Management education key to preserving land for future generations | TheFencePost.com

Management education key to preserving land for future generations

Gayle Smith
Gering, Neb.

This summer, the Foys will host the annual stewardship tour at their ranch allowing the public to see first-hand their management techniques and the improvements they've made.

The 2009 Wyoming Environmental Stewardship Award winners have found conservation to be a life-long learning experience. Conservation is not a project a rancher can undertake today and reap the benefits from tomorrow. Sometimes it takes many years to see progress, but it is a legacy for future generations to utilize and improve upon.

Learning how to properly manage and continuously improve rangeland so it continues to be productive for future generations is important to Rocky and Nancy Foy, who are third generation ranchers on the Foy Ranch west of Glendo, Wyo. Rocky Foy said his grandfather homesteaded the ranch, which is located on the North Elkhorn, in 1910. Over the years, more land has been added to the original homestead including the portion along Elkhorn Creek where Rocky and Nancy, along with Rocky’s parent’s, Leo and Ann, make their homes.

Because of their efforts to conserve the land and improve it over a long period of time, Rocky and Nancy Foy were named the 2009 Environmental Stewardship Award winners by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. They also received the 2009 Leopold Conservation Award from the Sand County Foundation. The Leopold Conservation Award comes with a check for $10,000 that will be presented to the Foy’s this summer. The award money is sponsored by EnCana Oil and Gas. The Foys were nominated for the award by the Platte County NRCS and Southeast Wyoming Resource Conservation and Development Council.

This summer, the Foys will also host the annual stewardship tour at their ranch allowing the public to see first-hand their management techniques and the improvements they’ve made.

In the letter nominating the Foys for the award, Misty Hays, president of the Wyoming Section Society for Range Management, wrote: “Rocky is always thinking of ways he can improve his ranch for current and future generations of Foys. He has proven to be an excellent land steward by challenging himself to improve the management of the ranch and never accepting status quo.”

Foy said the family has worked many years to get the ranch to where it is today. Education has been the key. Foy takes every opportunity he can to attend meetings and seminars to see what he can apply to the ranch that might help improve it. Foy refuses to believe it is possible for a ranch to be perfect, and is always looking for something new he can try to make the ranch operate more efficiently.

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One of the first meetings he attended was a seven-day Ranching for Profit School in Fort Collins, Colo. “In 1991, Stan Parsons was the moderator for this school,” Foy said. “Our group followed his format at this school and discussed all aspects of ranching pertaining to grazing.”

Foy said Parsons explained to the group the advantages of dividing pastures into small pastures and MIG (Managed Intensive Grazing). “At that time, we were just putting the cattle into big pastures in the spring. The cattle would rotate through three pastures by the end of the summer,” Foy explained.

After attending the school, Foy came home and met with his local Natural Resources Conservation District. They were able to help him determine stocking rates for his pastures and develop a cost-share program for cross-fencing the pastures. “Since then, we’ve divided those three pastures into 12,” Foy said.

“They supplied a lot of the technical assistance for the program,” Foy continued. “We had to build the fence to their specifications in order to qualify for the program.”

Over three summers, he and his son built eight miles of electric fence. The posts Foy used are made of fiberglass and they used two strands of electric fence wire to make the fence. “The top wire is hot and the bottom wire is the ground,” he said.

After the fence was built and the Foys began to utilize the grass differently, Foy said he continued to tweak the stocking rates to get the most efficient use of the grass.

“Every year is different depending upon the moisture and the weather,” he said. “We are in the middle of a drought right now. My dad is 82 years old and has lived here his entire life and has never seen the creek run dry. It runs year-around.”

The NRCS also helped set up a monitoring program of the ranch’s progress. The monitoring program started in the early 1990s. Because these types of changes are so slow to occur, Foy said he is not sure he would have noticed them if not for the monitoring program.

Before Foy first started making changes to the pastures, the family relied on creeks and stock dams to water the cattle. They only had two wells on the entire place. When the Foys started cross-fencing the pastures, they added more wells that operated by solar power to water the cattle.

“When we first turned the cattle into the pastures, it really messed them up because they were used to trailing for water,” he explained. “When we put the fence up, the cows had to go to water in a different place and it took them awhile to get used to it.”

Foy said each pasture used to have a central watering point. Now each pasture has two to three watering points. “They hit the fence a few times,” Foy said. “It took them awhile to get used to it.”

One of the biggest changes Foy has seen is where the cattle used to trail one another to water, now they scatter.

“The grass is finally starting to fill in some of the trails,” he said. “When we move them the first time in the spring, the grass where they have been looks just as good as the grass they are moving to.”

Foy has also worked with the NRCS to eliminate the Big Sage sagebrush, which cluttered much of his grazing land.

“The big sage can trap snow, but it sucks the moisture right out of the ground and crowds out the grass,” he explained. “When we first started, we hardly had any grass in some areas.”

Foy said tackling the sagebrush has been a challenge. When he first started, they sprayed the thickest areas with a spray plane to try and open up the areas. Since then, Foy has continued to spot spray isolated areas.

“Our goal has been if we can get the grass established and keep it healthy, the sagebrush won’t come back,” he says. “By rotating the pastures, it gives the grass time to replenish the root system and have healthy roots and grow back. When the animals are in a pasture for long periods of time, the grass gets weaker and weaker until the brush takes over.”

Five years ago, the Foys also purchased some meat goats to help thin the sagebrush. Foy said it took about three years before they noticed any difference, but the meat goats were able to thin the brush and allow more grass to be reestablished. When their herder, who was here on a temporary Visa, had to return to Peru, the Foy’s sold their goats. “They were too labor intensive and too hard for us to keep track of,” Foy said.

Although it has taken years to implement these programs, the Foy family is finally starting to reap the benefits of their hard work.

“We are starting to see more grass and better, healthier grass,” said Foy. “Everything just looks healthier around here in general. The riparian areas are more lush. The creek areas used to be narrow and deep. Now the grass grows right up to the creek and down into it. We have also had a lot of tree regeneration along the creeks. The cows don’t have access to eat the trees off as they come up.”

Foy said his new goal is to figure out how to retire his hay machinery.

“I would like to figure out how to quit putting up hay. We may get to where we just buy what we need,” he said. “We are going to try to convert some of our meadows into the rotation.”

Foy said this year he plans to fence off the meadow from the creek area and hay the meadow, but allow the cattle to graze the hay fields shortly after haying instead of waiting until later. He explained that the grass grows so tall and gets so rank in those areas that when the cattle are turned in to graze in the fall they trample more of the grass than they eat, contributing to a lot of waste. Foy is hopeful that by turning the cows into it sooner, the grass should be greener, shorter and more lush to where the cows will find it more desirable to eat.