Adding value to grassfed cattle operations by restoring rangeland health with targeted grazing on California's Central Coast

Progress report for FW20-364

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $19,673.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Elizabeth Reikowski
Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC
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Project Information

Abstract:

Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC, a new business established by a young brother and sister entrepreneur team in 2018, proposes to test and evaluate the efficacy of adaptively managed, targeted, rotational cattle grazing as an ecosystem management tool for California’s Mediterranean grasslands and as an economically viable business model for cattle production. During a 3-year study period, Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC will conduct rigorous ecosystem surveys, a series of exclosure-grazing treatment experiments, and multi-variable evaluations of livestock performance and economic costs and returns on two California coastal ranches. This project is particularly relevant and timely as California’s Mediterranean grasslands have declined dramatically over the last few centuries due to introductions of nonnative species, agricultural intensification, and urban expansion. Grassland degradation coupled with increasingly extreme drought and fire regimes threaten the economic viability of farmers and ranchers, who rely on productive and resilient grassland ecosystems for livestock production. The data generated during the 3-year study period will help inform other producers in California interested in ecosystem restoration as an additional source of income for cattle operations, as well as directly support the goals of a small, new business founded by two young ranchers. The economic viability and social prosperity of livestock producers depends on managing livestock grazing with the goal of enhancing grassland plant communities while simultaneously promoting livestock performance. This project will improve our understanding of grazing as a tool for management and restoration of grasslands and test whether these management approaches are economically viable and competitive.

Project Objectives:

This project will investigate the ecological and economic outcomes of employing targeted grazing practices on two cattle ranches on California’s central coast. Specifically our goals are:

  1. Measure the effect of specific grazing treatments with cattle on:
    1. Species richness, density, and cover of native perennial grasses
    2. Species richness and cover of native forbs
    3. Species richness and cover of Cal-IPC listed invasive plants
    4. Recruitment, growth, and survival of Blue oak (Quercus douglasii) seedlings
  2. Determine whether cattle performance is improved, reduced, or unaffected when cattle are utilized for targeted grazing projects.
  3. Evaluate the economic efficacy of targeted grazing as both a business model and as a grassland management tool by conducting a cost and return case study comparing rotational grazing with cattle to:
    1. Common alternative land management approaches such as herbicide application and mechanical treatment
    2. Results of previous cost-profit analyses conducted on California Central Coast ranches
  4. Disseminate results to farmers, ranchers, and land managers through demonstration events, blog posts, articles in professional journals, and presentations at conferences.
Timeline:

This project will be implemented over three years, beginning on September 1, 2020 and concluding on August 31, 2023. Figure 6 details when key project activities will occur.

Figure 6. Timeline for project implementation.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Devii Rao - Technical Advisor
  • Elizabeth Reikowski - Producer
  • Matthew Reikowski - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

We will implement a 3-year program of targeted, rotational cattle grazing on two California ranches (Pinnacles Ranch and the Selleck-Ivens Ranch) and assess the ecological and economic outcomes of that management approach.

 

Study Location

Pinnacles Ranch (Paicines, CA, 200 acres) and the Selleck-Ivens Ranch (King City, CA, 630 acres) are located about 20 miles apart on California’s Central Coast. The ranches have variable soils, topography, plant communities, and management histories. Both ranches show evidence of ecological degradation and decreased rangeland productivity (Figures 1-3)

 

Figure 1. Pinnacles Ranch, September 2018: Dominance of thatch dependent invasive annual grasses, slender oat (Avena Barbata) (left) and red brome (Bromus madritensis ssp. rubens) (right).

 

 

Figure 2. Selleck-Ivens Ranch, October 2019: Low forage production, topsoil loss and erosion on the ranch’s mountainous areas.

 

 

Figure 3. Selleck-Ivens Ranch, October 2019: Dense cover of invasive plants, yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) and black mustard (Brassica nigra) in previously farmed lowlands.

 

Grazing Treatment

Throughout the study period, both ranches will be managed by Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC using a targeted, rotational grazing system in which paddock size generally ranges from 10-40 acres and cattle are moved every 1-2 weeks, depending on paddock size and forage availability. Grazing will begin each year in late fall (approx. December 1) and conclude in early summer (approx. July 1). Paddocks will be ordered in an attempt to target invasive species during critical points of the life cycle such as bolting and flowering while avoiding severe defoliation of native grasses and forbs at highly sensitive points of the life cycle.

Willow Creek Land and Cattle’s targeted rotational grazing program had to be adjusted during the 2020-2021 grazing season due to extreme drought conditions. Specifically, Pinnacles Ranch was rested from grazing for nearly 3 months during the growing season while the Selleck-Ivens Ranch was not able to be grazed due to drought-induced failure of the ranch’s stock water system. For the 2020-2021 grazing program, 33 cattle (32 heifers and one bull) were placed on Pinnacles Ranch from October 6 to December 7, then removed from the ranch. The cattle were then returned to Pinnacles Ranch on March 8, 2021 and grazed until June 19. Following the original grazing management plan, cattle were rotated between paddocks such that each paddock on the ranch was grazed for between 5 and 30 days. During the summer of 2021, we made repairs and upgrades to the Selleck-Ivens Ranch stock water system so that the ranch can be returned to a rotational program for the 2021-2022 grazing season.

Throughout the grazing treatment, we collected the following data on each paddock: 1) paddock area; 2) grazing start date; 3) number of days the paddock was grazed; 4) number of animal units (AU) utilizing the paddock (1 AU = 1,000 lb of livestock); 5) stocking rate (CDA; see Equation 1); and 6) number of days of recovery since the last graze. In addition, regularly collected weather (e.g., rainfall timing and amounts) and other observational data using photo-documentation and field notes.

Equation 1: Cattle days per acre (CDA) = (AU × Days)/Acres

 

Exclosure Experiment

We will assess the ecological outcomes of grazing over the three year study period using paired exclosure-treatment plots and a random stratified sampling design. To limit variation in plant community responses due to varying soil types, we used NRCS soil data to select three soil map units on the Selleck-Ivens Ranch (LnF2, LnF3, and Wk) and two soil map units on Pinnacles Ranch (LnE2 and PnG3), on each of which we will place two paired exclosure-treatment plots (Figure 4). For all soil map units except Wk, plots will be placed in locations with native bunchgrass presence to allow monitoring of changes in bunchgrass density and cover. The Wk map unit has no detectable bunchgrass presence but has very high cover of yellow star thistle and black mustard. In this map unit, plots will be placed in locations judged to be representative of overall pasture conditions.

Figure 4. Selleck-Ivens Ranch soils (left) and Pinnacles Ranch soils (right)22

 

Paired exclosure-treatment plots will consist of a 256 square foot exclosure and a nearby 256 square foot unfenced area that is freely accessible to cattle during grazing treatments. Within each exclosure and treatment plot, we will randomly select ten 2 ft by 2 ft subplots in which we will annually estimate the percent cover of each species and of non-living cover categories such as thatch and bare ground (Figure 5). We will also record the density of bunchgrasses and woody species in each subplot, if present.

Figure 5. Plot design for the exclosure experiment.

We constructed all grazing exclosures throughout the fall of 2020 and collected data in exclosure and control plots at Pinnacles Ranch in April and May 2021. Data was not collected in Selleck-Ivens Ranch exclosure and control plots as this ranch did not receive a grazing treatment due to water shortages at the ranch.

Oak Woodland Monitoring

At each ranch we will randomly select 12 adult blue oaks (DBH ≥ 12.7 cm) to use as survey points for oak woodland recruitment. We will annually measure the DBH (diameter at breast height) of each selected adult oak and score the tree based on canopy dieback. In addition we will record the density of juvenile oaks (DBH < 12.7 cm) by height class (less than 1 m, 1-2 m, and greater than 2 m) within 1.5 times the canopy radius of the selected adult oak. The first round of oak woodland monitoring will occur in December 2021.

 

Livestock Performance

We will weigh all cattle at the beginning and end of each grazing season and calculate average daily weight gain (lb/day). We will evaluate the performance of our livestock throughout the season by comparing our weight gain calculations to reported values for other California Central Coast cattle ranches. We will begin evaluating livestock weight gain during the 2021-2022 grazing season. Our livestock scale is located at the Selleck-Ivens Ranch and because this ranch was not included in our rotational grazing program for the 2020-2021 season, we were unable to weigh cattle.

 

Cost and Return Case Study

We will develop a case study examining the costs and returns of Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC’s targeted cattle grazing operation. Costs associated with targeted grazing will be compared to those associated with alternative common alternative land management approaches such as herbicide application and mechanical treatment. In addition costs and returns for Willow Creek Land and Cattle, LLC will be compared to two recently published cost and return studies from our region, one for a 300 head cow-calf operation on the Central Coast in 2018 (https://bit.ly/338NZ0A)23 and the other for a 100 head cow-calf operation on Public Lands in San Francisco Bay Area from 2017 (https://bit.ly/36mUajO)24.  Targeted grazing operations have costs above and beyond those of a typical operation, such as monitoring specific natural resources of interest, moving animals at a critical time, or installing extra fencing or watering infrastructure in order to better target specific areas. Such additional costs will be accounted for in our case study. 

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers
30 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We will have a robust education and outreach plan that will consist of five different outreach methods. We will 1) host two field days, 2) give PowerPoint presentations at two conferences, 3) write one article for a trade magazine or journal 4) write three articles (one each year) for ranchers and the general public that will published on a blog and on BenitoLink (https://benitolink.com), and 5) develop a 1-page handout with results from the economics case study.

Outreach activities are not only educational, but can be fun. They are a great way for producers to engage with each other and share with their neighbors what has worked or not worked on their ranch. We will host two outreach events: one in year 2 and one in year 3 of the grant. We will wait until year 2 for our first event in order to have plots on the ground for participants to look at and results to discuss. These events will take place at Pinnacles Ranch and Selleck-Ivens Ranch. We expect that our outreach events will be attended primarily by producers, but also by academics, agency personnel, and others interested in California rangelands. This diversity of attendees can lead to valuable interactions. Not only does it allow for peer to peer learning, but also learning among different groups. For example, agency staff can learn directly from a producer and vice versa. Educational outreach activities will be field-based, on-ranch demonstration events, so people can see firsthand results on the landscape from targeted grazing strategies aimed to address particular natural resources goals. Because these field days will be on ranches, we can share other aspects of the targeted grazing operation, such as stockmanship, that may be of interest to participants. In addition to field days, we will present results from our project at two conferences (e.g. California Society for Ecological Restoration or California Cattlemen’s Association) in years two and/or three years of the grant.

Several types of written materials will be produced through this grant. We will write an article for a trade magazine (e.g. California Cattleman, California Cattlemen’s Association’s magazine) or journal (e.g. Grasslands or Rangelands) in year 3. Collaborator Devii Rao will write 3 articles for her Livestock and Range Blog, one article each year of the grant, to share our project and findings with producers and the general public. The blog articles will also be posted on BenitoLink, which is San Benito County’s primary source for news, in order to reach a broader audience within the local community. Through this grant, we will develop a case study looking at the costs and returns from the targeted grazing operation and comparing costs of targeted grazing to other land management strategies, such as herbicide and mowing. Results from the case study will be summarized in a one-page handout that will be shared with attendees at the outreach event in year 3.

On July 7, 2021, Collaborator Devii Rao published an article sharing information on this project on her Livestock and Range Blog. The article can be accessed here: http://www.ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=48988. In addition, PI Elizabeth Reikowski presented on targeted grazing strategies and expected outcomes from this project at the Second Annual Grazing for Fuel Management Webinar hosted by the California Range Management Committee. The webinar was attended by over 60 participants, including approximately 30 agricultural professionals and a dozen farmers and ranchers. PI Reikowski also gave a lecture on targeted rotational grazing and integrating grant-supported research into ranching operations to 20 undergraduate students at University of Nevada, Reno in May 2021.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 New working collaboration
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.