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Seven regional finalists for the Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP) will now go on to compete for the national award.

The awards were announced during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) 2019 Cattle Industry Summer Business Meeting on July 30.

The ESAP was established in 1991 by NCBA to recognize outstanding land stewards in the cattle industry. The national award will be announced during the 2020 Annual Cattle Industry Convention in San Antonio, TX, in February.

“America’s cattle producers are the original stewards of the land. They rely on a healthy ecosystem, including land, air and water resources, for their livelihood and they understand better than anyone the benefits of caring for those resources,” said NCBA President Jennifer Houston.

Region I

The NCBA Region I ESAP winner was Overhome Farms from Crozier, VA. Overhome Farms has been in Ronnie Nuckols’ family since 1876 when his great-great-grandfather purchased the 292-acre farm. Ronnie’s father took over the management of the farm as a low-input, cow/calf operation focused primarily on Charolais and Simmental cattle.

A concern for Overhome Farms was the water runoff that flows down a stream to Beaverdam Creek, which empties into the James River. Nuckols worked with his local National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) staff to implement a conservation plan and installed 15,000 linear feet of exclusion fencing, in addition to 35-foot vegetative buffers to keep cattle out of the streams and ponds.

Nuckols also realized he had to make changes that would improve the productivity and utilization of his pastures. Working with NRCS they created a grazing plan.

“Ronnie’s a definite leader when it comes to trying some of these new forages and the grazing techniques,” said NRCS Forage and Grassland Agronomist, J.B. Daniel.

Nuckols and his wife Cheryl believe in preserving their farm for years to come and having their family legacy on Overhome Farms live on.

Region II

Blackbeard’s Ranch of Myakka City, FL, received the ESAP award for NCBA Region II.

Blackbeard’s Ranch, with origins in the Hutches Ranch in the 1930s, is one of the last large intact working cow/calf operations in Southwest Florida, just east of the sandy beaches and high rises on the Gulf of Mexico. The ranch has 600 head of Beefmaster, Brangus and Charolais cattle.

“My family has been in Florida for six generations,” said Blackbeard’s managing partner Jim Strickland.

Strickland worked with NRCS to dedicate one-third of the ranch into a permanent conservation easement to protect water quality down-stream, restoring the wetlands and the native hydrological regime on 1,500 acres.

In the last four years the ranch team focused on thinning dense trees and removing invasive plants. Their plan is to use herbicide treatments and prescribed burns, which means burning 50 to 100 acres at a time to help the land, cattle and the wildlife.

Strickland now hosts three to five buses of people eager to learn about conservation on a Florida ranch. He welcomes legislators and agencies to the ranch to show how critical ranching is to the native wildlife populations.

Region III

NCBA Region III winner of the ESAP award was Didrikson Farms of Badger, MN.

The farm is a fourth-generation cow/calf operation close to the Canadian border. Brothers Thor and Dana Didrikson took over the day-to-day management of 4,500 acres from their father and consolidated their cows to create fewer, larger herds, with healthy soil and grass a top priority. They then implanted strip grazing.

“With strip grazing we’re increasing our stock density per acre, but the biggest benefit is we’re giving a higher percentage of the ranch more rest at one time,” said Dana.

The brothers worked with the NRCS to install permanent water resources in some pastures and portable water tanks in others. The improvements have been so useful they are making the transition from grain farming to only raising cattle and grass, which is rare in their part of the country. Their adaptability with managing both pasture and livestock set them apart from many operations.

Now the Didrikson family sells beef raised on their farm at several local businesses. They use this opportunity to share their story with consumers. Thor and Dana have proven that high quality beef production and conservation go hand in hand. Their sustainability practices make the land healthier and more efficient for all the generations to come.

“I know we’re taking care of the land for the next generation,” said Dana. “We’re going to hand it over in better condition than when we got it. That’s the goal.”

Region IV

The Killam Duval County Ranch in South Texas is the winner of the ESAP award for NCBA region IV.

The ranch is owned by Killam Ranches Ltd. and encompasses 125,000 acres in South Texas between Laredo and Corpus Christi. The Killam family has been ranching in the South Texas area since 1920. In 2001, David Killam entrusted the management to David Kitner as the ranch manager. Kitner also manages the ranches in Kansas, Nebraska and Montana.

Since Kitner joined the ranch he has worked to transform what was once an overgrazed and brush covered landscape into a ranch that provides enough forage to support a profitable cow/calf and stocker operation. Aerial herbicide spraying has been a valuable tool to reduce the dense cover of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus.

In addition to brush and weed control, water was a challenge for the ranch. Kitner created a plan to have reliable water sources and recycled water tanks from an oil field and put them in place to gravity feed. Then the ranch team worked to install over 300 miles of pipeline and more than 200 water troughs.

Having accessible water across the ranch, the rotational grazing system at the Killam Duval County Ranch is working much better and it is improving their forage base. It also allows for pastures to rest for as much as a year. Both wildlife and cattle are thriving on the ranch.

Region V

The NCBA Region V winner of the ESAP award was the Cundall Ranch in Glendo, WY.

The Cundall Ranch was originally established in 1917. Some of the ranch, including the original headquarters, was flooded when the Glendo Dam was built in 1957. The ranch also has a significant amount of history associated with it; the Oregon Trail threads its way near the ranch headquarters and includes several marked gravesites along the trail.

In order to keep their grass in good condition, Larry Cundall and his wife, Ruthie, use rotational grazing, cross fencing and improved water lines. To supplement their grass, the Cundalls use center-pivot irrigation to produce hay for winter feeding. Cundall worked with NRCS to put in 18 different solar pumps and over 9 miles of water lines for easy accessibility to water for cattle and wildlife.

Whether installing living snow fences, using genetic selection to reduce the size of his cows to better fit his resources or experimenting with bio-char to get more carbon in the soil, Cundall is continually looking for ways to do things better.

Region VI

Ute Cattle Company, of Bueyeros, NM, was selected as the NCBA Region VI ESAP award winner.

Tuda Libby Crews’ Caveza de Baca family has ranched in northeast New Mexico since the early 1800s. The 14,000-acre ranch had four large pastures, four water sources, and suffered from overgrazing and neglect. Ten miles of Ute Creek was infested with mature, heavy-water-using salt cedar trees. Partnering with the NRCS and Ute Creek Soil & Water Conservation District, Ute Creek was fenced off to aerially treat salt cedar.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program created a water distribution system with two 10,000-gallon water storage tanks installed on the highest point of the ranch. More than 25 miles of two-inch poly pipe distributes water over the ranch through gravity flow. Twenty-seven miles of permanent fence created 25 pastures for the adaptive grazing system. Even in drought years the time-managed grazing system responds to using cattle as a tool to maximize forage production and enhance healthy soil.

In 2004 Crews cost-shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “New Mexico Partners Program” to establish a 23-acre wild bird sanctuary dedicated to short grass prairie bird habitat. The bird sanctuary provides berry bushes, a small grape vineyard, water, breeding/nesting areas, bird houses and a few shade trees. Over the ranch the bird list has increased from 16 species to over 100.

Region VII

The NCBA Region VII award was won by the Blew Partnership of Castleton, KS.

The Blew Partnership has been in the Blew family for five generations. Brothers CJ and Russell run the cow/calf operation, which stretches across 19,000 acres. The Blew family leases about 95 percent of their lands in three counties: Reno, Chase and Barber.

The Barber County ranch faced devastation in 2016 when a multi-state wildfire burned through the land. With devastation came blessings; the fire helped restore native grasses, improve soils and accelerate the timetable for reducing eastern red cedar. Streams that had dried up began flowing again.

The Blews partnered with NRCS to add miles of cross fencing to support their intensive rotational grazing plan and install an extensive water distribution system throughout the ranch.

The Blews work with neighbors and are leaders in their prescribed burn associations. They use fire as a natural resource to improve range land and stay on top of the invasive red cedar. Controlled burns allow the grasses and stocking density to improve.

The brothers keep a long-term approach when it comes to management because they know the decisions made each morning will affect the longevity of their operation. —NCBA

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