ELK CREEK, CALIF.
FOR 12 years, rancher Jeff Somerville watched as hired managers tried to graze cattle on his dad's 4,200-acre ranch here. Scarce and poor water, undernourished livestock, and overforaged land all led to failure.
After struggling on his own, Mr. Somerville in 1989 signed up to participate in an innovative California soil-conservation program called the Upper Stony Creek Watershed Project. An educational component of the project introduced him to holistic resource management methods: how to burn unwanted chaparral, reseed with perennial grass strains whose roots help retain water longer, and monitor the movements of cattle from pasture to pasture in ways that allow new grasses to take hold.
Funded by the Soil Conservation Service, the project offers up to $100,000 to area ranchers over 10 years for help with needed fencing, access roads, seed costs, and some tools.
"Systematic, controlled burning of the chamiso bushes that were choking my land brought wildlife flocking back" Somerville says. After supporting only 67 head of cattle during the recent six-year drought here, his ranch can now support 500 pairs (cows and calves), and the number will grow, he says.
Because he has changed the landscape from thirsty chamiso brush (which uses 3 gallons of water per day per plant) to perennials like perla and needle grass, Somerville says veins of water are appearing on his land even in dry winters.
"That means quail, deer, turkey, and pigs are flocking to my land," he says. Because new water produced deeper-rooted vegetation, which in turn holds more water and diminishes erosion, Somerville says his grazing period is now months longer, saving tens of thousands of dollars in costs he used to incur to buy hay. Cattle are more plentiful, healthier, and his profits also reflect savings in irrigation costs.
"I watched people try ideas out here for a dozen years and nothing has turned the whole place around for animals and grass species like this program," Somerville says.