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Baby Barn Owls At The Ranch

This is the 11th year in a row that we have baby barn owls in this same box at our ranch in Petaluma. This year we were surprised to see that there are 7 baby owls in the box, when usually there are around 4. We were talking about how hard the parents must be working to feed this many babies. Just thought we would share this cuteness.

Sonoma Mountain Institute Vegetation Monitoring 2019

Summary:

At Sonoma Mountain Institute, we collected plant species data on 72 stratified fixed plots, some paired with exclosures, on six properties to measure the effect of our grazing management on plant biodiversity and on native plant biodiversity. Total plant biodiversity rose on all properties, ranging between 50% and 300% relative increases. Native plant cover rose between 50% and 250% percent on three properties. On two properties native plant cover rose initially by 25% and 50% peaked around 2016 or 2017 before declining to no change. We suspect that changes in vegetation height and thatch depth drove some of these changes. We believe this information can help managers improve biodiversity results on the land, help us better understand prehistoric herbivory regimes, and guide our philosophical orientation towards conservation in the Anthropocene. 

Introduction:

Biodiversity conservation is probably the most important job of any land steward. Yet we have very little information regarding the most basic factors that drive biodiversity and native plant persistence on working landscapes. The biodiversity information that we do have largely focuses on individual species that are already at risk. We wanted to learn more about what factors drove vegetative biodiversity and native plant persistence so that those lessons could be applied to the vast majority of rangeland in California. 

In 2012, Sonoma Mountain Institute started a grazing trial on property in Sonoma County. We grazed that property using electric fence to create higher livestock densities and to control livestock graze/ recovery periods. As the years went on, we added more properties to our management and collected data from more plots on those properties as we added them. After grazing periods that ranged between several hours and several weeks, depending on the property, we removed cattle from a given paddock until the average grass plant in that paddock had regrown several leaves. Our recovery periods ranged from several weeks when vegetation was growing quickly, to six months or more during the summer/fall dry season in California. Than we would regraze that paddock. Every year we collected vegetation data from fixed, stratified plots on these properties. We were interested in monitoring changes in plant biodiversity and percent native cover with our management, as well as other ecological proxies, such as thatch depth, annual vs. perennial cover, vegetation height, etc. On one previously ungrazed property, this included the creation of grazing exclosures and monitoring vegetation in those exclosures, versus adjacent grazed plots. 

Hypothesis:

We hypothesized that by mimicking the movement of large herds of mammals, such as those that inhabited this part of North America and most other continental environments over the evolutionary history of those plant genera, we would increase plant biodiversity. Less clear to us was how this would influence native plant cover, as both North America and Eurasia (the native territory of most non-native plants in California annual grasslands)  have an equally long history of large animal herbivory. We hypothesized that plants from both continents should be equally adapted to herbivory. We wanted to collect data so that we could trace the different ecological mechanisms that created these changes.

Methods:

Sonoma Mountain Institute contracted with a botanist to setup an experimental design and conduct annual vegetation monitoring. That botanist was not part of management on the different properties.

The experimental design that we settled on was a series of fixed plots, ten meters by ten  meters. We used a stratified sample so as to better quantify changes in areas that showed certain characteristics (areas with invasive species, areas with a high native component, open areas vs. areas with higher tree canopy coverage, etc). In these plots, the botanist cataloged all the different plant species that could be identified during peak phenology, which grazing events sometimes delayed. The botanist estimated percent cover for each plant species in the plot. In addition, thatch depth was measured, mid and high vegetation height and phenology were recorded. On one property (ungrazed in the decade prior to our management) we established five small grazing exclosures paired with a neighboring grazed plot. In addition, on that property one acre was excluded from grazing and a monitoring plot located in that exclosure. 

Results:

Biodiversity:

We were surprised by our biodiversity results. All the grazed plots added plant species. With between three and eight years of data collection, depending on the property, the number of plant species per plot has increased between 61% and 243% and all of our plots are still adding plant species. Most of these species came in the form of new forbs, both native and non-native, at low levels, though native grass species also increased substantially. Non-native grasses, both perennial and annual show declines. For example, on our Petaluma property, over half of the plots show substantial increases in native and non-native forbs and native grasses, while at the same time showing substantial decreases in non-native grass cover. This pattern holds on most plots on most properties. One exception being a property that had very high thistle density in the baseline (Walsh). Over a few years of management, non-native thistle densities dropped by an order of magnitude on several plots, confounding the grass/forb patterns that we see on other properties. The Petaluma property has a much higher increase in diversity. We are thinking about possible sampling explanations for that.

Native Cover: 

Percentage of native cover increased dramatically on three of the six properties and increased to a lesser degree on two properties. However, on two properties where native plant cover increased by 25%-50% until 2017 and 2016, when native cover decreased until it settled at +2% (Mitsui) and +8% (Glen Ellen). Two of the three properties that have increased native cover seem to have plateued around 2016 (Petaluma after adding 60% native cover and Pangea after adding 250% native cover.) There was only a modest increase in percent native cover on one property (Walsh at 5%). Cayetanna percent native cover is 145% greater in 2019 than at the baseline and continuing to rise. There were some plots that showed declines in native grasses, though many increased.

Percent Relative Change

DIVERSITY




PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh
2436175639388
NATIVE COVER




PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh
44814514425

Thatch:

Thatch levels have decreased on most plots and on all properties, even on properties that were much more heavily grazed when we took over management. Much of that can probably be attributed to the fact that we rested all heavily grazed ranches, sometimes for an entire season, before grazing, so our monitoring process didn’t capture the lowest thatch levels. In general, in the first year of grazing thatch depths dropped very substantially and by the second year of grazing they were between one and two centimeters and where they hold steady. 

Perennial and Annual:

In general, when looking at the properties as a whole, there has been no change in the percentage of annual and perennial species on all the plots. However this conceals the fact that plant species have changed dramatically. Many plots dominated by annual grasses in the baseline see a big increase in perennial forbs. However, many plots that were dominated by perennial non-native grasses in the baseline see large decreases in those species, with annual grasses and forbs increasing. 

Plant Height:

Plant heights on the Petaluma property are confounded by the fact that the sampling period (2013-2019) included some of the driest and some of the wettest years on record for Sonoma County. Our baseline data was collected in 2013, after the driest water year on record. Despite that, the mid level height for our baseline (pre-grazing) was tied the for highest vegetation heights. “Mid Level Vegetation” heights were highest in 2016, when an average water year coincided with a low stocking rate. “High vegetation” heights do not seem to be nearly as impacted by grazing and track closely with precipitation. The more rainfall, the higher the highest plant in the plot grows, regardless of grazing intensity. 

Another confounding factor is the sampling date. Growth rates at peak phenology are very high, so sampling a week earlier or later in the season can have a huge impact on veg heights measurements. It seems likely that sampling bias affects our height measurements to a certain degree as this was not something we considered at the outset of the trial. Anecdotally vegetation heights over the last three years have been much higher on most of the properties, as high rainfall and management factors coincided to create much higher vegetation heights.

Even with our sampling problems, increases in species diversity native cover track closely with changes in vegetation height, as vegetation heights increase fewer species are added. This pattern is most noticeable on the properties where we have the highest sampling densities, Petaluma and Glen Ellen.

The impacts of vegetation height on species factors seems to be greatest as the vegetation is taller. Patterns were most distinct at Glen Ellen, where vegetation heights are much higher than on the other five properties. We would expect this pattern to continue until bare ground started to increase, offsetting increases in stem count that come from shorter vegetation heights. 

Blue- Vegetation Height, Red- Plant Species Numbers, Yellow-Native Plant Percent Cover

Exclosures:

We setup exclosures on a ranch that had not been grazed for many years before our grazing management. Some of those exclosures were paired plots where we had exclosures immediately adjacent to grazed plots. We have thrown out the data on one of those exclosures for reasons that we will discuss. The grazed plots added over 60% more plant species over the course of the study than the ungrazed plots. It is important to note however that the ungrazed plots still added plant species, but at a much lower rate. The ungrazed exclosures had no change in percent native cover while the grazed plots had a 125% relative increase in native cover. 

However, our plot located inside a one acre grazing exclosure added species and native species in line with many of the other plots, a perplexing result.

One of the exclosures was accidentally grazed on the first year of the study (2013). At the time we thought this was a big mistake but now it is one of the more interesting data points. In the first year after the baseline, biodiversity and native cover were the same on the two plots, as we would expect since management was the same, both increasing in-line with what we saw in all the grazed plots. But species were added at a lower rate in the exclosure in the next two years as grazing was discontinued. By the third year, nonnative grass levels jumped back to pregrazing levels and by the end of the period (2019) the exclosure is starting to lose plant species and native cover, reversing gains after grazing was no longer allowed. No other plot has demonstrated this pattern. 

Discussion:

The overall trend that we see from our research is one where plant species, including native species, increase through our management. The increase comes from native and non-native forbs (many species, all having quite low total cover percentages) and native grasses. These gains come at the expense of non-native grasses, both annual and perennial. 

Native percent cover did increase on all properties initially, but on two properties (Glen Ellen and Mitsui) it has declined back to no change since around 2016/2017. We are looking into possible causes for this. In addition, some plots did lose native grass cover over time. We are looking into what could cause this. One theory is that the old moribund material of some of the species was creating a large footprint, though only a small percentage of that material was living. This is supported by several of the plots that showed this tendency at the start of the trial have since regained their native grass cover.  

We think that increases in biodiversity and percent native cover on these properties occurred because we created herbivory regimes that more closely resemble the herbivory regimes that these plant genera evolved under. We hope to use this information to help land managers refine their biodiversity management. In addition, at the risk of being tautological, we hope to use this information to advance our understanding of prehistoric herbivory regimes. 

One of the first takeaways that struck us in our analysis of this data is how consistent our results were. Over five different properties all with different geologies and aspects, we achieved broadly similar results. These properties ranged from being very heavily utilized/overutilized by livestock at set stocking rates, to being completely ungrazed for a decade or more. When we started managing these properties, the management realities dictated that we use a wide range of livestock densities. Some of the properties were grazed using high stock density, with multiple livestock moves per day, others were grazed much more extensively, often with grazing periods that were several weeks or a month. The year-to-year results were also broadly similar, with similar numbers of species being added over the course of three or five years, despite the fact that our dataset spans both some of the driest and wettest years on record for Sonoma County. Recovery periods during the grazing season were relatively constant on all properties as was a summer/fall rest period, roughly from the first of July to mid December. 

This gives managers an interesting data point about how to allocate scarce management resources. We also think this suggests that there was a wide range of possible herbivory regimes over evolutionary significant periods. But we also think this suggests that it is easy for managers to create herbivory regimes that lie outside what was common over evolutionary history; decades of ‘set stocking’ and decades of herbivore exclusion being perhaps equally uncommon over evolutionary history. 

The plots with the highest biodiversity were under tree canopies, and the plots with highest biodiversity had high native plant diversity. Nowhere did we find very high biodiversity strictly with non-native plants. It is hard to know what is driving higher biodiversity under tree canopies. Trees might increase diversity by creating a range of sunlight conditions, through nutrient impacts, or some other means. But treed sites also tend to have less or no historic agricultural disturbance. Historic agricultural disturbance could have removed individual plants that have failed to recolonize the site, or could have altered soil properties in some important way. On our properties, areas with higher tree densities also tends to be on slopes (due to historic agricultural practices), tend to have lower herbaceous heights, etc..  

We think that this data also points to some of the possible mechanisms involved with species recruitment, often involving competition. First, thatch effectively competes for light with other species, particularly during the seedling stage. In addition, grazing reduces the height of the vegetation. During the drought of 2012-2013 when our baseline data was collected for our Petaluma property, precipitation levels were an amazing 20% of some of the subsequent years. Yet vegetation heights at the baseline were still higher in the ungrazed dry year than in the grazed wet years. Since herbaceous plants need to be rooted to the ground, we hypothesize that the “3:2 Thinning Rule” would suggest that there will be the potential for many more stems per plot when vegetation is short. With more stems per plot there is the possibility to have more individual plants per plot and with more individual plants there is the possibility to have more species. We could hypothesize that herbaceous plant biodiversity would increase with decreasing veg height until bare ground started to increase. At this point the manager would have the most possible stems, therefore the most possible species. Which is a hypothesis that needs to be tested.

In addition, we suspect that vegetation height could provide insights into the mechanisms driving the increase in percent native cover that we detected. Since the native plants in our area are much shorter on average than the non native plants, they would be disproportionately disadvantaged by very high vegetation heights and we could expect them to increase with lower vegetation heights. Percent native cover quickly declined with higher veg heights, while total species numbers were less sensitive. It took longer to remove every last species of a plant than it did to reduce populations. 

Another factor affecting our outcome might involve our use of relative cover estimates rather than absolute cover. Because we chose to use relative cover estimates, any increase in percent cover from some species will decrease percent cover for others. Our anecdotal observations suggest that a certain amount of the change in percent cover comes from an increase in forbs and natives grasses, rather than a decrease non-native grasses.

One of the burning questions to come out of our data so far is why exclosure plots have continued to add species, though at a much slower rate than control plots in the paired study. This is particularly perplexing in our one acre exclosure, which added more species than in the paired plots and is not very different from the average results on grazed plots. If these plots had been adding species at their current rate for any amount of time, there would be hundreds of plant species on these plots. However, some exclosures species counts are still in the single digits. One likely explanation is that the exclosures in our paired plots are too small and sunlight, or other impacts from grazed areas are affecting species composition inside the exclosure. This makes sense in the paired plots, however the plot in our one acre exclosure has added even more species than the paired plots. We feel like we have ruled out sampling bias because our research team has not encountered the same problem in other contexts using the same methods. This is one of many questions that we are in the process of creating experiments and hypotheses to test. 

Another observation from the exclosures is that vegetation patterns seem to track with climate in exclosures, with different components of the vegetation rising and falling with different precipitation regimes. However in the grazed plots, the effect of rainfall on species composition is much more muted. We think this is because management is having a strong effect on vegetation and the vegetation has not yet reached a new equilibrium around the management regime.

Conclusion:

We are still working to understand the data that we are seeing. It is possible that we are measuring the birth of a new plant community. A lot of attention in conservation is devoted to native species. Often in conservation circles we encounter the paradigm that the native/non-native divide is a zero sum game; gains in one category are offset by loses in the other. Our evidence does not support this view. From a native plant perspective, even if we increase native plant species by only one percent and at the same time increase non-native species by fifty percent, we should consider that a success. We would like to see more native species on the properties we manage and we are pleased at the slow, steady increases that we are achieving and we are interested to see where native plant cover will go from here on our properties. At the same time it seems unlikely that our management is going to serve as a native plant filter. Maybe it is unrealistic at this point to think that is possible in California annual rangelands without herculean efforts that cannot be sustained over a landscape level and may have ecological costs that outweigh their advantages. 

At the same time adding floristic biodiversity, even non-native biodiversity, has huge benefits to conservation. It seems possible that low levels of many non-native plant species in close association throughout the landscape will encourage the naturalization process, as predators and pathogens that are adapted to one species are exposed to other possible prey and hosts. More interesting is the fact that an increase in non-native plant biodiversity probably encourages an increase in native animal biodiversity. For example, the huge increase in forb species, both native and non-native, that we have seen and the percent of the landscape occupied by forbs, should have a major positive effect on pollinator species, most of which would be native. What the impact would be on other components of native biodiversity, that are much harder to study than plants, such as birds or soil biology are all questions we are interested in exploring. 

2018 Board Meeting

On 12/11/2018, the 2018 Sonoma Mountain Institute Board Meeting was held with Brock Dolman, Mark Sindt, Jim Nelson, Jim Coleman, and Kate Sindt all present.

Mark Sindt reviewed the 2018 accomplishments within Sonoma Mountain Institute.  Of those were the following topics:

– The work being done at Taylor Mountain and the infrastructures that have been put in place.

-The species count and Mark discussed how he is working with SMI’s IT guy to add this data to our website.

-Our new 3 year Healthy Soils Compost Spread project.

-How our grassland managers are happy with the new fencing they are using. It changes the dynamics of how they move the animals using interior fences rather than exterior fencing.

-Mark mentioned that he will be meeting with the folks from Resource Conservation District on the catchment system early January and is hoping to get that project started.

-Brock and Mark also wanted to mention that the Star Thistle hand pulling is going really well at SMI as SMI staff is pulling less hours each year but covering a larger area due to the success of the cattle grazing.

 

The 2018 budget was reviewed and a new budget for 2019 was proposed and approved. The meeting was then adjourned.

 

 

 

 

2017 Annual Board Meeting

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The 2017 Board meeting was held at our Petaluma Property on November 6, 2017. The meeting introduced the 2017/2018 board members including new board member Jim Coleman. Brock Dolman, invited Mark Sindt to review the accomplishments from the properties that were under supervision in 2017. Mark reviewed how the wet winter we experienced this year affected the overall grazing plan and growth of grass. Mr. Sindt described what the plan for the 2018 grazing season is, where the cattle come from, as well as the number of animals we can expect to see SMI use on various properties in 2018.

Mark Sindt went over the budget. He mentioned the plans to clean up the brush and debris at the Sugar Bowl property in the upcoming year. Mark also discussed the arena beautification and Catchment projects that have recently been added to the list of projects for 2018. The catchment system is something that will take time to plan and install. The idea is that the catchment system will help relieve the wells on the property and maybe save Sonoma Mountain Institute some money. The Proposed budget and projects were approved for 2018. The board enjoyed a nice lunch and then headed our separate ways.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Grazing Reports for Glen Ellen and Petaluma Properties 2015

Glen Ellen Property Grazing Report 2015:

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In 2015 we continued to bring the impacts of large animals to the vegetation at the Glen Ellen Property. However, because we were growing our property base and our number of enterprises we had dramatically, we did not achieve the sort of vegetation management results we had achieved in past years. Because we were taking on grass-fat beef cattle and because we were busy bringing on other properties we did not have as much time as we have in the past to manage this property. We expect to see this drop in management quality in the vegetation monitoring results next year, if we aren’t already seeing them this year.

Overview

In order to diversify and experiment with our enterprises we felt like it was important to bring on a grassfed beef finishing herd this year. In previous years we have had younger beef cattle, but in order to get a premium price for grassfed beef we would have to be able to hold on to older cattle. We received these cattle from panorama and they were very wild. They spent the first week running from any and everything and this probably damaged wet ground early in the season. There is some correlation with increased thistle populations and these heavily pugged areas. These cattle strained our infrastructure. We didn’t have any major wrecks but there was a lot of luck involved with that. Because the cattle were so heavy and were used to having a premium diet, we had to move them much faster than we would have if vegetation management was our only goal. As a result we ended the rotation without being able to effect the grass very much. We were certainly unable to have much impact on the weeds and brush. In addition we ended up going through the forage faster than we otherwise would have. This made it necessary to move these cattle to the hilltop properties, where they should have been all along.

Preparing the hilltop properties for cattle was a time consuming business and it prevented us from dedicating as much time to the Glen Ellen property as we have in the past. Throughout the whole season we had three herds and we had to split our attention between all the different properties which prevented us from taking as much time as we usually do on the properties. This was necessary in 2015 because we only closed the deal on the new properties when the grazing season had already started, so we found it necessary to graze all three properties at the same time. As a result, where we might have moved cattle three times per day in previous years, we only moved them once this year.

As a business it is important for us to grow to a sustainable level by the year 2018 and if those business goals are not attained than it doesn’t matter what sort of results we achieve on the land, they won’t be sustainable. But we need to figure out how to re-configure the situation so that we get better results in the future.

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Modifications

  1. Reduce the number of herds under management-The first and most important way for us to get these results is for us to consolidate herds, and as much as possible have one herd of animals. This will reduce our labor needs significantly, while still achieving the same herd size. This will always be a problem at Glen Ellen because of the size of the property, but we will work to figure out the best way to get as close as possible to this goal.
  2. Choose class of livestock carefully- Another lesson that we learned this year was that we need to choose our class of livestock carefully. The Glen Ellen property needs to be managed by a class of livestock that will be able to eat tall grass, brush and weeds. We had hoped that we could use it as an experimental property but we compromised our management quality to do that experiment.

With those two changes we could have achieved the sort of vegetation management that we had the years before. The bigger issue is that we are still not seeing the sort of vegetation changes on these sites that we had hoped for. We are still seeing the precursors of the vegetation changes we are hoping for ( thatch reductions, etc.) but we are not seeing wholesale conversion towards perennial grasses. Early positive changes in vegetation composition seem to have stalled out and we are not making new gains in monitoring results. This is going to take more work. We plan to analyze the data better in the coming months and have an in depth assessment of the factors influencing vegetation at Glen Ellen. Then we will have a comprehensive plan for adjusting management protocols to turn things around.

By staying honest with ourselves, looking at the results on the land and looking for ways to positively change our management we are going to achieve the best conditions possible on the Glen Ellen property.

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Petaluma Property Grazing Report 2015:

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As opposed to the Glen Ellen property, our vegetation management at the Petaluma property in 2015 seemed to be the best yet of the three years under ecologically based grazing management. We are starting to learn the ins and outs of this property.

Overview

We brought the cattle in about the same time we did in past years, just before the spring flush of grass really took off. We started by going over the open ground twice early in the season, before moving to the woodlands later in the spring. In this way we were able to stay ahead of the grass in the front portions of the property. By keeping the grass shorter, we were able to make our job easier by keeping the grass in a vegetative state, where it was more palatable to the cattle and easier to manage. By keeping the grass short we were also able see the beginnings of good recruitment of both native forbs and perennial grasses. This schedule also enabled us to achieve relatively good impact on the poison oak and coyote brush by getting cattle into the wooded areas when those species are most desirable, after the other vegetation had already started to dry up.

Using the dairy heifers this year has also been helpful in achieving our vegetation management targets. The dairy heifers seemed to be a positive development for us. They have been the best animals we’ve gone through so far for eating brush and weeds without being picky.

We continued our customary practice of leaving part of the property un-grazed, this year reserving the northwest corner of the property (west of the big pond and north of the front field that that we call paddock “F”). This area has historically had very little grass and heavy impact from gophers. It seems to have responded quite well to having a solid year without grazing.

Vegetation Management Results:

We are starting to see more positive vegetation changes at the Petaluma property than we are at Glen Ellen. We are not sure why this is exactly, whether it is due to a higher level of sampling on the Petaluma property or if it comes down to some fundamental differences in management on the property. We aim to figure out what these differences are and start addressing them.

We saw some important specific changes in vegetation over the year. We saw a significant increase, overall, in native perennial grass cover in the grazed monitoring plots at the Petaluma property. The random subset that we analyzed increased perennial native grass cover by 14%. This was compared to the un-grazed exclosures, which saw a 20% decrease in perennial grass cover.

The even more interesting result comes from the total species change on the plots. The number of plant species found on the grazed plots increased by 69% over the three years of management, whereas species increased 42% on un-grazed exclosures. Why there is a species increase even in the un-grazed exclosure is just another piece of information that we need to explain. It is very possible that the effects of the on-going drought are creating significant background conditions that we will only tease apart from the effects of management after the return to normal levels of precipitation.

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Modifications:

  1. The main things we would change going forward would be to bring in more of the people involved with the property early in the season so that we can make sure that we communicate operations at the Petaluma property to all relevant parties and to make sure that we are meeting everyone’s needs regarding management at the Petaluma property.
  2. There were a few minor view sector changes that we would make involving getting fences and corrals moved in a timely manor, and changing the placing of some of that infrastructure. We will also change the timing and priority of our grazing to maintain a visual harmony. For the most part we feel that management at the Petaluma property adhered to our grazing principals.

Next year we hope to continue with the things we have learned at the Petaluma property and see similar positive changes in vegetation on the other properties under our management.

 

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