Healthy Soils Compost Spread Update

In 2017 we applied for and secured a cost share grant through CDFA for a broad acre compost application on rangelands. The grant was built off of the science done in the Marin Carbon Projectwhich demonstrated that a ½” application of compost on annual range land in combination with cattle grazing has the potential to sequester carbon in the initial year and for many years after the application is complete. 

In using what we believe is a best practice monitoring protocol, we also had multiple exclosures totaling about 20 acres and 5 monitoring points in the exclosures. The compost treatment protocol designed by the CDFA split the application up into 3 years. Instead of applying 3/8 of an inch one time we are essentially applying 1/8 of an inch three times.  The first application was in 2018 and we have resampled the baseline soil monitoring locations since then.

The results after the first year are encouraging even though sampling on an annual basis is not recommended.Across the 6 soil monitoring sites where we applied compost, we saw an average overall change in carbon from 1.43% (2018) to 1.52% (2019). That is a 5.94% relative increase in % C which is considered meaningful management change in the soil circles. The 5 exclosures where compost was not applied averaged 1.59% in (2018) and decreased in carbon to 1.57% (2019), which is a 1.3% relative decrease. 

In the first year on the first day of 2018 (of two days of application) without getting into too many details we had a lower application rate in terms of dry tons of the compost then we had planned on.  We ended up applying 4 to 4.6 tons to the acre. However, on the second day of application we were able to secure some more compost and actually applied at 5 tons to the acre. This is significant because when we re-monitored in 2019 the sites that got four tons to the acre showed a 4.4 relative increase in carbon. Where the sites that got five tons to the acre showed a 13.1% increase in carbon.

When we went back to apply in 2019 we made sure to apply at least at 5 dry tons to the acre so it will be interesting to see what the changes look like when we re-monitor in 2020.  Additionally, we are an educational site for the healthy soils initiative and had had multiple field days we’re over 90 people from the community have come to learn how to carry out the technical components of the program from our experience. Overall, the program feels like a success from the start and with data just coming in we feel like we have years of learning yet to come.

Triple Graze at Glen Ellen

This year Glen Ellen was the recipient of three rotations of grazing. Since the fires burned down housing for a grazing manager it has been hard to regularly get effective grazing on the property.  However, this year we were able to secure sheep grazing services in March through sweet grass grazing. They brought hundreds of sheep and performed effective high density intensive rotational grazing on the property for a single rotation.  

In June, goats were brought by Paige Lynn Trotter to the Glen Ellen property. Paige was targeting much of the shrubs and poison oak on the Northern end of the property. She was making a lot of headway until a mountain lion that was tagged and named P5 killed her goats on multiple occasions despite many preventive measures being deployed. After the third kill was performed in broad daylight with a human being less than a couple hundred feet away Paige decided to remove her goats from the project.

Despite the goat massacre the cattle were still able to effectively trample down and graze the rest of the residual dry matter towards the end of June.   By supplementing young dairy heifers with an organic protein ration, they are able to more effectively utilize the dry grass and thereby more effectively graze it. While Paige did remove her goats she stayed on to manage the cattle at Glen Ellen until they were finished at the end of June.

Infrastructure

One of the most important contributions we have been able to develop in the grazing program is figuring out how to become more efficient and effective at the actual application of herbivore management on the ground.  Within the restoration Grazing world there are a lot of norms that inherently are not effective or scalable, or based on operations that haven’t actually achieved success. It’s easy enough to talk about moving animals here or there or putting up electric fence, but the practical application of that in field is much more nuanced. Over the past number of years we’ve been able to strategically think about how we execute “control” over cattle and have been able to continuously improve both the methods we use and the tools we use.

SMI’s largest contribution is likely our robust monitoring program in combination with the tangible biodiversity benefits across the landscapes in Marin and Sonoma counties we are able to create through managed herbivory. However, our role in testing and deploying infrastructure has led to our ability to support other ranchers and operations to easily make better management choices. This is extremely important because the biggest barrier to existing managers for more intensively managed system are figuring out cost effective ways, to deploy infrastructure to increase their level of management.  Over the past number of years we have been able to support a number of local Ranchers to secure and use more cost-effective infrastructure in order to engage in a more thoughtful land management system. This has only been possible due to the investment of Sonoma Mountain Institute in the various ideas we have regarding more effective management tools.

In 2017-2018 we secured a cost-share grant at the Cayetana ranch in order to install more interior electric fence systems. We were able to construct those interior high-tensile electric fence systems at the end of 2018, which drastically increased our ability to safely manage the ranch.  We were able to install over 7,000 linear feet of an all fiberglass, high-tensile fence system. The entire cost of this fence system was paid for by the landowners that Cayetana as well as a cost-share from the NRCS that paid for about half of the installation. We provided design expertise and managed the construction through a third-party organization.

 In addition to the fence installation at Cayetana, we also found an amazing cattle corral system through a previous employer of Nate Chisholm. It is comparatively very cost-effective relative to other options. It is also an amazing system for working in close with the cattle. One of the most important things that we can do is safely and calmly, ship cattle, receives cattle, and delivers healthcare treatments to the cattle. For years we have used an amazing set of temporary corrals to perform activities, however they are not designed to deal with the scale of operation that we are at or to be as moved as often as we need them.

At the end of 2018 we completely redesigned and sourced new corrals for Cayetana that made the entire operation much more safe, calm and effective.  Additionally, we were able to work with the Sonoma County Parks to install similar Corral panels at Taylor Mountain so that we could have an effective system there as well. They were able to secure a county grant to pay for a majority of those corrals.  We have also just been able to source and bring in an additional set of corrals to the Sonoma Mountain Institute home ranch, which will essentially give us effective handling facilities at our four major management locations Cayetana, Hilltop, Taylor Mountain, and Sonoma Mountain Institute.

Grassfed Exchange at S.M.I.’s Petaluma Property

We had over 400 people come and tour SMI with Byron Palmer and Nate Chisholm giving multiple presentations to tour groups over the day. Attendees came from all over the country and were extremely interested in the robust monitoring program that Sonoma Mountain Institute has created as well as the cutting edge deployment of cost-effective infrastructure that has been used across Sonoma Mountain Institute’s managed properties. Additionally, Byron was able to participate on multiple panels at the Grassfed Exchange and communicate their experiences and lessons learned working through Sonoma Mountain Institute.

Working Lands

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

Working Lands

 

Fence Improvements at SMI

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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.

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Healthy Soils Compost Spread


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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 (https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/healthysoils/). 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.

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2018 Annual Reports for SMI’s Managed Properties

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Petaluma
This was our 6th year grazing on the Petaluma Ranch, managing 25 paddocks on over 390 acres. After securing an NRCS grant to install a permanent electric fence system throughout the ranch, we were able to install a state of the art electric fence system. This enabled us to have better and more consistent control over animal movements, which aids in making management more simple. This is very helpful as we had four herds this year and improving infrastructure is key to making sure we can manage well and smoothly.  Overall this year we had a total of about 170 dairy and beef cattle that were brought upon our property to graze. 50 of those beef cattle ended up supplying Whole Foods as organic, animal welfare certified, grass fed and finished beef. 

 The average animal days per acre was 26. Overall, we were happy with how this grazing season turned out and with all of the management decisions made. 

Glen Ellen Grazing
Since Glen Ellen was the first property we ever managed the grazing on, this was our 7th year having cattle graze upon the property.  We brought 29 dairy cattle to come over the 115 acres for four weeks in June and July. We chose to graze the property late as we knew that we wanted to make sure the tall thatch that grows in May and June was trampled. Additionally, since Nate Chisholm’s home burned down on the ranch we did not have onsite cattle care. So our plan was to have a fast and effective grazing event due to the smaller nature of the property and it’s limited infrastructure onsite. We were mildly concerned about the health of the cattle grazing such a quantity of  lignified feed that late in the season. So we worked with the cattle owner to provide them with a high protein supplement during their time at Glen Ellen. This worked very well as the animals ate and trampled the grass and also maintained great health during their stay.

Hardy Grazing
This was our third year managing the grazing on now 3 paddocks which cover the  200 acres of rough terrain.  About 80 Angus cattle and 50 Dairy Heifers were brought to graze on the property for two rotations. One rotation was for 10 days the other for about 25 days.  It’s useful for us to use this property as a secondary place to the Petaluma Ranch to place the cattle during high rain events. It’s also useful in case we run out of grass at the Petaluma Ranch and need to go somewhere for a second rotation. 

Cayetana Grazing
2018 was the third year for grazing on the 1500 acres of Cayetana.  Between December 12th and June 8th there were 284 Angus cattle to graze the 8 paddocks.  Historically, this property had been extremely overstocked with animals and the entire 1500 acres was run as one paddock. Having improved the paddock numbers to 8 has improved the management impact. We also secured an NRCS grant this season to further subdivide the ranch with a few more paddocks which we are carrying out this Fall. Overall, the cattle did well and had an average ADA of just over 23. Helped support 275 organic and animal welfare certified cattle to end up in Whole Foods market. Our vegetation monitoring program we run in partnership with Jim Coleman has shown encouraging results in terms of changes since we began management including:

  • A 54% average relative increase in the total number of plant species (biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 105% relative increase in the canopy coverage (space the take up) of native plant species (native biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 50% relative increase in the total number of new native plant species (native biodiversity) across the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 75% relative increase in the canopy coverage of perennial species across 7 of the 8 plots we annually monitor. 
  • A 37.23% relative decrease in invasive species plant composition across the 8 plots we annually monitor.

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Hill Top Grazing 
This was our fifth grazing season having cattle graze the Mitsui, Walsh, and Pangea properties.  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 (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. 

With a total of 35 ADA, 175 Dairy heifers came and grazed over the three properties/ 23-27 paddocks for another successful year.  This year we worked with a organic dairy who supplies clover milk and his dairy supplied all the cattle for hilltop. We were able to stagger the cattle (deliver) onto the ranch starting in November and staggered off (de-stock) in July. Working with this local producer allows us flexibility to get onto and off of properties easier than with other remote producers. We considered 2018 a real success on the ranch as our partnership with SMRPF and Sonoma County Parks is very strong and we are getting better at managing each location effectively. 

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Taylor Mountain
Because of the work we have been able to do on Hilltop with the Walsh property and the success we were able to achieve in regards to vegetation Improvement, the park system offered us the lease at Taylor Mountain. Taylor mountain is in 1,100 acre ranch, that is open to the public. Historically, the ranch was run as one paddock, and sections of it were seriously overgrazed while others were left un-grazed.  We obtained the lease in 2017; however, it took us into 2018 to get the infrastructure sufficient for any sort of grazing. 35% of the perimeter fence was almost non-existent, and there were no interior fences at all.

We worked with the parks over the fall and early winter to repair and replace sections of perimeter fence as well as install permanent and temporary electric interior fence. It took us until about February to get the ranch serviceable to bring  cattle as well as to organically certify the property. We worked with the dairy producer who supplied us with cattle for Hilltop to provide the majority of the cattle. Additionally, we had some cattle that were purchased beef animals that made up the total cattle group of almost 80 head. The cattle started grazing in February and stayed until July. We only grazed the 65% of the ranch that we could actually get fenced this season. With the internal fences that we installed we were able to get much more grazing impact across parts of the ranch that were previously un-grazed. 

Initially, we were concerned about the interaction with the public, and problems that could arise. However, after a season of grazing at Taylor the public has actually been fantastic. The dairy cattle were very calm and enjoyed interacting with people. Parts of the property that were overgrazed finally got some rest and parts that were under grazed finally got some impact.  The parks have done a fair amount of vegetation monitoring on the property so we did not perform any baseline assessments; however, we look forward to seeing the parks observations as they move forward in their monitoring program. So far the feedback from the parks has been very positive and they have enjoyed having SMI as a restoration raising partner.  One other success is that we are actually considered a service provider with the parks and they pass a nominal fee in order to do so which, to our knowledge hasn’t been done with cattle before in Sonoma County. We are either the first or one of the very first organizations to be paid to provide a restoration grazing service. This is a huge success in our opinion, and we’re excited for what the future holds.  

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. 

Glen Ellen:                         Petaluma:                               Caytana:
2012: 57                           2013: 49                                 2016: 52
2013: 67                           2014: 82                                 2017: 66
2014: 72                           2015: 96                                 2018: 74
2015: 83                           2016: 119
2016: 94                           2017: 134
2017: 97                           2018: 146
2018: 100
Total Gain: 43                   Total Gain: 97                         Total Gain: 22

 

Pangea:                            Petaluma:                               Caytana:
2015: 21                          2015: 45                                2015: 42
2016: 28                          2016: 64                                2016: 58
2017: 32                          2017: 68                                2017: 62
2018: 34                          2018: 75                                2018:71
Total Gain: 13                  Total Gain: 30                         Total Gain: 29

 

 

2018 Board Meeting

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

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

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

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

-Our new 3 year Healthy Soils Compost Spread project.

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

2017 Annual Board Meeting

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

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

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