Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Paicines Ranch

Paicines Ranch(opens in new window), located about 10 miles south of Hollister, CA, has been a working ranch since the mid-1800’s. In fact, it is a 7600 acre historic Mexican land grant ranch, the first property deeded in San Benito county. It consists of approximately 7000 acres of rangeland, 550 acres of row crops and 25 acres of vineyard, most of which is now certified organic.

But this was not always the case. When the ranch was purchased by Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano in 2001, the cropland had been tilled and sprayed repeatedly. Years of multiple tractor passes had compacted the soil to a very severe hardpan. The diversity of species in the area had diminished along with the soil fertility. Bringing this land back to full functioning has been a consistent goal. For this reason, the ranch management is highly committed to farming regeneratively through the practices of Holistic Management.

Paicines is one of the first ranches in California to participate in the Soil Carbon Challenge(opens in new window), an international competition to see how quickly land managers could turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter.  They took their first baseline readings in 2011 and have tested their soil at least every three years since to see how they’re doing. The results are easy to see and the ranch now hosts workshops and events(opens in new window) to share what they’ve been learning with others.

Biodiversity and Livestock Integration

When the Center for Regenerative Agriculture visited in 2019, Claudio Nunez and Kelly Mulville were happy to share some of the experiments they’ve been doing on the ranch, some of the challenges they’ve faced, and the results that have made it worthwhile. Working with biodiversity and managed grazing, while planning and monitoring for water and nutrient cycling, has been the underpinnings of their approach.

At Paicines Ranch sheep and cattle are raised together and moved along from place to place to avoid overgrazing any one spot. The intention is to stress the plants enough through being eaten to spur them to activate the soil biology to assist them in putting out new growth but not so much that the area is overly stressed and depleted through overgrazing. The animals are moved to new parts of the pasture every few days. They are also raised together because the differences in their urine and manure support the plants and soil biology in different ways. The diversity of plants on the range is also carefully attended. The area has been overseeded with a mix of plants each chosen for the different purposes they provide. Radishes, for example, were chosen for their ability to put down roots capable of breaking up the compaction of the soil. Legumes add nitrogen. Other choices are made for their value as forage or to extend the grazing and growing season. The approach attempts to approximate what would happen in nature if humans hadn’t disrupted it.

Managed grazing allows the animals to help the ecosystem regenerate, but Nunez was thrilled to discover that this approach helps the animals as well. In cattle ranching the goal is to get your stock at 1200 pounds in less than 30 months. That is typically done most effectively by supplementing and finishing with grain. But on Paicines Ranch their cows are now at weight in less than 24 months and they feed on grass the entire time. Nunez is convinced that the quality of soil, which supports the health and nutritional quality of the forage, is helping him get these results. The significance is that this means the ranch can compete in the same market as grain-fed cows and be highly profitable. Additionally, in terms of the soil carbon, Nunez says that they are seeing a 4-5 increase in biomass.

Solving the Need for Regenerative Agriculture Compatible Equipment

Because one of the key principles Paicines Ranch is choosing to farm by is reducing the disturbance of the soil, they needed equipment that would do no-till or reduced till seeding. Kelly Mulville walked us through the process they went through in finding appropriate equipment. It was challenging because at the time so few people were doing no-till in California that, at first, there were more questions than correct answers. This led to them to being led astray in their first choice of seed drill but, through that experience, they learned what to expect and what to look for instead. Now they have a CrustBuster that is working quite well. In the following video Mulville shares the benefit of their experience and why they are so happy with the results.

Bringing it All Together with Innovations in the Vineyard

One of the great pleasures on the ranch is occurring now that experiments have not only worked out well, but new ideas have resulted that could allow them to do things with even less time and effort going forward. Claudio Nunez shares his excitement about integrating sheep with the vineyard in the video below. They have been putting more time and effort in upfront so the vines can grow taller and be trained up higher. But when they’re done, they intend that the sheep will do the work that needs to happen below without being able to reach the fruit. They’ll also be adding fertilizer to the system, all while sparing Nunez and his team from the back-breaking labor of doing that work themselves.