CRP land thrives under haying, grazingWritten by Christy Hemken
“I’ve always enjoyed working with cows, so I thought while I was young enough to do something I’d take the early retirement,” he says. “When we bought the place it was in oats and hay and a small pasture. We’ve enlarged the pasture and put most of it in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program).”
For the past eight years Ricley has been working to develop and improve his land with wildlife in mind. This includes a pasture mix used on the CRP ground that’s drought tolerant and contains dryland alfalfa for deer and antelope.
“The goal is to give us a wildlife habitat that works well with the cow/calf operation and enhances the wildlife habitat,” says Ricley, adding the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been helpful in showing him how and where to implement habitat improvements.
The area’s native wildlife include grouse, antelope, deer and a few elk, along with foxes, coyotes and the occasional golden eagle. Ricley says efforts to reintroduce pheasants have had mediocre results.
“A three-way cooperative on reintroducing pheasants between Pheasants Forever, the NRCS and myself included planting a row of trees on the west side of the pasture to provide habitat,” he says, explaining there were two plantings – the second of which went over a drip irrigation system.
“Four years ago they released 50 hens with roosters, but they were pen-raised so their mortality rate was quite high,” he explains. “The first thing they did was come up around the house, which was safer for them, but they weren’t savvy to the predators so the roosters would sit around and crow day and night.”
The 1,400 trees planted over the drip irrigation system are meant to both attract and protect wildlife. Wood rose bushes are thorny and provide good nesting areas, while cedar and wild plum trees provide food for birds and antelope.
Ricley now has 500 acres enrolled in CRP, 250 of which he was able to hay this summer under the critical feed provision of managed haying and grazing, a practice in which he’s participated since 2002.
“This summer didn’t produce the best hay, but it’ll be good enough to sustain the cows,” he says, adding that it turned out a lot better than he thought it would. “The problem was the court injunction that took the crop beyond prime, which is normally in late June and we’re usually allowed to hay July 2 under normal haying and grazing. The critical feed provision moved it to July 15, then the injunction brought it to the end of July.”
“Our goal is to provide a habitat that is in harmony with our cow/calf operation,” says Ricley, whose cows are pastured on certain acres and turned out on CRP during managed grazing.
He says under normal circumstances all the feed value would have been lost, but two rainstorms were able to sustain the grass and since then the area has received a few inches of rain. “If it was a program that allowed a second cutting, we would.”
In addition to enrollment in CRP, Ricley’s acres are also enrolled in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Walk-In Area program, which he says has been very successful with grouse and dove hunting.
“When I moved here I wanted to provide a place for hunters to come. Living in cities for so long, I didn’t have good access for hunting so I wanted to make this available,” he says of the Walk-In Program. “As long as hunters are good sports about it and are willing to put in the effort to hunt well, they’re welcome to come here.”
Ricley has also participated in the Rangeland Improvement Program with a cost-share on a second well on his place that feeds the drip irrigation and two new water tanks placed at the back of two of his three pastures to keep the cattle from repeatedly walking up to the corrals to drink.
The fences on Ricley’s place have also been replaced with wildlife-friendly fencing that’s low enough for a deer to jump over but has a bottom strand high enough for antelope to crawl under.
“I came here because I enjoy the rural life and the peace and quiet and getting away from the rat race after living in metropolitan areas for 25 years,” says Ricley of his enjoyment of the Slater Flats.
“What I’ve learned is that persistence pays off. Good practices and procedures will work if the timing’s right with the moisture. We’ve had some failures with the moisture, but if we keep doing the same practices it will work,” he explains. “Following the advice of people at the NRCS and neighboring ranchers and farmers has paid off. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I listened to what they said and it was very helpful and has been very successful.”