Flying W Ranch Sustainability: Doing Right by the Land

Josh Hoy is a fifth-generation rancher in the Flint Hills of Kansas. His wife, Gwen, also has agricultural roots near the Flint Hills area that go back four generations. Together, they own the Flying W Ranch, a 7,000-acre Audubon-certified bird-friendly operation that they oversee with an unwavering dedication to grassland stewardship.

In all they do, they strive to be intentional about applying knowledge to the management of their sheep, longhorn cattle and land. This commitment is driven by their passion for lifelong learning. “We’re doing continuing education programs all the time,” said Gwen. “We read constantly trying to get better and better.”

Iconic Country

The Flying W lies in the middle of old-growth tallgrass prairie. The Hoys consider themselves fortunate to be doing what they love most in an iconic part of the world.

As part of their management practices, they prefer to do all their ranch work on horseback. “In this country, you’d go broke in a hurry trying to use feed trucks and four-wheelers,” said Josh. “My grandfather always said that broke horses make money and broke equipment costs money.”

“There’s only about 2 to 4% of old-growth tallgrass prairie left, and we’re right in the middle of it,” said Josh.

Embracing ‘The Chaos Factor’

They also try to work with nature as much as possible. “We call part of our management theory, ‘the chaos factor,’” said Josh. “Nature has chaos throughout— and if you try to do the same thing year after year, nature doesn’t like that. We try mixing things up all the time, like running cows on some of the grass at certain times and yearlings at other times.”

For the Hoys, embracing ‘the chaos factor’ also means not being overly prescriptive.

“Instead of fighting against something, we try to adapt and help nature deal with the problem. Josh and I like to pick and choose from what we’re learning to find what works best for the prairie here—and then we try to go a step or two beyond that.”
– Gwen Hoy, Owner and Rancher

Rebooting Herd Instincts

The Hoys use stockmanship to reboot the herd instincts of their cattle and sheep, adopting practices such as instinctive migratory grazing.

It is an ongoing practice yet to be fully realized. “We don’t feel as though we’ve truly achieved instinctive migratory grazing yet,” said Gwen. “It’s a big endeavor, but we try to implement as much as possible with the tools we have. Our goal is to eventually move our cows back and forth between two separate properties 24 miles apart.”

Part of this rebooting process involves encouraging their animals to browse more. “You need grazers and you need browsers,” said Josh. One of the ways the Hoys have helped encourage this is through a technique from stockman Bob Kinford. The Hoys learned from Kinford that herding animals, such as cattle, use their spines to communicate how they want the herd to move. By moving their horses’ spines and their own as they approach the herd, they can easily move the cattle in the direction they need.

“Cows naturally will browse about 20%, but rebooting has gotten our cows to browse much more than that—more like 30-35%.”
– Josh Hoy, Owner and Rancher

Doing Right by the Land

Their animal management practices are shaped by their commitment to the land itself. Rather than focus on getting as much off the land as possible, “we take some of our grass and let it rest during the growing season,” said Josh. “The way we see it, it’s just harvesting at different times, where you may not be getting the same gains immediately because it’s a different kind of harvesting.”

The Hoys also understand that short-term economic tradeoffs always come into play when talking about sustainability. The Flying W has conservation easements—voluntary, legal agreements that permanently limit uses of the land to protect its conservation values—on all owned and managed land, allowing the Hoys to establish 4,000 restored acres of native prairie or managed pasture.

“We’re working with organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas,” said Josh. “They’re really working hard to make easements flexible and functional for the families involved—and that’s important because you have to plan for those next generations coming down the road. If you don’t do that, you don’t have anything.”

To address invasive species, the Flying W uses patch burning. The Hoys see it as a powerful management tool that aligns with the chaos factor and continual improvement in their operation. “Historically, they say this country has burned every three to six years for the last 10,000 years,” said Josh. “Almost 80% of those fires occurred in August and September during dry seasons, with lightning being a primary cause.”

Through patch burning, the Flying W reduces invasive species, trees and woody brush. Through trial, the Hoys have learned that burning in the fall yields the best results for all involved, including the birds as they are not laying in the fall.

Paying Lifelong Learnings Forward

As lifelong learners, the Hoys are passionate about sharing their experiences. Prior to the pandemic, agritourism played a role in their operation, with the Hoys welcoming a steady stream of guests interested in sustainable ranching. They’re now considering other ways, including an internship program, to spread the word about grassland stewardship and sustainable ranching.

“There are ways we could make much more money by being more extractive of the land. But we’re still building wealth—in our soil health, in our ecological health and in our wildlife.”
– Josh Hoy, Owner and Rancher

The Hoys embrace “the chaos” of working with rather than against nature to manage the grasslands that have sustained four generations of ranchers.



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