At our first holistic planned grazing workshop last summer, we met a couple just like us–Buck and Chelsea Matthews. When we started the Jefferson Center, our hope was to get the opportunity to work with young couples transitioning into Holistic Management as we knew first hand what that entails. We are lucky enough to have met Buck and Chelsea and call them our friends. They came down to Springs Ranch in June for the workshop from Northeast Oregon. At the ranch BBQ we talked about our children–ranch kids growing up in rural areas. Chelsea showed me pictures of their front-porch view on her phone. Beautiful canyons and buttes of grass and oaks stretched on for as far as the eye could see. Her kitchen window view took in more wide open, wild landscape than most people will see in their lives. We had so much in common, including a desire to build a bright future for our children in these rural, wild areas we love so much.
When fire makes a moonscape of the rangeland
After the workshop we kept in touch and promised to visit. We traded emails about kids and natural home remedies after the workshop and then we didn’t write each other for a while. Mid-September I got an email from Chelsea, describing their summer. She wrote:
“We spent a lot of time this summer on our grazing plan and it will continue to be a work in process. That said….we had a huge fire come through, the Grizzly Bear Complex Fire. It burned up a ton of deeded ground, both timber as well as rangeland. It burned every blade of grass left for fall feed and about half our forest allotment burned as well. The last month has been spent doing a lot of finagling- we found some irrigated pasture for the cows on the home ranch- about 60 miles away. We have most of them shipped out, we’re feeding a small bunch that’s left and they’ll leave Saturday. We’ve gotten about 90 of the 300 pair off the forest allotment- Buck feels confident that he’s ridden almost all of the black and gotten out the cows that were in bad spots- without food or water. We won’t know how many cows were lost until after we get a good head count at the end. The fire burned so hot that many of the draws are “moon-scapes” there’s nothing left. we are sure cows were in some of those draws- there’s just no way to know at this point. Lots of the cows that have come off are burned- burned hooves and noses. We are doctoring several, but time will tell if they’ll shed their hooves or not. The cows coming off the permit are trailing up the other side of the canyon to a neighbor’s place that didn’t burn. He’s a farmer and has some CRP that can be used, etc.
All of that to say… our grazing plan didn’t exactly go as planned. Thankfully, we are getting back on our feet. We’re tired and basically ready for life to be back to normal. There is lots to be thankful for- we still have our house- Buck and a crew of friends/family (who came out to help) worked super hard to save all the structures- including all of the hay barns on the ranch. We have 3 water trucks and a dozer and they were put to good use. It is more than disheartening to see our pastures black and charred. Hopefully we’ll get some fall rain and get a nice fall green up under the burn.”
Buck and Chelsea run about 500 pair of cattle, on both the home ranch as well as a forest allotment. The home ranch is about 8,000 acres and the allotment is 40,000 to 50,000 acres. Because of the way the home place and the allotment are situated, the fire burned both pretty significantly. About half the allotment burned. A rough estimate, about 3,000 acres of the home ranch burned and a huge amount of that was fall range.
The pictures below are of are places the cows normally come home to in the fall. There was a lot of saved grass, waiting for the cows to come home. There are a lot of both super hot spots where it’s just a “moon scape” and spots where the fire sort of whipped through over the top of the land. The canyon areas, with their steep slopes, are a concern with the coming winter. “Our area is prone to landslide. Now, without any vegetation left on the side hills, we have serious concerns about landslides,” Chelsea said.
An example moonscape on the land managed by Buck and Chelsea Matthews in northeastern Oregon. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
Chelsea says: This is usually fall feed, the benches on the top wrap around the hill. This was a tough one for us- just a huge amount of feed lost here. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
A tree burning on the ranch managed by Buck and Chelsea Matthews. The couple is working on a fire recovery plan for the land they manage. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
A tree burning on the ranch managed by Buck and Chelsea Matthews. The Grizzly Bear Complex Fire burned their ranch and forest allotment rangeland in August 2015. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
This is late fall pasture. We winter about one third of the cows here. We winter out the rest, but feed a few and that happens in this general area. The cows are able to forage here late in the season– until snow falls, Chelsea said. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
This is a burned section in the timber. There is an estimated loss of about a million board feet of timber due to the fire. Photo by Chelsea Matthews.
Holistic Fire Recovery Plan
The soil is teaming with biology and it is that biology in the soil that translates into soil health. After a fire, the life in the soil is dramatically simplified. It is our responsibility as land managers to develop a fire recovery plan that will promote healthy biology in the soil.This is how we build a landscape that will function as we need. The tools of Animal Impact and Grazing can be some of the most effective tools that we have to jump-start soil health. The simple act of having livestock graze after a fire can (if proper planning and monitoring is done) stimulate seed germination, introduce soil biology, promote a healthy water cycle, increase nutrient cycling, decrease erosion, enhance energy flow by increasing photosynthesis and encourage a healthy stand of diverse plants and animals working in the post-fire environment.
The soil micro-biome is similar to that of our own. When we eat an apple we are in essences feeding the microbes in our gut, which in turn, turn that apple into nutrients that are available for our metabolic function. The soil works in a similar way, livestock trample litter, dung and urine into the soil where the microbes can decompose it, this feeds the soil life. This interaction between the soil biology makes nutrients available to plants and creates a healthy soil profile.
Without animal impact and grazing we are essentially starving the soil.
If this is continued the soil life will become so simplified that only the lowest secession of plants will be able to thrive, i.e. cheat grass and mustard in Northern California. This is why so often we see large establishments of “weeds” after a fire. The impacts of fire management can be felt for a long time. The idea that we must rest the land after a fire is counterproductive to the health of the soil and the range land that we are managing. We must be proactive with our management to ensure a quick return to a healthy grassland ecosystem. Remember lack of management (rest) is not a plan.
The most effective way to run livestock after a fire and promote a healthy ecosystem, is to use Holistic Planned Grazing. When we plan our animal impact and grazing for the health of the grassland and the soil, we can reestablish a healthy ecosystem relatively quickly. You must identify how you want the landscape that you are managing to be and then you can develop a grazing plan that will make it so. If your landscape has been impacted by fire, now is your chance to regenerate your soil and build the future resource base that you want. Please contact us if you need help creating a fire recovery plan.