Learn about the 2008 Trailblazer in this special video.

With approximately 23% of the Lykes Bros. Ranch considered a wetland, one can imagine just how pivotal a role water management plays in the land-use decisions of this 337,000-acre ranch in south-central Florida.

But the operation headquartered in Okeechobee — and its general manager Mike Milicevic — have taken more than just a localized interest in managing their water resources to ensure water quality and guarantee the sustainability of the diversified family-owned operation. In fact, their efforts reach beyond their operational borders across the state of Florida, and one day may even reach across the nation.

That vehicle is “Water Quality Best Management Practices (BMP) for Florida Cow-Calf Operations.” Spearheaded by the Florida Cattlemen's Association (FCA) and drawn up in a unique partnership between producers and regulators, the draft manual will soon serve as both roadmap and vehicle to enhance and protect water quality in Florida. (See the 104-page draft plan at www.floridaagwaterpolicy.com/PDF/Bmps/Bmp_FloridaCowCalf2008draft22.pdf.)

The manual is heralded as a unique consensus document that outlines commonsense, economically and technically feasible production and management practices that enhance and protect Florida's water resources. It's designed specifically for Florida's cow-calf operations; it doesn't apply to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which generally require a permit.

It is the result of efforts by cattle producers, government agencies and academia. A seven-person working group and a 15-member steering committee (see “Steering committee,” page T8 for members) shepherded the project begun in 2007 to revise a 1999 BMP manual produced by FCA. Milicevic is widely credited as the ramrod of both efforts.

“Mike has been the champion of this project, no question,” says Bo Hobby, a Williston, FL rancher, nutritional consultant and current FCA president. “Water quality is huge in this state, and Mike saw the importance of it and thought to ask: ‘How do we coexist rather than just digging in our heels?’ ”

Hobby says Milicevic's strengths are “level headedness and calmness in handling issues.

“He'll carefully evaluate an issue as to what it means, what is applicable and what is best for everyone. He takes a real structured, long-term approach — how will a decision made today affect us 10-20 years down the road?” Hobby says.

Gene Lollis, ranch manager for Buck Island Ranch (www.maerc.org), a neighboring operation, credits Milicevic for the manual's realization.

“We probably wouldn't have gotten it done without Mike,” Lollis says. “He's proactive, and he took it by the horns and stuck with it. He keeps the goal and the work in mind and keeps people on task. He's good at helping people to work together to come to a resolution, and not letting it get sidetracked.”

It's for that dedication and foresight that Milicevic is recognized this month as BEEF magazine's 2008 Trailblazer Award honoree. Sponsored by John Deere, the award is bestowed annually by BEEF editors to an industry individual or group whose volunteer contributions and farsighted leadership were instrumental in pushing forward significant research, programs or projects that benefited the industry and improved the production and profit environment for U.S. beef producers.

Proactive or reactive?

Milicevic grew up in Clewiston, on the southwest end of Lake Okeechobee, where his dad headed up cattle operations for U.S. Sugar. After a bachelor's degree in agronomy from the University of Florida, a master's degree in feedlot management from Texas A&M University and a short stint at managing a small Florida feedlot, Milicevic joined Lykes Bros. 22 years ago. He served as head of cattle operations until three years ago, when he became general manager of all Lykes Bros. agricultural operations, except citrus.

As a lifelong Florida resident and agriculturalist, Milicevic is well familiar with the dynamics of agriculture in the Sunshine State.

“Mike is a real steward of the land; an entrepreneurial, proactive person who gets things done,” says Max Irsik, a University of Florida Extension DVM. “He loves that ranch and will do everything he can to make it better. The BMP manual grew out of that dedication.”

With more than five million acres of improved pastures and 11 million acres of pasture and rangeland in Florida, Milicevic says both ranchers and the state want to properly manage pasture runoff. “The issue is whether to be proactive or reactive,” he says.

He says the tendency too often is to react, pushing against regulations and programs promulgated by outsiders. He says the BMP manual is “one of the first experiences of Florida cattlemen to be proactive on something and it's really been beneficial.”

For one thing, he says, the effort has basically kept the industry in the forefront of new technologies and ideas on water quality. It's also fostered better relationships and greater trust between producers and regulators.

The genesis came in 1995. As chairman of FCA's Environmental Committee, Milicevic ventured aloud that, in order to prevent CAFO-like regulations from being imposed on cow-calf operations by state authorities, FCA should look at writing its own guidelines.

“We didn't want any rules and regulations brought on us for cows in cow pens, and a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) official had informed me they were coming. I asked him what we needed to do to circumvent such rules, and he said he'd rather have us write some guidelines to follow,” Milicevic says.

The idea was roundly criticized by some members, Milicevic recalls. “But the president at the time, Marty Smith, told me to go ahead. So we got a committee together and wrote the rules, and they were approved by FCA in 1999.” That manual, which Milicevic calls “the first environmental document put together by cattlemen for cattlemen,” helped lessen the regulatory burden.

Since then, other commodity groups within the state have produced, or are producing, similar manuals for their industries utilizing FCA's manual as a “blueprint.”

But with growing state regulatory pressure on water quality, FCA decided a revision was necessary. And again, Milicevic was called. The latest version, hammered out in countless committee meetings, sit-downs and field trips with state environmental and water management agencies, came “right down to the wire,” Milicevic says.

Flint Johns, who joined Lykes Bros. a year ago as BMP projects specialist, recalls: “In one particular instance, the night before we had to get the manual endorsed by the state association during the June 2008 convention, Mike and I talked into the night with FDEP and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) trying to get it all worked out.”

Milicevic adds: “We couldn't give up any more than what we had, and it got down to the final hour to make a decision. We had to stick to what we knew was right and convince them that it was the right thing. It took a while, but we got it done.”

A BMP is a BMP if…

Inside that document is a chronicle of “practices, or combinations of practices that — based on research, field-testing and expert review — are determined to be the most effective and practicable means for improving water quality.” Included are BMPs on nutrient management, alternative cattle water sources, prescribed grazing, sediment and erosion control, water resources management, conservation buffers, fence installation, high-intensity areas, animal mortality, wellhead protection, wetlands and springs protection, prescribed burning and grade-stabilization structures.

“A BMP can't be called a BMP if it's not economical and technically feasible for the producer. That's the main guideline. If it's going to put us out of business trying to comply with water quality, it's not a BMP,” Milicevic says.

Bill Bartnick, FDACS environmental administrator in Tallahassee, says the document is now in the hands of FDEP. Under state law, that agency must verify the BMPs are protective of water quality.

“We're waiting for FDEP to confer verification; after that, our agency will do the rulemaking and adopt it, which could come early next year. Producers will then be free to sign up,” Bartnick says.

Of the experience, Bartnick calls it “a very good process. It is the way government is supposed to work. I wish every agriculture group was this involved because we'd have a better product.”

Milicevic says one of the highlights of this experience has been the working relationship that's developed “getting to know these people and agencies, and them getting to know us. It's led to a lot better relationship, but it didn't happen overnight. It took years to get to that point. We didn't trust them and they didn't trust us, but now we trust each other and work better together.”

His advice to all cattlemen's associations around the country is to get proactive in writing their own state manuals.

“Everyone in the country is going to have to follow a similar manual eventually, because we're all going to be under the TMDL (total maximum daily loading) for water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on that, so it's just a matter of time.

“So you might as well write it now and have it sitting on the shelf so that when someone comes knocking, you can hand it to them and say, ‘we're already working on it.’

“And I'd love to see other states take our manual and use it as a template to design their own, to fit their state needs.”

Editor's note: Watch a video on Milicevic and the Lykes Bros. Ranch at beefmagazine.com.

A piece of Florida history

One of the largest contiguous tracts of land in Florida, the Lykes Bros. Ranch was founded in the late 1800s by physician Howell Tyson Lykes. He left his medical career to begin raising cattle and citrus at the family homestead in rural Hernando County. By the turn of the century, the operation was shipping cattle to Cuba aboard a three-masted wooden schooner.

Incorporated in 1910, the Lykes family has remained active in its management. Today, the operation is home to a 20,000-head cowherd — the fourth largest cow-calf operation in the U.S. Its other enterprises include forestry, landscape trees, turf, sugarcane and citrus, as well as recreation.

Since the property covers many different land types and is crisscrossed by miles of ditches and dikes, Lykes Bros. employs multiple land-use practices to make the most efficient, economical and appropriate use of the land. Stewardship is an important component, attested to by the operation's selection in 2000 as a finalist for the industry's national Environmental Stewardship Award.

The operation is also 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,” says Charlie Lykes, a third-generation family member who serves as executive vice president.

Steering committee

  • Mike Adams, Adams Ranch

  • Bill Bartnick, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)

  • Pete Deal, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

  • Wade Grigsby, private consultant

  • Rick Hacht, H&H Liquid Sludge Disposal Inc.

  • Jim Handley, Florida Cattlemen's Association

  • Matt Harrison, private rancher

  • Pat Hogue, University of Florida (UFL)

  • Clegg Hooks, FDACS

  • Flint Johns, Lykes Bros. Inc.

  • Billy Kempfer, Kempfer Ranch

  • Jim Lefils, Lefils Cattle Co.

  • Mike Milicevic, Lykes Bros. Inc.

  • James Payne, Deseret Ranches of Florida

  • Wes Williamson, Williamson Cattle Co.

Working group

  • Brian Boman, UFL

  • Benita Whalen, South Florida Water Management District (WMD)

  • Lance Laird, Northwest Florida WMD

  • Mark Luchte, Southwest Florida WMD

  • Vince Singleton, St. Johns River WMD

  • Mike Thomas, Florida Department of Environmental Protection

  • Glen Horvath, Suwannee River WMD

See past Trailblazer award winners