As Thoreau astutely observed, spring arrives with imperceptible first steps. Now, spring is waning, having been lauded by the glowing hillsides of lupines and the gentle bows of the California poppies. And as you have likely both seen and heard, the coming of spring brings not only blooms, but life in all forms. With this vivacious wave, too, comes the dropping of the Conservation Grazing Program’s very own calves.
We, like many who choose to build a cattle herd, have decided to continue doing so from the ground up. This means building the herd ourselves, through the very literal way of a breeding program. Breeding gives us ultimate control of the members with whom we build our team—we cultivate and understand our genetics, select for gentle temperament, and begin our training process from the moment that these little ones dive into the soft grass of our pastures. This year we bred roughly half of our cattle herd of 101 to help bring us closer to our optimal number of 150 cattle. This number will help us to more fully realize the reaches of our Program—more bellies to fill means more acres covered and more thorough benefit to the grasslands of The Preserve.
Beginning the last days of April, the Grazing Team spent their days roaming amongst the herd, monitoring and observing low bellies, full utters and, for the luckiest among us, the first leap into life of the new members of our team. With our low-stress and on foot handling methods, gentle, easy-to-handle female cattle have been the key to our Conservation Grazing Program’s success. As we work with these new cattle, we must ensure they are a fit with the herd and are safe for us to work with, as well as unconcerned with a dog walker on the other side of the fence. We are committed to using portable electric fencing—a single or double strand of electrified polyline—to move the cattle around the grasslands in a temporary and wildlife-friendly manner. Our system of electric fencing is both elegant and challenging, lacking the brute force of barbed wire, this system relies on the compliance and training of our herd. As a result, animals that do not fit the requirements of our Program, due to either gender or disposition, will be, eventually and at the appropriate time, incorporated into the regenerative food system. Although this is neither our favorite nor the most pleasant part of our job, it is a strategic decision for it maintains our safety and the efficacy of the Program and also allows us to participate in the vital cycle of our food system.
The Preserve provides perhaps the most idyllic of lives for any cow. With days spent in lush meadows on Black Mountain and taking bites of our native grasses out on the Mesa, our cows live in luxury. Their days are dictated by their stomachs, and a quick look at their shiny coats and filled out bodies will tell you we never leave them wanting. Grazing helps us to steward Preserve grasslands with a level of care and discernment afforded by few other management techniques—it is our best and most adaptable tool for managing the diversity and scope of The Preserve. Furthermore, the results have been exceptional—The Preserve’s plants respond in wonderful ways to the presence of our large ruminants. Grazing has given room for native perennials, such as danthonia californica, to thrive, while cutting back significantly on European invasive grasses, such as Harding grass. The cows, too, have made short work of fields of mustard, hemlock and coyote brush, trampling the reedy stalks and brush into the ground. When the cows approach a field, they look upon the plants with the discern of a diner while also positively impacting the land and the plants through their cloven-hooved tread.
Although other landscape management techniques such as mowing may be seen as alternatives to this element of the Conservation Grazing Program, it must be kept in mind that these techniques differ in significant ways. Mowing is not a large-scale management tool. It has its purpose, but it is both smaller and more targeted than what is required for the large-scale management of The Preserve’s 5,000+ acres of grasslands. Furthermore, mowing can negatively impact the lively system that exists below the seed heads. While our eyes often focus on elements of our ecosystems that exist above the grass line, it is important to remember that grasslands are far more akin to a tiny forest than to a manicured lawn—there is an entire world existing amongst the plants.
The Conservancy is not alone in undertaking this conservation grazing endeavor. Quite to the contrary, it is both a participant, and a leader, in a larger statewide and national movement. Together, we aim to employ and quantify the beneficial impacts of cattle on managed landscapes and to contribute to our food system in the most humane and regenerative ways we know how. And all the while, we, as all sound scientists do, continue to question, evaluate and adjust our plans, methods and the greater systems within in which we exist, looking to educate ourselves, evolve and innovate whenever possible.
Experiencing The Preserve teem with life is a privilege hardly rivaled, as is witnessing the birth of our own calves. With this privilege of bringing in and stewarding new life, also comes great responsibility—a responsibility that the grazing team not only fully accepts but is more than prepared to handle. This spring, the joy of watching new life holds particular weight against the uncertainty of our global situation, and we anticipated the arrival of our calves with particular excitement. The Preserve reminds us daily, and especially this year, that life continues, that spring will come with its trademark smells and songs, and that we are beyond lucky to bear witness to it all.
By Phoebe Hering