Getting the cows out on ‘pasture’

Or Trying to keep Destructos at Bay

Photo by: Serina Harvey (

Today was a special day.  We have a small fold (the proper scottish term for a herd) of Highland Cattle here on the main part of the ranch.  They have been stuck in corrals for a bit while we got, what we optimistically call, the ‘pasture’ prepared for them.  

(In the meantime, they have destroyed these poor corrals.)

We have a ranch in the Mojave desert of Southern California, which means the land is dry as bone.  Many of our cows are raised off the main part of the ranch in the mountain rangeland because the desert isn’t super great about producing grass lol.  It’s better at producing cactus.

However, we are determined to apply permaculture principles to our desert ranch and make it glowingly green with grass and trees filled with the song of birds and comfortable shade to shelter happy animals and people.  

Right now, much of the ranch is scalding heat in the summer, bone dry dirt filled with rocks uncovered as the wind blows away the top soil.  

We are working on changing that and the cows are a major part of the system.  

highland cow

Creating a desert permaculture system

Our goal is to create a permaculture system that helps to create life in the desert by capturing and sequestering the tiny bit of rain that we get.  A whopping 3 inches a year.

A man named Geoff Lawton did this on a property in Jordan that was so degraded and desertified that it was basically nothing but rock.  

Lawton applied permaculture principles that basically were designed to stop water where it fell and give it time to get into the soil and stay there.  See in humid areas, the ground is always wet and so it is always ready to absorb water, like a moist sponge.  In dry arid regions, the ground is like a dry sponge.  The water will roll right over the surface and it has a very tough time absorbing. This is why deserts are so dry and yet have horrendous flash floods.  

Imagine if all that water actually absorbed into the ground though!

The little amount of water that does absorb into the ground evaporates out as soon as the hot desert sun hits it.  There is no mulch or shade protecting the surface from intense heat (which can easily heat up to 150 degrees) and water stands no chance.

This means that to green the desert, two things are required:  1) ways to slow down or stop water where it falls and 2) surface protection to keep the water from evaporating.

Ways to slow down and keep water

When you have a dry sponge and you need to wash something, how do you get it to absorb water?  The easiest way is to set it in standing water, right?  It just needs a little bit of time to start absorbing and then you’re good to go.  The desert soil is exactly the same.  Let the soil sit there with the water for a little bit and then it will greedily absorb it.

There are many methods for slowing down water so that it has time to absorb into the ground.  We are going to be installing swales in our pasture.  Swales are ditches that are dug out with the dirt piled up on the downhill slope.  Swales are placed on contour with the land, meaning that the ditch is going to move with the elevation of the land to remain perfectly level.  The idea is that as rain falls, it gets caught in the ditch and can’t run off.  Instead it absorbs and hopefully stays on the ranch.

permaculture swale

Our entire valley drains off into what is called “The Dry Lake Bed.”  This is the lowest spot in the valley and most of the year it is just a dry, flat salty area where nothing can grow.  When it rains, it fills up into a shallow, but HUGE lake.  We still call it the Dry Lake even when it’s wet lol.  Every time it rains and I see the amount of water captured in that lake bed, I think to myself ‘imagine if that water just stayed where it landed.’  The desert might not exactly be Ireland, but it certainly wouldn’t be as barren and as fragile as it currently is.  

Some pockets of the desert even have a good amount of natural grass and this is because these areas capture and hold onto more water. Our goal is to make our ranch one of these pockets.

Ways to keep water

Stopping the water and giving it time to absorb is the easy part.  KEEPING the water is where it gets difficult.

Ways to stop evaporation and hold onto water include:

  • Providing shade by planting trees and shrubs
  • Putting down mulch to cover the soil
  • Increasing organic matter in the soil

Our plan is to cover the 5 acre north pasture area in wood chips to begin with.  This will help protect the soil and keeping anymore top soil from blowing away.  When the swales are built, we will begin to plant trees and cover them in mulch.  The more plants, the more mulch is naturally produced, the more organic matter, the more microorganisms in the soil and the more drought resistant the land becomes.

This also brings us back to the cows

Cows as part of the permaculture system

We believe livestock are not  tools to harm the earth, but if manage properly are tools to heal the earth.  We put our cows out into a small area of the pasture to begin to do what cows do.   


Cow poo is a much beloved food to the worms, bugs and microorganisms in the soil and it is this nasty ‘waste’ product that helps to create beautiful rich soil.  We will be slowly moving the cows around the barren wasteland of a field and they will helps us begin to create resilience in the soil.  In other words, we’re going to ‘beef’ up the dirt haha! 

What are you doing to improve the soil quality of your farm?

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