Environmental stewardship has long been a tradition of America's cattlemen. For the past 16 years, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) has honored outstanding operations through its Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP).

The ESAP award recognizes producers whose stewardship practices are innovative, cost-effective and contribute to environmental conservation, while maintaining the profitability of their operations.

Each year, seven regional winners are chosen from industry organization nominations. From those, one is honored as the overall winner. This year's overall honoree will be announced at the 2007 Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in Nashville, TN, Jan. 31-Feb. 3.

“These families have successfully conducted stewardship practices that can serve as exemplary models for all cattle producers,” the 2006 ESAP selection committee writes. “They're actively working to protect and improve the environment and have proven environmental that stewardship and good business can go hand-in-hand. Everyone can learn something from these folks and what they do every day.”

The ESAP selection committee consists of past award winners, university faculty, federal and state agencies and environmental organizations. The program is administered by NCBA and sponsored by Dow AgroSciences LLC and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Region I

Blight Farms
Albion, MI

Bill and Fran Blight's family operation, which spans three generations and includes sons Art and Ken and grandson Stan, began with 319 acres in 1965 and has grown into today's diverse enterprise of 2,200 acres. Together, the Blight families feed out 570 steers twice annually. They also farrow 110 sows and finish 1,700 market hogs.

Working to manage runoff, the cattle-feeding operation has been converted from dirt lots into open-sided barns with sloped concrete floors to eliminate runoff. In addition, they planted grass filter strips and windbreaks. The Blights also utilize no-till cropping and reforestation projects, and are constructing a five-acre wildlife habitat area using native warm-season grasses.

“The only way to continue thriving in agriculture is to recognize its value to our national economy and continue to make it a strong priority,” Ken says. “Land needs to be conserved by each farmer, and policy must be implemented to achieve this.”

The family is extensively involved in community service and land-use planning. They utilize NRCS technical assistance in planning and implementing windbreaks, conservation tillage, nutrient and pesticide management, woodland improvement, filter strips and animal waste management.

Their efforts have earned them the highest stewardship standing in Michigan, becoming Environmentally Assured through the Michigan Ag Environmental Assurance program.

Region II

Hayston Farms
Mansfield, GA

Hayston Farms, operated by Frank and Peggy Greer on 1,255 acres, features everything from open pasture to dense forestland. It's also home to 90 fall- and spring-calving Brangus cows.

Abiding by a “more grass than cattle” rule, the Greers combine pasture seeding, fertilizer application and pest-control measures. They consistently test soils and closely observe water quality, adjusting pasture use accordingly to maintain the operation's balance.

The Greers assure excellent habitat for innumerable wildlife, including deer, bobcats and countless birds. Planting, thinning and harvesting are rotated to maintain the aesthetically pleasing landscape for the Greer family and the public.

“The Greers are solution-oriented cattle producers who regularly open their home and operation for conservation field days and demonstration events,” says Jim Strickland, Georgia Cattlemen's Association president.

Hayston Farms works closely with the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and NRCS to attain their land-conservation goals.

“It's the right thing to do,” Frank Greer explains. “It's been part of my blood, heritage and love from an early age. Our living came from the soil, water and forest. The better we care for it, the better it cares for us.”

Region III

Clan Farms
Atlantic, IA

“Good stewardship can greatly add to your bottom line,” says Nick Hunt. “But even more importantly, good stewardship is crucial for maintaining the farm for future generations, and maintaining a positive public perception of farmers.”

Nick and Sue Hunt, along with daughters Liz and Carolyn, are a fourth-generation farm family who have tended the land and its natural resources since 1868. The 2,400-acre farm exemplifies environmental stewardship in the management of a 3,400-head feedlot, 120-head cow-calf herd, and farming operation that includes corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

Water conservation is a top priority for this family in the East Nishnabotna River watershed. Working with state and federal agencies, the Hunts have created riparian buffer strips and planted trees to prevent soil erosion along waterways. Another project includes constructing an 11-acre basin to capture feedlot-runoff water, later used to fertilize and irrigate 120 acres of corn. Because of these efforts, the feedlot is certified by Iowa's Department of Natural Resources as “totally contained” for rainfall runoff.

“As farmers, we need to be up front with our neighbors. We need to discuss why we do the necessary things to operate our farms efficiently, such as applying manure to crop ground, or building large storage basins to prevent any pollution of our waterways,” Nick says.

Region IV

San Pedro Ranch
Carrizo Springs, TX

The San Pedro Ranch has been in the family since 1932. Brother-sister team Joseph Fitzsimons and Pamela Howard, along with their families, manage the 24,000 acres of Texas rangeland, which represents an environment ranging from savannah grasses to mesquite brush. It's home to registered and commercial Beefmaster cattle selected for their ability to thrive in this harsh climate.

Rotational grazing is used as an integral part of their stewardship program, and cattle are moved through a 17-pasture system.

Because of careful attention to environmental conservation, wildlife on the San Pedro Ranch abounds with dove, quail, white-tailed deer, turkey and other rare species such as the Texas tortoise and the Texas horned lizard.

“The families manage the ranch holistically by setting goals, analyzing the impacts of all decisions, and testing those decisions and practices against the goal,” says C. Wayne Hanselka, Texas A&M University professor and Extension program leader for rangeland ecology.

San Pedro Ranch has conducted field days and tours to promote community interaction and regularly works with a variety of organizations, including: the Texas Department of Ag, Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Holistic Resource Management and NRCS.

Region V

Thaler Land &Livestock
LaGrange, WY

Homesteaded in 1916, Thaler Land & Livestock has been active in area conservation efforts since founder Joe Matje worked to establish the South Goshen Conservation District nearly a century ago. Today, Dennis and Sandra Thaler, along with daughter and son-in-law, Brandy and Kevin Evans, represent the third and fourth generations. Together, they operate the 1,500-head commercial cattle ranch.

Native range is the most important natural resource to Thaler Land & Livestock. As such, the spread of noxious weeds is an increasing concern in their area of Wyoming and across the West.

“One of our biggest conservation accomplishments has been transforming a 200-acre parcel overrun with leafy spurge into the best haying ground we own,” says Brandy Evans.

The family collaborated with the Goshen County weed and pest authorities to develop a plan to eliminate the spurge, which Evans says had a positive environmental impact. “Now, we use no chemicals on the ground, and we are able to put up 5 tons of hay/acre,” she says.

The Thalers also use gated pipe irrigation, low-pressure center-pivot sprinklers, and flood-irrigation practices to irrigate orchard grass, regar brome and alfalfa.

For their efforts, the Thaler family received an award from the Wyoming chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society for their efficient grazing system and irrigation accomplishments.

Region VI

Diablo Trust Ranches
Coconino County, AZ

The Prosser and Metzger families, representing the Bar T Bar and Flying M Ranches, respectively, comprise Diablo Trust Ranches. A 1,500-head cowherd roams 276,000 acres leased from the U.S. Forest Service, 76,000 acres of Arizona state land and 74,000 privately owned acres.

The collaborative relationship between the Bar T Bar and Flying M ranches began in the 1950s with the sharing of equipment, ideas and labor. Diablo Trust wasn't officially formed until 1993, when the profitability of the ranches was under siege from several urban and environmental movements. The coalition combined forces to initiate research, educational and stewardship programs.

To manage its land, Diablo Trust developed a zone-rating system to define different areas of the ranch and monitor health and viability of the land.

“The ranches have been leaders in land restoration, using a variety of management techniques to accomplish goals for range, livestock, watershed health and wildlife habitat restoration; in each case, fitting the techniques to the site and the objectives,” says Richard Miller, Arizona Game and Fish Department habitat program manager. “They're unique in their use of collaboration to achieve land management goals on these diverse lands.”

Cooperatively, Diablo Trust has worked to form the Forage Resource Study Group, designed to integrate range and wildlife monitoring with management. The Rural Planning Area, which developed a plan by which ranchers can protect their rangelands' economic value and integrity, is another stewardship initiative to which they've contributed.

Region VII

Brown's Gelbvieh Ranch
Bismarck, ND

Covering 4,000 acres, including 1,500 acres of native rangeland, 600 acres of alfalfa and 465 acres of wildlife cover, the Brown family management team consists of Gabe and Shelly Brown and their children, Kelly and Paul. The diverse cattle operation runs Gelbvieh and Balancer cattle, raises bull calves and manages a feedlot of 100-300 animals on diverse homegrown feedstuffs.

Since 1994, the Brown family has practice zero-till farming, which has improved soil health. Water infiltration and utilization has been enhanced, and wildlife species have increased both in diversity and population.

In their wildlife plot, the habitat is ideal for white-tail deer, ducks, grouse, turkeys, pheasants and other wildlife. In addition, the Browns have planted more than 30,500 ft. of trees, and are prepared to plant an additional 38,200 ft. this year.

For their conservation efforts, the Brown family has earned Conservation Security Program Tier III status, the highest level attainable. Their intensive grazing system rotates cattle every 3-7 days on 46 different pastures, with a shallow pipeline system supplying water to 25 tanks in the pastures.

Working with NRCS, they conducted a study on the quantity and quality of forage production and soil health when seeding different legumes in different pastures.

Gelbvieh Ranch is committed to education and outreach regarding environmental stewardship practices. Their partnerships include relationships with the Grazing Management Mentoring Network, Burleigh County Soil Conservation district, NRCS and Ducks Unlimited.