SNOW in Petaluma!

Pretty exciting to have two of the properties we manage get some snow at the end of February! The Mitsui Property had 6 inches of snow and the Triangle G Property had about 2-3 inches. Just enough for our staff to take a break and have some fun. We can’t wait to see how this impacts the grazing season!

2022 Annual Board Meeting

The team was able to meet up again this year as Sonoma Mountain Institute’s Board met for our 2022 Annual Board Meeting on December 17th, 2022. Our Board continues to consist of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board for the 2022/2023 year ahead. Mark Sindt reported that he is excited about our team’s adversary because they have overcome a number of drought years, covid, and hiccups with infrastructure and cattle, and anything else that has come their way.   Mark went through the various accomplishments within each of the properties that were worked on by our team this year. We talked about how well the grazing management is going in regards to the data collected, how our team has evolved, what they have continued to learn in regards to working with cattle, and the difficulty in dealing with a lot of rain at once followed by a dry spell. To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances for 2022 and the proposed budget for 2023. The board passed the proposed budget for 2023 and the meeting was adjourned.

2022 Projects at The Ranch in Petaluma

CJ and his team have been busy on the ranch in Petaluma again this year. They have had the typical on-going projects such as: cleaning the azola, weeds, and tules from the ponds, clearing of underbrush and burning the piles, clearing downed trees, cutting, and splitting the remains for firewood, equipment maintenance, road maintenance, working on compost piles, pulling of star thistle, and growing small oak starts. However, this year they were able to sneak in some other large projects such as going to the Godfrey property and helping mill timber. CJ brought the milled wood down to Petaluma and used it on projects such as re-framing the barn.  They helped work on the rainwater catchment system so the water that runs off of the barn roof can go into two 5000 gallon storage tanks.  This water is pumped up to our storage tanks at Hilltop and when those four storage tanks get full it overflows into the large pond.  A few extra projects that were completed were helping set up the solar panel trailer to run the water pump, more bird houses were installed, the barn was cleaned out and re-organized, a new boat deck was built for pond weed removal, and a new metal tea tank stand was built.

S.M.I. Grazing Recap for 2022

The 2022 season brought unprecedented weather conditions that challenged our grazing processes and projections. As in years past, we relied on our ability to innovate and adapt our systems and expectations so that we could maintain the health of the land and the animals in our care. Despite the uncertainty and impact of the historic drought and dry spring, we were able to manage for improved biodiversity, substantially improved our grazing team, and tried new innovative technologies. We also strategically developed new partnerships with the Eames Institute and Triangle G, created and piloted an internship program, and improved and developed infrastructure to build our capacity to manage regeneratively for future seasons. Through it all, we remained focused on developing a team that is responsive, thoughtful, resourceful, and deeply committed to the land and animals in our care. 

Grazing Recap

The past year was defined by a bifurcated wet season that converted our typical six-month rain pattern into two smaller rainy seasons with a long dry spell in between. In October, we received unprecedented rains of up to 18”, which refilled reservoirs and initially provided adequate drinking water for the animals. Additional rains in December set us up for a strong 2022 grazing season. However, beginning in January, we experienced a substantial dry period that lasted through March. It was the longest dry period in the middle of a rainy season on record, and this weather pattern significantly impacted grazing, grass regrowth, operations, and general sanity. As always, we were able to innovate and work with our partners to be flexible and overcome these unexpected challenges.

Based on our early grazing projections, we planned to have a total of around 14 loads of cattle (50,000-lb semi-truck loads of about 1260 head) throughout the season across the entire management portfolio. Starting in January, two loads were going to be at SMI, Green, and Hellman, and four loads were slated for Hilltop. To manage for the huge spring flush we have historically gotten, we scheduled an additional two loads of cattle to arrive in March, one each for SMI and Hilltop, which typically helps us stay on top of the annual vegetation. We also scheduled two loads at Taylor and Glen Ellen and three loads between Cayetana and Eames. But, as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry.

We cared for the land and animals through January and February without much operational or grazing disruption. By March, the dry spell began to take a toll. We noticed the grass wasn’t recovering as quickly as expected after we’d done a full grazing rotation. It was very short and tight, and we determined the land couldn’t withstand increased grazing pressure. As a result, we made the tough decision in early March not to take on the additional two loads of Winecup cattle at SMI and Hilltop as we had initially planned. Hilltop, which includes Mitsui and Walsh, was especially hit hard by the dry period, and the grass was very short as we were coming in for our second rotation. We decided it was best to ship a portion of the cattle home early to alleviate some of the pressure there, so we sent back two loads in mid-March. As a result, instead of having eight loads of cattle between the two ranches as we’d planned at the beginning of the season, we ended up with only four loads total at SMI and Hilltop. We are grateful to our partners at Winecup-Gamble for taking the hit last year, as their flexibility truly helped us navigate the situation. 

In April, shortly after destocking in response to the drought, we got a little bit of rain. With the reduced grazing pressure and increased recovery periods, the grass rebounded very quickly. In fact, at SMI and Hilltop, we ended up with more grass than we could handle after returning some of the cattle in mid-March. Stocking rates were further challenged when Winecup-Gamble decided to breed their animals early and requested we return them in mid-May. After some negotiation, we were able to return a portion of the cattle and keep the rest until July to manage the existing vegetation at SMI properly. 

Thanks to the ingenuity of our team and partnerships, we maintained appropriate stocking rates at SMI, Green, and Hellman throughout the year. You can either have more cattle for shorter or fewer cattle for longer. Winecup needed some animals back earlier, as we mentioned, but they let us keep fewer cattle for longer. Thus, we extended the grazing season longer than usual to properly graze the vegetation with the remaining cattle we did have. Overall, Green, SMI, and Hellman looked good by the season’s end. 

At Taylor, we intentionally stocked below maximum density because we didn’t feel confident the water system could sustain its fullest grazing capacity. The grass was similarly tight in March and April as at other properties, but we did an excellent job of rotating the cattle around fully, which is a serious challenge given the property’s heavy public use patterns, aggressive topography, and tree cover. In midseason, we moved some cattle from Taylor to Glen Ellen to help manage the vegetation at Glen Ellen. The grass was so strong at Glen Ellen that we didn’t bring them back to Taylor until May. As a result, Taylor had a bit too much grass at the end of the season, but we were able to manage Glen Ellen’s vegetation well. Nonetheless, the Parks were very happy with the job we did.

Typically, at Cayetana, we have 3-3.5 loads of cattle. Onboarding the Eames Institute this year would have allowed us to have a fourth load grazing there. However, given Cayetana’s record with drought, we made the strategic decision to maintain our previous stocking level despite taking on 30% more land. So, for a land base that could handle 200,000 lbs of cattle, we stocked it with 150,000 lbs or three loads. This stocking rate allowed us to graze Eames perfectly and strategically ease the grazing pressure on Cayetana so that it could rest and recover. We managed both properties without much stress and were very close to hitting our grazing targets for the season. Notably, at Eames, we decreased the time cattle spent in San Antonio Creek from 365 days per year to just 20 days last season, a significant decrease in impact. We also left cover and residual vegetation on the ground on Eames that historically has not been there due to overgrazing. 

Infrastructure- Improvements on Leased land

The 2022 season brought considerable strides in infrastructure and capacity building at SMI. We onboarded two new properties this year, Triangle G and the Eames Institute, which allow us to expand our capabilities exponentially in future seasons. This season also brought the expansion of our team with the addition of Aaron Gilliam, an advocate of process-based restoration, watershed restoration, and beaver dam analog systems.

We also strategically experimented with a couple of programs this season. The first was the implementation of Vence, a virtual cattle management system, and the second was a pilot internship program in collaboration with the Center for Land-Based Learning. Both initiatives provided valuable learning opportunities. 

Triangle G 

Onboarding Triangle G has been another substantial project this year. It’s a 1,700-acre ranch with three owners, forty years of deferred maintenance, 12 miles of external fences, and 10 miles of defunct interior fence. A defining feature of Triangle G is that it allows us to run several properties together: SMI, Green, Hellman, Triangle G, and, eventually, Hilltop together with Mitsui and Walsh. In the 2023 season, we plan to run eight loads of cattle with about 800 head on Triangle G/SMI/Green and Hellman. We plan on running four additional loads or 400 head separately on Hilltop (Walsh/Mitsui). That is relevant because, if we eventually connect the properties in this corridor, we could combine the two herds into 12 or 14 loads with up to 1,400 cattle. Restoring the migration pattern of Sonoma Mountain with a mega herd of this size is part of the vision for Triangle G, but we must walk before we can run. The 800 head between TG/SMI/Green and Hellman is a huge logistical challenge, especially in terms of meeting our water needs. As we onboard Triangle G, we’re thinking and planning for the infrastructure and resources needed to have a massive 3,500-acre corridor with a mega herd going everywhere. 

Our first step this summer was for our team to do a thorough site analysis at Triangle G, which included walking every foot of the exterior fencing and coding it for repair or replacement on mapping software. We’ve also done the same for the interior fencing, so we have rigorously examined more than 20 miles of fencing. We’re currently working with contractors to replace three miles of fencing before the cattle come for the 2023 season. We’ve provided a 10-year plan for Triangle G ownership to replace 50% of the fencing in the next three years and 100% by year ten. They received the recommendations relatively well.

In addition to the fencing, we also conducted multiple site analyses this season. We worked with *the*Jim Coleman to perform a 10-point baseline monitoring assessment of vegetation on the property. We also thoroughly analyzed the existing water sources (ponds, vernal pools, springs, etc.) on the Triangle G properties, including all the defunct forty-year-old water system components. As part of the water system site analysis, we began designing a future water system for an NRCS grant for the property. We’ve spent months designing and ground-truthing a new water system with 10 miles of distribution pipeline, 50k gallons of storage, and 20+ trough locations. We’re working with NRCS to get that project funded.

This season, we repaired Triangle G’s existing corrals to be functional in the south for the upcoming season. We identified multiple pond failure points across the ranch and worked with the owners to put in better spillway systems and dam repair. We’re also working with the Triangle G team to identify and develop old defunct springs on the property. They had 40,000 gallons of storage that had fallen offline and wasn’t working. Our team repaired that storage system and connected it to a forgotten spring, so it’s functioning again. We’re also working to capture all the institutional knowledge from the previous operator at Triangle G for future use. 

Eames Institute

This season, we formed a new partnership with the Eames Institute, a 300-acre property contiguous with Cayetana. The ownership at Eames is very interested in ecological restoration and is supportive of our restoration work. The team had to get the ranch serviceable at an infrastructure level before we could run cattle on it. We collaborated with Eames and a third-party contractor to replace ~1.5 miles of fencing that improved ecological management and safety along the roadside. Our team also repaired fences throughout the property to make different parts of the ranch serviceable. 

We supported Eames in finding a great contractor for a critical spring repair project at the property. The previous contractor had installed a spring design that was outputting less than a gallon a minute, and now it’s producing 2.5 gallons per minute. The system includes new cutting-edge storage and trough combos, called Storage Drinkers, that have helped to get the animals out of San Antonio Creek. Overall, we helped Eames find the contractor, source the parts, and implement the system, including finishing all the above ground plumbing ourselves. This new system feeds the ranch home on the property, so it is both the domestic and agricultural spring. We’ve had several meetings with the Eames owners, including one influential one with Brock Dolman, about restoring the San Antonio Creek watershed, and we’re excited to move in that direction. 

This season, we also designed a corral system at the property that will allow us to receive and ship cattle out of Eames, which will vastly improve our current process. Thus far, we’ve been transporting animals out of Cayetana, which requires rare and expensive specialized trucks due to its terrible access. Eames is on San Antonio Rd, so it’s great to have a facility we can use to quickly and conveniently ship and receive cattle. Because the safety of our team and our animals is of utmost importance, we designed the system to include a squeeze chute, which ensures that we keep everyone safe during handling. The corral system is a $50,000 system, and installation should be complete by the end of 2022.


This year’s infrastructure upgrades at Cayetana focused on replacing fencing, repairing corrals, and upgrading drinking areas. Several drinking troughs were never installed correctly, which led to extensive eroding of the areas around the troughs over the years. The team re-rocked and re-graveled these trough locations, which allows the animals to drink without further causing erosive damage to the landscape surrounding them. 

We installed new five-strand barbed wire fencing behind Cayetana’s deer camp and gathering area to replace the disintegrating fence. We also repaired the wooden corral holding pen that has been deteriorating for years. Additionally, we installed one Vence communication tower as part of the Vence collar experiment we undertook in 2022.

S.M.I. Overall Grazing Recap 2021

The 2021 grazing season was marked once again by plague and drought and other non-disclosed horseman of the apocalypse however, the work the team has done over the previous year set us up to make the situation as manageable as possible given the context. The work we have done on infrastructure and relationships in the past allowed us to be flexible once again in the face of very adverse ecological conditions. The defining feature of our last two years and especially this year is the drought. On average our ranches received 65% of normal rainfall last year and 35% of normal rainfall this year and that reality shaped the fabric of most events of the season.

We were planning last fall that we would be receiving about 14ish semi loads of cattle over the entire season with different entry dates. We ended up with more like 12 loads on the season. Additionally, they came a month later than normal and left a month early. The impact was a about a 25% reduction in total planned grazing impact which was significant to our partners. However, the collection of suppliers and partners we have with the cattle have allowed us to maintain flexibility in the face of adversity and the value of solid relationships cannot be overstated. 

We knew it was going to be an exceptionally challenging season because many of the ponds that we have always relied on on different properties were completely dried up or at their lowest levels by anyone’s account. After the first more significant rain events of the season in November and December the creeks that reliably get going, just didn’t run with any consistency or strength. It felt like we were waiting the whole season for the ponds to fill and the creeks to run, but it just never materialized. We palpably felt the impact of last year’s drought in 2020 as it felt like the hydrological cycle was truly damaged. 

With the ponds low and the streams barely running at a trickle in most places springs that serviced water troughs and storage tanks started running weaker and weaker by the month. The team was constantly measuring spring flows to ensure that the water was sufficient for drinking for cattle. It is hard to express the stress level encountered when, water starts drying up around the ranches. It happens incrementally and it happens day-by-day, and you do not get a text message when it starts becoming insufficient for drinking. 

Needless to say, we probably spent a lot of our time monitoring water points and water troughs. While it is very stressful to constantly be monitoring everything, it did bring us into deep connection with the land in what was going on because we were all paying close attention.  This was the second year that we maintained a weekly Zoom meeting where we reviewed, everything that was to be done that week but also reviewed pictures that we were taking weekly of grass and water points. 

While obviously being in a drought was the gorilla in the room, we were still able to adjust our grazing prescription and management pretty effectively. By paying close attention and monitoring every ranch very closely, we were able to talk about patterns we were seeing overall in between ranches. Having ranches in different locations, with different microclimates and geology, topography etc. gives us the opportunity to learn more.

Given the constraints of the drought, our ability to adjust our stocking rate and grazing pressure, allowed us to do a fairly good job of managing the annual vegetation in order to keep competition up from a broader diversity of species. Essentially, we were still able to stay on top of plants like avena barbeta and foxtail while not pulling too much cover off of the landscape.  Due to the fact that; there was less water distribution, there was a little more patchiness overall where some areas were grazed a little less or a little harder but on average, we feel fairly good about the grazing impact and residual we were able to leave behind on the season. Being able to leave a good amount of ground cover behind in the face of drought while not leaving too much behind in terms of fire danger is a tricky balance. However, we feel pretty good about where we landed on the spectrum. 

While our season was shorter, the cattle did perform extremely well from a weight gain and health standpoint. Having a dryer season typically results in stronger feed from an animal perspective and reduces the number of illnesses that the cattle suffer. This year we had 1200 head and we didn’t have a single animal die. That is a pretty wonderful, atypical management reality and can be attributed to the weather and how much attention and care the team pays and gives to the cattle. 

It’s extremely easy to be happy or feel good about what you’re doing when everything is going well. However, adversity reveals character. The last two years have been filled with a great deal of adversity and we feel extremely grateful for the collection of people we have on this team that has revealed solid character. Despite the historic drought, we were still able to manage as effectively as possible, constantly adjusting management based on what we were seeing on the ground. The team; while extremely stressed and overworked for a bit of time, was able to stay in good spirits and work collectively to overcome the obstacles until we sent the cattle home. Additionally, the stress on the system has forced us to work harder to better develop our water systems to be more resilient on the ranches which will only put us in a better position moving forward. Last Lee being able to train new generations of land managers and bring new managers on has been extremely rewarding and we look forward to building out more capacity to do that in the future.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 2021 Annual Board Meeting

The team was able to meet up again this year as Sonoma Mountain Institute Board met for our 2021 Annual Board Meeting on December 15th, 2021. Our Board consists of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board. Mark Sindt started by talking of the challenges with the weather and fires, talked about how much adversity the SMI team had to work with to fix all of the issues that arose this year. To follow he reviewed a number of the projects that took place at the ranch this year including the new water system, he reviewed the grazing season amongst the properties managed, what projects occurred on the Pike property, and how new land to manage is in the works for 2022. The Board discussed important items such as starting to find new help to learn the trades needed to maintain the properties we own in addition to the importance of starting an intern program to help teach the techniques needed for increasing our grassland management program.  To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances for 2021 and the proposed budget for 2022. The board passed the proposed budget for 2022 and the meeting was adjourned.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s Water Distribution System

In 2020 based on our carbon farm plan that was established with the local Sonoma County Resource in Conservation District we were alerted to a grant funding opportunity based on having that plan. There were special funds allocated to people that had these plans in place to support more sustainable grazing infrastructure. We applied for a water distribution system to have better managed grazing and we secured and were awarded the grant for $45,000.

The grant established over 8,500 linear feet of water distribution around the ranch as well as 15000 gallons of storage. In addition, the grant covered 6 water trough locations that could water both wild animals and Cattle. We also incorporated into the design fire hose suppression access to the water system so that fire hoses could be hooked up at any of the locations in order to fight fires in the future. The materials chosen for distribution were 2 inch weldable polyethylene pipe which is a cutting-edge material in plumbing right now. In a location that is located next to a fault line the material actually can stretch rather than break and the joints which are welded are stronger than the pipe itself. It has the benefit of being able to be plowed in with a bulldozer so no open trench was ripped in the installation of the pipe.

Additionally, extremely lightweight but large-capacity aluminum wildlife and cattle troughs were installed from a company that specializes in these types of troughs from Oregon. Each trough has wildlife access and escape ramps for small critters. The entire system was plumbed above ground in galvanized pipe so that it could withstand future fires.

Given that the grant put the distribution of water 500 ft away from the barn we decided to take the opportunity to build out rainwater collection at the barn that could piggyback on the grant-funded infrastructure. We installed an additional catchment at the barn of 10,000 gallons. This catchment could then be pumped back through the distribution system that was Grant funded and installed. The rain water is pumped up to the central storage tanks on the hill above the pond from the barn and the overflow we designed at those storage tanks runs back into the large pond. Essentially the rainwater catchment system is designed to pump back through the water distribution system and overflow into the pond.

For every inch of rain water we get in Sonoma the barn rainwater collection system captures about 11,000 gallons. In an average year that barn will collect around 300,000 gallons of water and put it in the pond. That is about twice the annual demand of the cattle on site during the grazing here. Essentially, the rain water collection system provides double the annual need of the cattle and still helps top off the pond.

Overall, the entire system is going to be of great help to the management team at Sonoma Mountain Institute. It provides better access of water to wildlife and more defensible fire fighting positions. It also provides much more management flexibility to be able to better distribute the cattle around the ranch. It will save the management team a ton of time and effort and produce better results all around. It’s been a great project and we’re glad to have it completed.

Healthy Soils Update

2020 was hypothetically our last year for spreading compost under the healthy soils initiative.  Our final application in 2020 completed about 3.3 million pounds of compost spread over 53 Acres at SMI. So far the data is encouraging and showing carbon sequestration potential on that acreage and the treatment is seeming positive though time will tell. Working with the resource Conservation District we applied for a new Grant titled zero food print which also adds funds available to spread compost on range land.  We were awarded a $27,500 Grant to spread around 670,000 pounds of compost in 2021 on additional acreage. It will be a great opportunity to treat and study more acres in the coming years.

Infrastructure Improvements on Leased Land

It was clear from January that this was going to be a very challenging year as it relates to water systems on the ranches. At that point we made the decision that we would just hit it head-on and work to develop as many additional water systems and support structures as we could. When Sonoma and Marin County are typically blessed with 30 – 50-inch rain years the water infrastructure is not that robust on most of the ranches we manage. So as a result, there was a lot of room for improvement. We were engaging in water development at 4 ranches simultaneously and were able to consolidate materials purchases, equipment rentals, and technical knowledge. The majority of the costs for parts and materials were picked up by our land partners while we provided installation and acquisition support for the systems. Here is a brief list of some of the projects we either managed or installed and completed between Jan – May

Taylor Mt. (Park Support on installation)

  1. 8000-gallons of additional storage at the best spring on the Mt.
  2. 800-gallon trough added to new storage
  3. Two new springs rebuilt and plumbed to two new troughs 


  1. Four new troughs added to distribution system
  2. One new full water system installed by us, pump from pond to storage tank 1000 feet above for distribution


  1. Massive water system installed by SMI team, pump from pond, 1800 feet in distance and 200 feet in lift to 10,000 gallons of storage which then was distributed over 4000 feet on the ranch. This was a huge permitting and organizational lift
  2. Added additional troughs

Mitsui (Jeff Wilcox on site biologist performed 95% of installation, we provided pipe for moving water and research and admin support for acquiring parts) 

  1. Rerouting spring overflow in middle of ranch to pump up to storage tanks empty because pond that supplied them was dry. This allowed for better cattle distribution on 30% of the ranch that had no water. 

Meet Jim Coleman

We would like to introduce you to Jim Coleman. Aside from Jim serving as a member on our Board at Sonoma Mountain Institute he is also known as the well educated man behind a camera to us. Jim has an incredible eye and a knack for catching the most amazing footage when set out to work. It isn’t uncommon to see Jim out at our ranch once a week decked out in full camouflage with a camera in hand. Jim has an extensive bio that makes him highly qualified to be the best man for the job of tracking all living species found on our property.

In 2005, Jim earned a MS in Biology studying grassland restoration at Sonoma State University and since that time has been primarily focused on that work within the Occidental Arts and Ecology’s (OAEC) ecological preserve. In addition to Jim’s endeavors at OAEC, he has worked as a field ecologist for the California Native Plant Society in their efforts to help generate a vegetation and habitat map for Sonoma County. Jim works with private land owners such as Sonoma Mountain Institute in addition to various other land managers in establishing botanical and photo monitoring protocols that help aid in the successful conservation and restoration of healthy ecosystems. He has served as field ecologist on several restoration studies and mapping efforts of the endangered California Coastal Prairie. In addition to his work in terrestrial systems, Jim has also been active in the recovery of endangered Coho Salmon by helping to restore in-stream habitat. As an interpretive naturalist, Jim also enjoys his many opportunities to teach and lead people in their own nature awareness explorations.

We at S.M.I. have collaborated with Jim to create a website called, Sonoma Mountain Ecology Notes found at:

Aside from getting to see the amazing photography of so many species living on the Petaluma Ranch you can also subscribe to receive daily emails on the website to learn a little something extra about Jim’s particular featured species if you’re interested.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 2020 Annual Board Meeting

Due to Covid, our Sonoma Mountain Institute Board decided to play things extra safe this year and met for our 2020 Annual Board Meeting via conference call on December 21, 2020. Our Board consists of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member were all present. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board. Mark Sindt highlighted the projects and accomplishments from this last year of which were the following:  we will be starting a new blog that will include Jim Coleman’s photography, infrastructure is getting well established and it makes the flow so natural to keep cattle in place, and the new cattle guards are really nice and affordable so it’s an easy decision to make more of them.  He mentioned that we have a few new properties we look forward to managing in 2021. Mark said Matt Weger is back helping us with a new propagation project and that will lead to a new mapping project as well.  In regards to our Scientific Data monitoring, it’s exciting that we are still seeing an increase in new species each year.  To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances which included how the 2020 finances ended up in 2020 and the proposed budget for 2021. The board passed the proposed budget for 2021 and the meeting was adjourned.

Propagation is Back at S.M.I.!

This year the grow house was given a thorough makeover. The old tables were removed and new gravel was applied to the floor. 14 metal tables with 256 square feet total surface area were constructed for the plug flats. This is enough area for 144 flats. These flats have 144 cells/ flat totaling 20,736 cells or plants. 

Seed was acquired from Larner, Hedgerow Farms, and LeBallister’s. Purple Needle grass (Stipa pulchra) was collected from the Petaluma ranch. Seed purchased from Hedgerow Farms was provided with germination data. Germination tests were performed on all other seeds. This information was essential in determining proper sowing rates for each species.  We started sowing around September 15th and mature plants will start to be planted around Thanksgiving week.  This year we propagated and will plant the follow number of plugs: 3,600 purple needle grass, 1296 nodding needle grass, 1296 Meadow Barley, 1584 California Melic, 1584 Blue Wild Rye, 1296 Alkali Bluegrass, 3600 California Barley, 2106 California Oat Grass, and 3312 Idaho Fescue.

We took a look back at our records and we have been propagating and planting since 2012!  A fun fact is since then S.M.I. has planted a total of 112,400 various native grasses throughout the Petaluma property.  There have also been a total of 953 oak trees planted on the property that were all started from collected acorns since 2012 as well. 

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2020 Grazing Recap

The 2020 grazing season was marked by drought and plague… know…..the usual. That being said while the decision making was extremely stressful at times during the season overall went about as good as it ever has despite those challenges from the perspective of vegetation management, animal health and sheppard well being. Past years of experience set us up to have better developed relationships with cattle owners and suppliers as well as improved infrastructure and processes that made dealing with the challenges of 2020 much more manageable. 

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In 2019 during the Grassfed Exchange Conference that we hosted tours for and participated in we met an amazing team at the winecup gamble ranch from Elko, Nevada (, which stands at 1 million acres. While much bigger than us they have similar values around ecology and people. So we partnered with them to send us a little over half of our cattle. One of the nice things about working with a large outfit is that they can accommodate with much more flexibility our need for flexibility in management as dictated by the needs of the ecology. 

In the 2020 season we planned for around 12ish semi loads of cattle to come. In December we had around 1000 head of cattle, as many were very small at about 400lbs. We were then supposed to receive about 400 more or so in March and April to handle the huge spring vegetation flush of annuals that we are always trying to stay on top of. Managing these annuals who crowd out so many of the other diverse plant species has been a core of our management program and having partners that can send herbivores in spring is very key to making the program work. Getting the right number of herbivores across the 7ish properties we manage and over 4500 acres requires strong relationships, solid infrastructure, and the ability to adjust on the fly to manage adaptively. 

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The challenge of our season was really defined by rainfall, both quantity and timing. We didn’t receive our first sizable rainfall event until the end of November. We waited about 30 days or so until after that first event to receive cattle so we were on average about 3 weeks later then we planned on the inbound cattle. Having the flexibility in relationships to push these dates later as it was what seemed right for the ecology was very helpful. 

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The rains did come and it was a warmer than normal through January which created huge vegetation flushes late January and early February. However, we essentially received no rain from January 26th until March 7th and then it was only 1/10th of an inch. The extreme lack of rain meant that grass growth really ended up slowing in late February and we were moving into an over stocking situation quickly. We made two decisions in early March that allowed us to adapt. We sent home about 25% of the cattle from each ranch. Not an easy call or a fun one to make. However, our relationships allowed for this flexibility and people understood. 

Additionally, we reached out to the neighbors to the south Mike Green and Avery Hellman and received permission to graze both of their ranches to get us through the drought. This proved an amazing disastertunity as we are slotted to graze both of those properties this coming season in 2021, which will offset the loss of Hardy for this season. The rains came back through March intermittently with some rainfall in April. However overall we received around 14 inches on the rainfall year or about 36% of 2019 numbers. 

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Despite the lack of precipitation the adjustment we made to animal numbers and the expansion of management made for an overall great year. We had the healthiest animals we have ever had with literally 1 animal death out of the 1400 plus animals that were with us at the height of the season. That is .07% death loss vs the 2% industry standard. On a majority of the ranches we were able to stay in front of the annual vegetation flush that comes on hard in the spring. Since 2013 we have relatively increased species diversity at SMI over 300% in grazed plots. Managing this flush seems to be important to improving those numbers. 

Glen Ellen received three grazing rotations this year for the first time in a while. It was grazed twice in March and once to close out the season in June. We were able to pull cattle from our other properties back and forth throughout the season to make this happen. 

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The cattle team Byron, Ben and Matt with the occasional visit from Nate had a great year in terms of safe handling and effective management. The improved corrals and handling facilities, holding pens and improved truck access really paid off this season. Logistics were as smooth as they ever have been and spirits were high despite the drought and the pandemic. 

Scientific Data Results- Species Count

Each year that we have grazed on a piece of managed property we have compiled a list of all of the species found within our monitoring points.  It has been truly exciting to see through collected data the impact that grazing has had as the number of total species found on each property has only increased every year since we started managing grazing. 


Healthy Soils Compost Spread Update

As you know in 2017 we applied for and secured a cost share grant through CDFA for a broad acre compost application on rangelands. This year 2020 was our last year in the program where we applied our final 27 semi truck loads totaling 1,188,000 pounds of compost across 53 acres. This brings us to almost 3.5 million pounds of compost spread over the last three years across SMI.

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So far the most recent soil data has been encouraging. Due to covid the RCD was unable to come out and help run the monitoring tests until late May. Due to the very dry year and the late sampling and covid we ran a triage version of the monitoring where we only sampled 3 out of the 7 treatment plots to one depth (as opposed to two). We also sampled 3 out of the 6 control plots to one depth as well. The data we got back showed our treated plots (3 out of 6) average carbon increased from 2.2% in 2019 to 2.4% in 2020 which is an 11% relative increase. To put that in perspective a ~ .08% overall carbon increase (.15% OM) in the top 6 inches of soil across all grazing lands in California, would result in 89.5 million tonnes of Co2E removed from the atmosphere. California emissions are approximately 457 tonnes per year. 

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This is in contrast to our control plots which were untreated and went from 1.98% carbon to 1.9% carbon on average or a 5% relative decrease. This decrease is in line with the research and observations of soil scientists that we are in contact with in California. This state of deteriorating carbon in annual rangelands in California is the impetus behind the healthy soils program and it is encouraging that the treatments are performing as expected. That being said the real test will be sampling in 2022 after no treatment applied in 2021. The theory is that the 3.5 million pounds we applied initiated a state change to kick the soil life into gear to create a positive feedback loop. So 2022 and beyond will be telling and the real test. But so far….so good!

Meet Kino & Sue

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 


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. 


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.


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. 



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


PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh

PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh


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


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. 


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.


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. 

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.


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:…/…/scfb_pd_insert_2019_print…

Working Lands


Fence Improvements at SMI


At the very end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 we also qualified for a National Resource Conservation Service  (NRCS) grant for fencing improvements on the ranch in order to increase ecological outcomes. One of the very helpful lessons our grazing team has learned over the last 5 years is that good infrastructure is very important for executing ecological management plans. As we’ve expanded to managing eight ranches and 4500 acres, things that worked when we were simply managing 500 acres  into properties no longer scale well.  When you’re managing 800 plus cattle, using temporary fence or smaller corrals that aren’t designed well start to cause a lot of problems on the ground. We have found that using permanent electric high-tensile fence in combination with temporary fencing makes for stronger fencing, which allows us better control over the animals, and is less susceptible to continuously failing in bad weather.  We have spent the last number of years honing different materials on other properties and have taken that learning and brought it to Sonoma Mountain Institute with our new interior electric fence system. It has allowed for more streamlined and effective management for people and cattle.



Healthy Soils Compost Spread


We are very excited this year to have applied for and been approved to be part of a matching grant program from the state called the Healthy Soils Initiative ( It is a program that was inspired by the research done by the Marin Carbon Project. The research showed that compost application on rangelands in combination with grazing can turn California rangelands into a net carbon sink.  Our project has us spreading about 800 yards of compost across 53 acres at Sonoma Mountain Institute each year for the next 3 years.  There are also several exclosure plots where compost was not spread and we have taken extensive soil samples from both the treatment and exclosure plots to compare the results of the  program. We are also excited that we are a demonstration site for the research and so over the next three years every year we will be doing a chore that talks about our results and lessons learned with the community. We hope that the treatments overall will improve the soil health at Sonoma Mountain Institute and if for some reason they do not we have the monitoring protocols in place to demonstrate that as well. Either way we will learn quite a bit.


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


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.


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).


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.


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.








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:


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.


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.


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.

Annual Reports for Glen Ellen, Hardy, and Petaluma 2016


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.



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.


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



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.



2015: Another Successful Year Comes To An End

As we say good bye to another great year we want to take a moment to share the successes we came across through our hard work and dedication to holistic land management techniques used here at Sonoma Mountain Institute.

Propagation and Planting: We feel like our grass propagation system is working really well.  With many more years of this we will see the overall health of the property improve significantly. We were able to propagate and plant 9,600 POA, 9,600 purple needle grass, and 300 White Oak Trees on our property in Petaluma, CA.



Star Thistle: With many years of great effort with hand pulling Star Thistle, this year’s man-hours were significantly down from previous years as shown below.  With the new grazing protocol, access to many places that were challenging to pull in previous years are now easily accessible.

2012: 380 hours, 2013: 350 hours, 2014: 276 hours, 2015: 124 hours

Compost: In 2015 we will have made 1 batch of regular feed stock compost using rice straw, wood chips, and green hay and 1 batch using azola and oak leaves. The compost when finished became the feedstock for the 20,000 gallons of compost tea that we applied on a rotation to the sudden oak death effected trees, and also sprayed all grasslands post grazing. In 2016 the spraying will be continued on the sudden oak death effected trees and we will continue to spray on as much grassland as possible.



Grazing: In 2015 we continued to bring the impacts of large animals to the vegetation at the Glen Ellen Property and Petaluma Property. Since this is the fourth year we have been able to manage cattle grazing on the property we were able to fine tune our management protocol while working with grass-fat beef cattle this year.  We saw many positive results in regards to the numbers of native species verses non-natives, annuals species verses perennials, and non-invasive species verses invasive.

As we have previously shared this grazing season we 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 1,037 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. 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.



Godfry: We had another good year at the Godfry!  All 160 acres were covered in a round of invasive species removal. Thinning in the old plantations of pine and fir, were greatly advanced with the aide of the new tractor. Much old debris from the mastication of 10 years ago were raked, piled, and burned. This allowed the planting of native grass seed, Blue Wild Rye, California Melic, and Idaho Fescue to be planted in these areas. A covert was installed and a small access road was grated to reach one of the last areas we will be restoring next season.

Board Meeting: Last but not least, our annual board meeting was held on November 7, 2015 were these annual recap numbers were discussed and the next year’s budget was passed to allow us to continue another year of dedication to restore land as holistically as possible.


Grazing Report for Hill Top Properties in 2015

This grazing season we 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 1,037 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. 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.

We secured these leases in February and were intending to put cattle on the property in March so we did not have a great deal of time to prepare for the cattle’s arrival. In an ideal world we would have had 6 months or more to work on the water and fencing systems to support our style of management which focuses on greater herd density and longer rest periods to support ecosystem health and restoration. As a result of the accelerated timeline we did not have the water systems developed to support flexibility in management and fencing and to be able to provide access easily to water across the landscape for the cattle. Additionally, there was quite a bit of perimeter fence work that needed to be done before we could trust they would keep the cattle in. Needless to say we were extremely busy from February to the end of the season in June.

In order to begin thinking about how we were going to manage the landscape, we began by using elements of the holistic land planning process as developed in the Holistic Management Handbook. The process helped us think about our future landscape and imagine how it would look if it was fully ecologically healthy and functioning. From there we are able to make better choices about how to manage, and where to place infrastructure to help meet our land management goals.

What became apparent quickly in the process is that water was going to be the limiting factor for herd size and density. We had great volume of water on the properties located in ponds; however, the distribution of that water across the landscape was limited. We had some springs scattered across the landscape and creeks that ran winter/spring, but it was difficult to ascertain how the supply would flow over the year. This meant that for this 2015 grazing season it would be very difficult to put the cattle in tighter paddocks because they would not have access to water if we did so. Additionally, while we had a great deal of grass on Hilltop we weren’t sure if we were going to have the water supplies to match it so we decided to bring less cattle this season to be on the safe side. Slow and easy is a good way to learn a new property and we knew that we would learn a great deal this year about how we would want to set up infrastructure for next year, but just getting started.

One of the first steps we took after planning was to establish a few baseline monitoring points. We ended up establishing 3 points on Mitsui, 2 on Pangea and 7+ on Walsh. These points were developed using the Rapid Assessment/Releve plant monitoring protocol from the California Native Plant Society ( We additionally sampled 3 separate soil locations to get a baseline of the soil conditions before we took over management. Making sure we know where we are at in regards to species composition, thatch depth, biodiversity and soil health is essential to our management practice. We do not assume we will always be correct in our treatment protocols regarding grazing. It is essential to know where we start and where we are headed so that if we vere off course we are able to correct our approach as we move forward. Our partnership with Jim Coleman from OAEC as an independent biologist who conducts our vegetation monitoring allows us to be able to better adapt and respond to our approach as we move forward with our mission of unleashing the value of savanna landscapes by mimicking evolutionary processes.

As we have done in the past, we planned on getting the density we wanted with the cattle using a completely temporary fence set up. We knew that this would be more of a challenge on 1000 acres then it had been in the past on a smaller scale, but it would give us flexibility and the chance to learn the landscape before making anything more permanent. We ended up deciding to use ATV’s this season to set up and break down the gear as the greater number of acres made doing it all on a foot a very time consuming prospect. One of our team members Jeremiah Stent built out a system that allowed us to carry a great deal of materials and roll out fencing directly from the ATV which proved to be key as the season wore on.

We began the grazing season by securing a contract with an organic dairyman in Sonoma County to stock the property. We began on March 20th, 2015 recieving 148 head weighing in at 91,884 pounds on the Mitsui property. For planning purposes we called them about 92 animal units (92 1000# equivalents)


We received the cattle in 3 deliveries of 5 truck and trailer caravans. One of the wonderful new benefits to the mitsui property are their large corral systems which we spent a good time customizing using the Bud Williams designs to facilitate good animal movement.

The Mitsui property consists of 5 main paddocks as seen in figure 1 (High Knolls, Calf, Middle, 85 acre, Horse). The corrals are in paddock named calf pasture. Calf pasture has a spring and functioning trough system and is about 13 acres in size with great perimeter fences. It is an ideal electric fence training pasture and we set it up as such. The cattle stayed in Calf pasture for about 2 days before we put them into middle pasture for 10 days on our way to 85 acre pasture seen in figure 1. On our way through middle pasture we grazed a controlled burn/grass planting treatment experiment that Mistui’s head biologist Jeff Wilcox was managing. Following that grazing treatment we headed toward 85 acre grazing along the way.

Figure 1. A map of the the three contiguous properties on Hilltop: Mitsui, Pangea, Walsh and their larger paddock area break downs. 

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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:


We decided to go to 85 acre pasture early on in the season for a few reasons. The first is that it looked as though cattle were not in 85 acre during the 2014 growing season so it had A LOT of residual dry matter to get through. We wanted to get to it early on when there was still very palatable green forage coming through the dry material. In addition, we wanted to get through Pangea and Walsh properties earlier on in the season as well and the 85 acre pasture sits alongside Pangea and we knew it would be a smooth transition from one property to the next.

The cattle spent 17 days in 85 acre pasture. Out of all the pastures at Mitsui we were able to get some of the best density we achieved on hilltop that season in large part due to the logistical support of the Grey Family who own Pangea. They let us place a siphon in their pond which fed down to 85 acre and allowed us to get better water distribution throughout the paddock. We felt great about the density and impact we got in 85 acre.

Below: Photo of residual at 85 acre we needed to get through. 


Photo Below: An area in 85 acre with a large amount of star thistle thatch after grazing

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On April 15th we moved the cattle from the Mitsui Property in 85 acre through gate at the top of the pasture to the Pangea Property. The Pangea Property has amazing views, beautiful woodlands, and a gorgeous set of grapevines. It hadn’t been grazed in a very very long time  and as a result the forage quality and quantity of the plants present in the open spaces on Pangea was very low. We estimated that it was ¼ of what we would be able to get off of Mitsui. We were worried about the ability of the cattle to get appropriate nutrition if they were at a tighter density on the property. So in order for us to make sure the cattle were getting the nutrition they needed we gave them more physical space than if the quality and quantity was higher. More space means less density and less trampling.

Photo Below: Cattle grazing at Pangea above the pond.



Photo Below: Cattle entering into Pangea 1, from 85 acre at Mistui.


One of the big winners of the drought this season across Sonoma County seemed to be thistle of all types. By the time we made it to the Pangea property a great deal of thistle was already moving into reproductive phase. If the forage value was higher we would have been able to achieve higher density, more impact, and possibly get a larger mechanical trampling effect on the thistle by the cattle. However, even if the cattle were at a higher density, thistle in April wants to stand tall to spread seed, and the physical structures in the plant, (lignin) make it tall and hard to knock over, so it is not the best time to trample it onto the ground. Later in the season after it releases its seed, it becomes more amenable to being trampled in say July/August so the timing of the impact wasn’t ideal.

Photo Below: Cattle in North West corner of Pangea 1, grazing in a paddock that seemed to be 90% italian thistle.  


Photo Below: A photo standing in the same spot as above, but looking straight down. A lot of Italian thistle!


For us to get the type of density we would need to knock more of the thistle over we would have to have been moving the cattle in tiny paddocks maybe 10 times a day, as the forage quality and quantity was so low we couldn’t keep them at tight densities without moving them very often. That being said we had them at tighter densities on Pangea then most managers would have had them. Our thoughts were that it made more sense to get some impact in year 1, let the forage improve in year two, and slowly be able to do more with density on the property. We try and let nature do the work as much as possible, or else the scope of work involved in getting that density can be very cost prohibitive.

All that being said on a very positive note we ended up getting twice as much forage off the property then we expected in the planning phase. The cattle did a great job of making due with what was there. Our stay at Pangea was made a great deal easier by the support and assistance of their onsite caretaker Peter Perez who was always quick to help with technical support, tools, on site knowledge, and advice.

We spent a total of 10 days at Pangea and then headed for the Walsh Property which borders the Pangea Property. We moved the Cattle from Pangea to Walsh on April 24th. By April 24th a number of things were happening on Walsh worth mentioning. Three of the ponds located on the property we intended to use for water for the cattle had dried up. Also, by April 24th Italian thistle which seemed to be the dominate species on the Walsh landscape seemed to be in full bloom and in the reproductive phase creating vast oceans of unbroken chest high aggressive vegetation that we had to pull temporary fences through.

Photo Below: A picture from the ATV on Walsh as we attempt to pull temporary electric fence through the chest high thistle.


Once again the team at Pangea came in with support by letting us use their water supply to give the cattle water over the fence at Walsh in strategic locations where it made sense. They also let us keep our infrastructure trailer and materials on their property to stage our daily work routine for a total of 3 weeks which proved to be very helpful.

Overall on Walsh, we really only had four watering points to work with on the 280 acres which meant that it was hard to get the density we wanted as time moved along. That aside, we were still able to get above average density across the property giving the cattle a new paddock on average every three days. We were able to get a water point in Walsh paddock 1 (W1) seen in figure 1 from using the water system at Pangea. After grazing  W1, we moved to Walsh 2 (W2), and were able to water a significant portion of the W2 from the larger north pond.

Just before we got the dairy herd to Walsh we ended up making another large management decision in bringing a second herd to Hilltop. While the above was happening we were also managing herds at Glen Ellen and Moon ranch in Petaluma. We overestimated the amount of forage we had at Glen Ellen and after a week or so of having cattle at that property we started to realize that after the first full rotation we may need to get the cattle off the landscape. We performed a recalibration forage use calculation about a week or two into delivery that allows us to determine how close to our original estimates of grass we were in the planning phase. Performing this calculation showed us that we would be coming around for the second rotation maybe just a few days too early at Glen Ellen.

Simultaneously at Hilltop we were beginning to realize after performing a recalibration forage use calculation that we were going to have more grass than we needed for the season. After conferring with the beef cattle owners whose cattle were at Glen Ellen we determined to move the beef cattle to Mitsui. The beef cattle arrived at Mitsui on April 19th and spent their first few days in Calf Pasture. On April 22nd they moved on to Middle Pasture where we let them cream so of the best forage we had since the goal with these particular animals was to put on the pounds and gain body condition. We knew that we would be able to come back and get the impact we wanted with the dairy cattle. The dairy cattle where better cattle for management then the beef as the dairy cattle ate a much wider selection of forage and seemed to be always eating. The beef cattle almost had to be invited to dinner with the best of the best as they were heavy finishing weight animals who wouldn’t eat if it wasn’t tasty.

Photo below: Keeping the beef cattle on a high plane of nutrition


Our goal with the beef cattle was to keep them on a high plane of nutrition and to add a few more mouths and hooves impacting the landscape to keep the forage under control. We only had 30 head in the beef herd that weighed on average about 800 pounds. The beef cattle moved out of a selection of Middle pasture into a part of High Knolls on May 6 where we had them grazing off of Bonnie’s pond on stands of mature annual ryegrass. The beef cattle stayed there for a little over a week and around May 15th we moved them to the southern corner of High Knolls to water off of leaky lake. We began with smaller paddocks around leaky for the beef cattle but as time wore on we ended up back grazing them over larger paddocks back to the water. By the time the beef cattle shipped out of Mitsui on June 12th they hadn’t put a dent in the forage in High Knolls. They topped most of the annual rye grass, which by this point in the season was very lignified. By middle May and early June the grass had become so lignified that it became less digestible and the cattle started slowing down as they moved through it. The same acre of grass can take twice as long to cover in June then it does in February when the grass is younger and is more digestible.

Photo Below: Walking the Beef Cattle to the shipping corrals on June 11th at Mitsui

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Overall we were glad to have more mouths and hooves on hilltop this season so the beef cattle were a welcome addition. Every little bit helps. However, the beef cattle didn’t gain as well as we were hoping and we have a variety of hypothesis about why that is. We are taking those hypothesis into the following planning for the winter 2015/spring 2016 grazing season.

Returning back to our Dairy herd on the Walsh property, they were eating a hugely wide variety of mature plants that ranged from: oats, to brambles, to thistle, to brome, and to clovers. The Dairy herd moved from W2 into W3 where they watered from a water point we installed near the old homestead. At this point in the year the flow from the spring which supplied the water to the holding tank was at around a gallon a minute or 1440 gallons per day. The herd demand for water at this point was from 1000 to 2000 gallons a day so we had to be careful to watch the supply. As it turned out we were just about running close to the edge of empty when the cattle left from Walsh on about June 8th. We left probably a week or two worth of grass behind in W3 as we didn’t want to run out of water and we also wanted to get the main herd back to Mitsui to get through a great deal of the standing dry material.

Photo Below: Cattle eating yellow star thistle and loving it on Walsh


The Middle Pasture had not been grazed during late in the growing season in 2014 so the standing residual from the previous season was substantial. We chose to move from W3 to Middle Pasture as they were adjacent and the grass in Middle Pasture needed impacted before the rains were expected to come during the Winter of 2015. The managing biologist at Mitsui Jeff Wilcox had just installed a water storage system at Middle pasture a few days before we moved the cattle there which was very timely. Jeff was instrumental during the entire season to making this endeavour work with his assitance varying from: onsite advice of the landscape, helping move the cattle, getting eyes on problems, providing support with tools, and with resources Jeff made the whole undertaking possible.  

Photo Below: Cattle grazing along Copeland Creek in Middle Pasture


The Dairy Cattle spent the rest of their time on Hilltop in Middle Pasture cleaning up most of the upland areas and also grazing along the flats that border Copeland Creek. Copeland Creek just started drying up about the day we shipped so the timing was accidentally impeccable.

The Dairy cattle shipped out and back home June 24th. We spent time refining the setup of the corrals a little bit and configured an alley for the cattle to be loaded though the silders of the cattle trailers. It all worked out well and the cattle went home, happy as could be, calm and in good condition. The cattle owners commented that it was a good arrangement for them to be able to let us take their cattle as it gave their pastures time to rest and recover during the season. The cattle looked great in terms of body condition on their way out and we were very happy with the results.

Photo Below: Reconfigured Corrals with an Alley to load the cattle better


Looking back on this season grazing Hilltop we learned a great deal. One of the most important things we began learning was the landscape itself. The topography, vegetation, forage quality and quantity, roads, logical fencing breaks, animal corridors, weather patterns, and water resource capabilities and locations. We gained knowledge of who our partners were on Hilltop and their commitments to supporting a vision of a healthier and thriving landscape.

We learned we were correct to not bring too many animals because the water resources were at their limit towards the end of the season. If we had more cattle we would not have been able to get any density at all, and would have had to essentially open the gates during May and give the cattle huge areas. We discovered that the dairy animals are excellent managers and have a broad pallet and aren’t fussy about their forage. As long as they have enough forage they do well. We reaffirmed that one herd is most definitely better than three and whatever we can do to make sure that we have as few herds as possible is key. The travel time between properties and between herds was a killer this year.

We also decided that having some semi-permanent infrastructural fencing elements are essential to scaling. Specifically, having an energizer that is powered on a main power line rather than a deep cycle battery is key. Developing a skeleton system of high tensile powered by 110 volt power, from which we can pull off temporary fence will be key as we add more acreage under management in the future. The amount of time spent charging and changing batteries can be very time consuming and creates possibilities for all sorts of fencing failures.

I think most of all we learned that just getting inertia is key. Tripling your land base in one season can be intimidating and it can be tempting to want to plan everything to a T, and have all your I’s dotted before you get going. However, learning a new piece of land takes time. While it is essential to perform a detailed site analysis before you begin, it takes time to let the land reveal it’s patterns and ecology to you. We were excited to begin that process this last year and look forward to take the information we learned and put it into play as we move forward in the grazing seasons to come.


Grazing Reports for Glen Ellen and Petaluma Properties 2015

Glen Ellen Property Grazing Report 2015:


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.


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.



  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.




Petaluma Property Grazing Report 2015:


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.


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.




  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.



Managing Three New Properties!

We are excited to announce that our grazing management for 2015 has expanded to three additional properties, which is a total of 1,037 acres, all located on Sonoma Mountain in Petaluma! Our Grassland Managers enjoyed working with the three property owners/managers to ensure that everyone’s vision of having cattle graze on their property were in alignment. This first year on the properties was about learning the landscapes, their ecology, water resources and topography so that we can figure out how to best manage them moving forward.  Below is a little bit of information about each of the new properties we are now managing with a word or two from their managers. If you are interested in following the grazing results any further, please know that the monitoring data for this year will be available to you soon. The results can be found under the management locations tab on our home page.

The Mitsui Ranch is the largest piece of property we have recently added to our management portfolio. It is owned by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation whose board members, Chuck Mitsui and Robert Edmiston, have been a delight to work with. The ranch is managed by talented biologist Jeff Wilcox who oversees the monitoring, and restoration efforts on the property with a focus on birds, plants, and amphibians.  Jeff has been very helpful all season with logistics in a variety of settings. The property is 632 acres of beautiful landscape that includes: three  ponds, wooded areas, mostly gentle rolling topography, and a good amount of quality grass that has had a decent amount of rest over the last year.  Jeff had this to say about the project: “The SMI folks use cattle in a way that mimics the selective pressures under which grasses evolved; large numbers of cattle graze a small area, but for a short time. This way, many mouths compete for the same plants, causing cattle to be less selective. Also, cattle are moved before they get a chance to take too many bites of one plant, preventing overgrazing. This method restores grasslands, builds soils, soil nutrients, and increases the water holding capacity of soils. Better soils grow better grass, and the cycle gets stronger. Perhaps most important, is the quality of the people at SMI. The grassland managers are easy to work with, have collective experience and talent beyond their years, and they work very hard…with grace. Their ability to adapt to the changing landscape through the season and move the cattle for forage quality reasons or water supply reasons is impressive.”

Mitsui Property

Mitsui Property


The Pangea Property covers 128 acres and is owned by James and Sophie Gray, who have been fantastic people to work with. The Grays have made this season much more logistically possible for us as they have supported us by providing water for grazing at both the Mitsui and Walsh properties, in addition to their own Pangea property. The landscape has beautiful views of Sonoma Valley and has a lot of potential for increased biodiversity. Their caretaker, Pete Perez, was also extremely helpful logistically while we were grazing on Pangea, and on the Walsh property next door.

Pangea Property

Pangea Property


The Walsh Property is a total of 280 acres, owned by the County of Sonoma, and is managed by Bert Whitaker through the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department. Walsh has not been grazed in 15 years and the dominant species found on the property are invasives and thistles.  However, the cattle are eating a good amount of the thistle and we are excited to see what biological changes will come next year from this year’s grazing. We hope, in the non-grazing season this year, to better develop the water resources on Walsh. The water distribution system there was limited, thereby making it more difficult to get the density and impact we would like. When we asked Bert about his experience in working with us at SMI his response was: “We are so pleased this innovative partnership has developed with Sonoma Mountain Institute inspiring property managers near the summit of Sonoma Mountain to cooperate and work towards developing a sustainable organic cattle operation that balances the needs of ranchers while achieving critical grassland restoration.”

Walsh Property

Walsh Property


In addition to implementing regenerative grazing methodologies on the three properties, our team at SMI helped all three of these properties get certified Organic through CCOF, and registered through the CDFA.  Also new for SMI was that our grazing management service was also certified organic through CCOF! These certifications are imperative in meeting the needs of the Certified Organic cattle we use from various local ranchers.

Petaluma’s Grazing Report 2014

The cattle stepped off the truck on April 7th a week later than we planned in our grazing plan. We actually tried to get the cattle in as early as March 22nd in Petaluma as the grass was ready to go however the rains kept coinciding with our shipping days again and again and we ended up having to push things back a few weeks to let our land dry out a bit. However, we were happy to get cattle this year at all with the drought so we were chomping at the bit at 5:30AM on the Morning of April 7th ready to receive them.

One of our objectives for the year was to obtain daily weight gain data so that we had a better handle on what type of weight we are capable of putting on the cattle at different times of the year. This will help us structure better agreements in the future with cattle owners and help us decided what sector of the cattle business to be in. When we received the cattle on april 7th we tried to weigh most of the animals we received before sending them out into their new paddocks.

(Photo Below: Some of the cattle in corrals waiting to be weighed on their way out to pasture)

 The portable corrals we have are amazing in their quality, customization capacity and versatility. However, while the corrals contain an alley they were not specifically designed to be used with a scale so we had to experiment with the configuration of the corrals and the placing of the scale to figure out the most effective arrangement. It took some time, but as always when you work the cattle calm with proper stockmanship they are pretty forgiving of your mistakes.


(Photo Below: Getting ready to weigh in the animals with our new field scale system.)

 While the weighing went pretty well, it became apparent within a few hours that these cattle were not as trained to single strand electric fence as we were accustomed. By about 3:30 in the afternoon we had put back into the paddocks a large number of escapees. We decided by the end of the day we should set up a two wire training fence or when we arrived back in the morning who knows where the cattle would be. As it turned out the two wire fence did the trick and the cattle seemed pretty well trained after interacting with that set up.

Within a few days of the cattle’s arrival most of the grass on the property was still vegetative and had not gone to seed. We began working our way from the initial receiving location in unit 2, north towards unit F. Our priority target areas for the growing season graze event were the common viewsheds on the property. We had to triage some of our desired target locations and acreages, because due to the musical chair nature of the rain pushing our receiving dates we ended up getting 20 less animal units then we planned on as our suppliers had constraints of their end regarding where to put cattle. Over 50 or so days 20 less animal units can add up to 40 to 50 less acres grazed than planned. However, that is life in a living ever changing system.

Around April 12th we ended up moving the cattle from Unit 2 to Unit 3 along the main driveway. We moved them across wonderful quality grass, and uphill which was a challenge. It went well, but it just took a lot more walking and a lot more time then it would have if it were downhill over poor quality feed.


(Photo Below: The beginning of the move, the real work started off in the distance)

 While grazing in unit 3 the cattle were let into a paddock which had a about a 900 square foot patch of solid fiddleneck. We were interested in what they were going to do with it. When we came back the next morning they had trampled most if it into the ground and ate the rest. (See photo to the left). It was really great to see them standing on flat vegetative material that was almost chest high the day before. I can’t wait to see how the composition in that area changes next year. About april 15th we stopped short of the end of the road in unit 3 as it was waterlogged and moved over to adjacent area in unit F. The oats had really gone to seed as this point and where much more shaggy. It was that time of year when things start to feel like they are changing, the plants are going to seed and loosing protein. While much of the grass was still vegetative, you could just feel the reproductive phase coming onto the land with yellows in the grasses becoming more pronounced. This is why we wanted to get onto the ground sooner to take more advantage of the growing season.


(Photo above: Cattle grazing in Unit F)


By about April 24th we had tidied up unit/paddock F and where headed to unit 3. Unit 3 had some beautiful quality grass in it and had a location where we could weigh the cattle to see how we were gaining. It turned out that the cattle were gaining 3.7 pounds a day in April. Pretty amazing gains given we were shooting for 2 pounds per day. Also about the time we began weighing I got a new cattle dog named Elle. I bought her as a started stock dog at 11 months old. She is a hangin tree breed. Check out the breed at: She was trained at auction yard and got a ton of experience in a short amount of time while at the yard. We started her in late April and she picked up on our operation really quick.

(Above: Property Map with Units and paddocks)


(Below: Elle our new stock dog relaxing after some hard work on a hot day)

We Left unit 3 on May 4th headed for the north west section of unit 4 which is a primary viewshed on the property. About this time much of the grass began browning out. While there was green still left in the grass it was plain to see the growing season was coming to an end. By this time Elle and the cattle really started getting along well and she was doing an awesome job. She helped me get the cattle over a hill through the woods without help, which in that type of situation wouldn’t be possible for me alone. On May 10th Elle and I pushed the cattle over to Paddock/Unit M which is mostly wooded.

The cattle seemed to be enjoying the grass, forbes and poison oak that was living under the tree canopy.  The grass under the tree canopy seemed to be holding on to it’s quality and protien longer than other areas on the ranch without tree cover. On May 20th the cattle moved back into Unit 4 to begin their grazing journey back to the corrals in Unit 2 where we received them earlier in the season. The area the cattle were grazing in Unit 4 was forested and hadn’t seen hooves the previous season so it looked to really need it. There was quite a bit of locked up material that hadn’t been cycled into the soil in a long time. The forested areas had quite a bit of poison oak in them as well.

On May 26th, we weighed the cattle again to see how their gains were in May. We had an average of 3 pounds per day of gain which we were really surprised with. The primary forage the cattle had been eating in the past few weeks, about 70% of their diet, was mature oat grass. Not the best quality forage, but apparently the mix with other forages was enough to really keep them gaining. On May 27th, we shipped the cattle out to close out the growing season graze rotation. All in all, I would consider it a success. While we would have liked to have more pounds on the ground we got the densities, impact and recovery we were looking for on a large part of the property. The grass we didn’t get to would be great for the non-growing season rotation and the cattle we had lined up for June. We received great data on weight gain and made strides with using dogs more effectively in our operation. We appreciated the opportunity we had to work with the suppliers of the cattle Markegard grass fed and were grateful that we once again were able to effect the land in positive ways. Nothing is more fun then restoring the relationships between large animals, the grasslands and the predators or shepherds that keep them moving.


(Below: Cattle on May 26th waiting to be picked up the next day)


SMI IS Certified Organic!


We at SMI have been very busy in the last couple of months working on becoming certified organic through the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization.  We are proud to announce that we just became certified on 373.2 acres of grasslands at our Petaluma site and 84.35 acres of grasslands at our Glen Ellen site.  We are excited to be organic  suppliers of grass for certified organic cattle to graze upon as often as our shepherds feel necessary.  We have a variety of ranchers who have certified organic cattle that now have a place for them to graze.  While we of course are always looking to improve the aesthetic and the environmental aspects of the land in which we manage.

2014 Here We Come!

As the trailer doors shut, and the truck heads off the property with the last of the cattle, a certain amount of relief sets in for us. Another grazing year closes without incident, much is learned and positive changes have happened along our landscapes. We let go of the focus we have had on obtaining proper densities of cattle and stimulating animal impact. We let go of trying to achieve the optimal graze and recovery periods while maintaining the health of the cattle. We sink in and appreciate the opportunity we have had to steward the land and begin to turn our focus for the months ahead….with no cattle.


We have chosen to bring other ranchers cattle onto our properties for limited periods for several reasons. One of the most important is that it much more closely resembles the way nature did it for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. In the not too distant past herbivores grazed a location for short periods of time at high densities with intense impact and then did not return for months or years at a time. Herbivores followed the vibrant and healthy grass, moving on to greener pastures and left the areas they just grazed to rest and recover. The wolves, and American cheetahs and sabertooths kept the herbivores moving and the landscapes healthy.


Most ranches are built on a continuous system that has cattle on a piece of ground all year round. While that wouldn’t have typically been the case in evolutionary history, a competent grassland manager can manage cattle on the same piece of ground year all round in a sustainable or even regenerative fashion. However, for us,  we find it easier and more effective for our landscape if we bring a higher number of cattle in seasonally and then send the animals off when we have achieved our desired level of impact. We are also fortunate to not have production pressures that many ranchers have so we are able to be much more flexible with our management.


So the question that naturally follows after hearing that we only manage cattle seasonally is,  “what do these guys do when the last trailer leaves property and the last piece of fence is rolled up.” A few years ago I learned a pretty valuable lesson at the Ranching for Profit School ( about the difference between working in your business (WITB) and working on your business (WOTB). When Nate and I are moving cattle on the landscape, setting up and taking down fencing, troubleshooting water issues, and separating animals to be worked…typically we are working in our business/organization. When the trailer pulls away and the cattle leave we have the ability to start asking questions about how we are running the business/organization. At least when we aren’t thinning brush, fixing fence, planting plugs and harvesting grass seeds. We have the ability to ask should we even be using this type of fence? Who should we get cattle from next season? How should we monitor and why? How could we standardize the infrastructure process so we are not wasting time? What is the fastest way to set up fence through dense brush? What goals and objectives do we have for 2014?  All these questions are WOTB questions and it is how we spend a good deal of our time when the cattle leave for the season.


Ranch Management Consultants (RMC) who teach the Ranching for Profit course have a set of ten meetings that they recommend ranching businesses conduct when they leave the school (  These meetings range from conducting a grazing plan to having a mission statement and purpose to organizing your workspace to be effective. We have been trying to do at least one of these meetings per month and they have been very helpful. In addition to the meetings there is a bunch of pre and post meeting work to do surrounding the meetings that requires a fair amount of time. Our grazing chart is one of those products which you can see below, but it will need to be revised due to the drought.


One of the things that was clear to Nate and I this grazing season was that if we ever want to expand we need to standardize and document a good deal of what we do. One of the areas we wanted to standardize and document were how we go about collecting, storing and presenting our monitoring data. SMI has historically conducted a fair amount of monitoring activities. We did some work around getting clearer on what the goals of our monitoring program were and the types of data we wanted to collect. This required a fair amount of work and we eventually came to a rough beta operations protocol for the monitoring data that will help to simplify all the work that needs to be done regarding our monitoring program.


Another large area that we needed to standardize and document surrounded our infrastructure materials and how we used and interacted with them. In order to do this Nate and I conducted time trials under a variety of conditions in order to clarify what methods and tools we were using that worked best. We were also interested in developing better tools and methods which we thought would be easier when we could work with infrastructure without having to worry about caring for cattle. You can see a more detailed summary of those time trials linked here: Infrastructure Time Trial Summary


There are quite a few more items that we have done since the cattle left the property (such as Nate continuing to crack away at his writing project), but those were some of the bigger items we have gotten through. Now we are turning our heads to look into the coming grazing season and what we see are the dominant impacts of drought. 2013 was the driest year on record for California ( Which means that nobody alive really understands what the grass growth for this upcoming year is going to look like.


One of the frustrating things for us as grass managers in California is that it takes a full year too really see the impacts from your management. It is a pretty delayed feedback cycle due to the Mediterranean climate patterns we have here of six months of a rainy season, followed by a six-month dry season. This rain pattern creates a short growing season followed by a long dormant season, which slows down biological activity and how fast organic matter can be cycled through and improve the system. It is not something you can speed up in any way, which slows down how fast you can learn and obtain meaningful data. In climates with a more evenly distributed rainfall pattern you can see results and impacts quicker then in California.


The drought we are currently experiencing could push that feedback timeline out a whole other year making us wait to see the impacts from the grass management in 2013 out two years to 2015. In truth though, not being able to see the total results of our management pale in comparison to what is happening to many ranchers out there on the landscape. A lot of people who make their living off grass are going to loose animals, money and possibly their land if they are not able to pay bills through the grass that rain brings, or doesn’t bring. There are some tough times ahead for the brave folks who participate in rangeland agriculture if we don’t get a decent amount of rain from January – May.


A general way to think about grass growth is that grass needs both moisture and temperature to grow. In California we typically get our moisture during the coldest part of the year, which isn’t the greatest. Therefore there are two times per year when we really get growth on the grass, October through early November, and then again in February through April. Typically the grass begins growing in October and then slows until February when it then takes off for it’s biggest flush of the season. This year we have almost no growth to start with from October, as the rains have been so sparse. If it does rain soon, we are not sure what the grass will look like, as we have no real head start from October rains. This means while we have a grazing plan here at SMI the drought is causing us to have to delay our plans as we see what really happens on the landscape and adjust accordingly.


Dealing with drought is a serious and constant part of management. You can be sure that if you make your living from grass that drought will impact your business at some point or another. The RMC folks have some very helpful drought planning tools that they use at their school. A synopsis of them can be found here: ( For us at SMI we are continuing to work on different projects; fixing fences, building relationships, building tools for grazing, writing, building out monitoring info hosting websites, while we wait and look to the sky. If we don’t get enough rain then we will have to forgo grazing this year and look to support others who have land to manage and ranchers that could use our support. The Chinese character for crisis is a combination the characters for danger and opportunity. As adversity will always present itself I think it is important to view those circumstances as chances for growth and cultivating new and dynamic opportunities. So 2014 here we come!

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