Quincy, Wash., FFA junior Levi Kukes has a tough time picking his favorite rangeland plant.
"Oh boy, that's difficult," he said. "They all are so incredible and it's such a diverse ecosystem and they all do something a little bit different."
Upon further thought, Kukes named bluebunch wheatgrass, Washington's state grass, as his favorite.
But he also added crested wheatgrass and intermediate wheatgrass.
"I think they are just very beautiful grass species," he said.
Kukes knows the subject well. He was recently chosen a national champion in the Western National Rangeland Career Development Event.
Twenty-one teams representing Idaho, Washington, Montana, Nevada and Utah competed in the annual range judging event Nov. 7-8 in Richfield, Utah.
Kukes earned the "Top Hand" award for being the National Champion high point individual. He scored 484 of 500 possible points, and also had the top score, 197 of 200, in a plant identification practicum.
"It was super meaningful," Kukes said. "Rangeland is really one of my passions. I've been hiking and hunting my whole life, and I've gotten to see those plants and wildlife out on the range. Getting to learn about this through FFA is so cool."
Kukes said he spent time out on the range on his own and with his teammates, collecting samples, taking measurements and making sketches.
"If I had to give one piece of advice, for whatever CDE you're doing, study it on your own and really know what you're doing," he said.
Kukes first took an interest in biology, particularly fish and marine ecology, at a young age. That progressed to botany, particularly native plants, forage and house plants, he said.
"He works very hard — plants are his passion," said Rod Cool, Quincy High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. "It was just cool to have him do so well at something he's so passionate about and puts so much time into. The hard work and effort paid off. He really did well. It's nice as a teacher when your kids perform to the level you know they can perform at."
"I found FFA when I entered high school and I just fell in love," Kukes said. "Mr. Cool showed me the range CDE and I just knew I had to do this. It's just fulfilling an interest of mine that I've had for years."
Kukes plans to major in rangeland sciences at the University of Idaho, with a minor in plant genomics or botany.
Members competed in five practicum areas during the event, according to a Quincy FFA press release:
• Deciding whether to increase, decrease or leave the amount of dry matter forage available on a given pasture.
• Completing a range issue management scenario on the year's issue of wild horses and burros.
• Determining how much forage was grazed off a given pasture.
• A site assessment for forage from a three-plot selection, considering multiple range plants.
• Estimating the percentage of perennial grass, annual grass, forbs and shrubs by weight in a given plot and determining how close it is to the desired state for that pasture and the plot's transition state.
Moses Lake FFA came in 9th place, Quincy FFA 15th place and Royal FFA in Royal City, Wash., 18th place.