in most places springs that serviced water troughs and storage tanks started running weaker and weaker by the month. The team was constantly measuring spring flows to ensure that the water was sufficient for drinking for cattle. It is hard to express the stress level encountered when, water starts drying up around the ranches. It happens incrementally and it happens day-by-day, and you do not get a text message when it starts becoming insufficient for drinking. 

Needless to say, we probably spent a lot of our time monitoring water points and water troughs. While it is very stressful to constantly be monitoring everything, it did bring us into deep connection with the land in what was going on because we were all paying close attention.  This was the second year that we maintained a weekly Zoom meeting where we reviewed, everything that was to be done that week but also reviewed pictures that we were taking weekly of grass and water points. 

While obviously being in a drought was the gorilla in the room, we were still able to adjust our grazing prescription and management pretty effectively. By paying close attention and monitoring every ranch very closely, we were able to talk about patterns we were seeing overall in between ranches. Having ranches in different locations, with different microclimates and geology, topography etc. gives us the opportunity to learn more.

Given the constraints of the drought, our ability to adjust our stocking rate and grazing pressure, allowed us to do a fairly good job of managing the annual vegetation in order to keep competition up from a broader diversity of species. Essentially, we were still able to stay on top of plants like avena barbeta and foxtail while not pulling too much cover off of the landscape.  Due to the fact that; there was less water distribution, there was a little more patchiness overall where some areas were grazed a little less or a little harder but on average, we feel fairly good about the grazing impact and residual we were able to leave behind on the season. Being able to leave a good amount of ground cover behind in the face of drought while not leaving too much behind in terms of fire danger is a tricky balance. However, we feel pretty good about where we landed on the spectrum. 

While our season was shorter, the cattle did perform extremely well from a weight gain and health standpoint. Having a dryer season typically results in stronger feed from an animal perspective and reduces the number of illnesses that the cattle suffer. This year we had 1200 head and we didn’t have a single animal die. That is a pretty wonderful, atypical management reality and can be attributed to the weather and how much attention and care the team pays and gives to the cattle. 

It’s extremely easy to be happy or feel good about what you’re doing when everything is going well. However, adversity reveals character. The last two years have been filled with a great deal of adversity and we feel extremely grateful for the collection of people we have on this team that has revealed solid character. Despite the historic drought, we were still able to manage as effectively as possible, constantly adjusting management based on what we were seeing on the ground. The team; while extremely stressed and overworked for a bit of time, was able to stay in good spirits and work collectively to overcome the obstacles until we sent the cattle home. Additionally, the stress on the system has forced us to work harder to better develop our water systems to be more resilient on the ranches which will only put us in a better position moving forward. Last Lee being able to train new generations of land managers and bring new managers on has been extremely rewarding and we look forward to building out more capacity to do that in the future.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 2021 Annual Board Meeting

The team was able to meet up again this year as Sonoma Mountain Institute Board met for our 2021 Annual Board Meeting on December 15th, 2021. Our Board consists of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board. Mark Sindt started by talking of the challenges with the weather and fires, talked about how much adversity the SMI team had to work with to fix all of the issues that arose this year. To follow he reviewed a number of the projects that took place at the ranch this year including the new water system, he reviewed the grazing season amongst the properties managed, what projects occurred on the Pike property, and how new land to manage is in the works for 2022. The Board discussed important items such as starting to find new help to learn the trades needed to maintain the properties we own in addition to the importance of starting an intern program to help teach the techniques needed for increasing our grassland management program.  To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances for 2021 and the proposed budget for 2022. The board passed the proposed budget for 2022 and the meeting was adjourned.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s Water Distribution System

In 2020 based on our carbon farm plan that was established with the local Sonoma County Resource in Conservation District we were alerted to a grant funding opportunity based on having that plan. There were special funds allocated to people that had these plans in place to support more sustainable grazing infrastructure. We applied for a water distribution system to have better managed grazing and we secured and were awarded the grant for $45,000.

The grant established over 8,500 linear feet of water distribution around the ranch as well as 15000 gallons of storage. In addition, the grant covered 6 water trough locations that could water both wild animals and Cattle. We also incorporated into the design fire hose suppression access to the water system so that fire hoses could be hooked up at any of the locations in order to fight fires in the future. The materials chosen for distribution were 2 inch weldable polyethylene pipe which is a cutting-edge material in plumbing right now. In a location that is located next to a fault line the material actually can stretch rather than break and the joints which are welded are stronger than the pipe itself. It has the benefit of being able to be plowed in with a bulldozer so no open trench was ripped in the installation of the pipe.

Additionally, extremely lightweight but large-capacity aluminum wildlife and cattle troughs were installed from a company that specializes in these types of troughs from Oregon. Each trough has wildlife access and escape ramps for small critters. The entire system was plumbed above ground in galvanized pipe so that it could withstand future fires.

Given that the grant put the distribution of water 500 ft away from the barn we decided to take the opportunity to build out rainwater collection at the barn that could piggyback on the grant-funded infrastructure. We installed an additional catchment at the barn of 10,000 gallons. This catchment could then be pumped back through the distribution system that was Grant funded and installed. The rain water is pumped up to the central storage tanks on the hill above the pond from the barn and the overflow we designed at those storage tanks runs back into the large pond. Essentially the rainwater catchment system is designed to pump back through the water distribution system and overflow into the pond.

For every inch of rain water we get in Sonoma the barn rainwater collection system captures about 11,000 gallons. In an average year that barn will collect around 300,000 gallons of water and put it in the pond. That is about twice the annual demand of the cattle on site during the grazing here. Essentially, the rain water collection system provides double the annual need of the cattle and still helps top off the pond.

Overall, the entire system is going to be of great help to the management team at Sonoma Mountain Institute. It provides better access of water to wildlife and more defensible fire fighting positions. It also provides much more management flexibility to be able to better distribute the cattle around the ranch. It will save the management team a ton of time and effort and produce better results all around. It’s been a great project and we’re glad to have it completed.

Healthy Soils Update

2020 was hypothetically our last year for spreading compost under the healthy soils initiative.  Our final application in 2020 completed about 3.3 million pounds of compost spread over 53 Acres at SMI. So far the data is encouraging and showing carbon sequestration potential on that acreage and the treatment is seeming positive though time will tell. Working with the resource Conservation District we applied for a new Grant titled zero food print which also adds funds available to spread compost on range land.  We were awarded a $27,500 Grant to spread around 670,000 pounds of compost in 2021 on additional acreage. It will be a great opportunity to treat and study more acres in the coming years.

Infrastructure Improvements on Leased Land

It was clear from January that this was going to be a very challenging year as it relates to water systems on the ranches. At that point we made the decision that we would just hit it head-on and work to develop as many additional water systems and support structures as we could. When Sonoma and Marin County are typically blessed with 30 – 50-inch rain years the water infrastructure is not that robust on most of the ranches we manage. So as a result, there was a lot of room for improvement. We were engaging in water development at 4 ranches simultaneously and were able to consolidate materials purchases, equipment rentals, and technical knowledge. The majority of the costs for parts and materials were picked up by our land partners while we provided installation and acquisition support for the systems. Here is a brief list of some of the projects we either managed or installed and completed between Jan – May

Taylor Mt. (Park Support on installation)

  1. 8000-gallons of additional storage at the best spring on the Mt.
  2. 800-gallon trough added to new storage
  3. Two new springs rebuilt and plumbed to two new troughs 

Cayetana

  1. Four new troughs added to distribution system
  2. One new full water system installed by us, pump from pond to storage tank 1000 feet above for distribution

Walsh

  1. Massive water system installed by SMI team, pump from pond, 1800 feet in distance and 200 feet in lift to 10,000 gallons of storage which then was distributed over 4000 feet on the ranch. This was a huge permitting and organizational lift
  2. Added additional troughs

Mitsui (Jeff Wilcox on site biologist performed 95% of installation, we provided pipe for moving water and research and admin support for acquiring parts) 

  1. Rerouting spring overflow in middle of ranch to pump up to storage tanks empty because pond that supplied them was dry. This allowed for better cattle distribution on 30% of the ranch that had no water. 

Meet Jim Coleman

We would like to introduce you to Jim Coleman. Aside from Jim serving as a member on our Board at Sonoma Mountain Institute he is also known as the well educated man behind a camera to us. Jim has an incredible eye and a knack for catching the most amazing footage when set out to work. It isn’t uncommon to see Jim out at our ranch once a week decked out in full camouflage with a camera in hand. Jim has an extensive bio that makes him highly qualified to be the best man for the job of tracking all living species found on our property.

In 2005, Jim earned a MS in Biology studying grassland restoration at Sonoma State University and since that time has been primarily focused on that work within the Occidental Arts and Ecology’s (OAEC) ecological preserve. In addition to Jim’s endeavors at OAEC, he has worked as a field ecologist for the California Native Plant Society in their efforts to help generate a vegetation and habitat map for Sonoma County. Jim works with private land owners such as Sonoma Mountain Institute in addition to various other land managers in establishing botanical and photo monitoring protocols that help aid in the successful conservation and restoration of healthy ecosystems. He has served as field ecologist on several restoration studies and mapping efforts of the endangered California Coastal Prairie. In addition to his work in terrestrial systems, Jim has also been active in the recovery of endangered Coho Salmon by helping to restore in-stream habitat. As an interpretive naturalist, Jim also enjoys his many opportunities to teach and lead people in their own nature awareness explorations.

We at S.M.I. have collaborated with Jim to create a website called, Sonoma Mountain Ecology Notes found at:

https://sonomamountainecologynotes.com

Aside from getting to see the amazing photography of so many species living on the Petaluma Ranch you can also subscribe to receive daily emails on the website to learn a little something extra about Jim’s particular featured species if you’re interested.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 2020 Annual Board Meeting

Due to Covid, our Sonoma Mountain Institute Board decided to play things extra safe this year and met for our 2020 Annual Board Meeting via conference call on December 21, 2020. Our Board consists of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member were all present. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board. Mark Sindt highlighted the projects and accomplishments from this last year of which were the following:  we will be starting a new blog that will include Jim Coleman’s photography, infrastructure is getting well established and it makes the flow so natural to keep cattle in place, and the new cattle guards are really nice and affordable so it’s an easy decision to make more of them.  He mentioned that we have a few new properties we look forward to managing in 2021. Mark said Matt Weger is back helping us with a new propagation project and that will lead to a new mapping project as well.  In regards to our Scientific Data monitoring, it’s exciting that we are still seeing an increase in new species each year.  To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances which included how the 2020 finances ended up in 2020 and the proposed budget for 2021. The board passed the proposed budget for 2021 and the meeting was adjourned.

Propagation is Back at S.M.I.!

This year the grow house was given a thorough makeover. The old tables were removed and new gravel was applied to the floor. 14 metal tables with 256 square feet total surface area were constructed for the plug flats. This is enough area for 144 flats. These flats have 144 cells/ flat totaling 20,736 cells or plants. 

Seed was acquired from Larner, Hedgerow Farms, and LeBallister’s. Purple Needle grass (Stipa pulchra) was collected from the Petaluma ranch. Seed purchased from Hedgerow Farms was provided with germination data. Germination tests were performed on all other seeds. This information was essential in determining proper sowing rates for each species.  We started sowing around September 15th and mature plants will start to be planted around Thanksgiving week.  This year we propagated and will plant the follow number of plugs: 3,600 purple needle grass, 1296 nodding needle grass, 1296 Meadow Barley, 1584 California Melic, 1584 Blue Wild Rye, 1296 Alkali Bluegrass, 3600 California Barley, 2106 California Oat Grass, and 3312 Idaho Fescue.

We took a look back at our records and we have been propagating and planting since 2012!  A fun fact is since then S.M.I. has planted a total of 112,400 various native grasses throughout the Petaluma property.  There have also been a total of 953 oak trees planted on the property that were all started from collected acorns since 2012 as well. 

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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. 

Scientific Data Results- Species Count


Each year that we have grazed on a piece of managed property we have compiled a list of all of the species found within our monitoring points.  It has been truly exciting to see through collected data the impact that grazing has had as the number of total species found on each property has only increased every year since we started managing grazing. 

 

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