There are no better examples of top-notch stewardship than those practiced by this year's National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) regional winners. Each recipient faced their own unique conservation problems and was able to not only improve their stewardship management, but make their ranch or farm more profitable. And that's really the goal of the seventh annual NCBA Environmental Stewardship Award Program.

"It recognizes those outstanding individuals in our industry who go the extra mile for the environment and are great representatives of our industry to those outside beef production," says NCBA President Max Deets, Beloit, KS.

This year's winners will be honored at the annual NCBA meeting in Denver February 4-7. There, the national winner will be announced.

The award is presented by a selection committee which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Sportsfishing Association, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Environmental Protection Agency and the American Farmland Trust, as well as representatives from the beef industry and academia. This year's program is sponsored by Buick's Park Avenue automobile.

REGION I Ask Edward Williams his philosophy of raising cattle and his reply is simple: "I am just a grass farmer and the cow is my combine."

With that harvesting strategy, this Marion, KY, producer, along with sons Mark and Scott, manages a 100-head Angus and Gelbvieh seedstock business. They also run a 75-head commercial cow-calf herd on a forage-based environment.

"Improving our forages and vegetative cover not only improves productivity, but reduces erosion, runoff and is environmentally friendly," says Williams.

He's outlined his operational goals in four areas: soil, forages, grazing practices and water.

Each year, he soil tests all pastures and fertilizes accordingly - using animal waste as a soil nutrient source - and establishes legumes into pastures as nitrogen fixers.

Currently, Williams is adding legumes, like cinnamon red clover and lespedeza, to established tall fescue pastures. To date, about two-thirds of his 600 acres of pasture have been interseeded. He plans to complete seeding the rest of the pastures over the next three years. Since implementing the forage plan, Williams says the vegetative cover is thicker, reducing erosion problems.

To better use those forages, he's instituted a controlled grazing program. Williams started on 85 acres and has divided them into eight paddocks of five to seven acres each. Each paddock is grazed three to seven days, depending on the stocking rate, height of pasture, time of year and condition of cattle.

By using controlled grazing practices in conjunction with stockpiled fescue, he's been able to graze cattle from March until mid to late January with little or no supplemental feed. Over the past two years, that's saved him as much a $12,000 in feed costs.

Without a countywide water system or productive on-farm wells, the Williamses have fenced ponds and creeks and pump water to cattle. They've also added filter strips along waterways to ensure a cleaner water supply.

Since the Williamses have a thriving whitetail deer population, they started a fee hunting enterprise in 1996 to supplement their income. Wild turkeys were also introduced eight years ago. They've capitalized on another farm resource, too - timber. "I believe timber is a valuable resource that if managed well can be utilized as a source of income and still provide a habitat for wildlife," Williams says.

Triple W Farms annually hosts a beef and forage production field day to promote their stewardship practices.

REGION II Although Honeywood Farm had a conservation plan since 1962, it wasn't until six years ago that they accelerated their operation's management practices. Many areas of the 960-acre farm were simply showing the impacts of cattle, according to owner Ed Mitchell and manager Clay Allen.

Honeywood Farm includes a 300-head cow-calf operation and 100-head winter stocker program for farm-raised calves.

Continuous grazing led to large bare areas around hay rings, watering troughs, and shade and loafing areas, say Mitchell and Allen. Ponds were run down from free access to cattle. Dams had sloughed off back slopes and banks were bare and eroding.

Today, the Barnesville, GA, operation has a new look. Ponds have been renovated, and dams have been cleaned off, reshaped and revegetated. Also, new fences now restrict livestock access to ponds.

But the big change, say Mitchell and Allen, has been the move to rotational grazing. Honeywood has developed a 10-paddock system. Sixty-five acres (eight paddocks averaging seven to 10 acres each) are in a fescue/common Bermuda mix. The additional two paddocks are existing pastures that fit into the system for summer rotations. They use chicken litter as well as commercial fertilizer on paddocks.

Although access to creeks has not been completely restricted, the quality and health of streambanks has improved because areas in paddocks are rested and allowed time to regrow before cattle move in again.

Stewardship practices have allowed Honeywood to stock more cattle on the same number of acres. They also now feed less hay and prevent overgrazing and depletion of forages. Weaning weights have increased and pasture quality has improved with less continuous grazing pressure.

The farm is used as a training site on beef cattle best management practices (BMPs) for Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel.

"The installation of the practices (BMPs) over the past four years has improved the quality of the farm and made the management easier than the previous nine years that I've been farm manager," says Allen.

REGION III Dave and Lisa Lubben believe a formal business plan is an essential part of their Monticello, IA, operation. They've been writing one for the last 10 years to ensure financial stability with their 1,125 acres, 130-head commercial cow herd and 280-head feedlot.

"The business plan is a notebook I use as a guide for all decisions about the major facets of our operation," Dave says.

Their philosophy, he says "is to be in a continual learning process and analyze both personal and business growth to optimize strengths and reduce weaknesses."

Sustainable agriculture is a goal that fits well into their philosophy. The Lubbens use minimum and no-till practices on crop production acres, leaving more crop residue which helps retain moisture and control erosion. Stream crossings have been fenced to protect soil on banks and new water lines added to reduce wear and tear on crossing lanes.

Rotational grazing became a part of their plan in 1989 and has grown from seven paddocks to 16 major paddocks that are now subdivided into 50 smaller units with portable fencing.

The Lubbens experienced a severe tornado in 1995 which destroyed nearly half the trees on their farm. "In 1996 we began establishing a shelter belt within our grazing paddock system," says Dave. "We continue to plant trees to replace those lost by the storm."

To remain sustainable, they recycle old tires by turning them inside out and creating portable, almost indestructible feed troughs. "They work well for feeding silage and haylage in cornstalk fields during the winter," says Dave, who's even sold them to neighbors.

Dave summarizes his approach to farming and the cattle business like this: "If farmers moldboard plow a hill, nature will punish them with severe soil erosion. If farmers plan to have their cows calve in winter and a calf is born in a snowbank in the middle of the night, nature will prevail. Conventional agriculture works against Mother Nature; sustainable agriculture tries to work with nature."

REGION IV Wendell and Linda Vigen, Region VI winners, believe good stewards need to be able to work with the resources they have. And, they add, "don't be unrealistic and set your sights too high."

With 3,254 acres of rangeland and 590 acres of hayland, the Vigens started operating Vigen Ranch northwest of Killdeer, ND, in 1986. Since, they've helped the ranch's soil better absorb water in this semi-arid climate by adding three ponds, three springs, two water wells and two pipelines with tanks. These improvements provide more water sources for cattle and wildlife. They also reduce concentrated grazing and water runoff.

The Vigens have added more than 15,000 ft. of crossfencing that allows them to rotate and rest range. Five years ago, they instituted a twice-over grazing program to improve the plants, animals, water, air and soil quality. Since, they've improved the quality of grasses, weaned heavier calves and have increased their stocking rate 18%. They now have a 225-head cow herd and an abundance of wildlife, including mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, turkey, sharptail grouse, partridge and pheasant.

Along with two neighbors, the Vigens have also started a "River Ranch Retreat." It consists of a rental log cabin on a small ranch located nearby on the banks of the Little Missouri. Although they manage the retreat for scenic beauty, they do allow bow hunting for deer.

REGION V Region V stewardship winner Tony Malmberg's Lander, WY, ranch is almost an open book operation. Sporting pure environmental and conservation measures, it's an educational stop for local school children as well as guests from around the world. Malmberg offers a ranch-recreation program where guests pay to stay and see firsthand stewardship in action.

"The main reason to implement sound stewardship practices is that it changes the way you look at yourself and your role as a steward of natural resources," says Malmberg.

After moving to the ranch in 1978, losing his father, and seeing his mentor and uncle leave a once-viable family business, Malmberg declared bankruptcy. By working on oil rigs and gold mines he began the process of repurchasing the ranch. In 1989 he resumed ownership.

Since the repurchase and attention to management, annual stocking has increased from 5,500 AUMs to 9,000 AUMs, a 60% increase in productivity. In order to sustain this level of use, traditional management methods and local customs were challenged.

Instead of a year-round cow herd, the ranch now is stocked in spring and summer only, with 900 pairs and 500 yearlings. While this change markedly decreased gross income, it radically decreased cost as well, resulting in more reliable annual net profit.

At one time, meadows highly dependent on irrigation were reseeded to native and adapted plants acclimated to water stress.

Decreased water demand has reduced irrigation, enhancing stream flows and improving riparian conditions. Grazing has been oriented to encourage beaver to build dams, in part by adjusting timing of grazing to eliminate hot-season use in riparian areas. As riparian conditions improved, diversity has increased 70% and bird populations have increased by 50%.

Vegetation management is a cornerstone of Malmberg's operation. Each of his 27 pastures is managed for specific community and plant types. Grazing rotations are changed annually to accommodate species diversity.

Riparian areas, for example, are managed primarily for native woody species, including willow, dogwood, chokecherry, aspen and cottonwood.

For the last five years, Three Quarter Circle Ranch has formed a Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) team consisting of federal agencies, state wildlife managers, hunting and ranch-recreation partners, educators and interested local citizens. The CRM team guides planning and management at the ranch.

REGION IV "I believe all cattlemen are environmentalists utilizing a variety of conservation and stewardship practices every day of their lives," says Region IV winner John Dunkin, Tulsa, OK.

Dunkin's operation combines the Rafter D Ranch at Hominy, with 1,750 cow-calf pairs, and 12,000-acre Dunkin Farms, 90 miles away at Wagoner.

At Rafter D he runs a three-breed rotational crossbreeding system using Angus, Hereford and Limousin. About 60% of the herd is fall calved, the remainder calve in the spring. "Dividing the calving seasons allows us to make greater use of the forage resources on the ranch," Dunkin explains. "It also spreads out our labor and offers us a wider marketing window each year."

Besides tillable acres at Dunkin Farms, it's also where weaned calves are sent for backgrounding. Dunkin says that with the two operations he's able to convert more forage to beef without reducing the carrying capacity at the Rafter D.

When Rafter D was purchased, there were over 1,000 acres of highly erodible land - abandoned fields from the Dust Bowl. Dunkin renovated these fields by sprigging Bermuda grass and re-establishing native grasses. That reduced soil erosion and added to the forage resource of the ranch.

At both the Rafter D and Dunkin Farms, incorporating clovers with the Bermuda grass provides a natural nitrogen boost. The result: a 15-20% increase in protein content of hay.

Dunkin also crossfenced pastures, allowing resting to control brush and timber which was suppressing growth of native grasses. And, he's constructed 689 ponds and lakes so the entire forage area of the ranch could be used.

"We applied controlled burning and closely monitored herbicide application," Dunkin says. "As a result, we were able to increase forage production and quality to the point that carrying capacity at the ranch has grown 143%."

At Dunkin Farms he's established more than 20 miles of terraces and drainage systems and over 10 acres of waterways. He's also constructed five miles (135 acres) of riparian areas near and along the Verdigris River. This has enabled him to till an additional 38% of the property. Coupled with reduced-till farming introduced in the 1980s, he's cut soil erosion from 15 tons/acre/year to less than 2 tons/acre/year.

While genetics and management play a major role, Dunkin claims environmental improvements help achieve a 95% calf crop (per cow exposed) and have boosted average weaning weights from 450 lbs. to over 600 lbs. during the past 25 years.

At the same time, wildlife (mostly deer, turkey and quail) and fish populations have flourished. That's also allowed Dunkin to generate additional revenue by offering hunting and fishing leases.