Savanna Project


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

 

Grazing Report for Hill Top Properties in 2016

This was our second grazing season having brought on an additional three pieces of property to manage using cattle as a regenerative restoration tool. These three pieces of property are contiguous and together total just over 1037 acres on the top of Sonoma Mountain. The first of the properties is Mitsui Ranch and it is the largest piece of property at 632 acres. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation (SMRPF). The second property is owned By James and Sophie Gray and is 128 acres. The third property is called Walsh and is owned by the Sonoma County Regional Park System and totals just over 280 acres.

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It should be noted that in this report we reference grazing in various paddocks for certain lengths of time. It should be noted that when we refer to these areas, we are only referring to a small portion of them. We subdivide the larger interior paddocks into much smaller areas with temporary electric fencing. We do not in this report go into detail of the specific location of temporary fencing as that can be found in our grazing reports and management location pages on the Sonoma Mountain Institute Website:

(http://sonomamountaininstitute.org/management-location/).   

Last grazing season in March – June 2015 we ended up getting started quickly as the lease wasn’t finalized until right before the season and we didn’t have as much time to use more robust holistic planning process before getting started. However this new grazing season coming up would be different as we had a good deal of experience under our belts with the property and some time to plan and upgrade the interior infrastructure in order to support better ecological management.  

We worked together with the resident biologist and property manager to come up with a long term infrastructure and management plan on the Mitsui ranch for the coming season. We used a modified version of the Holistic Land Planning Protocol and developed our future ideal landscape and the infrastructure necessary to support it. After putting together a robust design in collaboration with the SMRPF team they committed financial resources to the materials for the fencing portion of the design and we (SMI) committed the labor and technical expertise for installation. Additionally the SMRPF team had been working for years on a water system of tanks and troughs independently that was also going to be mostly installed by the beginning of the grazing season which we truly appreciated. We also carried out a similar process on the Walsh property as well using similar tools, strategies and materials for permanent interior electric fence design.

We finished the construction of the infrastructure mostly by December as we were getting ready to receive our cattle for the year. We were receiving a heard this year from two different operations, one a local organic dairy and the second from a very large grassfed beef supplier to Whole Foods Market. We had about 156 cattle total on Hilltop that weighed about 92,000 pounds to begin with. We had decided after the end of the 2015 grazing season in June of that year that we wanted to come back earlier to graze this next season than we had in the past.

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Grazing after June and July becomes more difficult in our area as the streams and ponds dry up, the forage loses quality and the electric fences do not work as well due to decreased humidity in the soil. We decided that it would be better to leave a good deal of forage behind in June of 2015 and come back and graze that older standing forage with the short green forage that comes in the late fall with the rains. We ended up receiving cattle in December of 2015 for the 2015-2016 grazing season and we had a large stockpile of grass we had left behind. The new green grass that was coming up with the early rains made for a good ration for the cattle of longer older more carbohydrate rich grass from the previous season, and short protein rich grass from this new season.

The season got going in December and our hypothesis of a smoother grazing season with starting earlier began to pan out overall. One of the interesting benefits of grazing older material in the rains is that the cattle integrated that material into the soil better than if we had grazed it in the summer. Grazing at this time of year seemed to increase the overall positive effects of trampling in forage, though we will have to look at our monitoring records in the future to validate this theory.

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We started our grazing for the season on the Mitsui property. As we moved through the property we chose to keep the animals moving into new paddocks at a fast clip and chose to leave behind a lot of the material they trampled. We chose to do this, so the animals would stay on a high plane of nutrition and that the trampled material would be left for cover and integrated back into the soil. We could have gotten more feed out of the material, but for the sake of the animals and the soil we thought it best to keep them moving. As a result the animal days we harvested in the fall/winter were a lot less then were actually there on the landscape. So while our grazing records indicated we grazed 11 animal days to the acre on the first rotation we likely had 20 to 25 ADA’s present.

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As we progressed through the Mitsui property it became clear that permanent infrastructure allowed us to achieve density and precision management much more effectively. The cattle were not getting out of their paddocks at all, and the fences were much more resilient to weather. Additionally, we could set up more paddocks with ease as the permanent electric fence made division shorter, straighter, and more resilient.

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We finished grazing the first rotation on the Mitsui Ranch on February 5th and moved onto the neighboring Walsh property. We had stockpiled forage on Walsh from the summer of 2015; however, by February of 2016 the weather had diminished its feed value on top of the fact that Walsh doesn’t have great feed value to begin with. So we decided to move the cattle quickly through Walsh, making sure to get the impact we needed, getting thatch on the ground, cattle fed, but not at the expense of animal performance. All that being said it was looking like there was a lot more grass species coming in than the previous year and less thistle overall, so we were feeling very encouraged.

We moved out of the Walsh property and back on to the Pangea property on February 18th. This year Jeremiah Stent had built us an amazing 1000 gallon portable water trough trailer and we used it at the Pangea property with great success. Pangea is a beautiful ranch and it was visually looking better than the year before as well. Setting up Pangea to graze is the most labor intense of the properties on Hilltop as it doesn’t have secure perimeter fences for the cattle, any internal fencing, and has many areas that need to be fenced out. However due to it’s small size we only have to be there 3 – 5 days at a time, and we get to help create a more unified and beautiful landscape across the mountain.

We ended up back at the Mitsui property on February 22nd to finish grazing a few paddocks we passed on they way to Walsh. By March 2nd we were back where we originally began grazing in December of 2015. The pasture had 75 days of recovery, and the grass had 2 or three new tillers of leaves after the last grazing event, however the new growth was still fairly short. We had planned on the grass really starting to pump growth by this point, but it looked like the season was behind a little. We were supposed to get another shipment of cattle around this time to address the huge surge of growth that takes place in spring. As the grass just looked a little farther off for more robust growth we decided to shift those additional cattle that were supposed to arrive on Hilltop to land at the newly acquired Hardy property instead. Luckily, we work with great suppliers and they were flexible and amenable to sending the additional animals to another location.

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We performed another full rotation around Mitsui and by April 1st we were were back to the Walsh Property for a second rotation. However, before we moved the cattle to Walsh we had installed a similar permanent electric fence on the Walsh Property as the one we had on Mitsui. It also made management more effective, simple, safe and fun. Also by this point in the season it began to look like a lot of the species that were coming up where new, and replacing some of the thistle that dominated the Walsh landscape.

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As we moved back into Pangea off of Walsh on April 17th it seemed like more biodiversity was showing up here as well. Clovers and wildflowers and native species that we hadn’t seen. By april 21st we were back to Mitsui and the ranch was pumping with more grass than we were going to be able to handle with the size herd we had. While it was the right decision to send the second group of cattle to Hardy as the ecology was not ready at Hilltop for them, we were now ready and had more feed than we needed.

You never get it perfect and there is always tradeoffs. However, we knew that we would be able to have a great stockpile of forage for grazing early at Hilltop the next winter season. At that point we would be able to integrate a lot of this now growing material back into the ground nurturing the organic matter and life in the soil. So all the forage now growing was like ecological money in the bank for the following years to come from our perspective.

When we moved back to Mitsui on the 21st of April we were back into Middle pasture for a second rotation and by that point Middle pasture was simply gorgeous. We only grazed a small portion of Mitsui for a third rotation and that was High Knolls which at that point was well recovered and ready to go. The Cattle shipped out for the season on June 7th and the loading and shipping and weighing went off without a hitch. It felt like a great successful season.

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We had only one animal that needed to be treated with medicine all year and the animal performance and health was great. The cattle as to be expected did not gain weight through december to February. However, after that they started to pack on weight with some months of 2.5 pounds a day and others 3.5 pounds a day. The overall season average was 1.7 pounds gained a day, which considering we had them over winter felt pretty good. All the owners were satisfied with the performance and overall animal health as well as how calm the cattle had become. All owners appreciate the low stress livestock ethics we have and mention how calm the cattle seem to be upon shipping.

As for the ecology, the monitoring results looked favorable. After 1.5 grazing seasons all three properties showed increases in native species, biodiversity and decreases in invasives like thistle. Mitsui showed a 29% relative increase in Native species and a 59% relative increase in overall species. Walsh showed a 37% relative increase in Native species and a 39% relative increase in overall species. Pangea showed a 72% relative increase in Native species and a 102% relative increase in overall species. It is looking like the needle is moving in the right direction.

Overall 2015/2016 was a great grazing season on Hilltop. We are learning how to become more effective at using infrastructure to support ecological management. The animals and land showed indications of health and improvement. We also had a lot of fun making it all happen. While we had a few hiccups to learn from we are excited at what the next years have instore for us managing land at Hilltop and beyond.
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Annual Reports for Glen Ellen, Hardy, and Petaluma 2016

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The two properties where we have been grazing the longest, SMI and Glen Ellen, received a little less grazing as we focused resources on the Hilltop and Cayteanna properties and we took this opportunity to give parts of those properties a little longer rest period. We also used these properties to conduct several interesting trials.

The first of those experiments was a compost application. We applied a half to a quarter inch of compost, using the Marin Carbon Project application protocol, in an effort investigate the effects this compost has on soil carbon processes in order to test its potential to  promote soil biodiversity and sequester atmospheric carbon. We don’t yet know what it did for soil carbon but the above ground results have been very interesting. There was a stark contrast in the area where the compost was applied. A distinct rectangle was visible where the compost was spread, the area inside the rectangle being mesic grassland from top to bottom, while the control area remained sparse forb cover on top and anaerobic soil in the bottom. The cattle were enthusiastic about the site and we harvested an estimated 3X forage in the composted area.

We also used the a no-till drill to apply a variety of seeds at SMI this year. We planted some annual plants in an effort to inject more energy in the soil, as well as a variety of native perennials. The natives are hanging out and doing their slow but steady native thing. The annuals did not do very well. We assume this is because there was so much grass this year, due to rain, that our planted annuals were not able to compete with the other vegetation. This is a good problem to have. Another factor is that at the last minute we acquired the Hardy property which gave us a big new grazing resource. However it meant that it took us much longer to graze SMI and we did not get to graze our seeding trial until later in the season then we would have liked.

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The Hardy property was another success for the year. Due to very rough topography we opted for a simplified rotation sequence for hardy. We divided the whole property into two paddocks on the only logical line we had, and we grazed either side for about two weeks at a time. This was about how long it took for the cattle to eat half of the grass in the low accessible areas. That grass then grew back quickly and was ready to graze two weeks later. As soon as growth started to slow, we pulled the cattle off of Hardy. This left abundant grass on the steep slopes that we hope will catch fog, a common phenomenon on Hardy because of the slope and aspect. All in all we were pretty happy with what we were able to achieve given the challenges.

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Upon cattle arrival at SMI we focused our grazing on the high production areas to make sure we could get the biodiversity effects we wanted to see there. In these high production areas we were able to lay down a lot of material on the soil surface and buildup our litter layer and allow for more plants to grow in that environment. In the lower production areas, we were less worried about heavy competition. Both at SMI and Glen Ellen we have seen some positive effects from an extra long rest period, in the form of new, taller native forbs and in tree regeneration. We will need to return to these areas soon to address brush encroachment and to make sure that we do not go backwards of the plant biodiversity gains we have seen over the last six years. However added woody species and the taller forbs might add more species to our species count next year. We will anxiously monitor those results, though we think that, periodically, these longer-than-one-year rest periods will be a valuable tool in our mission to increase the number of species we have on these properties.  

Educating about Soil Carbon at SMI

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Soil carbon sequestration offers one of our best chances of reducing green house gases in a cost effective way. On top of that it provides a myriad of other benefits; preventing droughts and floods, increasing ranch yields, and boosting biodiversity in the place where it counts most, the soil.

At SMI, we do our best to boost soil carbon, but as a society we are just starting to learn how to do that. Even before we can learn how to increase organic matter we need to learn how to properly measure it.

We were glad to have Peter Donovan out to SMI’s Petaluma property to perform and teach his preminent method to folks from a half dozen different agencies and non-profits.

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