Most ranchers will tell you that cattle are king. But on Jane Koger’s ranch in east-central Kansas, it’s all about the grass.
It’s an unseasonably warm day in Chase County, the October sun beating down on Homestead Ranch. Scissortail flycatchers swoop gracefully around the barn and land on a wire fence. Rolling hills of green grass stretch as far as the eye can see.
Koger doesn’t hesitate to say hello, and it’s easy to say hello back: she has kind eyes, framed by glasses and short gray hair. But spend a few hours riding around in her Polaris Ranger, and you’ll discover there is more to Koger than meets the eye.
Koger is not only a rancher, but an educator, innovator and conservationist. She believes the prairie can be sustainable both economically and ecologically. She is making a living on the land while conserving it for others.
Ranching runs deep in the veins of the Koger family. Koger is a fourth-generation rancher, born into a ranching family in the Flint Hills of Kansas. One of five children, she and her four siblings all have ranching interests in Kansas. In 1979, Koger and her youngest sister, Kay, purchased land in the Flint Hills. Unknown to the sisters at the time, the land was originally homesteaded by their great-grandparents in 1876, which is how Homestead Ranch earned its name.
“Women didn’t own and operate their own ranches much in those days,” said Koger. “I’ll never sell my land. I will pass it on to family.”
Since 1983, Koger has run the ranch as a cow-calf operation, raising a permanent herd of cows to produce calves for sale. A lot of her knowledge was on-the-job. She learned to become a cow-calf producer on her own through experimentation, education and her relationships.
“My dad struggled some with my wanting to ranch on my own and because of my hard-headedness, we didn’t talk about how to run a ranch,” said Koger. “Consequently, I had to attend a lot of seminars and workshops and read industry publications.” Her relationships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations — the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, especially — were particularly helpful in her education, she recalls.
Along the way, Koger learned that the key to successful ranching is good range management. That prompted her to shift her focus from her cattle to the grass.
Those agencies, she said, “taught me taking care of the natural resource — the grass — was important.”
Her relationships with these organizations, Koger said, “help me stay on track and try new ideas.”
Koger is passionate about passing on her knowledge and inspiring other women to enter the ranching business. She created a program called Prairie Woman Adventures Retreat. As its name implies, the program is tailored for women to participate in hands-on ranching including calving, branding, and weaning. All the knowledge Koger gains through experimentation reflects in her ranching practices. This openness to trying new things led Koger to become an innovator in the ranching community.
The land of Homestead Ranch may go back generations, but Koger’s ranching practices are far from traditional.
In 2003, Koger started a program, the Homestead Ranch Renewal Initiative, to explore new management techniques that benefit ranchers and the prairie. Koger brought together an accompanying advisory team that includes other ranchers and experts from the Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The Initiative experiments with patch-burn grazing — a grassland management practice that is good for livestock production and wildlife habitat.
Without internal fencing or intensive management, patch-burn grazing uses fire to keep cattle in a certain area within a pasture. Typically, one-third of a pasture is burned annually in rotation. The fire rejuvenates the roots and seeds of the grasses and flowers lying dormant in the soil.
Cattle flock to the burned areas due to the good eats — a diversity of fresh flowers and young grasses that grow in the aftermath of the fire. As the cattle graze on the site, the remainder of the pasture can rest and grow.
“It’s not about what we burn, it’s about the two-thirds of the pasture that we don’t burn,” said Koger. “It’s about getting the grass rest.”
Patch-burn grazing improves habitat for wildlife species including the greater prairie chicken, bobwhite quail, and other grassland nesting birds. The burned tract provides better nesting and foraging habitat, and discourages growth of trees and shrubs. Trees, while important to many animals, are not meant for the prairie. Standing tall in a sea of grass, trees provide shelter for predators such as raccoons and coyotes, and perch sites for raptors. Grassland birds need large, treeless, open areas of prairie to flourish. Fire helps prevent the growth of trees and keeps the prairie a haven for grassland-dependent animals.
Patch-burn grazing is just one innovative technique in the Initiative’s arsenal. Others include fence removal, re-seeding native plants on previously farmed land, and managing trees and non-native plants. Koger’s goal for the Initiative is to show ranchers you can have a fruitful ranch and still conserve habitat for wildlife.
Service biologist Greg Kramos, who advised Koger on patch-burn grazing is happy with the results. “Koger’s patch-burn management is an incredible success that improved the native grasses and flowers without compromising the economics of her ranch. When I first met Koger, one thing was clear, her conservation ethic runs deep. The prairie needs more crusaders like her.”
Because of her willingness to try new things, several universities conduct research on the Homestead Ranch. Koger has received many awards for her innovative ways, including the Society of Range Management’s Excellence in Grazing Management Award and Water and Energy Project’s Model of Innovation Award.
Kansas has about two-thirds of the remaining native tallgrass prairie in North America, with an abundance of milkweed and other flowering plants for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. For this reason, the Service focuses its work on keeping what’s left of the tallgrass prairie diverse and intact.
Koger not only looks after the land by removing trees, controlling invasive plants and selectively burning tracts. In 2005, she became one of the first landowners in the Flint Hills to protect the majority of her ranch with a conservation easement.
The tactics have paid off. On that warm October day, the ranch was host to hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies. Their presence meant Koger’s ranch had the food and cover needed for their journey south to Mexico for the winter. Kansas is in the heart of the monarchs’ spring and fall migration routes. In a state where 98 percent of land is privately owned, ranchers like Koger can make a big difference for the iconic, winged insect.
Monarch butterflies are in trouble. They have lost habitat, meaning there are not enough rest stops or food sources available for monarchs to complete a migration that can stretch 3,000 miles. Homestead Ranch is an example of how monarch butterfly conservation can exist in concert with productive cattle operations.
“I’d much rather have a prairie than a pasture,” said Koger.
In Koger’s quest for grass, she is improving her ranching operations while providing food and habitat for all types of wildlife — showing when you’re all about the grass, everyone wins.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Kate Miyamoto is a public affairs specialist out of the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office in Denver, Colorado.