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Community Supported Grasslands

We at Freestone Ranch are grateful for the support of our community in all its forms; in fact, the crux of our business model is our beef share program.

The beef share approach is similar to the Community Supported Agriculture model that so many beloved vegetable farms employ with their weekly CSA box model. For veggie farms, the idea is pretty simple: Prior to the start of the growing season, community members committed to environmental health, social equity, and local economy can sign up for a CSA box, paying at least some portion of the cost of its production up front. Doing so at the start of the season allows the farmers to have the cash flow needed to buy the seeds and amendments, hire good workers and pay them fairly, and (just as importantly,) plan their production forecast to ensure they are meeting local demand without waste.

In return, the share members get fresh vegetables week after week at peak nutrition, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they sustained the livelihoods of local farmers.

Our grassfed business operates similarly, but on a bit of a different timeline. Whereas vegetables are grown season by season, beef cattle operate on about a 3 year cycle. That’s just for one animal, and doesn’t include the time it takes to raise a mother cow to adulthood to produce a calf to begin with.

At Freestone, we practice a low-input system that means we can fully account for the feed that grew your animal–the animal you yourself will be eating to build your own tissue and bone. Our cows raised in this system take longer to mature than those finished on artificially cheap inputs like soy, corn, and wheat, or lots of off-site hay. As a result, our animals aren’t ready to eat until they are two to three years old. This means any animal you eat this year was the result of management decisions made several years back, and the animals born this year won’t come to fruition for a few years yet. This is true “slow food.” We are playing a long game with the land we love.

During that time, the animal is doing wonderful things for the land. It’s kind of a win-win: We get to keep the animal around for a while, directing its interaction with the land in a way that makes both the cow and the grass, soil, and trees healthier habitat for all sorts of critters, from soil bacteria and fungi to badgers and coyote to migratory raptors that bless our land every year.

All the while, the animal is growing its skeletal structure and muscle mass on that land. Once the animal is over 2 years old, they are best able to put on a layer of fat from our healthy grasslands that make for the extra “yum” factor you hear us talk so much about. And by then, a new crop of animals is ready to replace the older ones. To honor the carrying capacity of the land we love, it’s time to move the finished animals out into our community.

And once it’s done, you get to eat it with the assurance that you’re supporting land and people here in your immediate area. This is true protein accountability, and it’s how broad landscapes like our native coastal prairies can change for the better.

Over the years, we have developed strong opinions about how animals should be raised within our environments. In fact, that’s why we started raising beef cattle to begin with: We saw that the grasslands on our property really needed a big bunch of grazing animals to keep the grass and soil healthy. Conventional ranching would turn cattle out in the same pasture for months at a time to eat down the grass before moving on, but we knew that with some extra effort and planning, our cows can actually benefit land, and grow more plants and soil in their wake.

At Freestone, profit is not our first measure of success. We look to the number of new native perennial grasses growing in our pastures, by the turtles and fish in our streams, and the wildflowers that bloom each spring. We measure success by the coyotes that den safely on our property, and the hawks that feast on our rabbits, and the deer that raise their young here.

But these things are features of good management, and good management must be financially supported for it to be sustainable. That’s where you come in.

Like annual vegetable farmers, the core of our model is a CSA. Or maybe we should call it a CSG: Community Supported Grasslands. Because our beef business allows us to practice the stewardship we think this land deserves.

The best way we have to sell the amount of beef our lands can produce (and the amount of beef it takes to support that land), is through beef shares directly to our community. Unlike the option of selling beef into the commodity market or wholesale to distributors, selling directly to you means we can achieve the price we need to continue our land care and outreach work, while keeping our beef right here in the community. For some economic transparency, see: Our Business Context.

We have big plans for 2019. We want to:

– Develop a Beneficial Beef Club program, wherein our CSG members can spend time on the land they directly support.
– Host more events for our community, from plant ID to grassland monitoring to birdwatching and wildtending,
– Continue to improve our animal handling and skillful grazing to increase the health of the herd and the land.
– Develop more water points to allow us to better graze parts of our ranch.
– Plant more native trees and shrubs to improve shade, biodiversity, and carbon capture on our land.
– Finish more beef to allow more members of our community to re-localize their protein.

Whether or not we can do those things depends on how the rest of this harvest season goes. What can you do?

– Choose to source more of your protein locally buy buying a quarter, half, or whole cow. Put your deposit in today to secure your spot in our next harvest.
– Be a local food hero by buying a share and splitting it among friends. All it takes is one person to organize this. Write us, and we can help you divide your share evenly with others.
– Interact with us to help us get the word out. Review our Summer Beef Campaign page and consider emailing to some friends. “Like” our page on Facebook, follow our posts. Our biggest obstacle right now is getting the word out about our beef to our community. Interacting with our social media posts means more people will see it.
– Share this post with friends on Facebook and Instagram. Word of mouth is everything.

In many ways, this health of this land is a reflection of how much healthy environments and and local protein is valued by our community. Thank you so much for joining us in this effort.

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Native Planting and Farmscaping

A maturing willow planting

A key goal on the ranches is to improve the diversity and health of the landscape. Plants, soil and watershed are the three key pieces of this. We have a found a variety of techniques that help us establish native plants. We are fortunate on both the Bay Hill and Valley Ford ranch to have healthy areas of native vegetation that we can use as source material for our plantings.

Our Model

We plant native plants that are adapted to reproducing and growing in our area. Our job is to support the native ability of the plant to reduce increase the probability that it will become established in a particular spot. We do this by planting, protecting and sometimes watering. We plant from seeds, cuttings, nursery pots, or transplants. We protect from weed competition, deer, cows, rodents, wind and sun with tree shelters, weed mats, fences, wire baskets, weeding and mowing. We irrigate to help plants establish their root systems and to help trees grow faster because we are impatient. When planting from nursery plants, we prefer small plants because it takes less water to support them as they establish their roots and we believe they will produce stronger plants over the long term. We use locally gathered seeds and plant material to preserve the genetic diversity of our area. We use managed grazing to support the seeds and genetic diversity in a our grasslands and do not generally try to plant grasses or forbs because they are very difficult to establish at any scale.

Grasslands generously feed grazing animals and in return the animals slow and prevent the spread of trees and shrubs by browsing, rubbing, girdling, trampling and eating roots. This balance has been disrupted by agriculture, logging, fire suppression, loss of large native plant eating animals and loss of predators. Our job is to influence this competition so we have a healthy and diverse population of trees and understory with the grasslands. An oak seedling might have a 1% chance of success and take 20 years to get above the deer browse height. If we protect it with a electric fence and a tree shelter, it might have a 50% chance of success and take 7 years to get above the browse height. In some areas we have too many trees and in other areas, we benefit from adding more trees in the grasslands.


For plants with large seeds like oak, buckeye and hazelnut we prefer to direct seed. For a larger seed like a buckeye or acorn, there is energy in the seed to send a root down deep quickly to help the plant get established. Direct seeding takes advantage  of this ability to send the first roots deep into the soil. This ability is lost in a nursery pot. For plants with smaller seeds like redwoods, lilies and coffeeberry, we purchase plants or germinate seeds in a nursery and establish the plants in pots before planting.

Generally, I believe that smaller plants are better able to establish themselves with a minimal amount of irrigation. Although larger plants have more energy and resources to grow, they also have more leaves to support and may have difficulty getting enough water from the soil around a root system that was established in a nursery pot to support these leaves without a few seasons of irrigation. Another way to look at this is that an acorn can sink a deeper tap root with it’s first few leaves than a six foot oak tree planted from a pot.


Cuttings with easily rooting plants are the most cost effective way to plant. I have had good luck planting cuttings of willow, red dogwood and nine bark. Willows like a moist site with good soil. Irrigation is helpful but not required. Dogwood is similar but has a higher failure rate than willow. Cuttings of understory shrubs like ninebark work best if there are already some established trees like willows to provide some shade.

There is research that suggests more of our native shrubs are good candidates to plant directly from cuttings. In particular, we intend to experiment with twinberry, salmon berry, snow berry and coyote brush.


For plants like hazelnuts, twinberry, coyote bush, thimble berry and ferns, we will find an area on the ranch with an excess of young plants and do a bit of thinning or dividing to gather material that we can plant in areas that are lacking in native plants. We only do this when we think the benefit of establishing a new population will be high and the cost of removing a few individuals from an established population will be insignificant. It is a great affordable way to create new plantings while supporting the local genetic diversity. In particular, our Bay Hill Ranch has areas with very healthy native plant populations and other areas that has been heavily impacted by agriculture and eucalyptus so moving a few plants from the healthy areas to the an impoverished area is a big win.

Lumps of Sod

When doing gully repair and other watershed work, we sometimes have wet areas where the native water loving plants are gone. In this case, we will take shovels full of plants from a wet area with the soil and transplant the whole scoop to our restoration site. We typically transplant a chunk with a mix of rushes and sedges. Our goal is primarily to establish a seed bank in the new area without moving a lot of material. These wetland plants are very good and expanding and filling in holes if the growing conditions are right. Creeks and water ways normally experience significant disturbance and the abundence of water supports quick growth so the plants are adapted to this. These adaptations help the plants get established in the new area and help the small spots we borrow from heal quickly. Many of these plants will spread through rhizomes. This type of small transplant also brings along the seeds of a healthy soil ecosystem to the new area.


Trees and shrubs need protection from cattle and deer. Protection is most important when planting in an open area without other trees. Deer will home in and destroy a willow planting in an open area very quickly. They will remove the bark. Our preference is to plant near a permanent electric fence so we can quickly create an enclosure with fiberglass post and electric poly twine that connects to a permanent electric fence. With deer, a single nose high electric wire is fine. The key is to create a small enclosure so they will be afraid to jump over the wire into the area with the planting. A long narrow 3′ wide hedgerow with electric polywire on both sides works fine. It’s good to check the fence periodically when the deer are first learning about electric fence in case they knock it down. Alternately a single electric wire with wood posts is more resilient to occasional animal impacts, poly wire and fiberglass posts are much faster to install and easy to adjust or remove as the plantings become established.

Oak and Ninebark

When an electric fence is not nearby, you can install a solar powered electric charger for a planting area. For smaller plantings when the cost of a fence charger is too high, we will build an enclosure from livestock panels but this is expensive for anything beyond scattered tree plantings.

We have had gophers kill our oak seedlings. Even a 1″+ diameter young oak can be cut off at ground level by a gopher. A wire basket provides good protection but is expensive and labor intensive so we only use them around buildings where we are planting a few trees and want a high likelihood of success for each tree location.


All our planting are intended to thrive without irrigation but irrigation can be helpful in establishing a planting and helping trees grow more quickly. We use drip line with 12″ emitter spacing when establishing a hedge row or wind break. We have found that individual drip emitters on a tree seem to attract gophers and can be a death sentence for a tree. The water over a long row seems not attract rodents too much.

We create portable drip bottles by adding a drip emitter to a one gallon plastic water jug. This works well with small plants from a nursery pot that may need extra help to establish their roots in the first season or if we have a dry year. A gallon of water applied to a small plant in a tree shelter with a Vispore mat over a couple of hours can go a long way. Doing this a few times in the plant’s first summer season can greatly increase the success of a planting.

A Hedgerow Model

For us, a good hedgerow might start with willow and coyote brush to establish some cover and suppress grass competition. We would build on that with understory shrubs like ninebark, twinberry, snowberry, currant, gooseberry, thimbleberry, salmon berry, native blackberry, poison oak and hazelnut. Ferns, shade tolerant sedges, trillium, lilies and wild ginger can fill in under the shrubs. We think this bottom layer could have more diversity but this plant category has probably been most damaged by livestock. The understory layer is easiest to establish once the willows and coyote brush provide shade, weed control and wind protection. Oaks, madrone, redwood, douglas fir, elderberry and bay laurel are also good trees to mix in with the willow.

Growth Rates

Native plants take time to grow, coast live oak seem to grow about a foot per year for us when they are happy. We have a few live oaks that are 15′ tall and have a six inch diameter trunk. Those are the big ones after 12-15 years and they make me smile. The deciduous black oak seems to be much slower. Willow grows very quickly. We have lots willows that are 20′ tall and one tall species is 30′. Buckeyes are quick in the first year and then tend to grow pretty slowly. Planting site can make a huge difference in the growth speed. Irrigation can also speed up growth.

Plant Tips

  • Willow – The ideal is to plant a healthy young straight 1″ diameter 3′ long stem. Harvest when the leaves have fallen and the soil is moist from rain and plant right away. Use a digging bar to create a pilot hole and try to get the cutting 12″ deep into the soil. You can encourage straight rapid young growth for harvesting by coppicing an established tree and coming back a year or two later but we usually look for trees that have fallen and are naturally disturbed for source material. Willow is forgiving so bent, forked or smaller cutting will also work. The key is to be able to get a decent portion of the cutting into the soil so it has a good start on forming a root system. In wet years, they do find without irrigation but irrigation will help them grow more quickly. With good soil and a good rain year, we have seen most of our willow cuttings establish themselves with no irrigation. Willows are more drought tolerant than you might think. They need riparian conditions to reproduce naturally from their tiny seeds but they can get established fine on good upland soils here at the coast and will drop leaves early to tolerate summer dryness once established. We find areas around our pond where unwanted willows establish themselves and have had good luck transplanting these young seedling with established root systems in the wet season. Deer love young willow cuttings. They will rub on them and strip the bark so deer protection is needed when planting willow in an open area.
  • Dogwood – They can planted from cuttings like a willow but they need a bit better soil and a bit more moisture to do well. They also will do better if planted with some shade from existing willows.
  • Ninebark – Ninebark establishes well from cuttings placed directly in the soils. Does best with partial shade.
  • Oaks – Direct seed 3-5 nuts in a TubEx tree shelter. Place a vispore tree mat to preserve moisture and prevent weed competition. Gather some composted leaves from an established oak to inoculate the soil the new area with fungi that support oak trees. We have had excellent luck establishing oaks with no irrigation using this method. Some modest irrigation can be helpful in a dry year and increase the oak’s modest growth rate. Oaks like protection from browsing.
  • Buckeye – Buckeye seedlings are too large for standard tree shelters so we tend to plant them without protection and plant more than we want in anticipation of a large loss percentage. Buckeye trees produce many seeds and they are very easy to plant.
  • Pacific Coast Iris – This is a great candidate for transplants since the large mats won’t miss a shovelful or two and a small amount of source plant and spread a the new area.
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Planned Grazing

Planned Grazing

The cattle herds are just one part of our ranches, but they serve as the metaphorical bloodflow that keep the organism of our land healthy. (See “Restoration ranching” for more on our reasons for involving cattle in our work). Just as good circulation is essential for moving nutrients and oxygen through a body, the movement of animals throughout our ranches keeps land healthy—wildlife, trees, grasses, water, and soil all benefit from a thoughtful relationship with large animals.

One of our goals with our operation is to limit the dependence on outside inputs. We do this by being mindful of the carrying capacity of the land, and we hope that by paying close attention to the grass growth patterns we can improve the productivity (and thus, the carrying capacity) of this landscape, and accelerate the rate of ecological repair and food production for our whole biotic community.

We also want to respect the life cycles of the other entities that call the ranch home. Just as we manage for the growth and development of our calves, we also care about keeping habitat for ground-nesting birds, clean water for tadpoles, and protection for turtle nests. And we want our native grass species, the foundation of resilient grassland, to grow to full recovery before being grazed again. We want some of them to grow to reproduction, so that they can refresh the soil’s seed bank from time to time.

One way we do this is through a grazing chart. This chart allows us to plan our grazing around the ecological aspects that are unique to our ranch. We block off periods of time and specific acreages where we don’t want to graze, because good grazing is as much about where the animals aren’t as where they are. Planning our grazing also helps us track the places and times where we do want the cattle to be. In this way, we can synchronize the needs of the ranch as a living organism.

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Estimating Erosion

A key goal at Bay Hill Ranch is to reduce ongoing soil erosion and improve the function of the watershed. The two parts of this goal are to keep soil on the hills and to encourage vegetation in the riparian areas that will turn them into sponges that hold sediment and water instead of water flowing over bedrock in deep channels. This land has seen some big changes since transitioning from Native American management to tillage, sheep and cattle grazing. We can learn and get ideas by guessing at some of the changes.

How Much Soil Has Been Lost?

There are two primary sources of soil erosion on the ranch. They are channel erosion and surface erosion.

Channel Erosion

Channel erosion is downcutting of various drainages and riparian areas. We can estimate erosion in the drainages by looking at the shapes of creeks. When we see incised channels with steep banks and flood plains above, we can guess that at some point in the past, there was only a small channel and water used to flow out onto the channel onto a floodplain. Looking at the volume of the material that would have filled the channels, we can estimate topsoil loss.

Surface Erosion

There was also tillage and overgrazing that has caused a simple reduction in depth of the top soil. Some of this soil was blown away and some flowed into creeks with rain.

There is a particular 13 acre ridge top section on the ranch with very shallow and infertile top soil and flattened edges that suggest that it was heavily tilled in the past. Known crops in the area include small grains, hay and potatoes. Many potatoes were grown in the area during World War II. The bent ripper rusting in a remote field on the ranch was probably used for potato farming.

Over grazing where sheep remove the protective vegetation layer on the soil also caused surface erosion. One corner of the soil around the 150 year old barn on the ranch is down to the bedrock that supports the foundation of the barn. I suspect this area lost 4 feet of top soil from the impact of sheep around the barn over the years.

A Guess at Volume

Below are very rough estimates using a combination of Google Earth, and on ground observations to estimate where historic flood plains were. The very rough estimates suggest that if 400,000 cubic yards of sediment eroded from the Bay Hill Ranch into the 780 acre Bodega Harbor, it added an average of 4 inches of sediment to the harbor. The actual erosion could be higher than this because these estimates do not include any overall surface erosion or erosion from slides caused by upland erosion and the down cutting of drainages.

We can extrapolate the estimate from this ranch to the overall Bodega Bay watershed. There is roughly 4000 acres of watershed draining into Bodega Bay. If that watershed contributed on average 5 inches of soil erosion to the bay which is what our estimates suggest on the Bay Hill Ranch, that deposits a roughly 2 foot layer of sediment in the harbor over 150 years. That is 2.5 million cubic yards of soil moved from the hills to the bay. Dredging 110,000 cubic yards of sediment from the harbor costs $4.4 million.

Bay Hill Erosion Estimate Avg Width – ft Avg Depth – ft Cross section – sq ft Length – ft Volume-cu yd
Above Upper Pond
Upper main branch  50  25  625  600  13,889
Side Branch  60  25  750  650  18,056
Lower  55  20  550  800  16,296
Above Lower Pond  80  30  1,200  2,188  97,244
Eucalyptus Channels  90  25  1,125  2,600  108,333
Below Lower Pond  70  25  875  3,600  116,667
Area – sq ft Depth – ft
Upper tillage area  584,000  2  43,259
Around Barn  6,000  3  556
Bodega Bay Area – acres Area – sq ft Sediment Volume – cu ft Depth Added – ft
Bodega Harbor Area  781  34,000,000  11,186,100  0.33
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Sedimentation Ponds

There have been major erosion problems on the Bay Hill Ranch for many years. A combination of overgrazing and past tillage from farming have caused tens of thousands of cubic yards of sediment to be move from the ranch into Bodega Bay near Doran Beach. Also, this area had beavers in the past. Beavers would have built and maintained dams on these creeks that would have captured sediment and created productive fish and wetland habitat.

In 1989 the California Costal Conservancy funded a project to construct two sedimentation ponds on the ranch to keep sediment from the creek beds and hills of the ranch on the ranch and out of the steelhead supporting creek and out of Bodega Bay.

The upper pond is full of sediment and has turned into a gravelly wetland environment. We have begun excluding cattle from the flood plain to help the soils convert from gravel to a higher organic matter and more productive wetland environment. This will help the plants capture sediment in the upper flood plan instead of adding more fill to the small pond area.

The lower pond still has good water and significant sediment capacity but captured sediment has established a healthy wetland area in it’s upper reaches which we are now excluding cattle from.

The images below are from the original design for the sedimentation ponds.

Many of these sediment ponds with concrete lined spillways were built in this area. Two of our neighbors at Freestone Ranch have ponds like this that have filled in. There are several problems with this design.

  • The concrete has a design life of 50 years and there is no economically reasonable way to remove or replace them. Work in a creek is very expensive because of environmental regulation. It would probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace them at the end of their lifespan with a more modern design.
  • The concrete design is fragile and high flows tend to overflow and undermine the concrete.
  • If the dame fails the sediment they have captured can be released quickly in a large and destructive flood event.
  • The dam and pond create a fish barrier and prevent the steelhead below the dam from moving into the upper reaches of the creeks.
  • They can reduce summer streamflows. Spring water that flows into the pond in the summer may evaporate before it has a chance to reach fish bearing pools in the lower creek.
  • Creeks need some sediment and gravel flow to stay healthy and maintain their vegetation. Ponds like these can capture too much sediment and cause the creeks below them to downcut more.

The ponds do keep the soil on the ranch and they do create nice wetland habitat. The modern designs for this kind of work create step pools using large boulders instead of in stream ponds like these. Despite their challenges it is great to have water and to watch the egrets, ducks and blackbirds enjoying them.

The spillway on the lower pond cannot handle large storm flows. The water sheets over the edge of the concrete and the water undermines the concrete spillway as shown in the photos below. We have added redwood boards to direct the water back on the concrete and increase the flow capacity of the spillway. Hopefully this will keep the spillway functioning for many more years. We also hope that our improved grazing practices and work to increase vegetation in the creeks will increase water infiltration and slow runoff rates in large rains and also help protect the spillway.

The stream below the upper pond has continued to down cut so now the spillway has a five foot drop at the bottom end which creates large water forces that increase erosion and undermine the bottom of the spillway. We have added rock and logs to help prevent it from failing over time.

Cheney Gulch

This is where the erosion from the ranch delivered it’s sediment. This is the outlet of Cheney Gulch into Bodega Bay. There a small park, bird habitat and the Bodega Bay sewage treatment plant here.

Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay needs to be dredged regularly so that boats can continue to navigate the harbor. Sediment runoff from the land draining into Bodega Bay. We have estimated that erosion from the hills above Bodega Bay has deposited 2 feet of sediment in Bodega Bay.

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Pond Construction

Not many things are as important to life on our planet as water. Building a new pond in California is expensive but its an investment in the land and in the resilience of our community that will last for generations. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to build a new pond on Freestone Ranch. When we bought the ranch, the developer had a proposal to build a 120 acre foot pond that would be filled with water pumped from Ebibias creek to irrigate 300 acres of grapes. Our pond is about 1/10 the size of the proposed pond and the water comes from sheet flow and a road that so there is no negative impact on the creeks and water shed from the pond.

A pond starts with an engineering plan and permits before the bulldozer and the scraper come. Part of the engineering of the pond is the keyway which is a compacted foundation of soil that connects the levy to the underlying bedrock. For our pond the keyway was dug 15′ deep before placing engineered compacted fill back in. It takes a few years for blackbirds, swallows, dragonflies, ducks, geese and other creature to the come to the pond but they are here now. The 12′ tule reeds on the edges of the pond provide great nest sites for the red wing blackbirds.

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Grazing Infrastructure

The ranches need investment in water, fences, barns, roads and corrals to care for the land and the animals. It has been said that before electric fences, a cattle rancher might spend 40% of their work time maintaining and building fences.


The original fences on Freestone Ranch are probably more the 50 years old. On Bay Hill, they may be a bit younger. We have experimented with various types of fence over the years. Our latest design is a simple two wire electric fence for dividing pastures. New calves occasionally slip through but it’s very reliable for the bigger animals. We built 22,000′ feet of two wire electric fence at Bay Hill Ranch in the first two years.


Cattle need water in every pasture you use for rotational grazing. With both Freestone Ranch and Bay Hill Ranch, the cattle drank water direct from creeks and ponds on the ranch before we started managing them. We have installed miles of water lines and many water troughs so we can exclude the cattle from creeks, rotate them through different pastures and provide them clean fresh water. On Freestone Ranch, we have installed water tanks and 12,000′ of water lines over the years. On Bay Hill Ranch we installed 6,500′ of water lines a tank and a pumping system to get water from the main pond to the top of the hill in the first two years there.


We have built an equipment barn and a hay barn at Freestone Ranch. Building barns ourselves makes them affordable for the ranch and helps us learn new skills.

Hay Barn

The hay barn provides a place to store hay and keep it at it’s highest quality through the wet winters.

Equipment Barn

The equipment barn gives us a place to store the tools and materials needed to improve and maintain the ranches.


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Upland Erosion Repair

One of the biggest responsibilities of a land manager is to preserve and improve the soils of the land. Rain and water flow will always create some erosion but our goal is to minimize the erosion and to have the rate of new top soil formation exceed the rate at which our topsoil flows into ours creeks and ocean. Also, areas where water flows and collects can be the most productive and important areas on the ranch for plants and animals. There is more water available in the soil and there is potential for the soils to be deeper and more fertile as the drainage areas collect sediment that flows from the hills. Our goal on the ranch is to have healthy productive vegetation that will slow water flows and capture sediment in all of our drainage areas.

One of the most destructive and easiest to repair erosion features on a ranch is an upland head cut. This is a vertical face of active erosion where there are not enough plants to slow the water and protect the soil. Cattle like wet areas and their concentrated hoof action can create head cuts with poorly managed grazing.

Bay Hill Gully

We are developing our techniques for using organic matter, soil and grass for repairs instead of intense rock armor. This requires more work and  attention but we believe it provides a better long term result with less expensive materials. This gully is on a steep hillside but has a small watershed. It’s fed by a seasonal spring so the erosion was probably caused by animals trampling the moist vegetation and exposing bare soil to the flowing water. There are more issues up the hill but its too steep to access with an excavator so we have focused our repair on the bottom section and hope to capture any sediment that flows down the hill before it reaches the creek.

The repair process was to shape the edges of the gully and ensure there was good topsoil in the bottom of the gully. We then added a layer of compost, and fast growing seed. We also layered in some the grass and seed from the top layer removed from the site. This provides native seed bank in the bottom of the drainage. Straw was added to protect the soil from water flow and jute netting holds the straw in place. The rock lines keep the netting and straw in contact with the soil and help keep flowing water spread out to minimize it’s force on the soil. We had watered the completed work to sprout the grass and stabilize the soil. To keep soil stable on a steep hill like this, you need healthy living soil covered with grass. The soil organic matter, roots, fungi and microbe produce a “glue” that holds the soil together against flowing water. By irrigating we give the soil a chance to heal before the rains and cold weather. The site needs to be checked throughout the rainy season and potentially repaired with straw and grass plugs. There is a electric fence around the gully and animals will be excluded while the soil heals.

Freestone Ranch Large Gully

There large gully on Freestone Ranch is probably 50 years old. Small head cuts over time led to a 600′ long gully that sent around 15,000 cubic yards of soil into our creeks. It was fairly stable when we came to the ranch but there was a small active head cut at the bottom of the gully that was starting to work it’s way up. We did a small repair and excluded the cattle with an electric fence and now, the gully is no longer eroding and is full of lush and diverse native vegetation. It’s a favorite place for the deer to rest in the moist soft bottom. There is also a small gully in the upper right of the photo where we did  repairs, tree planting and cattle exclusion.

Freestone Ranch RCD Head Cut Repair

Another example is the Gold Ridge RCD head cuts repairs pictured above on Freestone Ranch. The RCD removed topsoil to shape a smooth contour and then armored the area with rock. They also funded materials for an electric fence to exclude the cattle from the area. We have planted willows to encourage vegetation in that rocked area.

Bay Hill Tunnel Gullies

In the photos above from the Bay Hill Ranch, we were able to take some top soil that had been captured in a pond and move it back up to fill the gullies. The upper gully in the photo actually drained into an underground tunnel. The water was flowing into a rodent tunnel that became enlarged over time and caused a head cut and gully to form above. The after photo shows a simple contour but the simple shape means the top soil is staying where it belongs instead of filling in our pond. Our rotational grazing and lower stocking level make the cow trails pronounced in the 2017 photo.

Bay Hill Head Cut

We brought some sediment recovered from a pond and filled in this head cut to keep it from continuing to progress up the hill. There are a few redwood trees planted in the area to see how they will do. It’s a moist area with deep soils so they are doing fairly well but the spot is probably too windy and the small redwood is showing some wind sculpting already.


Bay Hill Small Drainage

This small drainage is in a moist area. It has good diverse native vegetation but cattle and sheep trailing along the moist bottom has created a series of head cuts in the bottom. We repaired the top head cut to keep it from continuing to move up into the top of the drainage.

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Restoration Ranching


For us, restoration ranching is about restoring a healthy relationship between people and the nature we live in. At Freestone Ranch, our model for ranching is a collaboration with nature where nature supports our needs for food, water, air, beauty and a home and our presence and efforts make the ecosystems around us healthier, more diverse and more productive.  The Native Americans who created and tended the landscapes we value are a source of inspiration for us as we work and learn to have positive impacts on the ecosystems we are responsible for.

Why Cattle

The plant ecosystems in our area evolved with disturbance. Unlike many trees, grasses cannot voluntarily shed their leaves, so they need something in their environment to return their biomass back to the soil to keep grass plants healthy and abundant. It’s an important process for cycling nutrients, improving soils, and increasing diversity.

As recently as about twelve thousand years ago, there were megafauna like mammoths and giant sloths that ate the grasses, shrubs, and trees. When those large herbivores went extinct, perhaps from human hunting and climatic shifts, fire took primary responsibility for larger scale disturbances. The Native Americans used intentional fire extensively as a tool to manage these landscapes and keep them open and productive for humans and wildlife alike. Today, fire is not a tool we can as extensively and precisely as cattle, but the millennia-old legacy of cyclical disturbance can be continued with cattle, whose physiology and digestive tracts serve as proxies for large animals of long ago.

For us, working with domestic ruminants to keep grasslands open and healthy is not about recreating the past – but rather, using the resources available in the present to support a better future.