Environmental stewardship regional winners named

These six ranching families honored for work protecting the environment while producing beef.

By John Wallace

Six ranching families from across the nation were honored with regional Environmental Stewardship awards during the 2017 Cattle Industry Summer Business Meeting in mid July 13.

The Environmental Stewardship Award Program recognizes the nation’s best cattle and livestock operations and their stewardship and conservation efforts. This year’s regional winners will compete for the national award, which will be announced during the Annual Cattle Industry Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., in February 2018.

Normally there are seven regional winners, but this year there were no nominations from Region 1, which includes the eastern Corn Belt and states from Kentucky and Virginia northward.

Here is a summary of the conservation work by this year's six regional winners.

Region II

Blue Lake Farm at Sharon, South Carolina -- Rusty and Jessie Thomson, Rus and Amy Thomson, Harriet Thomson Farish.

  • Rusty Thomson and his sister Harriet are the fifth generation of Thomsons to farm about 40 miles east of Spartanburg, South Carolina; Rusty’s son Rus is the sixth generation
  • The 2,300-acre farm comprises 550 acres in pasture, 25 acres in annual hay crops and 1,725 acres in timber; about half the timber is improved loblolly pine and the other half is in hardwoods.
  • Enterprises include 200 commercial cows, five turkey brooder houses, timber and leased hunting.
  • The farm includes 4.3 miles of Broad River frontage.
  • The family uses fenced stream buffers to prevent erosion, manage runoff and provide wildlife habitat.
  • No livestock or motorized vehicles have access to stream banks or riparian buffers.
  • The Thomsons built three hardened stream crossings to allow them to move cattle across.
  • Cattle rotationally graze through 30 paddocks watered by 45 concrete troughs.
  • All fences on the farm are high tensile electric fences; 50% are powered by solar chargers.
  • Turkey litter serves as a fertilizer source reducing expenses in pastures, permanent hay fields and no-till annual hay crops.
  • The family plants 20 food plots each year for wildlife

Region III

SFI, Inc., at Nemaha, Iowa -- Lynn and Joy Smith; Seth and Etta Smith.

  • Lynn started farming in 1971; his son, Seth, in 2001.
  • Today they operate 1,900 acres of row crops, 510 acres of pasture and a cow herd of 210 pairs.
  • They also operate a 2,200-head feedlot and 500-head hog finishing barn.
  • The farm has long worked to improve water quality, beginning with Lynn's conversion to conservation tillage in 1977.
  • The farm operates on a “closed loop” of enterprises that overlap.
  • Corn stalks provide feedlot bedding. Composted with manure, the mix provides most of their fertilizer.
  • In-season nitrogen applications, cover crops and use of composted feedlot manure reduce nitrate losses.
  • Cover crops also provide fall and spring grazing worth $40 to $60 per acre.
  • The Smiths converted erodible land to pasture and rotationally graze to optimize efficiency.
  • Monoslope feedlot barns keep rain off cattle and manure to reduce runoff.
  • Feedlot lagoon water is recycled via an irrigation pivot onto row crops and serves as fertilizer.
  • A wash bay with pit captures nutrients from trucks and equipment for recycling.
  • The family built a double containment system for fuel and feedlot manure.
  • The system has kept contaminants from streams, even when a tornado opened a valve.
  • The family planted 4,000 feet of windbreaks around the feedlot to protect cattle, provide wildlife habitat and improve aesthetics.

Region IV

Sterling Cattle Company at Coahoma, Texas -- Jimmy and Theresa Sterling.

  • Sterling Cattle Company is a cow-calf operation started in 1954 by Jimmy’s father, J.M. Sterling.
  • Jimmy took over in 1991 and has grown the operation to cover 215,000 acres in west Texas.
  • The operation includes the 11,550-acre family-owned headquarters ranch plus leased pasture.
  • To restore rangeland on the headquarters ranch, Sterling grubbed mesquite on 4,000 acres, sprayed prickly pear on 570 acres and reseeded 3,300 acres back to native grasses.
  • On leased land, he grubbed and sprayed 21,900 acres of mesquite, sprayed prickly pear on 2,000 acres and seeded 6,900 acres to native grasses.
  • To manage grazing and improve grazing distribution, Sterling built 20 miles of fence, drilled seven new wells, equipped 18 wells with solar pumps and installed nine miles of pipeline to provide water sources.
  • He seeded working pens to bermudagrass to reduce erosion and dust when working cattle.
  • Sterling monitors range condition continuously to determine moves in rotational grazing.

Region V

Flying Diamond Ranch at Kit Carson, Colorado -- Scott Johnson, Jean Johnson, Jen Johnson Livsey, Will Johnson, Myles Johnson, Charles Johnson.

  • Scott Johnson’s great-grandfather started the ranch in 1907, about 110 miles east of Colorado Springs.
  • Today Flying Diamond Ranch operates 50,000 acres in six counties in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. About half the acreage is deeded, half leased.
  • All six family members are owners; three are fully employed by the ranch and three are part-time.
  • The ranch offers fee hunting of pronghorn, mule deer, whitetail deer, dove, duck, quail and turkey.
  • Dominated by shortgrass and sandsage prairie, the deeded ranch includes 10 miles of riparian area.
  • Riparian areas are either fenced out or prescription-grazed as part of the rotational grazing system.
  • The ranch has employed a high-density, low-frequency rotational grazing system since the early 1990s.
  • Since the adoption of rotational grazing, the ranch has been profitable every year.
  • For that system, the ranch installed 20 miles of pipeline, seven wells, 23 stock tanks and 100 miles of fence.
  • Ninety-one pastures average 280 acres each and are each grazed less than seven days per year.
  • While the extensive water development makes rotational grazing possible, it also benefits wildlife.
  • Interior fences are single-wire electric wire which is both low-cost and easier for wildlife to cross.
  • The ranch monitors every pasture twice a year to document grass production and trend in range condition.
  • Each year in their monitoring, the family takes 200 photos and 1,500 grass measurements.
  • Depending on pasture condition, the ranch has varied stocking rates from 30 acres per cow to 90.
  • FDR has deferred grazing as much as one-third of ranch to promote habitat for the lesser prairie chicken.
  • In the 2011 drought, the family destocked the ranch entirely to preserve grass health.

Region VI

Jim O’Haco Cattle Company at Winslow, Arizona -- Jim O’Haco.

  • Jim O’Haco’s grandfather immigrated to the US and Arizona as a 14-year-old Basque sheepherder.
  • Jim’s father converted the ranching enterprise to cattle and started range improvements.
  • Today, 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff, the ranch comprises 26,000 acres of private land, 8,000 acres of state lease and 27,000 acres of a Forest Service lease, all at an elevation of 6,200 to 7,000 feet.
  • In the 1990s, Jim started work on water development and fencing to improve grazing distribution.
  • A 1,350-foot-deep well fills a 100,000-gallon tank which gravity flows water through 45 miles of pipeline.
  • In the same project, O’Haco cross-fenced a 30-section pasture to implement rotational grazing.
  • The system provides cleaner water to livestock and has improved range condition due to better grazing distribution.
  • When steel troughs begin to leak, O’Haco replaces them with troughs made from implement tires; the black rubber tire tanks thaw quicker in the winter.
  • Even when cattle are removed from a pasture, O’Haco leaves the water flowing to benefit wildlife.
  • Because of the availability of water and other factors, antelope in the area have increased from 350 in 2004, to 600 in 2014. The ranch also hosts an elk herd of 300 to 500.
  • The ranch also is home to Swainson’s hawks, ferruginous hawks, grassland birds and burrowing owls.
  • O’Haco controlled juniper on 15,000 acres to restore native grasslands.
  • The ranch hosts sportsman’s clubs and cooperates with wildlife groups on construction and maintenance projects.
  • O’Haco has served on committees for the state government to resolve issues between the Arizona Game & Fish Department and the agricultural community, include one dealing with losses from wolves.

Region VII

Munson Angus Farms at Junction City, Kansas -- Charles "Chuck" and Deanna Munson.

  • Chuck’s great-grandfather came to the area in 1869 and started farming and ranching.
  • The operation is in the Flint Hills region of the Tallgrass Prairie, about 130 miles west of Kansas City.
  • A Kansas State University graduate, Chuck assumed formal management of the operation in 1989.
  • Munson Angus Farms comprises 5,000 acres, about half rangeland and half row crop.
  • The primary enterprise is the 250-head purebred Angus cow herd.
  • After calving, the cows rotationally graze the native tallgrass rangeland from May through November.
  • Calves are finished on the farm using only Munson-raised crops; 90% of the carcasses grade Prime.
  • Processed and aged by a local butcher, the beef is sold through Munson’s Prime, a restaurant in Junction City; the restaurant features a video screen showing ranch scenes.
  • The Munsons controlled cedar on 420 acres of native rangeland to restore grasses, and implemented a plan to burn each grazing unit once every three years to suppress new brush growth.
  • The brush control also enhanced habitat for the greater prairie chicken.
  • The family uses grazing-exclosure cages to monitor the amount of use of native pastures.
  • Wildlife escape ramps in all water tanks prevent wildlife losses.
  • Munson led efforts to unite 11 landowners and stabilize two miles of Smoky Hill River bank.
  • The stabilization project on the Munsons’ 4,000-feet river bank included 7,000 tons of rock, 18 weirs, 6.6 tons of mulch and three acres seeded to native grasses and planted with trees.
  • The streambank project improved habitat for fish, including the endangered Topeka Shiner, and has attracted wild turkeys for nesting and brooding.

John Wallace operates Wallace Communications and edits the southern edition of Dow Agrosciences' Range and Pasture magazine.

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