Holistic Managed Grazing at Soda Lake
by Cole Bush
What do a herd of goats and sheep, a man-made lake, and a whole lot of invasive Pampas Grass and Salt Cedar create? At Graniterock’s “Soda Lake”, this dynamic combination creates an excellent opportunity to practice land management and stewardship that encourages ecological health, economic viability, and neighborhood collaboration. A recent grazing season has just ended at Soda Lake, where up to 1,000 sheep and goats were used as “essential tools to convert energy from the sun” to graze invasive plants, build soil, and graze the thick blanket of grasses that the previous winter’s heavy rains brought.
Through collaboration between rancher Pete Pulis of neighboring Star Creek Ranch and Jim Knoll, Graniterock’s Reclamation Manager, a carefully managed grazing operation has been in effect for the past two summer grazing seasons. Using Allan Savory’s techniques of Holistic Managed Grazing, the mixed-herd of sheep and goats has been prescribed to graze Soda Lake, where smaller paddocks, also known as cells, are used within the 60 acres encompassing the lake. Grazing the animals in these smaller cells helps to achieve specific land management goals. The aim is to reduce the population of invasive Pampas Grass and Salt Cedar, graze the vegetation on surrounding levees of the lake to maintain a healthy diversity of grasses and plants instead of brush and, as simply put by Knoll, to convert the energy from the sun through the animals to build soil, invigorate the native integrity of the land, and to work towards managing noxious weeds, all without heavy mechanization.
What is Soda Lake?
Soda Lake was developed in the 1960s as a settling pond for washwater from Graniterock’s quarry that is just across the road. The washwater contains fine mineral particles that are the byproduct of crushing rock at the quarry to make aggregate for construction applications. This man-made lake essentially acts as a biotic filtration system for the washwater. The water is pumped to the lake, where the mineral sediment settles, and plants such as Tulle Grass naturally filter the water as it passes through the lake’s living systems. The water then is cycled back to Graniterock’s quarry, where it is reused. Soda Lake today is primarily used as a storm water retention basin.
The lake has provided habitat for migratory birds and has been known to hold native species such as the California Red-legged Frog, which are also found at the neighboring Star Creek Ranch.
Why Holistic Managed Grazing? Santa Cruz County has directed Graniterock, through permitting conditions, to manage Soda Lake to control the growth of invasives such as Pampas Grass and Salt Cedar. Reclamation Manager Jim Knoll in the past has used more conventional and labor intensive controls, at great expense and with only marginal results. Several years ago, a discussion between Knoll and Pulis about the positive impact grazing might have on Soda Lake led to Graniterock’s hiring of the Star Creek team to use managed grazing at the site. This past grazing season is now the second year that Star Creek herders and their flock have grazed Soda Lake in a closely managed operation. Thus far the grazing has proven to be effective in beating back the growth of the earlier mentioned invasives. Another goal of this holistic managed grazing is also to improve wildlife habitat by turning deposited sediment into more productive soil. In effect, a convenient and symbiotic relationship has been developed between neighbors with positive impact on the health of the land, and the people and animals that manage it.
Star Creek Ranch and Holistic Managed Grazing
Star Creek Ranch is a “belly-button” ranch of 1,200 acres, which spans the Santa Cruz and San Benito County line. Owner and rancher Pete Pulis uses Holistic Managed Grazing of sheep and goats on non-traditional landscapes as he works to push back shrubs such as Coyote Brush and Scotch Broom, with animals that do a nice job of fertilizing the soil and encouraging a transition to native perennial grasses. He has witnessed the succession and process of restoring the important native perennial grasslands and how grazing can be implemented and used as a powerful tool in the work to restore the health of not only the soil, plants and trees, but the watershed and unique ecosystems of the region.
In the past year, Pulis has also used his herds to graze in the Redwood forests on the ranch as well as other historical and potential Redwood habitat. Pulis, in collaboration with two foresters and Redwood experts, has planted over 3,000 redwood saplings that are thus far proving to thrive. Even though Pulis knows that in his lifetime he will never see these trees grow to their enormous size, he knows he is contributing to the existence of Redwoods in this south-eastern edge of the Redwood corridor for future generations to enjoy the magic of these glorious trees.
Some times ‘new and cutting-edge’ means turning back the clock
The Holistic Managed Grazing work that Jim Knoll from Graniterock and Pete Pulis from Star Creek Ranch are doing is an effort to implement management practices that take into account the whole– the whole ecology of Soda Lake, the whole community surrounding, the whole ecosystem from soil to water cycles, and the whole entirety of energy flow that can be utilized to achieve specific goals. Allan Savory’s model for Holistic Managed Grazing may challenge traditional paradigms of ranching and land management, but it is important to reconcile with changing variables in today’s unique environmental, ecological and social landscape.