A new generation of ranchers finds success experimenting with methods that go against the grain. They could be blazing a trail to more profitable ranching while aiding prairie wildlife.
For most Flint Hills ranchers, winter and early spring are times of extreme stress and little sleep. Calves are often born in open pasture on nasty February nights. Any rare calm and dry day around April 1 sends ranchers afield to put flame to foliage – a dirty, tiresome and dangerous job.
Josh Hoy’s life has become easier since he ditched that customary calendar. His calves are born in the warmth of May. Most of his occasional pasture burns come in late summer.
The fifth-generation Chase County rancher doesn’t care if other ranchers watch his ways in bewilderment.
“I cowboyed in 14 different states, and the only ranches that thrived were the weirdos,” Hoy says of his younger years. “I decided I’d have to become a weirdo too.”
His “weird” is working so well that Hoy’s Flying W Ranch near Clements was named the Kansas 2020 Leopold Conservation Award winner for practices that make good use of land for both the short and long term. Named after famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, it is the most prestigious award of its type in Kansas and is heavily supported by major agricultural and conservation groups.
Hoy’s pastures are lush, diverse with native forbs (herbaceous broad-leaf plants, such as wildflowers) and grasses. Fat cattle and wildlife thrive together. That includes dozens of species of grassland birds, America’s most rapidly declining avian family.
Problematic plants, which spread across most ranches, are on their way out on his lands. He credits a grassland management plan as old as the prairies themselves.“(Mother Nature) had it right all along,” says Hoy. “Things flow much better when you let them go as nature intended.”
Hoy is one of a growing number of Kansas ranchers who are acting experimentally by syncing their efforts with nature. But doing so can mean turning against practices that have sustained ranches for generations.
Many are utilizing recently released research from Kansas State University – labeled “a game changer for some producers” by Mike Beam, Kansas’ Secretary of Agriculture – that shows ranchers can have healthier pastures and collectively save millions of dollars in operating costs with a burn strategy that mimics a time before white settlers arrived, when native peoples and lightning from summer thunderstorms would start grass fires.
The pivot comes with trade-offs, including a transition period that can be financially painful. But those willing to embrace change can be part of a movement where ranchers are learning from one another to create what could be a new normal.
Many adherents are energizing one another’s pursuits through an organization of young Flint Hills ranchers in their 20s and early 30s, part of an effort that’s led by a septuagenarian.
The Way God Intended
Chaston Hoeme is 30, and the prairies of his family’s Gove County ranch in western Kansas look almost as natural as in the days when Cheyenne Indians rode across the land. Their cattle are fat and will get fatter thanks to natural forage from the expanses of short-grass and mixed prairie. The Hoeme Family Farm and Ranch was recognized with the 2018 Leopold Conservation Award, one of many honors it’s received.
Like Hoy, the Hoemes are following nature’s lead.
“Basically we’re using cattle to graze our pastures the way the buffalo once grazed them,” says Hoeme, of Scott City. “We’re mostly returning things to the way God intended.”
That means the prairie gets grazed heavily and quickly, then gets a lot of rest. That’s how it was when huge herds of bison would constantly move in search of forage, grazing prairie grasses to the ground.
The Hoemes have their roughly 9,000-acre ranch divided into 10 grazing pastures, known as paddocks. Cattle are added at high enough numbers to create competition, so all kinds of grasses and forbs get eaten. Pastures are rested at least 80% of the year to allow for good regrowth.
With plants invigorated by heavy grazing pressure followed by a long rejuvenation period, the prairies respond as Mother Nature has historically seen fit.
Hoeme says a healthy prairie with a hundred plant species or more can respond well to varied growing conditions.
When it’s dry, drought-tolerant plants grow well. Wet and warm seasons will help different plants thrive than do in wet and cold conditions.
While grasses seem to get most of the glory, the regrowth of grazed forbs is even more important. Many are legumes that release nitrogen into the soil as they grow, providing healthy grasslands with natural fertilization.
The variety of forbs, under about any condition, can be as important for wildlife as cattle. The Hoeme Ranch is widely known as the top property of its type for lesser prairie chickens, a species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested for the federal threatened species list in May. Populations are high enough on the Hoeme prairies – thanks to the optimum habitat – that birds have been live-trapped and released to bolster populations in other states and regions of Kansas where they’d otherwise disappeared.
The Hoemes only deal in cattle large enough to graze on their own, while many Kansas ranchers manage herds of cows and their young calves.
Many back-to-nature cattlemen, like Hoy, now prefer that their calves be born in the spring, the same as bison and deer. Again, that’s bucking a long-standing Kansas trend.
“I’d say 90% of ranchers calve in January and February to get as much growth as they can on calves that spring and summer,” he says.
“That’s true, but they spend a lot of money on extra feed and medicine. It’s easy to lose quite a few calves when it’s super cold.”
There are trade-offs, but the benefits are reflected in the ranch’s ledger. Hoy’s spring calves don’t weigh as much as winter calves but have higher survival rates, so he’s money ahead. He spends very little on drugs, largely because his healthy prairie provides spring and summer forbs with nutrients tailor-made for nursing cows.
“It’s really all just amazing,” Hoy says of what natural prairies provide.
Fires: Timing is Everything
For decades agricultural experts encouraged annual pasture burning in the spring for maximum livestock gains. Many ranchers have happily complied.
“If we don’t burn in the spring, we don’t get the gains we need,” says Greg Pickett, an Elk County rancher. “It gets rid of all that dead grass and gets that new, green growth off to a good start. That’s what puts on the pounds.”
Pickett’s burns, generally around April 1, also help him battle woody plants, such as eastern red cedars, which can overtake pastures.
But research by K.C. Olson, a K-State professor of animal sciences and industry, shows that shifting intentional fires to late summer does a better job of reducing native woody vegetation such as cedar and dogwood than spring burns.
The invasives, which offer little for grazing or wildlife, out-compete native plants for nutrients and water. They also release a toxin that won’t let native plants grow nearby. They cost Kansas ranchers millions of dollars in lost grazing and herbicide treatment, and the range and density of the plants is increasing.
Olson estimates sericea lespedeza occupies about 650,000 acres of the 3.5-million-acre Flint Hills. Old World bluestems have been found in 97 of Kansas’ 105 counties. Their densities are hard to calculate because they so closely resemble native grasses.
The invasives were imported from Asia, Africa and Europe as possible forage, wildlife habitat and ground cover for poor soils. Old World bluestem was planted in Kansas road ditches until recently. Seeds of the invasives came mixed with those of desirable native plants. They’ve also arrived in hay from other regions.
Some herbicides can help against the invasives, but they are expensive and when applied via blanket spraying, often from the air, they can eradicate a prairie’s important base of forbs. That includes milkweed, the plant monarch butterflies need to survive.
Ron Klataske, recently retired Audubon of Kansas executive director, said within 20 years, widespread spraying has virtually wiped out the forbs in parts of the southern Flint Hills, particularly just south of the Oklahoma border.
“They just don’t have things like prairie chickens down there after all of that spraying,” says Klataske, also a rancher near Manhattan. “It’s really hurting the wildlife and it’s really hurting the quality of the grazing. Those forbs are good for the grasslands and they’re good for the cattle.”
Olson says some ranchers are paying as much for chemical treatment as for property taxes.
His research into controlling the invasives began in 2009 and led to many dead ends. Eventually he looked into the history of pre-settlement fires. Most were in July and August. That corresponds with when serecia lespedeza blooms and seed production can be suppressed.
The results of his first summer research burns in 2014 were promising but not widely accepted.
“We were accused of not knowing what we were talking about,” says Olson. “Eventually some people tried it. Now, the jury is in. We finally have a way to get on top of sericea better than we ever could with chemicals without the collateral damage (to native plants).”
Hoy, these days less the weirdo and more the innovator, recently got a 60% to 80% reduction in sericea lespedeza in his pastures. He saw an increase in quality forbs and grasses, great weight gains on his cattle and a sizable reduction in woody vegetation. Wildlife like butterflies and grassland birds have responded favorably to their improved habitat.
Klataske is quick to point out the importance of such healthy populations of wildflowers and prairie wildlife for Kansas’ growing ecotourism economy. Pre-COVID-19, the Hoy family operated a guest ranch. Watching greater prairie chickens in their spring displays and wildflower walks were popular with guests from across the nation. Out west, the Hoemes have hosted paying ecotourists from about 35 states and at least 12 nations to watch lesser prairie chickens on their ranch. That’s also a lot of filled motel rooms and cafe tables.
Olson’s research eventually showed cattle that had grazed after a summer Flint Hills burn had weight gains nearly identical to those of cattle on pasture where burning had been done in early spring. He also figured those who switched from widespread spraying to late summer burns could save $50 or more per head of stocked cattle.
The concept has gained plenty of cheerleaders.
Since 2016, the Kansas Livestock Association has featured Olson, and summer burns, at its field days. Dean Klahr, director of the group’s stockgrowers division, says it plans on working with Olson in coming years.
Hoy has answered many questions from other ranchers. He’s helping form the Coyne Creek Prescribed Burn Association, an organization of local ranchers working to better handle needed burns. Education and assistance on alternative burns will be provided. Hoy hopes to take the late-summer burn concept countywide.
Late-summer burns can also lesson the air-quality problems brought on by early spring burns.
“If you burn a million acres in two days in April, it’s going to have a (negative) impact on air quality,” says Jayson Prentice of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Bureau of Air. “Spreading that into late-season burns can really help.”
Last year, spring burning in the Flint Hills resulted in eight instances in which air quality standards were exceeded in Kansas and nearby states: three times in Topeka, and once each in Chanute; Wichita; Kansas City; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Elk Point, South Dakota. High levels of ozone and particulate matter are known health hazards, particularly for people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Shifting the pasture-burn window could be expected to reduce the concentration of smoke and its impact on downwind communities.
Beam, Kansas’ top agriculture official, also notes that summer pasture burns could be safer and more easily controlled than those in the early spring, because of the higher amount of green vegetation.
But he says changing from spring to late-summer burns is going to be a tough sell to some ranchers. The initial transition could lead to several months of lost grazing potential. That, of course, could mean a cut in income, and not only for the cattleman.
“A lot of producers rely heavily on leasing a lot of their grasslands,” says Beam. “Some of those (landlords) may not be in tune with the needs of conserving grasslands. They may not want to take a smaller check if cattle are pulled early for a burn.”
Pickett, the Elk County rancher, has other concerns.
“What happens if that fire gets away and gets over on your neighbor and you’ve just burned off what he needed for his winter grazing?” says Pickett. “I can see their thoughts, of burning the sericea when it’s in bloom, but it still seems kind of risky to me.”
Young Minds Bring Diversity, and Success
Roger Wells is an event organizer with the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, a partnership of ranchers, agricultural and conservation organizations, and governmental agencies that was formed in 1999. He’s noticed a common theme at the group’s gatherings to work with Kansas ranchers.
“Sometimes dads and grandpas can be pretty set in their ways,” says the 70-year-old Wells, a retired biologist and landowner. “But we have some eager young ranchers who are ready to learn more and maybe try something different.”
That’s why he created the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance’s Young Rancher Program, with groups located in the northern, central and southern Flint
Hills. Twice annually, Wells organizes meetings for each of the groups, often with a tour of a member’s ranch.
“I mostly just do a little introduction, and they waste no time taking it from there,” says Wells. “These young ranchers are there to meet each other and share information. A lot of (young ranchers) are super-sharp and super-involved.”
The alliance is quick to help young ranchers as best it can. Wells says it helps locate and pay for continuing education programs. That’s even allowed a young Flint Hills rancher to travel to Russia to learn about its grassland management.
Membership numbers are growing, and enthusiasm is high.
“I have a degree in agriculture, but where I really learn is at tours and workshops,” says Joseph Hubbard, 33, of Pottawatomie County. “I’ll learn a lot more seeing what some other rancher is doing, comparing notes and talking to other ranchers.”
Hubbard is one of several young ranchers finding natural approaches to grassland management. He and Nathan Marker, 26, from Cowley County, utilize alternative livestock along with cattle. Marker runs goats amid his family’s cattle herds. Hubbard does the same with sheep.
To them, invasive plant species can be sources of profits and not problems. They can often mix a hundred-plus head of goats and sheep with as many cattle. All thrive.
“Goats don’t eat a lot of grass. They’re natural browsers that will eat woody stuff, like buckbrush, sumac, hedge trees and things like sericea before they even go to forbs,” says Marker. “Now, we don’t have to burn and we don’t use chemicals in any pastures that hold goats.”
Having two sources of income from the same amount of land can be important.
“Cattle basically pay the rent and the expenses,” says Marker. “That means our goat sales are
Because of their browsing versatility, Marker can stock two to three goats in a pasture along with every cow-calf pair without negatively impacting weight gains. Marker says goats, popular in ethnic markets, often sell for twice the price of beef, when figured on a per-pound basis.
His young female goats, just weaned, sell for $250 to $300 each as breeding stock. Nannies often produce twins. Hubbard sells mutton and young animals from his flocks and profits from sheared wool.
Klahr, of the Kansas Livestock Association, says interest in goats and sheep is growing. For many, though, it’s not feasible.
“One of the biggest problems can be finding a market,” says Klahr. “It’s not like we have a lot of domestic demand for sheep and goat meat here, and a place to market them in every county. You’ll also have a lot more problems with predators, like coyotes.”
Marker’s research has found a few sale barns that will move his goats, although they are not particularly close by. The extra driving is compensated by good prices. He produces enough kids that a private buyer comes and gets them. Marker says smaller producers could pool with other small producers to make it worth traveling to sale barns or having private buyers come to pick up from multiple area ranches.
As far as preventing predation, Marker has large stock dogs that live with his goats. Hubbard doesn’t need dogs to keep predation minimal if he puts his sheep with a herd of cows shortly after they’ve calved.
“The sheep learn to run to the cows if they think danger is around,” says Hubbard. “A momma cow’s going to run every coyote out of a pasture if she’s got a calf, anyway.”
Hoy says he’d “love to have 10,000 goats on my pastures” but containment would be nearly impossible. Barbed wire that holds cattle is often easily crossed by small, agile goats.
Marker and Hubbard rely on movable electric fencing rather than expensive welded wire fencing. Both say their goats and sheep rarely wander if there’s plenty of food and have become accustomed to being part of a dense herd.
As well as working with one another, today’s young Kansas ranchers are leaders when it comes to educating others.
Hoeme has made four trips to Washington, D.C., to share how well agriculture and wildlife can co-exist. He and his father, Stacy, have given ranch tours to a variety of national leaders. Sen. Roger Marshall and his staff have turned to the Hoemes for insight.
Hubbard and his wife, Shelby, have invited locals to tour their operation.
“Most people understand it better once they look at it,” says Hubbard. “We’ve had several landowners look at it, then call and ask if we’d like to graze their lands. That’s always a heck of a compliment.”
- To what extent is being a “weirdo” a leadership challenge?
- What forces or factors do you think would keep other ranchers from attempting these approaches? Are the barriers primarily individual or systemic?
- How would you assess the support system these ranchers have for exercising leadership? What are the essential elements of your own support system for leadership?
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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