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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. 

SNOW in Petaluma!

Pretty exciting to have two of the properties we manage get some snow at the end of February! The Mitsui Property had 6 inches of snow and the Triangle G Property had about 2-3 inches. Just enough for our staff to take a break and have some fun. We can’t wait to see how this impacts the grazing season!

2022 Annual Board Meeting

The team was able to meet up again this year as Sonoma Mountain Institute’s Board met for our 2022 Annual Board Meeting on December 17th, 2022. Our Board continues to consist 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 for the 2022/2023 year ahead. Mark Sindt reported that he is excited about our team’s adversary because they have overcome a number of drought years, covid, and hiccups with infrastructure and cattle, and anything else that has come their way.   Mark went through the various accomplishments within each of the properties that were worked on by our team this year. We talked about how well the grazing management is going in regards to the data collected, how our team has evolved, what they have continued to learn in regards to working with cattle, and the difficulty in dealing with a lot of rain at once followed by a dry spell. To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances for 2022 and the proposed budget for 2023. The board passed the proposed budget for 2023 and the meeting was adjourned.

2022 Projects at The Ranch in Petaluma

CJ and his team have been busy on the ranch in Petaluma again this year. They have had the typical on-going projects such as: cleaning the azola, weeds, and tules from the ponds, clearing of underbrush and burning the piles, clearing downed trees, cutting, and splitting the remains for firewood, equipment maintenance, road maintenance, working on compost piles, pulling of star thistle, and growing small oak starts. However, this year they were able to sneak in some other large projects such as going to the Godfrey property and helping mill timber. CJ brought the milled wood down to Petaluma and used it on projects such as re-framing the barn.  They helped work on the rainwater catchment system so the water that runs off of the barn roof can go into two 5000 gallon storage tanks.  This water is pumped up to our storage tanks at Hilltop and when those four storage tanks get full it overflows into the large pond.  A few extra projects that were completed were helping set up the solar panel trailer to run the water pump, more bird houses were installed, the barn was cleaned out and re-organized, a new boat deck was built for pond weed removal, and a new metal tea tank stand was built.

S.M.I. Grazing Recap for 2022

The 2022 season brought unprecedented weather conditions that challenged our grazing processes and projections. As in years past, we relied on our ability to innovate and adapt our systems and expectations so that we could maintain the health of the land and the animals in our care. Despite the uncertainty and impact of the historic drought and dry spring, we were able to manage for improved biodiversity, substantially improved our grazing team, and tried new innovative technologies. We also strategically developed new partnerships with the Eames Institute and Triangle G, created and piloted an internship program, and improved and developed infrastructure to build our capacity to manage regeneratively for future seasons. Through it all, we remained focused on developing a team that is responsive, thoughtful, resourceful, and deeply committed to the land and animals in our care. 

Grazing Recap

The past year was defined by a bifurcated wet season that converted our typical six-month rain pattern into two smaller rainy seasons with a long dry spell in between. In October, we received unprecedented rains of up to 18”, which refilled reservoirs and initially provided adequate drinking water for the animals. Additional rains in December set us up for a strong 2022 grazing season. However, beginning in January, we experienced a substantial dry period that lasted through March. It was the longest dry period in the middle of a rainy season on record, and this weather pattern significantly impacted grazing, grass regrowth, operations, and general sanity. As always, we were able to innovate and work with our partners to be flexible and overcome these unexpected challenges.

Based on our early grazing projections, we planned to have a total of around 14 loads of cattle (50,000-lb semi-truck loads of about 1260 head) throughout the season across the entire management portfolio. Starting in January, two loads were going to be at SMI, Green, and Hellman, and four loads were slated for Hilltop. To manage for the huge spring flush we have historically gotten, we scheduled an additional two loads of cattle to arrive in March, one each for SMI and Hilltop, which typically helps us stay on top of the annual vegetation. We also scheduled two loads at Taylor and Glen Ellen and three loads between Cayetana and Eames. But, as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry.

We cared for the land and animals through January and February without much operational or grazing disruption. By March, the dry spell began to take a toll. We noticed the grass wasn’t recovering as quickly as expected after we’d done a full grazing rotation. It was very short and tight, and we determined the land couldn’t withstand increased grazing pressure. As a result, we made the tough decision in early March not to take on the additional two loads of Winecup cattle at SMI and Hilltop as we had initially planned. Hilltop, which includes Mitsui and Walsh, was especially hit hard by the dry period, and the grass was very short as we were coming in for our second rotation. We decided it was best to ship a portion of the cattle home early to alleviate some of the pressure there, so we sent back two loads in mid-March. As a result, instead of having eight loads of cattle between the two ranches as we’d planned at the beginning of the season, we ended up with only four loads total at SMI and Hilltop. We are grateful to our partners at Winecup-Gamble for taking the hit last year, as their flexibility truly helped us navigate the situation. 

In April, shortly after destocking in response to the drought, we got a little bit of rain. With the reduced grazing pressure and increased recovery periods, the grass rebounded very quickly. In fact, at SMI and Hilltop, we ended up with more grass than we could handle after returning some of the cattle in mid-March. Stocking rates were further challenged when Winecup-Gamble decided to breed their animals early and requested we return them in mid-May. After some negotiation, we were able to return a portion of the cattle and keep the rest until July to manage the existing vegetation at SMI properly. 

Thanks to the ingenuity of our team and partnerships, we maintained appropriate stocking rates at SMI, Green, and Hellman throughout the year. You can either have more cattle for shorter or fewer cattle for longer. Winecup needed some animals back earlier, as we mentioned, but they let us keep fewer cattle for longer. Thus, we extended the grazing season longer than usual to properly graze the vegetation with the remaining cattle we did have. Overall, Green, SMI, and Hellman looked good by the season’s end. 

At Taylor, we intentionally stocked below maximum density because we didn’t feel confident the water system could sustain its fullest grazing capacity. The grass was similarly tight in March and April as at other properties, but we did an excellent job of rotating the cattle around fully, which is a serious challenge given the property’s heavy public use patterns, aggressive topography, and tree cover. In midseason, we moved some cattle from Taylor to Glen Ellen to help manage the vegetation at Glen Ellen. The grass was so strong at Glen Ellen that we didn’t bring them back to Taylor until May. As a result, Taylor had a bit too much grass at the end of the season, but we were able to manage Glen Ellen’s vegetation well. Nonetheless, the Parks were very happy with the job we did.

Typically, at Cayetana, we have 3-3.5 loads of cattle. Onboarding the Eames Institute this year would have allowed us to have a fourth load grazing there. However, given Cayetana’s record with drought, we made the strategic decision to maintain our previous stocking level despite taking on 30% more land. So, for a land base that could handle 200,000 lbs of cattle, we stocked it with 150,000 lbs or three loads. This stocking rate allowed us to graze Eames perfectly and strategically ease the grazing pressure on Cayetana so that it could rest and recover. We managed both properties without much stress and were very close to hitting our grazing targets for the season. Notably, at Eames, we decreased the time cattle spent in San Antonio Creek from 365 days per year to just 20 days last season, a significant decrease in impact. We also left cover and residual vegetation on the ground on Eames that historically has not been there due to overgrazing. 

Infrastructure- Improvements on Leased land

The 2022 season brought considerable strides in infrastructure and capacity building at SMI. We onboarded two new properties this year, Triangle G and the Eames Institute, which allow us to expand our capabilities exponentially in future seasons. This season also brought the expansion of our team with the addition of Aaron Gilliam, an advocate of process-based restoration, watershed restoration, and beaver dam analog systems.

We also strategically experimented with a couple of programs this season. The first was the implementation of Vence, a virtual cattle management system, and the second was a pilot internship program in collaboration with the Center for Land-Based Learning. Both initiatives provided valuable learning opportunities. 

Triangle G 

Onboarding Triangle G has been another substantial project this year. It’s a 1,700-acre ranch with three owners, forty years of deferred maintenance, 12 miles of external fences, and 10 miles of defunct interior fence. A defining feature of Triangle G is that it allows us to run several properties together: SMI, Green, Hellman, Triangle G, and, eventually, Hilltop together with Mitsui and Walsh. In the 2023 season, we plan to run eight loads of cattle with about 800 head on Triangle G/SMI/Green and Hellman. We plan on running four additional loads or 400 head separately on Hilltop (Walsh/Mitsui). That is relevant because, if we eventually connect the properties in this corridor, we could combine the two herds into 12 or 14 loads with up to 1,400 cattle. Restoring the migration pattern of Sonoma Mountain with a mega herd of this size is part of the vision for Triangle G, but we must walk before we can run. The 800 head between TG/SMI/Green and Hellman is a huge logistical challenge, especially in terms of meeting our water needs. As we onboard Triangle G, we’re thinking and planning for the infrastructure and resources needed to have a massive 3,500-acre corridor with a mega herd going everywhere. 

Our first step this summer was for our team to do a thorough site analysis at Triangle G, which included walking every foot of the exterior fencing and coding it for repair or replacement on mapping software. We’ve also done the same for the interior fencing, so we have rigorously examined more than 20 miles of fencing. We’re currently working with contractors to replace three miles of fencing before the cattle come for the 2023 season. We’ve provided a 10-year plan for Triangle G ownership to replace 50% of the fencing in the next three years and 100% by year ten. They received the recommendations relatively well.

In addition to the fencing, we also conducted multiple site analyses this season. We worked with *the*Jim Coleman to perform a 10-point baseline monitoring assessment of vegetation on the property. We also thoroughly analyzed the existing water sources (ponds, vernal pools, springs, etc.) on the Triangle G properties, including all the defunct forty-year-old water system components. As part of the water system site analysis, we began designing a future water system for an NRCS grant for the property. We’ve spent months designing and ground-truthing a new water system with 10 miles of distribution pipeline, 50k gallons of storage, and 20+ trough locations. We’re working with NRCS to get that project funded.

This season, we repaired Triangle G’s existing corrals to be functional in the south for the upcoming season. We identified multiple pond failure points across the ranch and worked with the owners to put in better spillway systems and dam repair. We’re also working with the Triangle G team to identify and develop old defunct springs on the property. They had 40,000 gallons of storage that had fallen offline and wasn’t working. Our team repaired that storage system and connected it to a forgotten spring, so it’s functioning again. We’re also working to capture all the institutional knowledge from the previous operator at Triangle G for future use. 

Eames Institute

This season, we formed a new partnership with the Eames Institute, a 300-acre property contiguous with Cayetana. The ownership at Eames is very interested in ecological restoration and is supportive of our restoration work. The team had to get the ranch serviceable at an infrastructure level before we could run cattle on it. We collaborated with Eames and a third-party contractor to replace ~1.5 miles of fencing that improved ecological management and safety along the roadside. Our team also repaired fences throughout the property to make different parts of the ranch serviceable. 

We supported Eames in finding a great contractor for a critical spring repair project at the property. The previous contractor had installed a spring design that was outputting less than a gallon a minute, and now it’s producing 2.5 gallons per minute. The system includes new cutting-edge storage and trough combos, called Storage Drinkers, that have helped to get the animals out of San Antonio Creek. Overall, we helped Eames find the contractor, source the parts, and implement the system, including finishing all the above ground plumbing ourselves. This new system feeds the ranch home on the property, so it is both the domestic and agricultural spring. We’ve had several meetings with the Eames owners, including one influential one with Brock Dolman, about restoring the San Antonio Creek watershed, and we’re excited to move in that direction. 

This season, we also designed a corral system at the property that will allow us to receive and ship cattle out of Eames, which will vastly improve our current process. Thus far, we’ve been transporting animals out of Cayetana, which requires rare and expensive specialized trucks due to its terrible access. Eames is on San Antonio Rd, so it’s great to have a facility we can use to quickly and conveniently ship and receive cattle. Because the safety of our team and our animals is of utmost importance, we designed the system to include a squeeze chute, which ensures that we keep everyone safe during handling. The corral system is a $50,000 system, and installation should be complete by the end of 2022.

Cayetana

This year’s infrastructure upgrades at Cayetana focused on replacing fencing, repairing corrals, and upgrading drinking areas. Several drinking troughs were never installed correctly, which led to extensive eroding of the areas around the troughs over the years. The team re-rocked and re-graveled these trough locations, which allows the animals to drink without further causing erosive damage to the landscape surrounding them. 

We installed new five-strand barbed wire fencing behind Cayetana’s deer camp and gathering area to replace the disintegrating fence. We also repaired the wooden corral holding pen that has been deteriorating for years. Additionally, we installed one Vence communication tower as part of the Vence collar experiment we undertook in 2022.

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. 

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