The Colorado family prioritizes wildlife, water, and soil in restoring their farm after a fire

Keith and Shelley Banki raise beef with their sons Kevin and Justin and their families in Moffat and Root counties in northwest Colorado. The conservation practices they implemented to improve wildlife habitat, water quality, and soil health resulted in the Farm Bureau family receiving the 2022 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award.

This award is given in honor of acclaimed Governor Aldo Leopold, to honor ranchers, farmers, and forest owners who inspire others with their voluntary efforts to conserve private and working land.

The Banky family’s resilience was put to the test when a massive fire broke out on half of their farm in 2018. Among the devastating effects of the fire, livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from the ponds because they were covered in ash.

After the fire, the Pankeys cleaned up the ponds and airlifted native herbs back onto the 900-acre fire path. This wasn’t the first time that conservation practices had paid off for this family and the landscapes they share with livestock and wildlife.

Keith’s great-grandfather resided in a high desert area known as the Great Divide. Improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems allow the Bankeans to continue grazing livestock in the drought-prone area from spring through fall.

They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar-powered pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow tubes have also been added. By expanding the number of watering stations from six to 12, Pankeys has increased their ability to properly graze livestock while creating wildlife habitat across the farm.

Rainfall, pasture condition, and animal performance influence how Pankeys plan pasture rotation and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotation to identify areas that benefit from early, middle, or late grazing. They also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter grazing periods, while others benefit from twice grazing in the same season.

When cattle disperse themselves extensively, Pankeys has found that grass recovers at a faster rate and taller grass is left behind when cattle are rotated to another pasture. The number of wild animals on the farm has increased dramatically thanks to rotational grazing and an improved water system. By working with neighbors to control weeds, desirable weeds became dominant across the farm.

wild animals

Pankey Ranch borders the largest grouse in Colorado, and is a breeding ground for this species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study the weeds, insects, and habitats of larger sage grouse in the Great Gap range. Their study was helpful in deciding which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped flood tanks that provide water and green plants for long periods to encourage the production of insects that grouse chicks eat.

The Pankeys are involved in a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize the Elk Head Creek River Corridor. They installed rock and erosion toe control mats, and re-seeded river banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in the walkways to preserve wetlands and fish habitats. Less erosion in the creek means clean water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and the Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s degraded health and commitment to conservation practices on the ground inspires other landowners to follow suit.

Pankeys also provide opportunities for public hunting on their land. In 2011, they acquired easements over their Root County property through the Colorado Cattleman Farmland Trust to secure future agricultural uses on the land. As a long-time volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethics and conservation practices with youth, neighbors, and the general public.

LEOPOLD Preservation Award

In honor of famed Governor Aldo Leopold, the Sand County and National Patron American Farmland Trust awards the Leopold Conservation Award to farmers, ranchers, and foresters in 24 states for the management of land, water, and wildlife.

In 2022, Colorado farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agriculture and conservation leaders.

In Colorado, the $10,000 award is provided annually by the Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Gates Family Foundation, and American AgCredit and CoBank, Southern Colorado Farm Credit and Premier Farm Credit.

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