Restoration

res·to·ra·tion |restəˈrāSHən|
noun: The action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition.


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!

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.

Meet Kino & Sue

We do it for the ecology. Nurturing ecology and healing broad acre landscapes is what keeps us all coming in to work, and gets us up in the morning. However like all jobs, the technical challenges of the actual work are often far different then the idea of the work. We work to nurture the ecology by repairing relationships between herbivores and grasslands, keeping cattle from being any one place for to long or coming back too soon. For most of our ranches under management this is fairly straight forward, but for a few the challenge is circuitous. 

When a 800lb animal with four legs that can run 25mph decides it has no plans of attending your e-vite to the next pasture it makes things complicated. When the ranch is 1500 acres and the largest paddock is 380 acres with 1500 feet of elevation change 3 individuals canyons, 3 ecotones and 70% tree cover complicated becomes and understatement. For the last few years we had 1% of our cattle give us 90% of our problems. Animals, like people vary in disposition and when you have 1400 head, 1% trouble animals = 17 head. 17 head that don’t want to come home becomes a very large problem. 

Any problem becomes easier to manage with the correct tools and the correct skills. Difficult challenges often eventually make you better at your job. While we have dogs they were not the right type of dogs for this problem. As chance would have it we heard about some amazing dogs, the Australian Kelpie earlier in the year from a friend. He mentioned this breed and a ranch in Lone tree Wyoming https://www.lonetree-ranch.com/. There Marissa Taylor breeds and Trains Australian kelpies on a beautiful 40,000 acre ranch. The australian kelpie is an amazing smart dog that can work with few commands off of the handler. It is an amazingly calm and even dog that handles problematic cattle well by using very light pressure and allowing the cattle to find relief off that pressure by moving to you the handler. 

In october of 2019 Byron flew out to Lonetree to collect Trained Kelpies that Maissa Taylor located. Kino a male and Sue a female came from two different close trusted trainers to Marissa. He spent a few days working with the Dogs and Marissa getting better trained to work with the dogs. Once Byron got home he presented a few months working with small groups of cattle to get himself trained up with the pups. By the time the cattle landed in December he felt like the team was gelling. 

Over the course of the season the two dogs Kino and Sue and Byron became the team that loved to work together and were able to get far more done then Byron could have done in years past. The pups were able to calm down and work many a troubled animal and they directly contributed to a better experience for the entire SMI team and the cattle. They have been a great experiment and an excellent addition to the SMI team. The job wouldn’t be the same without them. 

S.M.I.’s 2019 Board Meeting

The 2019 Board meeting was held at our Petaluma Property on December 4, 2019. Our Board consisting of Brock Dolman, Mark Sindt, Jim Nelson, Jim Coleman, and Kate Sindt were all present. Mark Sindt reviewed the 2019 accomplishments within Sonoma Mountain Institute.  He mentioned that an apple orchard with 800 trees on 35 acres was removed from the Pike Property to create an area to be a new grassland.  Mark talked about the rainwater catchment system that we are trying to have installed.  Mark talked about projects that happened on the Petaluma Property such as re-siding the barn, new cattle guards were made and installed, 8,500 gallons of compost tea was sprayed, and 160 hours were spent pulling star thistle.   The grazing amongst all of the properties were discussed in addition to updates on the Healthy Soils compost spread, infrastructure, and educational outreach that has happened in 2019 at the S.M.I. Petaluma property. Mark went over the finances which included how the 2019 finances ended up in 2019 and the proposed budget for 2020. The board passed the proposed budget for 2020 and the meeting was adjourned.

Dan’s Report, “No News Is Good News”

This year has pretty much been a maintenance year. No major projects have been undertaken. Blackberries and star thistle seem to be pretty well under control, and mowing and weed eating have been my focus this past summer. The grasses continue to spread out in the forested areas, where there is enough sunlight. This has been my goal all along. I think a grassy understory presents much less fuel, should a wildfire ever occur. I also think this is more like the state the forest was in before settlement. I haven’t seen much increase in introduced grass species, with the exception of dogtail grass (not a big problem) and orchard grass (which is hard to get away from, but not really undesirable…just not a native). Much of the native grass remained fairly green all summer. In fact, the California melic and slender wheatgrass stayed bright green. You can really notice how much better things look, compared with the drought years. The pine beetle outbreak seems to have subsided. We did lose a few trees, but I guess that’s pretty normal. There are still a few groups of standing dead pine that I want to clean up, and that will be a good fall project. 

Well, that pretty much covers it. Just continuing to do the same work…thinning, brush control, invasive plant management, and so on. I think we have a pretty healthy piece of land here, and I hope it just continues to get better.

Healthy Soils Compost Spread Update

In 2017 we applied for and secured a cost share grant through CDFA for a broad acre compost application on rangelands. The grant was built off of the science done in the Marin Carbon Projectwhich demonstrated that a ½” application of compost on annual range land in combination with cattle grazing has the potential to sequester carbon in the initial year and for many years after the application is complete. 

In using what we believe is a best practice monitoring protocol, we also had multiple exclosures totaling about 20 acres and 5 monitoring points in the exclosures. The compost treatment protocol designed by the CDFA split the application up into 3 years. Instead of applying 3/8 of an inch one time we are essentially applying 1/8 of an inch three times.  The first application was in 2018 and we have resampled the baseline soil monitoring locations since then.

The results after the first year are encouraging even though sampling on an annual basis is not recommended.Across the 6 soil monitoring sites where we applied compost, we saw an average overall change in carbon from 1.43% (2018) to 1.52% (2019). That is a 5.94% relative increase in % C which is considered meaningful management change in the soil circles. The 5 exclosures where compost was not applied averaged 1.59% in (2018) and decreased in carbon to 1.57% (2019), which is a 1.3% relative decrease. 

In the first year on the first day of 2018 (of two days of application) without getting into too many details we had a lower application rate in terms of dry tons of the compost then we had planned on.  We ended up applying 4 to 4.6 tons to the acre. However, on the second day of application we were able to secure some more compost and actually applied at 5 tons to the acre. This is significant because when we re-monitored in 2019 the sites that got four tons to the acre showed a 4.4 relative increase in carbon. Where the sites that got five tons to the acre showed a 13.1% increase in carbon.

When we went back to apply in 2019 we made sure to apply at least at 5 dry tons to the acre so it will be interesting to see what the changes look like when we re-monitor in 2020.  Additionally, we are an educational site for the healthy soils initiative and had had multiple field days we’re over 90 people from the community have come to learn how to carry out the technical components of the program from our experience. Overall, the program feels like a success from the start and with data just coming in we feel like we have years of learning yet to come.

Triple Graze at Glen Ellen

This year Glen Ellen was the recipient of three rotations of grazing. Since the fires burned down housing for a grazing manager it has been hard to regularly get effective grazing on the property.  However, this year we were able to secure sheep grazing services in March through sweet grass grazing. They brought hundreds of sheep and performed effective high density intensive rotational grazing on the property for a single rotation.  

In June, goats were brought by Paige Lynn Trotter to the Glen Ellen property. Paige was targeting much of the shrubs and poison oak on the Northern end of the property. She was making a lot of headway until a mountain lion that was tagged and named P5 killed her goats on multiple occasions despite many preventive measures being deployed. After the third kill was performed in broad daylight with a human being less than a couple hundred feet away Paige decided to remove her goats from the project.

Despite the goat massacre the cattle were still able to effectively trample down and graze the rest of the residual dry matter towards the end of June.   By supplementing young dairy heifers with an organic protein ration, they are able to more effectively utilize the dry grass and thereby more effectively graze it. While Paige did remove her goats she stayed on to manage the cattle at Glen Ellen until they were finished at the end of June.

Infrastructure

One of the most important contributions we have been able to develop in the grazing program is figuring out how to become more efficient and effective at the actual application of herbivore management on the ground.  Within the restoration Grazing world there are a lot of norms that inherently are not effective or scalable, or based on operations that haven’t actually achieved success. It’s easy enough to talk about moving animals here or there or putting up electric fence, but the practical application of that in field is much more nuanced. Over the past number of years we’ve been able to strategically think about how we execute “control” over cattle and have been able to continuously improve both the methods we use and the tools we use.

SMI’s largest contribution is likely our robust monitoring program in combination with the tangible biodiversity benefits across the landscapes in Marin and Sonoma counties we are able to create through managed herbivory. However, our role in testing and deploying infrastructure has led to our ability to support other ranchers and operations to easily make better management choices. This is extremely important because the biggest barrier to existing managers for more intensively managed system are figuring out cost effective ways, to deploy infrastructure to increase their level of management.  Over the past number of years we have been able to support a number of local Ranchers to secure and use more cost-effective infrastructure in order to engage in a more thoughtful land management system. This has only been possible due to the investment of Sonoma Mountain Institute in the various ideas we have regarding more effective management tools.

In 2017-2018 we secured a cost-share grant at the Cayetana ranch in order to install more interior electric fence systems. We were able to construct those interior high-tensile electric fence systems at the end of 2018, which drastically increased our ability to safely manage the ranch.  We were able to install over 7,000 linear feet of an all fiberglass, high-tensile fence system. The entire cost of this fence system was paid for by the landowners that Cayetana as well as a cost-share from the NRCS that paid for about half of the installation. We provided design expertise and managed the construction through a third-party organization.

 In addition to the fence installation at Cayetana, we also found an amazing cattle corral system through a previous employer of Nate Chisholm. It is comparatively very cost-effective relative to other options. It is also an amazing system for working in close with the cattle. One of the most important things that we can do is safely and calmly, ship cattle, receives cattle, and delivers healthcare treatments to the cattle. For years we have used an amazing set of temporary corrals to perform activities, however they are not designed to deal with the scale of operation that we are at or to be as moved as often as we need them.

At the end of 2018 we completely redesigned and sourced new corrals for Cayetana that made the entire operation much more safe, calm and effective.  Additionally, we were able to work with the Sonoma County Parks to install similar Corral panels at Taylor Mountain so that we could have an effective system there as well. They were able to secure a county grant to pay for a majority of those corrals.  We have also just been able to source and bring in an additional set of corrals to the Sonoma Mountain Institute home ranch, which will essentially give us effective handling facilities at our four major management locations Cayetana, Hilltop, Taylor Mountain, and Sonoma Mountain Institute.

Grassfed Exchange at S.M.I.’s Petaluma Property

We had over 400 people come and tour SMI with Byron Palmer and Nate Chisholm giving multiple presentations to tour groups over the day. Attendees came from all over the country and were extremely interested in the robust monitoring program that Sonoma Mountain Institute has created as well as the cutting edge deployment of cost-effective infrastructure that has been used across Sonoma Mountain Institute’s managed properties. Additionally, Byron was able to participate on multiple panels at the Grassfed Exchange and communicate their experiences and lessons learned working through Sonoma Mountain Institute.

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