Grasslands

grass·land |ˈgrasˌland|
noun:A large open area of country covered with grass, esp. one used for grazing.

Grassland restoration is defined as the act of restoring landscape or the reestablishment of an area in which the natural vegetation consists largely of perennial grasses. Specifically, defined as restoring areas of grasses to their former, original, and unimpaired condition. Specifically, when looking back at an era to restore were looking for a time when that system was at its ecological balance.


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.

Working Lands

Thank you to The Sonoma County Farm Bureau for producing an insert featuring the work we do through Sonoma Mountain Institute. You can read the issue called faces of farming by following the link below: https://issuu.com/smidigitalop…/…/scfb_pd_insert_2019_print…

Working Lands

 

2017 Godfrey Report

The days are cooling off, and the gentle fall sunlight are making it beautiful at Godfrey Ranch at this time of year. Last winter’s rainfall was over 100 inches! Which really helped the grasses to expand under the pines and oaks. Now the waist high stems are a wonderful golden color.

We had been experiencing the pine beetle outbreak pretty badly last year. It may be too soon to say, but it seems to have abated. I have only noticed a few single trees die this year. Last year there were three or four areas where we lost groups of 10 – 15 trees. Some of the best of these, I logged and milled into boards, but most of them will go to waste. The wood is only good for a few months after the tree dies, and there really is no market for it around here. This year I have noticed that several trees whose tops had died, have survived. They will grow a new top. This is how the trees usually respond to the pine beetle, instead of completely and rapidly dying, so it seems like a good sign to me. Hopefully, we will get another good wet winter, to help the forest recover. All in all, our land suffered very light damage, compared to other areas of the Sierras.

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I have enjoyed seeing all the birds that have benefitted from the food supplied in the dead trees. There have been hairy woodpeckers, chestnut nuthatches and mountain chickadees working away on the beetles. The sandhill cranes are migrating now, which is always a cheerful sound. The wild turkey population continues to grow. My goal is to continue to improve the habitat by thinning out trees and encouraging the grasses. There was a mother mountain lion (with at least one kit) that was prowling around for most of the summer. My dog Mattie and I had one startling face to face with her, walking along at the top of the property. Happily, she looked at us and ran off, and Mattie didn’t chase her.

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Last fall I did a lot of raking of forest litter into burn piles, with the skidsteer, in the more open stands. This seems to help the bunch grasses a lot. So I am continuing that this year. I also spent time cutting off the little cedars and pine trees that keep popping up in the areas we have cleared. This is just going to be an on-going job. Naturally, I guess low-intensity fires would do this, but allow the grass to re- grow the following year. That is what I am trying to replicate but raking, pile-burning and cutting.

I cleared the heavy old Manzanita along the SW property line. This was not masticated, when we cleared most of the brush in 2004, because it was on steep banks or up against the fence. It really looks nice now, improving the site-line. I was then able to re-build the fencing in that area. The fence was 35 years old, and all the wooden corners had rotted away. I plan on completing clearing the last brushy fence line along the Old Camptonville road, and re-building that section of fence this winter. This is good winter work, as I can burn the brush then, and the ground is soft enough to dig post-holes. I also thinned out the pine plantation (planted 1982 ) on that west side of the property. I will burn the slash this winter, now that it is all dried out. That plantation suffered badly from having competed with the Manzanita until we cut the brush in 2004. The soil is very thin on that site. I originally thought that the plantation would be a total failure, because the trees were so stunted. I only spent the time and money to clear the brush to reduce the fuel load. However, now that the trees have been thinned twice it is looking really great. There has been no beetle kill in that area. So that is very rewarding.

In the NorthWest corner I have continued to work on clearing the steep slopes below the power lines. This seems to be a critically exposed site, fire-wise, with the steep grade and the proximity of the power lines. Power lines have caused at least 5 fires around here, that I can think of, including the disastrous 1959 Mountain House fire (25,000 + acres ) that burned down Pike City. This area was too steep and dense with over-crowded hardwood to machine clear in 2004, plus we were running out of money. Since then I have been beating back the brush and berries and thinning the trees by hand. The results have been amazing. We now have a beautiful stand of oaks with a grassy under-story, and long-range views of the Yuba canyons and hills. I plan on continuing with this work this fall, when I hope to tie it in with the meadows below.

My invasive weed removal work also continued this past summer. I spent about half the time removing weeds this year, over last, which is good. Most of the property is now pretty much free of invasive weeds, though constant monitoring is essential to keep them from getting a foot-hold again. For instance, last year and the previous years, I spent about two weeks, hand-pulling star thistle. This year I spent one day.

Now the dense blackberry thickets that once covered half of the property, are virtually gone, replaced by meadows and wild-flowers. The fire hazard has been reduced, and the wild-life habitat is improved. Mechanical removal of live blackberries is ineffective, as it only encourages dense re-sprouting. Hand grubbing works pretty well on small spots, but these were huge bramble patches. Although I have deprived the bears of one of their favorite foods, and the rats of a happy hang-out, they can certainly find plenty of blackberries other places.

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Well, that pretty much sums up what I have been doing this year. I plan tree-thinning and pile- burning this winter. The mowing, brush-whacking and invasive plant mitigation are just the on-going maintenance that we will have to always due. But gradually I think that land is returning to a more natural state. The Godfrey Ranch was heavily modified by the human activities of the pioneers and miners, over one hundred years. I think we are making good progress in restoring it. I hope we can continue to do so – Dan

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California Red Legged Frog

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The California red-legged frog (CRLF) is the largest native frog in the state. The frog is appropriately named as the underside of its stomach and legs are marked with a red coloring. However, the CRLF vary a lot in color, so color alone is not a good way to identify them. Also, the red on the legs is on the underside and most often not visible unless you pick up the frog (which is not advisable without a permit). The best way to identify them is by confirming the presence of a dorsolateral fold, a fancy name for the raised line that runs down either side of their backs. It looks like piping that’s been sewn on. Also, younger frogs often have a white mustache above the corner of the mouth, and under the eye (like the one with duckweed on its head).

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The California Red-legged frog is currently on the endangered species list and for a variety of reason of which are, but are not limited to: the harvesting of frog legs for food (introduced as a delicacy by French gold miners), placer mining, filling in of wetlands, stream diversions, plus the introduction of bullfrogs and non-native fishes are the major threats and/or causes of decline. Disease has been a problem in the past as well but currently is not known as a big issue.

Some exciting news in regards to the California Red-Legged Frog is that people such as Jeff Willcox; a Managing Ecologist for the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, is on the continual lookout and advocate for the protection of the CRLF species. The Sonoma Mountain Ranch preservation Foundation’s mission is: “Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation is a charitable, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to preserving the natural beauty and biodiversity of the Sonoma Mountain area, and providing education and guidance, through research, for the preservation and enhancement of agricultural, natural, scenic, and open lands. The Foundation promotes best grazing practices and management activities that preserve, steward, and enhance Foundation land and maintain habitat for special-status species present there.” Jeff’s work with SMRPF is reflected in their mission as he has reported that from his findings he has seen, “an averaged 11 red-legged frog masses in ponds that were averaging 3.” Jeff has been more than happy to provide awareness and education to all with like-minded missions within the Petaluma area.

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Like our Neighbors at SMRPF, we at Sonoma Mountain Institute strongly focus on the benefits of cattle grazing over the land in a holistic manner for a variety of benefits, which also can impact species such as the CRLF. Grazed natural rangelands are the places you can find healthy populations so we have to assume there are no conflicts between responsible grazing and healthy CRLF populations. For grazers, we ask you to please keep doing what you’ve been doing. Stock ponds have become the best places to find these frogs in good numbers. The worst thing you can do, aside from whole scale development, is introduce bullfrogs and fish to your ponds and creeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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