RECLUSE — For years, when the unrelenting wind swept over the high prairie, the cattle on Jason Oedekoven’s ranch huddled together along Bitter Creek.
These days, fencing lines 4,000 feet of the creek, and the Homestead Herefords huddle behind a 9-foot-tall windbreak made of 20-gauge steel.
The windbreak looks harsh and unnatural, but Oedekoven installed it — with the help of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service — for environmental purposes. As the cattle seek its shelter instead of stamping into nearby Bitter Creek, the creek returns to its natural state and provides better quality water on Oedekoven's ranch and downstream.
“I’ve got pheasant and deer that use that creek,” said Oedekoven, who explained that wildlife stayed away when cattle ruled.
Bitter Creek is a tributary of the Powder River, which flows into the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone flows into the Missouri River. As Oedekoven improves his portion of one small creek, people hundreds of miles away benefit from cleaner water. Specifically, there is less erosion and bacteria from cattle manure, said Tim Kellogg, a district conservationist for the NRCS, who helped Oedekoven with the Bitter Creek improvements.
"Watersheds are like a tree that branches out as you go upstream," Kellogg said. "If we improve water quality on tributaries like Bitter Creek, we're going to improve the Missouri."
The fence and windbreak are tangible symbols of Oedekoven's attempt to improve the water quality.
“Jason has this philosophy of continuous improvement,” Kellogg said. “Most ranchers want to pass land on better than it was when they got it.”
During the years the cattle huddled along the creek, they were degrading it.
Their foot traffic caused erosion. Their grazing depleted grasses along the creek. Their waste made the water toxic.
It also was expensive to have cattle along the creek.
Oedekoven said he lost five to 10 calves a year when they fell into the water and drowned. The calves are worth at least $500 per head.
In 2009, he installed the fence. The total cost was $35,000. The Farm Service Agency paid 90 percent of the cost. Like the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the FSA is an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers programs for farmers and ranchers. In this case, the money came from the FSA, and the conservation service provided technical work, such as the design of the fence, Kellogg said.
The fence along the creek is low enough for wildlife to hop. The grass that grows along the banks provides cover for smaller animals. The grass is also slowing the creek’s flow, which helps slow erosion, Kellogg said.
But without the creek for shelter, the cattle needed a windbreak.
Windbreaks traditionally are rows of trees. But trees grow slowly in eastern Wyoming. Kellogg, who was working with Oedekoven on the improvements, borrowed an idea that his colleagues in South Dakota were using: steel windbreaks.
Oedekoven’s windbreak is V-shaped and set at a 90-degree angle, with the point facing the prevailing wind. Each side is 80 feet long.
It cost $4,800 to install.
The NCRS offered financial assistance for about 75 percent of the cost, Kellogg said.
Oedekoven’s windbreak was the first of eight installed on ranches in Campbell County. Thirteen more are planned.
“There’s some interest in Platte, Crook and Albany counties,” Kellogg said.
Oedekoven’s next project is a pipeline to transport water to the cattle’s summer pasture. He’s working with Kellogg on it. He’s been hauling water since he installed the fence and cut off Bitter Creek from the cattle.
“A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to keep cattle alive,” Oedekoven said. “We struggle from birth to feedlot.”