Pankey Ranch’s conservation efforts earn attention from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association
The family-owned Pankey Ranch in Moffat and Routt counties has been honored with the 2022 Leopold Conservation Award for conservation practices the ranch has been implementing over the past few decades.
According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Leopold Award was created in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold to recognize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands.
“The recipients of this award are examples of how Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is alive and well today,” Sand County Foundation President and CEO Kevin McAleese said in a press release. “Their dedication to conservation shows how individuals can improve the health of the land while producing food and fiber.”
The Pankeys will be presented with the award June 13 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Convention in Colorado Springs.
“It means a lot to us,” Keith Pankey said. “To me, it means that we are doing some right things.”
The Pankey Ranch has been family owned and operated for four generations. Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle and hay with their two sons Kevin and Justin and their families. The family started working in this land when Keith’s great grandfather homesteaded in the Great Divide high desert area.
Because of their work to improve water distribution and implement rotational grazing systems, the Pankeys are still grazing their cattle in this high desert region during drought-prone seasons from spring to fall.
The conservation practices the Pankeys are being recognized for take a lot of work and time.
Some of the projects started in 2015, and some were already in progress as early as 1990. Keith said the creek was washing away their properties and something needed to be done.
“We had some situations that needed some work, and we started doing that,” Keith said. “Everyone in the ranching business should be able to do the same things.”
The Pankeys are involved with conservation efforts to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor, a large-scale project led by Trout Unlimited.
This effort includes several projects that prevent erosion for cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and the Yampa River.
For their water distribution system, the Pankeys replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps, added new storage water tanks and added nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines.
According to Keith, stock water developments have multiple benefits — helping wildlife, livestock and the land.
By increasing the number of watering stations from six to 12, the cattle can graze, and natural habitats are created for wildlife across the ranch. As a result of the stock water developments and rotational grazing practices, wildlife populations have greatly increased across the land.
The Pankeys continually analyze land use, animal performance and natural conditions to strategically plan their rotational grazing plans. Some areas of the land benefit from longer or shorter grazing periods, and other areas benefit from being grazed twice in a single season.
Through the analysis and trying different grazing patterns, the Pankeys have developed a deep understanding of what is required to best care for the cattle, the land and the wildlife.
“Conservation is the heart of sustainable agriculture,” Keith said. “If it weren’t for Colorado farmers and ranchers, I don’t think the land would look like it does today.”
Rotational grazing and having cattle more widely dispersed allows the grasses to recover at a faster rate and has left taller grasses behind after cattle move to another area, which helps wildlife populations.
The Pankeys have worked with neighbors to help control noxious weeds and allow more desirable grasses to become more dominant across the area.
According to the press release, the Pankey ranch borders Colorado’s largest sage-grouse breeding ground, and the Pankeys hosted students from Colorado State University to study grasses, insects and the sage grouse habitat in the Great Divide range.
The study made recommendations about which conservation practices would be most helpful to protect the sage grouse’s habitat.
“The family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health, and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices, is inspiring other landowners to follow suit,” the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association wrote in the news release.
When the Pankeys started to address projects to improve river conditions, many organizations stepped up to help.
To mention a few who have contributed in addition to Trout Unlimited were: The National Resources Conservation Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Craig, The Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable and The Lower Colorado River Habitat Partnership Program.
“I don’t think we could name all of them,” Keith said, “We still have a lot of work to do, and we’ll continue as long as we can.”
To ensure future agricultural use of the land, the Pankeys obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust in 2011.
Also, Keith Pankey is a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, as he shares his land ethics and conservation practices with local youth, fellow ranchers and farmers, and the general public.
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