Promoting good environmental stewardship has long defined America's cattlemen. For the past 15 years, that tradition has been honored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) through its Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP).

The 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 these, one is honored as the overall winner. That winner will be announced at the 2006 Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in Denver, CO, Feb. 1-4.

“The winners of this award are actively working to protect and improve the environment, because they know environmental stewardship and good business go hand-in-hand,” says the 2005 ESAP selection committee. “These leaders understand that good land management demands they care for the environment for their own welfare, as well as for future generations.”

The ESAP selection committee consists of university researchers, state and federal agency personnel and environmental organizations. The ESAP award is sponsored by Dow AgroSciences and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Region I
Li'l Pondersoa Enterprises
Carlisle, PA

“We wish to preserve the traditional values that made America great,” says Robert Boyce of Li'l Ponderosa's mission. “We believe God will provide, but we know he expects us to bring a shovel.”

Robert and Kate Boyce, owners of Li'l Ponderosa Enterprises, have lived that environmental philosophy by implementing effective conservation practices to increase the quality and production levels of their land. Their management practices include rotational grazing, brush management, streambank fencing, stream crossings, a dry manure storage facility, and an irrigation reservoir project that not only provides stockwater, but wildlife habitat as well.

Li'l Ponderosa is made up of three business entities — Angus cattle, Thoroughbred horses and a combination of several distributorships for products directly related to Grazing Solutions. The primary focus of the operation is the 90 head of purebred Angus cattle.

Working with NRCS and Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Boyces diligently follow a farm plan developed in 1987. They also participate in USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Their efforts have been recognized by several awards. Among these are the Pennsylvania Forage and Grassland Council's Conservation Farmer Award in 2001, and the Pennsylvania Cattlemen's Association Environmental Stewardship Award in 2003.

Region III
Faris Farms
Mount Ayr, IA

The rolling hills of south-central Iowa is home to the commercial cow-calf and backgrounding operation started by Lee and Martha Faris in 1958. The cow herd consists of 180 head of Angus-Simmental-Charolais crosses. The Farises also grow several crops including corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa hay.

Due to the family's sound conservation practices, the farm now supports a larger cow herd. Improvements include inter-seeded pastures, rotational grazing, terraces, streambank stablization, minimum tillage and contour farming.

“The excellent forage base, combined with improved cattle genetics, has improved calf weaning weights 180 to 200 lbs. in the last 20 years of steady improvements,” Lee says.

Re-establishing wildlife habitat is also an important facet of the operation — a barn was constructed to rear baby barn owls for release, and prairie chickens have been re-established to their native range.

The Faris family has worked with the Iowa Forage and Grassland Council, Iowa State University Extension Service, NRCS, Iowa Grassland Alliance, Iowa Cattlemen's Association and NCBA.

Region II
Lightsey Cattle Co.
Lake Wales, FL

A family ranch since the mid-1800s, the Lightsey family has continued the tradition of stewardship to keep the land viable for future generations.

“The Lightseys are unquestionably leaders in the area of maintaining the ranching culture while looking for innovative ways to ensure ranches remain economically viable and environmentally sustainable,” says James Murrian of The Nature Conservancy.

Lightsey Cattle Co., a three-ranch operation, includes a cow-calf operation, preconditioning feedlot, guided hunting, citrus groves, timber, sod and seed, and ecological ranch tours. The biggest source of income is the 3,900-head cow herd of Brahman-cross females.

The three ranches consist of 11,400 privately-owned and 18,000 leased acres. The grasslands are managed as 60% improved grasses and 40% native grasses. Their conservation plan includes rotational grazing, harvesting overgrown timber, guided hunting to control wildlife populations, deep-ditch water systems, controlled pasture burning, and helping protect and restore 28 endangered species that inhabit the ranches — including the bald eagle.

The Lightseys have worked with NRCS, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Florida Division of Forestry, University of Florida Extension Service, The Nature Conservancy and Green Horizon. The operation also hosts environmental groups on ranch and ecological tours, and the family is involved in area conservation organizations.

Region IV
Richards Ranch
Jacksboro, TX

Richards Ranch is a 139-year-old north Texas ranch encompassing 15,000 acres of privately-owned rangeland. Richards Ranch runs approximately 950 head of cattle — primarily cow-calf. Other income is generated from stocker cattle and retained-ownership feeder cattle, as well as recreational activities that include fishing, hunting, a lodge/retreat facility and nature activities.

John Hackley, manager of Richards Ranch, and the Richards family are involved in extensive environmental stewardship research. The ranch also hosts range and pasture judging contests. In 2004, it was presented the Outstanding Rangeland Management Award by the Texas Section, Society for Range Management.

“John Hackley believes the ranch business needs optimum management with a strong resource base to be successful,” says Wayne Hanselka of the Texas Cooperative Extension Service. “The Richards Ranch is a testimony to his land stewardship.”

Hackley manages the ranch using rotational grazing, helping the grasses grow much denser and using rainfall more effectively. Stock numbers have been increased and plans are to expand the herd to 1,200 head. Wildlife populations have also been increased, while quail numbers, for instance, have declined in other parts of the state.

Region V
Sims Cattle Co.
McFadden, WY

Taking a holistic approach to their ranching operation, Sims Cattle Co. has worked to develop healthy soils with minimal erosion, and maintain a complex grass community and clean water in their streams and springs. Among the ranch's management tools are intensive rotational grazing, weed control, fertilizer application, interseeding, introducing new varieties of grasses, windrow hay management and parasite control.

The ranch, located 45 miles northwest of Laramie, WY, sits on rolling hills and some flatlands, made up of mostly cool-season grasses. The 700-head of Gelbvieh/Angus cross cows make up most of the operation's income, but the ranch also sells 600-800 tons of hay/year.

“Perhaps the best way to evaluate Sims Cattle Co.'s stewardship is to look across the fence,” says Brett Moline, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension educator. “This shows better grass, fewer weeds, improved wildlife habitat and livestock in excellent shape.”

Sims Cattle Co. is known for its willingness to share both successes and failures. They host numerous field days to observe experiments done on the ranch. The ranch has worked with NRCS, Bureau of Land Management, UW Extension, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Wyoming Fish and Game Department.

Region VI
Prather Ranch
Fall River Mills, CA

A unique, vertically integrated operation, Prather Ranch runs a pasture-to-plate operation — including cow-calf, stocker, feedyard, slaughter facility and retail meat outlets. The 4,000-head cow herd grazes 28,555 acres of deeded and leased land in northern California.

The families of Walter W. Ralphs and Jim and Mary Rickert own and operate Prather Ranch. Their ranching approach includes incorporating several conservation practices such as rotational grazing, creating wildlife habitats, limited-access cattle watering ramps, manure handling, and a hydroelectric plant that produces electric energy by releasing water from a reservoir through generators.

Prather Ranch's holistic approach to ranching has increased plant diversity and productivity on their rangeland. The ranch reports a 20-30% annual return on investment from their hydroelectric plant.

“It's my wish to leave a legacy of a highly sustainable ranching operation that provides environmental, economic and social benefits, and is an innovative leader in the cattle industry,” Ralphs says.

To develop and maintain its conservation practices, Prather Ranch has worked with NRCS, California Division of Forestry, California Department of Fish and Game, FWS, Sacramento River Watershed Program and the California Rangeland Trust. They also host tours for universities, cattlemen's associations, and FFA and 4-H clubs.

Region VII
Gates Angus Ranch
Coldwater, KS

In 1998, Chan Gates grew dissatisfied with the low profitability and intensive labor requirements of Gates Angus Ranch. He reworked its management by implementing such substantial changes as a rotational grazing program, later calving dates, prescribed burning, mechanical brush removal, development of water points and the creation of a sustainable wildlife habitat.

Gates Angus Ranch was purchased by Chan's grandfather in 1943. Chan manages the ranch through the Gates Family Trust, along with his mother Valerie, his wife Susan and their three children. The main ranch consists of 4,100 acres, while they also lease 2,600 acres from three families and recently began leasing an 8,000-acre ranch. Gates Family Trust owns 200 head of spring-calving Angus cows, and manages a custom grazing operation of 1,400 head of yearling stockers.

Gates Angus Ranch worked with several conservation agencies to develop and implement their conservation management program. These include NRCS, FWS, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Kansas Biological Survey, and the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition.

“Since the decision to manage the ranch with great consideration to the environment, Gates Angus Ranch has seen improvements in the carrying capacity of the native rangeland, improved water quality and a large decrease in undesirable trees,” says Stacey Katseanes, ESAP coordinator.

The ranch is currently working to increase its numbers of the lesser prairie chicken and develop more habitat for bobwhite quail, deer and turkey.