San Diego County cattle ranches sustain So-Cal grasslands
An acorn woodpecker, his red crown blazing in the sun, repeats his familiar knock, knock… knock, knock knock… as he digs into the trunk of a dead oak tree. In the distance, a Swainson’s hawk glides across a crystal blue December sky, as squirrels scurry across the tufts of grass and wildflowers. And in the distance, half a dozen cows graze among the native buckwheat and sunflowers.
This pastoral scene of the Ramona Grasslands Preserve is much as it was thousands of years ago, the birds, oaks, and the grassland itself. But cows? Aren’t they supposed to be on farms? That is the normal assumption, that cattle are foreign to the native landscape and upset the natural balance of the biomes. But whether it is on a ranch or nature preserve, cattle actually maintain and benefit San Diego’s grasslands, which are part of our natural landscape, like our pine forests or chaparral.
Richard King of the California Native Grasslands explains that grazing animals such as cattle are integral to maintaining our native grasslands, performing the same functions of species from thousands of years ago. King says, “Amazing herding herbivores and predators once existed before any humans arrived and settled here, and the grasslands were healthy ecosystems due to the grazing, trampling, and fertilization that the native fauna provided.” King goes on to say that if you want a picture of the giant sloths, mammoths, dire wolves, and American lions that lived here long ago, a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits should be on your to-do list.
Grasslands are often overlooked when we consider our local biomes, but they are just as important as our oak woodlands, pine forests, and chaparral. More than 90% of California’s rare plant species are found in grasslands. These expanses of bunchgrasses and wildflowers are home to 30% of the species considered threatened and endangered in California. Most folks think of big, old trees when they hear the term “old growth,” but there can be “old growth” grasslands as well. These coastal prairies of California support the highest plant diversity of any grassland in the United States.
According to the California Native Grasslands Association (CNGA), native grasses have an oversized capacity to store carbon, with the organic matter in our grasslands being approximately 50% carbon. These deep-rooted perennial grasses anchor the soil throughout the year, filter and store water, prevent erosion, and maintain nutrients in the soil.
King, who is a member at large of the CNGA with 36 years as a rangeland management specialist, says that some environmentalists and others think cattle grazing is unnatural and hurts the environment. “There is a big anti-grazing portion of the population who believe that livestock should not be allowed to graze any of our environments,” he says. “People drive down the road and they’ll see a lot of bare ground where plants have been overgrazed while trying to grow or soil cover being overutilized, and they just assume that all livestock grazing works that way. But it's really about how the grazing is managed. Both overgrazing and under grazing can ruin the health and resilience of our landscapes.” This situation can be further complicated because domestic livestock will have different dietary needs and grazing habits.
Science suggests that ranches use a mosaic of grazing and disturbance to maintain the ecological integrity of grasslands. If grazing cattle are removed from a grassland, it can not only affect the native plant community, it can also affect some of the animals that live among the grasses, such as the California kangaroo rat. Good grazing practices can reduce weeds. By reducing the amount of biomass in an environment, it can also diminish fire risk.
As an athlete and business major at USC, Kevin Muno developed a taste for taking on challenges and solving problems. Running a cattle ranch thus seemed like the perfect fit for him. Ten years ago he established Perennial Pastures, a ranch that comprises two parcels of land, each at 8,000 acres. “I want to fix two problems at the same time,” he says. “I want to make you healthy and the land healthy.”
At Perennial Pastures the cattle are grazed in paddocks, an area that might be only two acres or as large as 1,000 acres. What may surprise most people is that Perennial Pastures graze the cattle in high densities. “By grazing in higher densities you make sure that the cattle do not gather in only certain areas, such as under shade trees,” says Muno. This practice prevents the excessive buildup of dung and urine in any one area, which can be harmful to the soil. Higher grazing densities also facilitate the natural trampling of vegetation, which helps to build up organic matter in the soil.
Once a paddock is grazed, the cattle are removed, letting the grasslands rest and recover. This imitates the natural movement and migration of the animals that historically grazed local grasslands. Recovery time may last as long as a year.
Originally secured, over 30 years ago, as legal counsel for Rancho Guejito, Hank Rupp’s responsibilities evolved to that of manager of the 23,000-acre cattle ranch. Of the over 800 original Mexican Land Grants that predate the Mexican-American War, Rancho Guejito is the only one remaining, all others being broken up or giving way to development. Rupp emphasizes this history as he talks about the ranch’s grasslands. “Much of our ranch looks like it did in 1845,” he says. “We have 21 different pastures. There is no overgrazing.”
To ensure that there is no overgrazing, Rancho Guejito rotates a pasture out of grazing every two or three years. Rupp says that overgrazing can result in erosion, which their cattle rotation avoids. The ranch’s erosion control extends to the many springs on the land, which are fenced off from the cows. “This isn’t new. It’s not a trend,” says Rupp. “We’ve fenced off our springs for over 100 years. You don’t want cattle soiling the springs. We use three-strand barbed wire. That keeps the cattle out but lets the wildlife in.”
According to the Grazing Handbook, a publication of the CNGA, as the large animals of the Pleistocene diminished and went extinct around 11, 000 years ago, elk flourished and replaced their functionality in grasslands as a major herbivore.
In 1769, Spanish colonists brought domestic cattle, horses, and sheep, displacing the elk from its age-old habitat. Large-scale grazing of domestic cattle commenced with the Mexican Land Grants in 1824.
Today, naturalists estimate that over 500,000 elk roamed throughout California into the 19th century. Prized for their meat and the tallow that could be rendered from their carcasses, hunters reduced their numbers to a mere fraction. Today, only about 400 elk remain in a portion of northern California.
The handbook goes on to say that the plants of grasslands have evolved with the grazing animals and have adapted to grazing. Although a grazing animal might consume almost all of the above-ground leaves of a native bunchgrass, that grazing stimulates new growth for the plant, both above-ground and below. Without the grazing of megafauna, grasslands are soon invaded by shrubs and trees.
Modern cattle now serve the function that giant sloths and mammoths performed thousands and millions of years ago. Currently, in the state of California, approximately 1.8 million beef cattle graze on 19.4 million acres of California’s oak woodlands, brushlands, scrublands, and grasslands. These lands are mostly privately owned, like the ranches in San Diego County.
It would be easy to say, “Let the cattle graze,” but grazing animals need to be managed with high attention to detail to get the best environmental benefit. A wide range of factors need to be considered when cattle are grazed, from the type of soils on a range to the type of cattle to be grazed, according to the Grazing Handbook.
The species of plants and animals in a biome that is to be grazed also need to be considered. Some plants benefit from grazing while others don’t. The same can be said for animal species. Richard King says, “Managing for biodiversity includes not just managing for species diversity, it includes managing for the desired functional groups such as perennials, cool and warm season species, half-shrubs, shrubs, and trees to improve ecosystem functions.”
According to King, proper grazing can address drought, floods, water quality and quantity, build soil and organic matter, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as well as stabilize eroding lands, and enhance wildlife. “It's all about how we manage land,” he says, “and livestock are sorely underestimated in their ability to regenerate our life support system—but only if managed properly.”
The grazing practices of the ranches help the grasslands, but the grazing, as well as other practices of the ranches, help the cattle, too. At Perennial Pastures grazing at higher densities forces the cattle to eat different grasses instead of what they might prefer to eat. Muno says that this ensures that the cows get more fiber in their diet. Another practice that benefits the cattle is what is called “corrective calving.” In southern California, this means making sure that young are born in springtime, after the winter rains when grasses are growing fresh and are at their greenest and most nutritious. The mama cows will then have the most nutritious milk for their calves. They also have the best nutrition to recover from calf birth.
Both Perennial Pastures and Rancho Guejito eschew harsh management of their cattle, forgoing cattle prods. Rupp emphasizes the four-star treatment his cattle receive. “We are very careful to monitor our water on the farm. The cows are provided with fresh water pumped from wells 1,000 feet deep, water that comes up from solar-powered pumps,” he says. “We use no hormones of antibodies. Our cows live happy peaceful lives. They are grazing in very large pastures and may go days without seeing a human being. If you wake up tomorrow morning and you’re a cow, you’ll want to be a cow at Rancho Guejito.”
Perennial Pastures does the same, practicing the “Bud Williams” low-stress method of handling cattle. Cattle prods are not used. Quick movements and yelling are kept to a minimum.
While our local ranchers are looking after the well-being of their cattle and grasslands, there is still more to be learned, and developments such as climate change present new challenges. Richard King nonetheless remains optimistic, saying, “ We can improve processes and address drought, floods, water quality, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, stabilize eroding lands, and enhance wildlife. It's all about how we manage land, and livestock are sorely underestimated in their ability to regenerate our life support system.”
Images by Kelsey Buelna courtesy of Perennial Pastures.