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Grazing for fire safety

When I was a boy, I would follow my grandfather around our ranch every fall and winter as he went over each newly grazed field with a shovel, a pipe and a box of matches.

Each time we came to a patch of medusahead and tall fescue — nonnative and voracious invaders the sheep and cattle would avoid — my grandfather would light his pipe, flick the match into the grass and burn the patches to the ground with judicious whacks of the shovel to keep the flame lengths under control. “Good for the earth, good for the grass” was his refrain, though I think I will add for my grandchildren, “and a little fun.”

With this cycle of grazing our land and burning what invaders were left over, we continued the desperate fight of our predecessors to keep these invasive species at bay so that our pastures could remain healthy and vibrant for the next year and we could protect our property, family and neighbors from fire.

In the summers, when it was too dry to burn, I pivoted to helping my grandmother. Following her as she deftly applied loppers to the understory, I would listen to her own refrain, “You never stop clearing,” and for my grandchildren I will add, “As it always grows back.” We’d spend the day clearing the understory around her house as best we could, piling brush in burn piles for the winter. We ended the day with dinner and stories of our ancestors.

While my grandparents did this on a smaller scale than our predecessors, this had been the rhythm of our lives and the seasons for 170 years and the seven generations my family had lived and worked our ranch. In that time, we have practiced just about every kind of agriculture that our soils and the steep nature of our slopes can support but grazing has always been present.

Recently, there has been much focus on prescribed fire and manual mitigation (chainsaws, weed whackers, masticators etc.) as a way to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Grazing is often left out of these discussions. Often when I meet private homeowners, talks of fire fuel mitigation center on work done with a chainsaw, pile burns and the occasional prescribed burn. It rarely occurs to the property owner to put up fences and use grazing as a means to keep their property safe year after year. After all, it will always grows back.

In a recent abstract by the Sonoma County Forest Conservation Working Group, it was noted that Sonoma County is the most highly parcelized county in California. Of the 513,000 acres of true oak, coast redwood and Douglas-fir, roughly one third of the acreage was held in parcels of 100 acres or less. In our coniferous forest, parcels of 50 acres or less make up 68% of the forestland, or 132,000 acres. All this in a county with just over a million acres of land.

The County estimates that it costs on average $5,000 an acre to clear land of fire fuels in wooded or brushy areas. That means that it wold cost a homeowner $40,000 to clear an unmaintained property on 10 acres, if the home, driveway and outbuildings take up approximately 2 acres. Those cleared materials then grow back as flash fuels (fuels that burn hot and fast) the following year and will only accumulate each year as trees and shrubs regrow.

Let me then proselytize the joys of grazing as a means of reducing fire fuels, improving our biodiversity, saving money, making money and feeding family and friends.

A 10-acre parcel has a perimeter of roughly 2,640 feet. With fencing prices at $10 a foot, it will cost $26,400 to fence that parcel. Yes, this is significant cash outlay but, unlike the costs outlined above, this fence will last a generation and will allow the homeowner to graze livestock.

Now, let me address the enduring myth that raising livestock is difficult. It is not rocket science. Making sure the animal has the right kind of salt lick, water, graze and gets the correct medical treatment every six months or so is a minimal labor investment for the return in land clearing and food on the table it generates. Most of the necessary information can be gathered in 15 minutes on Google, everything you need can be bought at the feed store and the rest is pretty elementary.

For those uninterested in eating what they grow, putting several cattle, sheep or goats on the property (depending on the kind of graze present) can create a bucolic setting, highlighting the rural nature of the beautiful agricultural county in which we live. It will also save on the continued costs of maintenance with manual fossil fuel-guzzling machines.

Another point in favor of livestock is that while a chainsaw, weed whacker or chipper will make fire fuels less dangerous, it does not get rid of the fuels. Instead, it simply changes their shape and composition. Livestock, on the other hand, turns that dangerous grass and brush into soil-amending manure.

Finally, there is what livestock do, which is eat brush and grass. This action mimics low-intensity fire behavior, eliminates flash fuels and ladder fuels, and revitalizes spaces left untouched by fire or grazing for a generation. Take a drive down any of our Sonoma County roads and the presence of gray mats of uncleared grass becomes immediately apparent. These mats rot and release methane while disturbing slopes as they gather mass and contribute to massive landslides and erosion. They stand in stark contrast to the vibrant healthy slopes, which have experienced fire or grazing and are now growing back vigorously to sequester more carbon and start the process again.

When livestock are grazing in the dry season, nonnative species have a much more difficult time contending with native species that have adapted to our dry summers and have deeper roots and lower water needs. Grazing is more economical, easier for maintenance and better for the environment on smaller plots than manual clearing.

For those interested in consuming the animals they graze, there’s also the added benefit of having a full freezer that goes a long way in keeping grocery costs down and reducing local food insecurity. For harvest, they can reach out to one of the several “ranch harvest” companies that will slaughter on property (owners need not be present) and deliver to a local butcher shop.

Our family uses the local company Diamond G., owned by Gabe Naredo and serving Sonoma and the surrounding counties. Gabe is as gregarious as his is efficient — I have never seen the man miss. In June last year, he came to harvest five of my steers and, in between slaughtering, he entertained us in his other chosen profession: an accomplished raconteur. After harvesting and entertaining us, Gabe drives our animals to Willowside Meats in Santa Rosa.

Willowside Meats was recently bought and renovated by two families. After receiving our animals, one of their staff will call me to ask what specific cuts I would like and to give advice based on family size, preferences of cooking and consuming. My animal will come back to me at a cost of about $1.15 per pound hanging weight (the weight after an animal has been slaughtered, usually around 500 lbs for my grass-fed, grass-finished beef) for everything from ground to my coveted two-inch thick T-bone steaks. (Walking through my local market, I scoff at the $15.99 per pound price tag for T-bones.)

As a diver and lover of our oceans, I am also a huge proponent of the fact that you can get your meat packaged in butcher paper at the local butcher shop and thus avoid the USDA requirement for plastics on mass-produced materials, an added boon to momma nature.

All told, my animals provide a service in keeping my family safe from fire fuels and are an extremely cost-effective way to feed my family and my community.

Finally, for those with more grazing acreage and thus more animals than their families can consume, there is the option to sell animals. Under AB 2114, which went into effect in 2019, a rancher can sell up to five beef per month by following the above process.

Essentially, the animal is bought “on the hoof” for an agreed upon price, is harvested by a ranch harvester and then the family purchasing the animal goes through the butcher to get the animal cut and wrapped to their specifications. My costs generally work out to be about $6 hanging weight depending on the year. I’m cheap, as I sell to friends and family, while most of my peers sell their grass-fed, grass-finished animals in the $9-$10 a pound hanging weight range, which, at 500 pounds per animal, is nothing to shake a stick at!

Our beautiful local landscapes have been shaped by fire and massive herds of herbivores over tens of thousands of years. Our sedentary society has largely upset that balance, which is becoming only more volatile with climate change and the increasing creep of the urban interface into traditionally agricultural lands.

This article is the beginning of my hope that we, as a community, can take care of these smaller parcels of land in our county through more flexible means. Not all parcels are appropriate for grazing. But, hopefully, my gospel of graze will make its mark within some hearts and make its way onto a few properties. Through the tool of grazing, families might find a measure of comfort in being better protected during our fire seasons and a measure of joy in having full freezers with which to provide for their loved ones.

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