The topography of TomKat Ranch can be somewhat challenging to manage with undulating hills, forests, chaparral, gullies, and even a few ponds. With our pastures spread out amongst all of these features, it can be pretty easy to have a miscommunication about particular treatments for certain areas even with the best planned intentions. While we were mowing for the coyote brush management project, one of our more delicate areas on a hillside was mistakenly mowed by a contractor exposing a fair amount of bare ground on a slope right before a heavy rain forecast. Bare ground is the bane of regenerative management. Nothing good can come from bare ground. It reflects heat back into the atmosphere. It is unproductive from a forage perspective and since there are no plants, there is no photosynthesis occurring to sequester carbon. In fact, it is actually an outlet for stored carbon to leak back into the atmosphere as it dries out the surrounding gradient adding stress to nearby plants. The absence of living cover promotes erosion and runoff during high rainfall creating loss of topsoil. It is the exact opposite of our primary objective of growing soil!
The key to regenerative agriculture is adaptive management and keeping your soil covered— either through continuous living cover or some other means like spreading out some hay. There are a lot of surprises in ranching. Some you are prepared for, and others, you have to adapt as you go along. This was one such instance where we realized the mistake and came up with a pretty good solution to mitigate the problem through team-work and a large sack of burritos. It’s amazing what our crew can do when you buy us lunch.
When the mistaken mowing was discovered, our team sprung into action strategically spreading out bales of old hay on the hillside to help prevent soil erosion and safely divert the water to where it would help the soil. What was once covered with a mosaic of poison oak, coyote brush and various other cover was now being “band aided” to prepare for the storm. This winter in California, we’ve had to take some extra precautions as our storms have been fairly aggressive with heavy rainfall. At times, accumulating as much as 6 inches of rainfall in a day! That amount of rain pelting and scouring the bare ground would most assuredly lead to topsoil loss and getting it covered with the hay was the best we could do given the time constraints and impending weather.
After the storm, our Land and Livestock Team went back out to the hillside to assess the situation. The hillside hay kept the soil from running down the slope protecting it from the pounding rains. They applied some more hay where there were bare spots and seeded much of the area with orchard grass, which is a native perennial that Mel Preston, Rangeland Ecologist from Point Blue Conservation Science, suggested might do well there. She’s seen it established in several areas similar to this hillside where others species struggle and seemed like a good choice. Especially, since we had some on hand.
As you can see, the grasses are beginning to establish themselves and the brush that was mowed is starting to sprout new growth. One thing we’ve learned on the coast, coyote brush and poison oak are highly resilient. Soon this area will be covered and protected, and more importantly, photosynthetically active, which means we are back to growing soil!