West Richland, Washington
Benton Conservation District
Michael Crowder has been the general manager of Barker Ranch in south central Washington since 2001. Originally from southern Indiana, Michael is still actively involved in the management of his family’s third-generation farm. He owns land in Illinois in addition to acreage in Washington state, and holds undergraduate degrees in natural resources and environmental science, as well as a graduate degree in wildlife science from Purdue University.
Michael spent eight years as an adjunct professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities teaching wetland restoration, wildlife science, and ecology. He currently serves as national director for the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and on NACD’s and Benton Conservation District’s board of directors. In 2013, he became a full shareholder in Barker Ranch – a 2,000-acre operation where he lives with his wife Gretchen.
According to Michael, the Barker Ranch is unique in many ways, starting with its location.
“It lies along the Yakima River and the majority is enrolled in an NRCS Wetland Reserve Program easement,” he told NACD. “The land receives between six and eight inches of annual rainfall and is managed primarily for wetlands and associated upland and riparian areas.”
The operation’s primary goal is to ensure year-round habitat for migratory waterfowl like ducks, geese, and Sandhill Cranes. To meet that goal, Michael uses both wetland and upland vegetation management for wildlife habitat, including incorporating cattle to manage vegetation and no-till farming practices in wildlife food plots. “We are constantly striving to improve our management techniques through test plots, grazing trials, and other work to accomplish habitat goals with the help of our NRCS and conservation district partners,” Michael said. “We give tours each year to land managers, biologists, teachers, and students to demonstrate all that we’ve learned in the last two decades.”
When it comes to cattle grazing practices, Michael has found flash grazing – higher stocking rates for shorter durations – and additional cross fencing to be very successful vegetation management tools for improving wildlife habitat. On his farmland and in his wildlife food plots, he’s found that no-till has cut down on labor and tillage costs and improved organic matter and moisture retention in his soils. “We regularly take soil samples and have them analyzed at the lab to help us best determine what the soil needs to produce higher yields,” he explained. “I literally take hundreds of soil probes throughout the year to keep a close understanding of soil conditions and moisture levels.”
Michael says one of the biggest challenges he has come up against in his operation is climate-related.
“Living in a six-inch average rainfall zone affects management practices on all areas of the ranch not directly irrigated or sub-irrigated,” he said. “We have worked extensively with NRCS on vegetation management to determine when pastures should be grazed, how they should be stocked, where cross fencing is used, etc. to mitigate the effects of low rainfall. As a result of implementing the best management strategies for our operation, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in upland vegetation over the last 15 years.”