CHEYENNE – Ranches and farms often are thought of in similar terms because they’re both agricultural operations.
But, what about ranches and wind farms?
According to Mark Eisele, owner of King Ranch in Cheyenne, those two also go hand-in-hand.
“Cows and turbines – they’re really compatible,” he said.
The Eisele-Roberts family raises red and black Angus cattle. They added wind turbines in 2007 through a partnership with Duke Energy.
The partnership and diversification of the King Ranch land is an invaluable benefit to both the land and the family, Eisele said.
“It’s preserved the environment, it’s brought family back to the ranch, and it’s brought stability to our economic situation,” he said.
Eisele has about 17 turbines on his land. They’re 300 feet tall with three 150-foot blades each.
They dwarf everything in the vicinity, and they’re dizzying to look up at. But they don’t bother the cattle at all.
Kendall Roberts, Eisele’s eldest daughter, said, “A lot of other things can’t go on underneath those turbines. The cattle – they don’t mind those turbines. They’ll use the shadow during hot summer days to follow it and graze.”
Roberts returned home in May 2011 with her husband, James, to help run the ranch after she completed a master’s degree in agriculture economics.
She and James expect to take over ownership of King Ranch one day.
Eisele said he’s been working on King Ranch for about 45 years – since he was employed as a teen by the previous owners, Jerry and Ann King.
Utilizing wind energy at the ranch is an idea originally brought up by the Kings, Eisele said.
“When they got in their mid-50s, they started traveling extensively, and they kept coming back and saying, ‘Wow, we’re seeing windmills everywhere we go,’” Eisele said.
Those places included South America, Europe, Canada and Hawaii.
The Kings believed one of the best uses for a ranch in southeast Wyoming would be a wind farm.
It turns out they were right.
Eisele said Jerry King put together the first contract for the partnership, which became a boilerplate contract for later use.
Roberts said she knew the turbines would improve the sustainability of the ranch when they went in.
“With the down markets with cattle, there is no guarantee that you’ll be making any money for income to provide for the essentials,” she said.
“The wind turbines provided a bit of tension relief, (so) we weren’t having to struggle,” she said.
Eisele said the wind turbines make up about one third of the ranch’s annual income.
King Ranch received an installation payment for each turbine built on its property. The Eisele-Roberts family also receives royalties based on production with a minimum price set.
That additional income also allowed them to upgrade the processes and equipment at the ranch, Eisele said.
One of those is a hydraulic bale handler for the bed of a white Ford truck he owns.
Eisele said they handled about 800 tons of hay a year by hand before they bought the hydraulic equipment for the trucks. That amounted to about 24,000 bales before they switched to 1,000-pound round bales.
“Your arms, you elbows, you knees, your back just hurt from that,” Eisele said.
Now, he can load a bale of hay onto the back of the truck in seconds without lifting it at all. The mechanism clamps onto the bale, lifts it into the truck and holds it in place until Eisele releases it.
He said they also updated the ranch’s irrigation system.
“We reduced our power requirements by 60 percent, and our water requirement fell by 20 percent because we were more efficient,” he said.
The Eisele-Roberts family used some of the additional income from the turbines to purchase the neighboring ranch, thereby expanding King Ranch.
“That saved thousands of acres of grassland for both wildlife and cattle use,” Eisele said.
They also added 22 new water systems as well, which benefit the livestock and the local wildlife.
“We’re seeing elk and deer migrate onto the ranch that were never here before,” Eisele said. “In the whole 45 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen the elk and deer, or the level of birds we have here.”
The ideal wind speed for the turbines is 12 to 24 miles per hour, which makes Wyoming’s constant wind perfect for wind farms, Eisele said. The turbines shut down automatically if the wind becomes too strong.
“(The turbines) are basically no cost to the environment. They don’t use water, they don’t affect wildlife, they don’t affect livestock,” Eisele said.
It’s a fallacy to believe the turbines kill raptors or other birds, he said.
Ann King loved birds, and she worked as a counter and spotter for the National Audubon Society and Wyoming Game and Fish.
“She would spend a great deal of time going around the turbine field for the first three or four years they were in,” Eisele said. She found one dead raptor, which he originally thought was bad.
“She said, ‘That’s nothing. Compared to power lines, transformers, road kill, poachers – that’s nothing.’”
Wyoming Game and Fish and biologists with Duke Energy confirmed that.
Another fallacy is that the terrain is ruined if the wind energy company were to go out of business, Eisele said.
“You could probably call salvage people, and (the turbines) would disappear,” he said.
“We have an excellent reclamation plan written into our contract.”
King Ranch received Wyoming Leopold Conservation Award for sustainable ranching in 2015.
The draft report from Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) released in October mentions the possibility of using wind energy only once and may not be included in the initial report, which is due Sunday.
ENDOW is Gov. Matt Mead’s initiative to diversify the state’s economy through the next 20 years.
Eisele said he appreciates the mineral industries and what they’ve done for Wyoming’s economy.
“I don’t think wind will replace them,” he said. But he believes they have larger environmental concerns than wind energy.
Eisele said many wind energy companies chose not to build wind farms in Wyoming after the Legislature imposed the state’s wind energy tax.
He added that similar farms in smaller communities, like Albin, would benefit immeasurably from such farms because of the added local revenue and spending.
“The Legislature has overlooked the payment of property taxes to the county by wind farms. That contribution is enormous,” Eisele said. He added that it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes for a county with a wind farm.
Roberts said the state should look into wind energy because it’s a natural resource the state has at least nine months of the year, and she knows personally that it works.
“Just like in the ag industry with land owners, we’ve got to diversity our income – same with the state of Wyoming. We’ve got to diversify the jobs and the income and the energy growth,” she said.