Situated in Colusa County, California, Spring Valley Ranch has seen a lot of changes in recent years. The land’s inheritor, Robert Slobe, took over his great-grandfather’s 7,500 acres in 1985 and has been on a journey to improve the land ever since. He has faced many challenges, including the ever-worsening need for water and threat of invasive weeds. Through the years, Bob has demonstrated that conservation grazing can still be possible in drought conditions; and it also works as a method for weed control while increasing carbon sequestration through the growth of healthy grasses.
Encouraging biodiversity on a landscape that started out in an overgrazed and damaged state has not come without its obstacles, and Bob has encountered plenty of these since beginning his endeavor in the early 1980s. One recent example is his need to incorporate more integrated weed management practices (especially with the relentless Tamarisk weed) now that his land is certified organic and herbicide-free. Bob is continuously planting more beneficial plants throughout the ranch; such as Willow trees (which are easiest to propagate), purple needle grass, sedges, rushes, elderberry, and hibiscus. Bob and his partners utilize the strategy of planting these native and beneficial plants in order to lessen the impact of the non-native species that threaten the landscape. This process, coupled with the removal of unwanted non-native species through cattle grazing, is helping Spring Valley Ranch succeed in creating a more biodiverse and carbon-positive environment.
Another challenge is the constant need for good, reliable, and able-bodied help on the ranch. Much of ranching consists of moving the portable fencing that is required to manage the rotation of a large herd, which isn’t easily done alone. “Frankly, I need the manpower,” Bob remarked. Working closely with his partners, Tom and Matt Griffith, as well as various employees and interns throughout the years has allowed Bob to maintain the manpower necessary to continue his operation. However, he’s always on the lookout for more people to get involved. In the past, he has worked closely with various UC Davis graduate students and faculty, and is always happy when bright, young minds show an interest in what he does. All the collaborative work that Bob has participated in throughout the years has shown him that: “Doing this kind of work requires a lot of cooperation with the cattleman and ranch hands,” which demonstrates how the business of rangelands conservation is a business that requires strong relationships.
SOLUTION IMPLEMENTATION & MANAGEMENT
John Anderson with Hedgerow Farms has had a strong presence and positive influence on Bob’s career since his early days of cattle ranching. Through John, the concept of using cattle ranching as a method of conservation was first introduced, prompting Bob to begin incorporating these practices. Cattle grazing replaces controlled burns as a method of fire control. Grazing is preferable to burning when it comes to unwanted weed control on rangelands because cattle don’t kill off the insects or destroy the small mammal and bird habitats like fires do. This is a beneficial strategy if the ultimate goal is to increase biodiversity, which Bob maintains. In addition, Bob builds bird boxes along the fencing throughout his property to encourage the presence of more bird species. When bird populations increase on the land, such as the tri-colored blackbird that he has been spotting, it promotes the growth of healthy plants due to birds’ role of carrying seeds in their digestive tracts.
For Bob and the numerous partners and researchers he has collaborated with in the past, the difference in the amount of wildlife present on his land is obvious: “I had never seen quail or pheasants before, but now there is a lot of diversity in the species we see,” he said. The management of his herd’s rotation throughout the ranch requires having an understanding of the variety of plant species’ differing growth patterns and grazing limits. By fencing off the riparian areas throughout his ranch and planting beneficial vegetation, he is able to let nature take its course alongside the cattle as they graze, rather than trade one for the other. Bob remarked, “Just by exclusion [of cattle], you get a lot of nature’s processes to unfold.”
The impact of Bob’s work is also reflected in Spring Valley Ranch’s community outreach efforts. Bob hosts regular tours, which are arranged by California Rangeland Trust and sponsored by Raley’s Markets, for Sacramento County high schoolers so they can experience California agriculture firsthand. The field trips to his ranch introduce students from a variety of backgrounds to the concepts of conservation ranching. During these visits, Bob highlights the benefits of his practices, such as climate change mitigation. The community outreach that Bob engages in allows him to set an example for high schoolers and hopefully motivate them to value land stewardship as well.
Among his many accomplishments, Bob was nominated for the Sand County Foundation Leopold Conservation Award, which has led to him receiving even more recognition for his work in rangelands conservation in California. In addition, Bob is a member of AFT California’s Stewardship Council and has been a longtime supporter of the organization. When asked what is in store for his ranch’s future, Bob is optimistic and believes the legacy of environmentally sound ranching that he started at Spring Valley will continue for generations to come.