There are no better examples of the unique partnership cattlemen have with the environment than the conservation methods practiced by this year's regional winners of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Environmental Stewardship Award.
In its ninth year, the Environmental Stewardship Award Program annually recognizes up to seven cattle producers who use innovative practices to improve natural resources while maintaining or increasing the profitability of their businesses.
"These farms and ranches are extraordinary examples of a thriving environment and the positive results of cattlemen working in harmony with Mother Nature," says NCBA President George Swan, Rogerson, ID.
This year's winners will be honored at the annual NCBA meeting in Phoenix, AZ, January 26-29. There, the national winner will be announced.
Sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, the award is presented by a selection committee that includes representatives from the beef industry and academia, as well as government agencies and environmental groups.
Bartlett Island Farm
Mount Desert, ME
Located 1/2 mile off the northeast coast of Maine, Bartlett Island Farm is a unique setting for a cattle ranch. But, if it weren't for this ranch owned by David and Peggy Rockefeller, much of this land would have been developed residentially.
In 1973, the Rockefellers purchased the 2,400-acre island and created a conservation easement with the town of Mount Desert, putting an end to development pressures.
Peggy began a Simmental herd on the island in 1975. In 1994, an Angus seedstock operation was started when John Pyne Jr. was hired as farm manager. Currently, Pyne manages the operation's 200 head of cattle, which includes calves. The island's carrying capacity for cattle is limited. Rotational grazing and double cropping are used to maximize available forage. In the past five years, the stocking density of the island's pastures has increased from one cow/calf pair to three pairs per acre.
In addition to farming, the operation focuses on effective management of wildlife habitat and recreation. Hikers, fishermen and other recreationists share the land, its trails and woodlands with an abundance of wildlife including bald eagles, osprey, Broad Wing hawks, grouse, deer and snowshoe hare.
"This is a beautiful place and a productive place," says Pyne. "We're determined to see it protected and preserved in much the same way it was 230 years ago. But we also believe through effective management of our resources, particularly through the use of our cattle, that we can make this very special place a lot more special for generations to come."
Lykes Bros. Inc.
Lake Placid, FL
"We've found that the health of wildlife is the best indicator of the health of the land and water," says Charlie Lykes, executive vice president of Lykes Bros. Inc., a 350,000-acre, family-owned company that carries the fifth largest cow/calf herd in the U.S. Mike Milicevic is cattle division manager.
The Lykes Bros. operation is home to more than two dozen rare or federally protected animals or birds. "If we manage for habitat, we also make land more productive for our cattle. It's a careful balance, but it can be a win-win situation," adds Lykes.
Located in south-central Florida, Lykes Bros. Inc. is a wide spectrum agriculture operation utilizing land for sustainable economic production of sugar cane, wildlife management, cow/calf, forestry and citrus. Reducing energy consumption, protecting water and wetlands from chemicals and fuels, and preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat are the central focus of the business.
With approximately 23% of the ranch considered a wetland, water management plays a pivotal role in land use decisions on the ranch.
Range management is also a top priority. Incorporating legumes into the forage system has increased reproductive rates and weaning weights and reduced fertilizer costs. Controlled burns and roller chops are used to control woody species and enhance growth of more beneficial grasses.
Amana Farms Inc.
Established in the 1800s as a communal way of life, Amana Farms in east central Iowa has today grown to include a beef division with a 3,000-head, one-time capacity feedlot and a 2,200-head cow/calf operation. Despite its size, Amana Farms strives to utilize conservation methods to maintain the 'look of the land' that drew the original settlers to Iowa, says John McGrath, beef manager for Amana Farms Inc.
That environmental goal works hand in hand with production goals of reducing cost and energy requirements and producing cattle, crops and timber at optimum levels, McGrath adds.
All calves produced from the cow herd are fed in the Amana feedlots and marketed grade and yield through PM Beef Group which also supplies a line of Amana Beef for HyVee Food stores in the Midwest.
In addition to the cattle enterprise, Amana Farms produces corn, soybeans and several specialty crops on its 8,000 row-crop acres. A total of 26,000 acres are divided into row crops, hardwood timber and pasture.
Since 1991, the number of harvested hay acres has decreased from 1,500 to 550. The current procedure of stockpiling forage and crop residue cuts 63 days off feeding 2,200 cows per day at an estimated savings of $2,200 per day. Marginal land - anything with greater than 4% slope or located in a flood plain - is kept in permanent pasture. Native warm-season grasses have been inter-seeded with alfalfa and other legumes to improve forage quality.
Moving the cattle through thousands of acres of grazing has been simplified by developing an adjacent paddock system. Working with the NRCS, water systems have been developed for the paddocks using a windmill to pump water into holding ponds for distribution into watering tanks made from half-buried tractor tires. rovide habitat for waterfowl and wildlife. Thousands of trees interspersed on the cropland, pastureland and feedlot areas of the Amana Farms contribute to the air quality. A full-time forestry manager oversees logging, salvage and replanting operations for the forest.
Each summer, the farm averages one tour per week to groups ranging from international visitors to local school children. Amana Farms also conducts cooperative programs with high school FFA classes, a community college and Iowa State University to offer internships and outdoor classrooms to students.
Neill Cattle Co. and Bar N Ranch
Third-generation ranchers Joe and Dee Ann Neill have used environmental prudence to increase the size of the 500-acre operation Joe's grandfather homesteaded in 1906.
Today, Neill Cattle Co. and Bar N Ranch - the original homestead - includes a 14,000-head state and federally licensed feedlot on 2,757 acres, a 2,343 acre, blue-stem grass stocker operation and 565 acres that include the homestead and farm ground.
"I get the most enjoyment out of taking land that was marginal in production and scenery and increasing the productivity while succeeding at improving the landscape," says Joe.
The Neills have done that through brush control on pastures which in turn has quadrupled carrying capacity. Dedicated wildlife areas in pastures surrounding the feedlot have increased the population of many species including turkey, quail and migratory fowl.
An extensive lagoon system was built to handle waste from the feedlot. The project included installing underground pipe to distribute water from the lagoons through center-pivot sprinkler systems onto the farmground. Over the years, in excess of $1 million has been spent on lagoon capacity and de-watering facilities.
The Neills also utilize a patented feeding process called "Impact." This low roughage diet is designed to give equal rates of gain, slightly better feed conversion and about 30% less manure production. About a third of the feedlot solids is sold to a local bagging plant to be sold commercially as soil. To share their conservation vision, the Neill's host tours and lease hunting and fishing rights on their property.
Anderson Farms & Cattle Co.
For Anderson Farms & Cattle Co., located in central Colorado with an annual rainfall of 13 in., water is a valuable resource.
Owner Jim Anderson, his wife Brenda and daughters Rachelle and Megan have implemented several techniques to conserve and maximize water use for the diversified farming and cattle feeding operation.
The operation includes a feedlot with a capacity of 1,400 head year-round, resulting in 3,500 head of finished cattle marketed annually. The farming operation consists of 750 acres of irrigated cropland used to produce barley, wheat, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets.
The Andersons have been innovators in water and soil conservation through the use of conservation and mulch tillage. It's a farming technique that has received wide acceptance among those farming non-irrigated ground or where center pivot sprinkler systems are used.
Through thousands of feet of concrete ditch, pipelines and in recent years gated and poly pipe, distribution of water has resulted in an estimated 75% water savings prior to field application.
Manure from the feedlot is applied to fields to build up organic matter. Extensive soil tests are conducted to monitor the potential build-up of nutrients.
Habitat is maintained for wildlife including planting hundreds of trees and constructing ponds to collect run-off and tail-water. Water captured in the ponds is also reused for irrigation.
"It is important to create a balance between modern farming methods and the wildlife with which we share the land and to work with nature in creating a healthy environment in which to raise our families," says Jim.
The Andersons share that philosophy with urbanites and the media through numerous farm tours.
Grazing and range management are key to the conservation success of Bob and Terri Blanchard who operate the Blanchard Ranch located near the California coast.
Included in their operation is the 3,500-acre Pecho Ranch which is leased from Pacific Gas and Electric. This land is located adjacent to California's Montana de Oro State Park which has not been grazed in over 25 years. Being located next to that land preserve has given the Blanchards the opportunity to observe what a difference grazing can make in maintaining a healthy and diverse grassland.
On their ranch, the Blanchards have implemented grazing practices to improve and protect the environment. High density, short duration grazing has resulted in more uniform utilization of even remote areas of the ranch. Previously undesirable areas are now more productive. Photo monitoring has been used to document these changes.
They use a rotational grazing system with cattle and goats to make the best use of available forage on the steep coastal mountains. The goats eat the brush, opening the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the ground and new grass to grow.
Due to the range improvements and elimination of substitute feeding, carrying capacity has increased almost 30%. Operating costs have gone from $18-20/head to under $14 per head. And, wildlife thrive on the ranch.
The Blanchards have also found that fencing out riparian areas caused them to become overgrown without animal impact. Creeks are now grazed in rotation with other areas.
"Our goal is to manage the land for which we are responsible in such a way that we are confident that we are not using it at the expense of future generations," says Bob.
Rhea Cattle Co.
Managing each output as a resource, not a waste or by-product, has been the philosophy of Bill and Kathy Rhea, owners of Rhea Cattle Co., a two-enterprise operation which involves both cattle feeding and farming.
Their philosophy has benefited both their 6,000-head, one-time capacity feedlot and 4,000 acres of farmland that have been in the family for 128 years.
A critical element in their environmental efforts has been manure utilization. Solid/dry manure from the feedlot is applied to cropland once every four or five years, which in turn has increased organic matter over 1% and has increased the soil's water retention and the efficiency of the irrigation system.
Cattle pens are also designed for manure management. The pens include a running "W" mound, which allows pens to shed water and dry more quickly. All drainage is collected in retention ponds and is cycled through a series of settling ponds before being distributed onto cropland through a low-pressure center-pivot irrigation system.
Located about 10-15 miles northwest of the urban sprawl of Omaha, NE, odor from the ponds is reduced using a bacterial agent. Aerator windmills are also used to keep ponds in an aerobic state and further reduce odor.
Minimum tillage practices are used on the cropland to reduce erosion and the time and fuel needed to farm 4,000 acres. These practices have cut field time and fuel use in half.
Rhea Cattle Co. maintains a cooperative relationship with the University of Nebraska and participates in ongoing production research studies in such areas as nutrition trials and on-farm food safety studies.
In addition to their stewardship efforts, the Rheas also strive to bring quality beef to consumers. Bell Creek Beef, a division of Rhea Cattle Co., markets pre-cut, vacuum-packaged steaks and prime rib. The mail-order beef comes directly off the family feedlot.