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Just add compost: How to turn your grassland ranch into a carbon sink

By   /  February 3, 2014  /  4 Comments

Here’s the scoop. John Wick and his wife Peggy Rathmann, the owners of Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, and the folks behind this study, are Kathy’s good friends. She met them when they invited her to California to teach their cattle to eat weeds and she’s so excited about the work they’re doing to make the world a better place!

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READ THIS NOW! It’s fun and exciting!

I wish I had written Nathaneal Johnson’s article because it does an excellent job of describing the work that my good friends are doing in California.  I’ve been talking to John, who owns the ranch where this work began, about the results of the research being done there so that I could share them with you. But Nathaneal Johnson wrote this before I could, so read this now!

While this article doesn’t actually give you the steps for turning your grassland ranch into a carbon sink, it will give you some background in what’s going on out there that should give us all hope.  I’m continuing to talk to John, and will have the working details for you as soon as they’re available.

For a little more background, John and his wife Peggy didn’t start out to be ranchers.  But soon after moving in, they realized they had a big project on their hands.   The first thing they had to do was to deal with a significant weed problem. When they realized that herbicides were doing more harm than good, they looked for other solutions.  So they invited me in to help them teach cattle to eat the weeds.  It was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done!

From dealing with weeds, they moved on to creating the healthiest vegetation and environment they could.  Working with Jeff Creque, a local ecologist, they implemented a management intensive grazing system so that they could use time and timing to get rid of weeds, and they could reduce competition from non-native annuals to give the native species the opportunity to rebound.

After a long day of building fence, John and Peggy and I  ran into town to see this movie.  On the way home we considered what our own super powers were.  Peggy was immune to electric fences, I could walk up any hill without breathing hard, and John could come up with a solution to any problem.  Look! He's done it again! :-)

After a long day of building fence, John and Peggy and I ran into town to see this movie. On the way home we considered what our own super powers were. Peggy was immune to electric fences, I could walk up any hill without breathing hard, and John could come up with a solution to any problem. Look! He’s done it again! 🙂

They named their place “Nicasio Native Grass Ranch” in honor of their goal for their place and all their hard work. Thanks to Jeff’s deep understanding of ecology, the growth habits of plants, and the biology of creatures we can use as tools, combined with John and Peggy’s investment of labor, time and money, native species have increased dramatically and weeds and non-natives have decreased.  Then John and Peggy  invested in research on their efforts to increase soil carbon because they wanted to make sure that what they did was actually working.  Things that didn’t work for them, like key line plowing using a Yeoman’s plow, they dropped by the wayside.  Through it all, they’ve never stopped asking questions, educating themselves, and coming up with innovative solutions.

When things aren’t going well, and I need to go to “my happy place” I go to the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch in my mind.  For me it’s evidence that you can have fun and save the planet too!

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  • Published: 3 years ago on February 3, 2014
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  • Last Modified: February 16, 2015 @ 3:27 pm
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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

4 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    For those of you wondering about details on keyline plow use for this research project, I’ve contacted Whendee Silver for additional information. What I recall John telling me is that the plowed areas were dryer and did not show improvements in carbon sequestration. The point of this study has been to see if carbon sequestration improves under different treatments, and as you see from this article, Dr. Silver was surprised that she was able to measure results, and that improvements did occur.

    They also measured grazing as a treatment, but there are no details yet on the results. I’ll be finding those for you all as well.

    Just this week I was looking for information on loss of CO2 from soils as a result of plowing and read that a USDA study had found that subsoiling to 14 inches resulted in greater CO2 losses than standard plowing. Since all I saw was the citation, I’ll need to find that paper as well to give you more details.

    As always, if anyone can point me to other studies on the use of the keyline plow to improve carbon sequestration do let me know. I know that folks are concerned about CO2 in the atmosphere and feel a sense of urgency about making improvements. John’s focus was on taking the time to make sure that he was hurrying down a path that was making a difference, and thus this research and its results.

  2. Owen Hablutzel says:

    Greetings, and thanks for this article and all the great work On Pasture does…

    Agree that more details about what happened in their Yeoman’s plow experiments would be a worthy topic of discussion… Have been following this project for years and have sensed Mr. Wick’s downplaying of keyline, but have never heard any specific details brought to light from that camp about why this is the case.

    Do have a friend who toured the Marin Carbon project ranch and the research plots there in 2010… Her report was that the plot that had received the keyline plow treatment, with compost also, looked to be in the best shape to her… judging by a higher amount of native perennials and greater diversity compared to the other plots she saw there. So, have always wondered what the ‘poo-poo’-ing of keyline by this project was in response to? Given the positive response to the Yeoman’s plow in dry areas that I’ve seen on many hundreds of acres, at different locations, and given the one eyewitness report I’ve heard about the keyline plot at MCP, it seems a surprising conclusion to draw. Am most curious to learn more…

    Chip, thanks for your great comments and reflections here on soil pitting… have always wondered about the longer term effects of that… not to mention, thanks for your excellent books as well! Great info, attitude, humor and perspective!

  3. Chuck says:

    Like Chip, I would like to know a little more about their issue(s) with the Yeoman’s plow and Keyline process. I’m not an expert but I believe the focus of the keyline/Yeoman’s plow process is to keep the moisture that falls on the ground in the ground instead of running off, essentially jump starting soil infiltration. If there was already a heavy weed “problem” then infiltration may not have been an issue and the weeds were doing their job in the successional process. – Just thinking out loud. Would be good to see more in depth discussion on that subject specifically.

  4. Chip Hines says:

    I find it interesting that key line plowing did not make a difference. I don’t have aside in this, so I wonder how they determined their position.

    I have always wondered how it was determined that the plowing was beneficial, and how ,long the effect lasted. In the plains of Eastern Colorado, (14 inch annual precip) “Pitting”, was to be the answer in short grass areas, but was dropped after a few years as it was expensive, and the pits filled in after about four or five years. There was more green grass around the pit ( 4 to 5 inches deep, about that wide and 8 to 12 inches long) when it got dry, but the grass that grew in the pit, was below ground level and a cow couldn’t eat it until the pit partially filled in.

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