Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Cows in the Woods

I was driving north on Williams Lake Road.  The woodland on either side had been managed in a variety of ways.  Some was left alone to fill in with underbrush.  Some had been grazed into uselessness.  Some of the most interesting had been selectively logged and the ground was covered in chips.  That technique minimizes the threat of wildfire.  I was headed north to visit Theresa Everest. She and her husband Eric were managing their 130 acres to raise cattle.

Unlike the Williams Lake Road, Everest Ranch is on a west-facing hillside in dense forest that supports a wide variety of trees.  There is some open pasture, but the majority is forest on a slope, not the kind of acreage you would typically envision for cows.  With a background in farming, logging and service in the Navy, this was Theresa’s dream ranch that she had been planning for 20 years.  She is deliberately initiating development of the property into silvopasture.  Silvopasture is the intentional combination of trees, forage plants and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system. (Wikipedia)

Brush Hog

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.  To get it started is intensive.  The Everests have invested in over $100,000 worth of machinery.  That includes a small sawmill, a Kubota Track Loader and a forest management grade brush hog that will turn pieces of wood up to 8 inches in diameter into chips.  The payback is a piece of property that the livestock can almost manage by themselves, rich soil with a large carbon reserve, lush grass and a lumber-producing forest that can be sustainably logged for generations.

Highland Cattle

Like the Finnish family that homesteaded their property in 1889, the Everests are taking it one step at a time.  They want to see their work survive and still be sound 130 years later like the hewn log buildings that they still use and live in.  Just as having the right tools is critical, so is having the right animals.  Highland cattle are one of the oldest registered cattle breeds in the world.  They eat brush as well as grass. Their double coat of hair sheds water and insulates in the winter.  When it comes to hardy animals, Scottish Highlands rule.

Paired with the cattle are Icelandic Sheep.  Another pure ancient breed, Icelandic sheep are tough. They also have a double coat of water shedding outer hair and light warm inner wool.  The two are often woven together and knitted into lopapeysa, the distinctive traditional Icelandic sweater of concentric rings.  These sheep will graze on bushes and grass, so they are perfect for the transition taking place at Everest Ranch.

The first step is Fuel Reduction.  In practice this means clearing out small trees and underbrush.  Some of it can be used as lumber or firewood.  Other parts can be charred for use as biochar.  Much of the rest is ground into mulch.  Limbs are cut up to 10 feet off the ground so no “ladder fuel” is left in the forest.  While fire prevention is important, creating a rich soil that will support forage grasses is the goal.

Grass coming in after opening canopy

Letting the soil recover and develop a stand of grass takes time.  So cattle are not introduced for the first year while the second step of recovery takes place.

Finally the animals are allowed to graze down the grass, but only for a week.  Then they are moved to another area and not returned for a month or more while the first area recovers.  This technique of rotational grazing keeps the habitat healthy in more ways than one.  The cattle trample small trees and bushes so those are returned to the soil.  The grass flourishes in the manure and urine left by the cattle.  Because of the constant rotation pests and parasites can’t proliferate.  Having long sight-lines also limits cover for potential predators.  The Everests did lose some sheep to a mountain lion when there was dense brush to hide in, but have not had problems since opening up the pasture.  The sheep come back to a holding pen at night.

The ranch has many springs; some that were developed by the original homesteaders are being re-developed for the grazing operation.  But the gullies where water runs free are fenced off to prevent erosion.  In fact an entire 20 acre field is not being used as pasture because it is essentially a wetland and grazing cattle would destroy it.

With thoughtful planning, attentive management and strategic investments, Everest Ranch will become a model for sustainably raising cows in the woods.

The hallmarks of a healthy environment are diversity and abundance.  The Everests are responsible for their income and the future health of their property.  To understand silvopasture practices in the National Forest, I met with Tim Coleman, from the Kettle Range Conservation Group to tour the Lambert Creek watershed in Ferry County where private cattle are permitted to graze on public land.

The cows in this watershed were Herfords.  They are much larger than Highland Cattle, 1200 to 1800 pounds.  I have also seen Angus Cattle of about the same size grazing in the forest along the South Fork of Sherman Creek.   The two scenes were very different.  Along Lambert Creek road the ground had barely enough cover to be green.  This was especially apparent where a fence separated the public grazing land from private property.  Grass and brush stood two to three feet high on the private land and barely an inch on the public land.  The cattle were grazing lush green grass in a logged area along Sherman Creek.

The situation looked bad on Lambert until I consulted with Brandon Weinmann, grazing and invasive species coordinator for the Colville National Forest about how they manage rangeland and saw it from a different perspective.  The Forest Service manages grazing allotments on the “pasture level”, that is they look at the overall health of the plants, water and soil in the whole pasture.  There are usually several “pastures” in a grazing allotment and the Forest Service will determine the timing, duration, intensity and frequency of how they are permitted to be grazed.  The condition of one spot at one time does not necessarily indicate the health of the whole pasture. 

Brandon drove me around an allotment on Deadman Creek where the riparian area was in good shape despite use by cattle, elk and bears.  What I kept learning was that there are lots of variables.

Deadman Creek cattle watering site

Cows, calves, bulls and steers of different ages, breeds and personalities behave differently at different times in different areas.  It is hard to prescribe a set of guidelines that works in all situations.  The Forest Service uses an allotment management plan developed through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) which is tailored to each allotment.

Something cattle have in common is an aversion to wolves.  Tim Coleman is a member of the Wolf Advisory Board (WAG), a group he appreciates because although coming from different perspectives, they speak openly about their opinions.  All members admit that pressure from wolves is moving the cattle in many areas to lower parts of their range. This depletes the lower part sooner and leaves burnable fuel on the higher pastures (grassoline). 

Comparing beginning forage and the amount available at any point after animals are introduced will indicate how much forage has been used and when cattle should be moved, thus gauging the health of the ecosystem in terms of diversity and abundance.

Grasses have evolved to bounce back from being eaten when young.  In his book, Holistic Management, Allan Savory advocates rotational grazing as the most natural way to restore health to overgrazed lands but cautions that it takes thoughtful planning and attention to actual conditions on the whole property to make that work.  That “whole” includes the plant and animal community; the water cycle; the mineral cycle; and the energy flow.  It is an economy that includes but does not equate with money.

The choices are not black and white. (photo by Brandon Weinmann)

The take-away is that one size definitely does not fit all.  A variety of ungulates once ranged in the forests: deer, elk, moose and herds of caribou. (According to Sinixt elder, Marilyn James, caribou herds were once so large that they posed a threat to villages. The natives learned to spook the caribou away from villages by hanging antlers in the trees.)  Perhaps cows are a viable replacement for those herds.  But whether you can afford an industrial-scale brush hog or just a chain saw and safety equipment, promoting diversity and abundance takes attention and intension.  It’s not as simple as putting cows in the woods.

One Response to Cows in the Woods

  1. Excellent article, Joe! I’ve been managing my forest for fire risk, and notice that grass will come up in areas I thought were too shady. Hearing about breeds that browse encourages me to keep working in my woods. Maybe someday we will have a herd of cattle or sheep on our place. We will want somebody else to run that enterprise, of course. Too busy being retired, ourselves.
    Going to google a forestry brush hog now…
    Roger at Thornbush, San Juan Island

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