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Success Stories | Wyoming

Landowner Success Story, Conservation Campaign
Kukowski Family, (Paul, Catherine, Bridget and Ben, Peter, Anna, Matthew and Laura) owners of the Golden Willow Ranch. Wyarno, Sheridan County, Wyoming
Cow/calf and yearling operation and Morgan horse-breeding program
Submitted by: Nancy Atkinson, PAS, Wyoming. Nancy.atkinson@wy.usda.gov.
Phone: (307) 233-6759

October 25, 2007

Improving on Unique

"We saw what was good for the land and the cattle and we did it," Paul Kukowski told attendees during a recognition ceremony and stewardship tour of the Kukowski Family's Golden Willow Ranch. The ceremony honored the family as winners of the 2007 Wyoming Environmental Stewardship Award and the Sand County Foundation's Leopold Conservation Award.

The Kukowskis take a holistic approach to natural resource conservation. Their resource management goals of long-term improvement of water, biodiversity, wildlife habitat and ranching sustainability for future generations are progressive and ongoing.

When Paul and Catherine Kukowski were considering the purchase of the Golden Willow, they knew it was in good grass country to support a cattle operation and that it had tremendous potential. "I don't believe though that we realized, at that time, just what a unique ranch this is," Kukowski said.

They did buy the ranch, which is nestled at the base of the Big Horn Mountains near Wyarno, a small community close to Sheridan, Wyoming, and the family moved there in 1991. It is a family owned and run corporation. Paul, Catherine, daughter Bridget and son Ben (age 6) run the daily operation. While the other children, Peter, Anna, Matthew and Laura no longer live at the ranch, they come home often to help when and where they can.

The family raises Salers cattle for their cow-calf and yearling operation. They also have a small registered Morgan horse breeding program and Bridget has a flock of registered Targhee ewes.

Once settled on the ranch, they saw an immediate need to develop water distribution systems. At that time there was one stock water well, four reservoirs and six developed springs. The dependence on intermittent streams and undeveloped springs severely limited stocking density, seasonal use of pastures and grazing distribution. Location of water sources in draw bottoms led to an historic over-use and degradation of riparian areas.

In 1993, they began their water improvement program using technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and a Great Plains Program contract. NRCS has continued to work with the Kukowskis over the years through technical assistance and programs that fit their needs. "We have always been very happy with our association with NRCS and the programs we have participated in," Catherine Kukowski said.

The 1993 project consisted of two water distribution systems each with a stock water well, storage tanks and gravity pipeline system to water tanks. One of the systems covered an area of the ranch that serves to winter the majority of the cows. The second, larger, system was directed to the southern portion of the ranch and provided water to five different pastures.

Water system improvements have continued resulting in 6 stock water wells, 30 water tanks, 14 miles of pipeline and development of several springs.

"The water developments have allowed us to change grazing practices on our ranch," Kukowski said. "We now have a higher intensity, shorter duration grazing program that permits long rest periods and a change of grazing patterns across the entire operation. Having the ability to change grazing patterns has enabled us to sustain the drought of the past several years without having to drastically cut the size of our herd."

Kukowski said that Salers cattle prefer to graze the ridges and higher areas. This instinct, combined with water development, has improved riparian areas. With water tanks placed in higher areas and built on a gravity fed system, he noted that water is turned off at the tanks in order to get the cattle to graze the riparian areas.

Cross fencing was also on the resource management agenda. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is administered by NRCS, provided assistance for cross fencing as still another management tool for grazing distribution. "It is great to work with this family," Jerry Forster, district conservationist, Sheridan NRCS field office said. "They are always anxious to improve the natural resources on their place. When they undertake a project it gets done!

The ranch has 15 major pastures varying in size from 1600 to 500 acres. Pasture rotation is based on several factors, but key considerations are when and to what extent a pasture was previously used. Cross fencing one large pasture and converting it into two 1600-acre pastures helped manage grazing distribution even more effectively.

"This grazing program has allowed us to maintain and improve the vast biodiversity of grasses, forbs, brush and trees that this area is noted for," said Kukowski. "The grazing rotations allow for sustainable and improving riparian areas without fencing out or limiting grazing opportunities."

Grazing practices and water management have improved wildlife habitat both in the riparian areas and upland habitat. Growing populations of mule deer, antelope, elk, turkeys, ducks, Canadian geese, Ring-neck pheasants, Hungarian partridge, Sharp Tailed Grouse and numerous other species of birds benefit from the practices that have been implemented by the family. Wildlife management adds to the diversity of the ranch operation and benefits it economically, environmentally and socially.

The Kukowskis have enrolled in the Wyoming Game & Fish Department Walk-In Program. This program allows the general public access to state lands for hunting. The family believes this program is a positive way to educate the public about ranching, public lands and access.

Paul, Catherine and family are facing the challenge of positively addressing the issue of coal-bed methane development. They are involved in all aspects of such development to reduce surface damage and water quality impacts on their ranch.

Paul and Catherine have given their family the gift of an agricultural lifestyle that is filled with strong values, ethics and a love for the land to be passed on to future caregivers of Wyoming's natural resources.
 

 

The Kukowski Family.  Paul (left), Catherine, Laura, Matthew, Anna, Bridgett, and Peter. The Kukowski Family. Paul (left), Catherine, Laura, Matthew, Anna, Bridgett, and Peter.
 
Paul Kukowski (r) discusses resource management with stewardship tour attendees. Paul Kukowski (r) discusses resource management with stewardship tour attendees.