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.

The Shepherd’s Summary of the Grazing at S.M.I.

Written by: Byron Palmer – S.M.I. Shepherd

The theme of this ecological treatment could be considered tranquility and ease. The importance of this first time event was to ensure that it went well for the cattle, the people and the land. It was important that all three of those participants felt good about the process and the results of the activity. I would say that through the efforts of the whole team at SMI we achieved just that.

An important element of the project going well was making sure that the majority of the rainy season had passed before we introduced the cattle to the property. We wanted to make sure we avoided unaesthetic mud pits around the property. As a result of that concern we introduced cattle onto the property April 1st which gave us 40 days or so of good grass. Due to the uneven distribution of rain in the 20012/13 rainy season with heavy rains in December and not much else following it seemed like SMI’s grass didn’t really get going until April 1st anyway. As I have not been here in previous years I can only guess at this, but I think that the uneven precipitation distribution had something to do with the late onset of rapid growth in the vegetative state of the annual and perennial grasses on the property. The uneven distribution may have also impacted the length of the growing season as well.

As was stated we introduced the cattle onto the property on April 1st. Nate Chisholm had gone down to the property the cattle had come from previous to this date to make sure the animals electric fence training was going well. Nate’s review was that the training was going to our satisfaction and when the animals arrived they seemed to have an understanding of the nature of an electric fence. Having the corrals to intake the animals into when they arrived at SMI and train them a bit more to the fence was key in having a peaceful transition into a completely temporary infrastructure system based off of a single strand of .7 mm poly-wire.

When we introduced the animals into management unit A, getting the animals used to regular handling and constant electric fence containment was our goal. As a result our paddocks were a little larger than they ended up being the majority of the grazing event here this season. Once we made it through management units A and part way into B we began working with the animals more to achieve higher densities.

There are many ways to achieve higher densities and I received a wonderful education from Nate this year on different ways to achieve that density. He began by explaining to me the variations within high density that happen in the natural world. I will not attempt to explain those here (not that I could), but it was an interesting contrast to many of the systems I have seen by people attempting to use solely infrastructure to achieve ultra high densities.

Some practitioners of planned grazing will spend 2-4 hours a day setting up and breaking down temporary fencing in order to move animals as many as ten times per day, achieving a relatively uniform impact, of at times 800,000 pounds of animals per acre. This is applying a linear system of a regular type of density to a given area, and seemed after further reflection, less natural then the types of density present in the natural world. What was interesting to me in Nate’s approach was that instead of taking 2 or 4 hours setting up and taking down a lot of fencing, he preferred spending that time using stockmanship to achieve those densities.

This has many benefits, including working the cattle to become more calm and responsive as well as developing our stockhandling skills. By walking the animals and placing them where we want them on the landscape we achieve the highest possible densities while also being able to target areas that might need it the most. We regularly set up our fencing so that they had enough grass in a given paddock for a day or so. We then both would come in once a day and work with them for a portion of time to achieve higher densities and impact high value target areas such as poison oak groves.

As we moved further into Management Unit B we stopped putting pink flagging on the poly-wire as they became used to the heard seeing the fencing. We also started working with the animals on a daily basis to achieve higher densities and impact areas that we wanted to target. Specifically, there were some grassland/woodland borders that had quite a bit of brush build up and we had a lot of fun marching the cattle back and forth through them to bust it up and open the transition area between the borders.

As we moved through the woodland I was interested to see what kind of forage availability we were going to get. After reviewing most of the heavily wooded management units it looks like the woodland areas produced on average 15 ADA’s (animal days per acre) or so. Better then what I expected. It will be interesting to see how they perform next year. In these wooded areas we still set up paddocks that had enough forage for a day or so, but it was much harder for me to estimate the forage needs in those areas compared with the grasslands. In some of the areas of Unit B we might have set up fencing that placed the cattle at a density where they needed to be moved 2-4 times per day. We ended up varying it up a bit through Management Units B & C, but a day’s worth of forage was usually the upper limit in size in these Units.

As we rounded the corner on the property and headed into Units D & E about May 1st or so the grass started really transitioning into the less nutritious reproductive phase of it’s life cycle. It was interesting to note that at this point in time and the later we got into May, the cattle’s behavior began changing. If they did not have vegetative grass available in a paddock for the day, they were much more vocal and their movements were much more agitated. They would often rather stand around and bawl then put there heads down and make something out of the mature grass. It started becoming more and more unpleasant to be around the cattle. It was at this point that Nate initiated the much needed discussion about balancing body condition and getting optimum impact on the ground.

What we came to was that in order to be in line with our goal of the whole operation going calmly and easily we needed to begin to move the cattle around on the property where there was still grass in a vegetative state. We needed to preserve body condition on the cattle to maintain a good relationship with the cattle owners. Nate has had plenty of experience attempting to force cattle to eat mature grass while sacrificing body condition and animal performance. Based on his experience we should avoid this situation at all costs. It never ends well. As a result of the changing life cycle of the grass, using stockmanship to trample down large amounts of grass that had gone into a reproductive phase became a focus of much of the time we spent with the animals. We would make sure that they had quality feed and they would impact those areas evenly. However any areas in proximity that were in reproductive phase that we wanted to impact we relied on walking them over those areas again and again.

We decided to start grazing insets of Management units F, G and I where grass was still in relatively good quality. In Management Unit M the woodland understory still had a good mix of nutritious grasses so less stockmanship was needed to achieve our desired impact. We eventually jumped back into new areas we hadn’t planned on grazing (Units N and O) as the grass was more nutritious and in a vegetative state which the cattle prefer. As we moved into unit N we got word that the cattle were going to be pulled off the property in the next few weeks. As a result we began moving the cattle through areas a bit faster hoping to get wider impact on the back of the property and trading off in some cases the more targeted and intense impact we were getting before. That being said we were still working with the animals daily, but the overall paddocks they were in day to day were bigger. At this point the velvet grass and harding grass in Unit D had recovered (30-33 day recovery) and were hoping to walk the cattle over to that area to graze and impact once more to see how it performed with two shearings. However we got word that all the cattle were needed back on their home property by June 10th.

Overall the data was encouraging. We averaged about 15 animal days per acre in the wooded areas and anywhere from 30-45 ADA’s on the grasslands during the vegetative stage of growth with the SMI grasses. It’s really difficult to estimate How many ADA’s we could get or were present on the taller reproductive phase annual grasses as we never truly pushed that type of diet on the cattle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was 60 + ADA’s there in some areas. The grasslands performed in terms of forage as to be expected in this region. It will be exciting to see how they adjust over time with this renewed regenerative grazing regime. I think next year if we get better rain distribution we will see much more forage then we saw this year and it will be easy to forget the relationship between this years ADA’s and the poor rainfall. However I will do my best to remember and not get too excited, attributing the possible increase in forage solely to our treatment.

It was sad to see the animals go Monday morning June 10th, but overall I’m pretty satisfied with the execution of the entire grazing treatment. Any time you try something new you will always be readjusting on the fly and recalibrating your desired outcome. I think that we met our goals of having happy cattle, people and land. The cattle gained on average 2 pounds a day which is pretty respectable considering how quickly the quality of the grass changed once the cattle got here. The land was impacted well and we got some good baseline activity to work off of over the coming years. A good deal of the understory of the wooded areas was impacted with P.O. being hit hard in certain areas. We have a better understanding of the seasonal pattern of grass maturity on the property which will help us inform a more effective grazing plan next time around. We also obtained some valuable data on the amount of ADA’s we can expect off different parts of the property at different times of the year. I think overall the cattle owners and the team at SMI were all happy and satisfied with the outcome of the experiment and we look forward to getting it going again just as soon as makes sense for us!


S.M.I. Grazing Summary:

Total Acreage: 209.1
Average Animal Units = 41
Total Days at SMI = 104
Animal Days based on average of 44 AU = 4270
Average ADA on part of property grazed = 20.4

2013 Glen Ellen Data

2013 Grazing Summary

I think that the grazing program at Glen Ellen continued to improve this year. The addition of the new corral system helped this process quite a bit. We used it a few times while they were here and it made the whole process feel much more smooth. We had several unexpected pregnancies, one of which came two days before we got the corral. That one required much more time, hassle, stress for the animal, and significant safety risk for the people involved. Everything went much better a few days later when we had to do it all again with the corral.

I wanted to bring the cattle onto the property as early as possible this year, in the hope that we might get two turns around the property in the green season. Because the season was very dry, that didn’t quite pan out, but we only missed it by a couple weeks. I wanted to do this because I think that is a dynamic that has been missing for a very long time on the property and would help the perennials beef up and remove a lot of the annual seed production, as well as dramatically hit the brush. On the other hand, I’m not really worried about the annual seed and the brush is definitely in retreat. And bringing the cattle so early could very easily have resulted in a muddy mess. When we got even less than a half an inch while the cattle were here, a few areas were right on the edge of being damaged. I threw out native seed on those areas to do a “wet soil seeding” trial. We’ll see how that goes, but I think it should be good. No sign of any seedlings coming up in the “dry soil seeding trial”. If we have cattle on the property during the rainy season going forward, it will require a good amount of vigilance. As long as the rain is not too hard, I will keep them spread out. As soon as they mash down the grass, I will move them on. But if it is raining so hard that they immediately break through the sod, I think I need to have the corral setup with a deep layer of straw on the ground. I can move them there and wait for the rain to slow up. This would mean that I would need to watch the weather and that maybe we should only have cattle on one of the properties during the winter, so that we have enough corrals to go around. In addition, having straw and hay on hand will be necessary as well. Maybe we should buy hay now and put it in the barn or the arena while it is cheap, in preparation?

Since the cattle were here so early, all the grazing was in the vegetative stage and we didn’t have to worry about trampling down any vegetation.

Looking forward to see what Jim’s data shows, anecdotal evidence suggests significant, steady improvement. The first year of grazing under Marius’ house, in Jack’s pasture, and in the orchard went well and I am looking forward to seeing how these pastures respond, since they have a significantly higher native component than the front meadows. As Mark and I observed, it seems that the grazing in these areas happened at about the right time to prevent any annual grass from resprouting. We’ll see what the effect of this is.

We got an average of thirty animal days per acre this time around, starting with twenty days in the first meadow and increasing pretty quickly to forty days per acre in the orchard. This suggests that during the three weeks that the cattle were on the property (March 11-April 4) that the amount of grass on the property doubled. This seems about right to me. We got about seventy animal days to the acre last year. I suspect we will get at least as many animal days from the next rotation, in which case we will get about as many animal days to the acre as we did last year. This is pretty good considering the fact that we probably had 20% of the effective precipitation this year as last year. But I think we got even more forage off of the property than is accounted for in the animal days. Simple animal day measurements don’t take into account weather the animals gained a bunch of weight or not. While the animals last year did just fine, since they were here in the summer with poor forage, they probably just maintained their body condition, which for growing animals means they gained somewhere around a pound and a pound and a half per day. In addition, the cattle last year were in much better condition than the cattle this year, so they ate much more this year. But we didn’t weight the cattle last year. This year we did weigh cattle in and out. It seems that the average per head gain this year was at least 2.5 pounds per day. Some of the cattle gained four pounds per day. As a result I calculated animal days so as to take into account weight gains. Each animal represented about .8 animal units when they came and three weeks later they represented .9 animal units.

It was really good working with Guido. Even though there were a few problems with unexpected calves, it was more than made up for by his flexibility with the schedule and by his ability and willingness to handle the cattle the way I want to handle them. There aren’t many cattle owners who are able and willing to do that. He wants to reserve his spot for next year.

The exclosures that I put up indicate to me that there was at least a month of time that we could have grazed the property and it would have been just as good. The early period in the woods was before the oaks leafed out, and even after they leafed out there was a good week or two before the cattle would really eat much oak. They started eating oak about the same time that they started eating poison oak. I kept them out of the Perideridia sample plot this time around, and I think that was a good idea. The Perideridia is thick right now, while at SMI where we grazed it at about the time we would have grazed here, it looks like there was almost a complete Perideridea failure this year. Oops. Now we know.

In that vein, I feel like the biggest mistake that I made here this year wasn’t something I did that went wrong but in something I didn’t do. I wish that I would have grazed one side of the meadow, or the front meadow, a second time before the cattle left, even though I thought it was a little early yet. This way we could have seen what would happen and we would have learned something. As it is, I still don’t know, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. Anyway, as I said it seems like things keep improving and we will probably bring them back in the next couple weeks.


Monitoring Conclusions:

Just a few thoughts regarding the monitoring data this year.

I think in general the results show a positive trend and I am happy that there is slow movement in the right direction. But we should keep in mind that this year was a very different year from last year and any year on year changes might be the result of that.

Specifically, the dramatic increase in legume this year is what I might expect the first year after a grazing treatment, but it might also have something to do with the season. Most plots saw a major expansion in the legume percentage, the most notable being plot 1 which had only a minor legume component last year, and this year it was 50% legume.

There was also a modest expansion in the Elymus percentages in several plots, and Jim noted that there was a major difference in the vigor of all the Elymus plants that he found. If the plots had been located other places, we probably would have picked up more Elymus recruitment, but with the lessons learned from the previous cycle I will try to adjust management to make that happen over other areas. Hopefully this will show in the data.

It seems that the brush has been majorly affected by the grazing, as our observations would suggest. The wood edge plot had a three quarters reduction in the poison oak percentage. There were also changes in the Perederidea patch, though Jim said that while the plants were again much more vigorous, he didn’t think there was a big change in the percentage of Perederidea. Jim did that plot much later than he did the other plots, June 24th, and I wonder if he came out at the same time this year if he would come to the same conclusion. As it was, the Perederedea wasn’t in flower and it was hard to tell what was what. But he did find that the Ithruiel spear saw an enormous increase, though from a very small base and a new species of conservative native forb appeared, Chinese houses.

Everywhere thatch layers say major reductions. One plot showed that the thatch layer was ten times deeper last year. I think this is positive.

We also did two new plots in the orchard this year, to follow the changes in a control paddock. The only thing that occurs to me to report about that is that Jim recorded the phenology of the grazed plot as “mid phenology” and the exclosure as “late phenology” meaning that in the exclosure the plants had pretty much finished growing while in the grazed plot the plants were still growing actively.

The take home message for me after this monitoring session is that while we need to create good conditions for seeds to grow, we also need to have a seed in place that will use those conditions, and in some parts of the property, there might not be those seeds. While eventually perennial grass seeds will certainly land on every inch of the property eventually, they may not be the ideal grass seeds that we want. This might be a good opportunity, after the thatch has been majorly reduced and before other grass species have become established on the property, to get the sort of plants that are most in line with SMI’s goals for the property.


Soil Biology  Results:

Biological Soil Analysis- Front

Biological Soil Analysis- Middle

Biological Soil Analysis- Orchard


Soil Chemistry Results:

Soil Chemistry Analysis for Plot 1 Front

Soil Chemistry Analysis for Plot 2 Middle

Soil Chemistry Analysis for Orchard


2013 Species Data:

Complete list of Species at Glen Ellen 2013pdf

2013 Charts For Vegetation Distribution in Plots:


Always Eager To Learn More about Grassland Restoration From Those Around Us.

Wow, last week was an exciting week for us as we had visitors from the McConnell Foundation from Reading, CA. come down to see how and what we do at S.M.I. in person.  On April 18th we started the day by discussing and observing the use of cattle to restore grasslands in a more cost-effective manner with the use of shepherds.  We then went to visit the Marin Carbon Project located in Nicasio, California  It was there that both our friends from the McConnell Foundation and our staff from S.M.I.  had a wonderful time with John Wick and all that he had to share about the benefits of using cattle to sequester carbon.  On April 19th our staff at S.M.I. came together at the California Native Grassland Association’s Field Day at Hedgerow Farms located in Winters, California.  The day included a walking tour that discussed the importance of restoration, pollinators, and specific grassland species.  While the tour given by hayride discussed the importance of restoration in regards to roadsides, hedgerows, tail water ponds, pollinators, rangelands, and canals.   Both tours were very informative and as expected, to see Hedgerow Farms in person was simply amazing as you can see in the photos below.

The Cattle Have Arrived!!

On April 1st, sixty belted galloway cattle arrived on the ranch property in Petaluma for a couple month stay.  Shepherd’s Byron Palmer and Nate Chisholm are collectively working to ensure the cattle remain calm and guided since their arrival.  Their report is that everything is going really well with the cattle so far and that the property is being grazed nice and evenly.  The pictures above show the area of the ranch that is planned to be grazed as well as a few pictures of the belted galloways that are with us.

The Second Glen Ellen Grazing is Complete!!!

From March 11th, 2013 until April 5th, 2013 sixty Angus cattle grazed over various areas on Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 100 acre property located in Glen Ellen.  The Shepherd of record was Nate Chisholm who reported that the overall process went well.  His detailed notes and results are soon to be added to our website.  Below are a few pictures which not only reflect the beauty of both the land and the cattle but also show an outlined picture of the areas grazed on the property.







It’s Time To Plant!


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Spring has sprung here at S.M.I. and we are ready for planting!  With the help of our lath structure, we previously prepared plugs that are ready to plant as soon as April 1st. There will be a total of 9,600 native grass plugs planted throughout the Ranch property in Petaluma, of which 50% are Purple Needle Grass and 50% are Nodding Needle Grass.  In addition there will also be  250 White Oak starter trees being planted.


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After receiving the latest Grasslands magazine published quarterly by the California Native Grasslands Association we were excited to read and now to share that a rare grass called the Poa Sierrae was found in June 2012 by a woman named Jade Paget-Seekins in the El Dorado National Forest located in the Northern Sierra Nevada. The article mentions that “…very few California botanists were familiar with this grass; prior to the summer of 2012, it had only been collected a few times in the past 20 years.” (4).  For more information about the Poa Sierrae we at SMI highly encourage you to look into the California Native Grassland Association as well as the California Native Plant Society.

For more specific information about the Poa Sierrae through the CNPS website go to:

We would also like to mention that two of our valued resources; Hedgerow Farms and the California Native Grassland Association have merged together to offer a field day coming up on April 19th located at Hedgerow Farms in Winters, CA.  Registration can be found at : if interested.

Grassland Restoration

What is Grassland Restoration & Why is S.M.I. Pursuing this Endeavor?

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.

Why should Grassland Restoration be Important to us? 

All the things we are concerned about globally can be helped by the simple act of restoring these landscapes. With a holistic management approach, we are able to simulate the behavior of the megafuana healthy ecosystem with the use of shepherds.  One of the key elements that is often missed; yet, is a main area of focus for S.M.I. is the importance to find, educate, and support a new generation of shepherds.


Some History

Ten to fifteen thousand years ago “megafauna”, a term used to describe large animals that weigh over 100 lbs at maturity, co-evolved with the same soils and plants that are still around us today.  During this time period grasses that lived for up to thousands of years were seen as the primary source of food for the vast number of herbivores that grazed and roamed the land.  These grasses thrived in the system that they evolved in.  The amount of soil disturbance that occurred from grazing by the megafauna is apart of the system that built soil and deepened plant roots.  Another cause of the health and abundance of perennial grasses was due to the amount of recovery time experienced as the megafauna migrated.  Driven to migrate, the megafauna were in constant movement due to the threat of their carnivorous predators as well as the amount of food available to them during their dry season.  This periodic extended recovery time is vital to accumulating a source of older material to serve as a source of soil-covering litter.  Since these grazing herds have almost entirely disappear by being replaced with the low number of sedentary livestock the balance of birth, growth, death, and decay has been disrupted. Grasslands depend on biological decay. Grass needs animals to thrive. The problem can be reversed with herds of lives stock.  A new form of management that mimics the natural behavior of wild herds and restores carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water cycling, and mineral cycling can be done through Holistic Planned Grazing.


For more information click on the links to the following videos:

Holistic Planned Grazing

Allan Savory- EXTRACTS-Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis?


An Example Of How Grassland Restoration Has Made An Ecological & Cultural Difference.

One of the greatest success stories to date comes from the non-profit organization established by Zimbabweans called The Africa Centre for Holistic Management located in Zimbabwe.  In 1994 20,000 acres were donated to the Africa Centre to be used as a Holistic Management demonstration and learning site and training centre for the Southern Africa region. According to Constance L. Neelyand and Jody Butterfield from The Savory Center, “Through its partnership with the Wange community, the Africa Centre hopes to become a model of sustainable resource management that can be replicated in the region and elsewhere in Africa to restore land productivity, diversity of wildlife, and local community livelihoods. By combining small groups of animals into larger herds and planning their daily moves, herdsmen maximize forage production and the benefits of animal impact – the hoof action of the animals as well as the dung and urine that fertilize the soil. By mimicking the wild herds that roamed these lands in the past and keeping livestock moving, they minimize overgrazing of plants, which over time leads to increased ground cover. Livestock are, in effect, being used as a tool for improving soil aeration, water penetration, seed germination, and increasing species diversity and productivity. Rivers are beginning to flow again because water retention in soils has increased, leading also to more secure and lasting boreholes. These elements, combined with predator-friendly approaches to protecting livestock such as lion-proof kraals, enhance the habitat for large populations of wildlife to grow and flourish.”The Africa Centre for Holistic Management is not only responsible for educating graduates and trainers from their Holistic Management education programs but have created a mind shift educating villagers all over South Africa to preserve and protect land which then creates bountiful crops to provide food, beautiful landscapes to promote tourism, and through grassland restoration has taken once bare dry land and made it flourish with grasslands and water pools for megafuana to thrive on.



2012 Soil Building Update


Compost being made at S.M.I..

In 2012 we made 6 batches of regular feed stock compost using rice straw, wood chips, and green hay and three of Azola. The compost when finished became the feedstock for the 50,000 gallons of compost tea we applied to the Sudden Oak Death effected trees. In 2013 the spraying will be split between tress and grasslands.

12,000 Native Grass Plugs Planted

Tis the season for planting as our latest project was to plant 6,000 nodding needle grass plugs and 6,000 purple needle plant plugs on November 10th, 2012.  Below are photos of the area planted in addition to a close up picture of some planted native grass plugs.

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