Lone Tree Hill is a pasture located on the west side of TomKat Ranch with a picturesque view of the Pacific Ocean on one side of the hill with undulating rangeland and conifer forests looking eastward. When they say happy cows come from California, this is probably what they meant.

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This pasture has fairly low organic matter at 2.1% organic carbon and has been historically farmed for flax and hay, which may have also contributed to the stunted growth we’ve been experiencing on the hilltop. Both crops were conventionally farmed with extensive tilling and synthetic fertilizers as the only inputs. This type of farming can be effective to grow crops in the short-term, but these practices remove more soil nutrients than they add and with each harvest, more nutrients leave the soil and the nutrient density of the crop being grown decreases.

Since the pasture is somewhat low in organic matter, it’s a pretty good place to experiment with spreading compost. As mentioned in the Conservation Field Trial: Soil Sampling post), this application of compost will jumpstart the biology and keep it going with the physical presence of carbon the compost supplies to the microbes to maintain a regenerative cycle in the soil. Because if you’re going to throw a party, it’s best if you bring some food. And to really keep it going, an adaptive grazing strategy helps to return the nutrients to the soil for a truly regenerative process. But first, we need to give it a little boost.

Being on a hill facing the ocean, this pasture is exposed to high winds that scrub it of moisture quite readily and from our records, the most recent tilling was in 2007. The tilling in combination with high winds have increased topsoil erosion and this spot seems to be showing it. Toss in some heavy rains from time to time and you can feel an earthy empathy for a place like this.

Speaking of wind, there was a good stiff breeze blowing when we got up there to apply the compost. John Wick (California Carbon Project) made note of this observation and requested a test run to see if the thin quarter-inch layer of compost would get laid down evenly or just blow away like a manufactured dust storm. Upon the first pass, it was clear that the compost was settling nicely and covering the pasture in a uniform layer and we knew we could get to work.

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It sounds kind of simple. Just apply a thin layer of compost to a pasture. But when you think about it, the logistics are a little more complex when you consider applying it uniformly across a half acre. It’s a lot like painting a floor. You have to be careful not to paint yourself into a corner. Otherwise, you may have to go over a spot twice with the tractor running the risk of over compaction. We had some help from our friends from the San Mateo and East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District to give us a hand. Jeff Borum, Brittani Bohlke, and Irina Kogen were on hand to help guide Bill Besser, TomKat Ranch’s equipment operator, so that we could be sure to have an even application. Bill’s so good on the tractor, he probably didn’t need all that help, but it sure makes the scientists happy and confident of a good trial.  

As the tractor approached us, a field mouse scurried beneath our feet as if to ask “Why in the world are you doing this? Seriously. Mobilizing a fleet of trucks to apply the same supply of compost across multiple rangelands? Surely, you do not expect everyone to do this, right?” This mouse had a lot of good questions that needed to be answered.

Ideally, a ranch would be able to produce their own compost to apply on their land or source it locally from a compost producer to give the land a jumpstart. But to keep the science solid, it was wisely decided that a single source of compost would be best for this trial applied to several strategic sites around California. It’s exciting to see what will happen in this pasture and around the state.

This is what a 1/4” of compost looks like on a pasture. Not a lot there to see, but it’s there. It’s amazing that such a little amount can sequester carbon for up to 30 years. The next photo shows the “fenceline” of where the compost stops in the pasture to give you a better idea of the difference.

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The best thing that can happen after applying compost to pasture is a nice rain to soak it in and transport the new guests to the underground party that is about to happen. Fortunately for Lone Tree Hill, we did indeed get that nice soaking rain. Greener pastures await.