In the mid-1990s, Joel Bousman’s third-generation Sublette County family ranch faced a major threat. The staff of the Bridger-Teton National Forest had become critical of conditions on the Bousmans’ summer grazing allotment, and there was doubt about whether the family would be able to continue grazing cattle there as they had for decades. So Bousman turned to the best source of help he could think of: his alma mater, the University of Wyoming.
"I contacted the local Extension agent and asked, 'Are there resources available to help?' It didn't take long to find out there were," Bousman says. "He received a call from Quintin Skinner, range scientist in UW's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who offered the university's assistance in assessing the condition of the forest lands. Working with Skinner and others at UW, along with professionals from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, Bousman developed a voluntary range monitoring program that included installing monitoring sites based on the latest range science.
The result was a cooperative effort that not only preserved the Bousmans' ability to graze cattle on the forest but also created an award-winning model that is now being used for livestock grazing on public lands across the West.
"Getting the university involved and working cooperatively with the agencies turned the whole situation around," Bousman says. "The federal agencies didn't trust us because they didn't think we had enough scientific knowledge, but the folks at the university had it. Because of that, we were able to develop a level of trust with the Forest Service that is still in place today."
Bousman's experience isn't unique. Since its creation in 1886, UW has played a significant role in supporting and sustaining Wyoming's agriculture industry—an essential part of the university's land-grant mission. The ties between UW and the state's farming and ranching communities run deep, and as UW Extension prepares to mark its 100th anniversary in 2014, that bond is as strong as ever.
"Agriculture has a sentimental and societal role in Wyoming. It forms the bedrock of a lot of our communities, and it's an important part of our economy—producing the food we all like to eat while preserving open spaces, providing habitat for wildlife and helping sustain tourism," says Frank Galey, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "We all want to see it continue for future generations."
To see the bond between UW and the state's ranching and farming families, look no further than the Bousmans. Joel Bousman, whose great-grandfather homesteaded nearby in the late 1880s, grew up on a ranch along the East Fork River southeast of Boulder. After graduating from UW in 1970 with a degree in farm and ranch management, he took over and expanded the cow/calf operation, growing it from about 150 head to about 500. He and his wife, Susan—whom he met when they were both students at the university—raised four children. Three of them attended UW as well, and the couple's two sons—Jim, 38, who holds a bachelor's degree in farm and ranch management, and Cotton, 34, who earned a master's degree in range science—are now managing the ranch's day-to-day operations.
"The expertise available at the university has been very valuable to us," Bousman, 64, says while looking over his green hay meadows with the vast Wind River Mountains not far in the distance. On this day in early July, Bousman is able to take most of a day to give visitors a tour of the ranch operations because the cattle have just been moved to the high-elevation forest lands, and haying won't begin for about another week.
While Cotton Bousman is in the mountains distributing salt blocks in part to spread the cattle to minimize the impact on the land, Jim Bousman works with son Dennis, 11, and daughter Sarah, 16, to prepare equipment for haying. Though he learned the most about running the ranch by growing up there, Jim says his UW education often comes in handy.
"The ag business degree has helped a lot," he says. "Ranching is a business, and you have to run it like that or you'll lose it. The key to our future will be continuing to learn and adapt. We will have to change to keep making it work."
The Bousmans certainly have shown a willingness to embrace change. Along with helping create the voluntary range monitoring program, they have installed a center-pivot irrigation system on one field that quadrupled hay production while conserving water, adjusted the way they marketed their cattle to buyers, and made some changes in the way they feed calves during weaning. They also have adapted to changes resulting from the dramatic growth of the energy industry in Sublette County: Bureau of Land Management lands where cattle have grazed in the spring for decades are now major natural gas fields.
Joel Bousman, also a Sublette County commissioner, says the two industries have learned to work well together—for example, oil and gas companies provide water for livestock, and they created a fund to compensate ranchers for livestock lost as a result of industrial activity. The presence of the massive Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields nearby also has created a key funding source for a number of innovative projects that help both wildlife and livestock. The Bousmans have tapped energy industry wildlife mitigation funds to convert windmills to more efficient solar-powered water sources and to make 14 miles of fence more wildlife-friendly.
The energy industry also has been a source of additional family income, as both Cotton and Jim have worked part time driving gravel trucks for oil and gas service companies.
Supplemental income is often necessary for ranching families, as profit margins are thin—and largely dependent upon factors including market prices and the weather. While cattle prices have been strong in recent years, history shows that won't always be the case.
That’s one of the reasons for another innovative project under way on the Bousmans’ ranch. UW’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics has begun a study to quantify the value of deer habitat on part of the ranch, with the ultimate objective to create a financial incentive for ranchers—through agreements called “conservation contracts” or “habitat contracts”—to preserve crucial wildlife habitat. The Bousmans, by the way, don’t charge the public to hunt on their lands.
“I don’t think they (conservation contracts) will be a great source of income, but it would still be supplementary income that provides another alternative to subdividing,” Bousman says. “People want to stay on the ranch, but in many cases it’s barely economically viable. These agreements could help by creating another revenue stream and preserving open space, so everybody would be better off.”
The phenomenon of converting traditional Wyoming ranch land to residential development isn’t new, and it’s visible right next to the Bousmans’ ranch, where some neighboring lands have been subdivided into 40- and 80-acre parcels. But Bousman says he’s glad to see more people recognizing the value of traditional ranches in preserving open spaces.
“Protecting open spaces isn’t necessarily the primary objective of ranchers, but without open spaces, you can’t ranch,” he says.
UW has been among the leaders in efforts to preserve Wyoming’s traditional ag lands, through the Wyoming Open Spaces Initiative—a collaborative effort of the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, UW Extension, and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Among the initiative’s contributions are studies that have detailed agriculture’s role in maintaining open spaces, public support for conserving ag lands and open space, and the economic importance of private lands in providing habitat for wildlife.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, says the Open Spaces Initiative is a good example of how UW’s support for farmers and ranchers extends beyond the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“The university is a critical component of the success of agriculture in Wyoming,” he says. “And as time goes on, we’re seeing the entirety of the university becoming more valuable to agriculture in the state.”
Bousman says his ranch and others also have benefited from UW’s research into the disease brucellosis, which causes cows to abort. Sublette County has been the focus of sorts to combat the disease, which has been transmitted from elk to cattle on a few ranches in the area. Among those Bousman credits for helping him and other ranchers weather the difficulties is the State Veterinary Laboratory at UW, where researchers are working to improve brucellosis vaccinations and testing for both cattle and wildlife.
Bousman appreciates the research resources at UW but says the key to connecting the university with the state’s farmers and ranchers is UW Extension, which has offices in all 23 counties.
“The Extension program is crucial to help people in rural areas because of that direct, day-to-day contact,” Bousman says. “There’s an incredible amount of expertise available at UW, but not everyone knows about it.”
Across the state from Sublette County, another ranching family has similarly deep roots in Wyoming and strong ties to UW. Jay and Janice Berry’s small registered Hereford operation represents the third generation of family ranchers making living raising cattle northeast of Cheyenne.
Like the Bousmans, the Berrys are both graduates of UW—Jay (’79) in ag business, Janice (’80) in mathematics and teaching. And they have sent four children to UW: Jessie now heads up the state Ag in the Classroom program, Stacia is a recent law school graduate specializing in water law, Amy graduated from UW and now attends veterinary school at Washington State University, and Ben is in the midst of his undergraduate studies at UW.
During his time at the university, Jay Berry worked in the UW Meat Lab. That experience, combined with his business courses, helped prepare him for a career that included being thrust into the business side of the ranch upon the sudden death of his father.
“The business degree became far more valuable when I took the business over,” Berry says. “And the things I learned in the Meat Lab—I can’t tell you how often I’ve fallen back on that experience. I draw on it still.”
Berry also praises UW’s ag research centers, including the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Lingle. Berry has sent cattle there to be tested.
The research and extension centers provide the facilities and faculty to perform a wide variety of producer driven research, Dean Galey says. The staff at the centers and on campus completed more than 100 research projects last year, including work on crop research, livestock production and health, economics, weed management and food safety. Key projects are reported and presented at field days and at public speaking engagements.
Galey says the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources takes pride in educating the sons and daughters of Wyoming’s ranch families. “These students have a tremendous, can-do work ethic,” he says, noting that veterinary school recruiters are always looking for UW graduates “because they know they will do the job.”
UW also cooperates with 17 ranches across the region that offer internship opportunities, so all students have plenty of opportunities to gain hands-on experience along with their coursework.
“We’re not a trade school—we’re here to teach the biology and business of ranching,” Galey says. “The trade aspects they get from their families—digging postholes, welding and the like. We’re about the science of agriculture—instilling knowledge to increase the ability to make good decisions on the farm and ranch.”
Both the Berrys and the Bousmans have strong hopes that their family ranches will continue for future generations.
Ranching can be challenging, but it’s a lifestyle worth preserving, they say.
“The benefits are unending, even though they’re not that easy to quantify sometimes,” Berry says. “What encourages me is seeing my kids’ commitment and passion for this lifestyle. That gives me hope for the next generation.”
“This is a good place to raise kids,” Jim Bousman says while watching daughter Sarah and son Dennis play with the ranch’s herding dogs during a break in the workday. “Ranching is the only thing I know, but it’s a good way to do it.”
And the University of Wyoming will continue to be an important part of the equation. Asked what she plans to do after high school, Sarah, a junior at Pinedale High School, answers quickly: “I’m going to UW.”