Realizing agricultural groups, environmental interests and government regulators often find themselves at odds, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, or NCBA honors farmers and ranchers working to find common ground.
Each year, NCBA presents its Environmental Stewardship Award to beef producers who make environmental stewardship a priority, while improving production and profitability.
That ideal is practically a mission statement for this year's winner: Couser Cattle Company of Nevada, Iowa. For decades, company founder Bill Couser has partnered with environmental agencies and universities who use his operation for research projects.
And for Couser, who in 2006 was named one of "Ten People who Matter" by Time Magazine, farming in concert with the environment and his community has always been a labor of love. David Miller explains.
Bill Couser's passion for the land is the basis for a philosophy of life that can best be described as family, farming and faith.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "How many people do you know actually dig that little hole, they put this round sphere in it and they have faith that it will produce."
When this fourth-generation farmer started farming in 1977, he had the attitude that he was going to "whip the world." But Couser struggled in the beginning. The first year he lost his crop to drought, the second to pests and the third to hail. But over the past three-and-a-half decades, Couser has managed to increase the size of his operation. The number of acres tilled has grown from 234 to 5,000 and his cattle herd has increased from a handful to 3,500 head.
Couser is continually searching for ways to make his operation run more efficiently while keeping the cost of production down. One example of his work to continually improve his operation was development of a field-based manure management processor known as the Alternative Technology, or AT, system. Approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the AT system run-off from Couser's feedlot and returns dividends to operation when the manure is used as fertilizer.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "When we started this project back in 2004 …the DNR told us if it failed it was our responsibility to bring it to code. Our guys, our feed lot, our family operation does not accept failure. We were going to make this work somehow."
The design, based on work by Iowa State University scientists, uses gravity to channel the effluent through a line of biomass filters made from soybean straw into a holding area. Any remaining liquid is funneled into an adjacent 2.5 acre vegetative infiltration basin or VIB. Anything that does not evaporate in the VIB is pumped to a vegetative treatment area, or VTA, where the water is absorbed by various grasses. As the grasses mature they can then be fed to the cattle. If any water remains in the VTA it can be sprayed on nearby crops. Any solids remaining in the area above the holding basin can be scraped up and spread as fertilizer.
When the bales can no longer filter the effluent they are shredded and used as bedding for the cattle. The bedding also is scraped up and spread on nearby fields.
According to Couser, who utilizes three AT's on his operation, it costs between $100 and $150 to install the system. All of the work has been a factor in Couser earning several land stewardship and good neighbor awards.
Among the 8 people working on the diversified operation is one of Couser's sons Tim. The younger Couser graduated from college in 2009 and took a job with John Deere. Despite a promising career, Tim realized late last year what he truly loved to do was grow crops and raise cattle.
Tim Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "It's not easy to leave a good desk job, it's really not and the people are what make a job and that is what made it fun. It's just that when there's an opportunity come up to be out on the farm, boy that's hard to give up."
After returning to the farm in February, Tim started up his own cattle herd and began hedging as a marketing strategy. Both Couser's use hedging as part of their individual marketing plans and the two meet throughout the day to discuss the commodity markets.
Couser's enthusiasm for working the land goes beyond the farm gate. Believing an ethanol plant would keep his community alive he helped gather the $40 million needed to open Lincolnway Energy.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "Today it should almost be illegal that we just grind a kernel of corn and feed it to an animal. …and you look at the economics that happen behind that now all of the sudden we have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars that stay in our community…It's no longer just a kernel of corn."
During the planning phase it was discovered that several ethanol plants had diverted corn sales away from the local elevator forcing them out of business. To prevent the loss of what the board felt was an integral part of the community, Lincolnway Energy decided to purchase all the corn from the adjacent Key Cooperative.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "…This way my co-op, which I need for my fuel, my fertilizer, some of my feed, and my grain delivery, now is in business because of Lincolnway Energy right next door to it and everything is sustainable."
The first ethanol was produced in 2006. Today, besides producing 50 million gallons of ethanol annually, waste carbon dioxide is captured for the food industry, the corn oil is pulled-off for various uses, and the distillers dried grains, a by-product of the production process, are sold as animal feed.
As a past president and current board member, Couser is upbeat about the future for Lincolnway Energy. Global technology leader DuPont – parent company of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a national underwriter of Market to Market -- has chosen the Nevada, Iowa plant as the location for a bolt-on cellulosic operation.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "Our investors are happy, we're happy - tomorrow is going to be a lot of fun."
It is clear Couser's success has not reduced his excitement for farming or his commitment to the community. No matter what, he plans to continue farming with his family even after he passes the operation on to the next generation.
Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: "I think all of us that farm today do not plan to - to get rid of this dinosaur when we retire. This is our 401k plan. How do we continue it?... " "And I look at where we have come since 1977 and the travels we've been across, why did we survive? Why did we survive the 80s? What made us different? To this day I still don't know. I think a lot of that was the - the solid family behind us…how often do you have an occupation where you can actually spend your whole day with your family?"
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.