Plain and simple, conservation is a way of life for most farmers that means heartfelt attention to land, water and wildlife resources. This year's outstanding stewards and regional winners of the Conservation Legacy Awards epitomize the best efforts and achievements on the environmental front from U.S. soybean farmers.

In its eighth year, the awards single out and recognize those soybean producers who rise to the calling by taking care of the environment yet still reap economic returns from their farms.

Applications came from three regions, and final selections were judged by a panel of conservation professionals.

All three regional winners and spouses or guests will receive expense-paid trips to Commodity Classic in Grapevine, TX, Feb. 26-28. Winners also receive plaques and the overall winner gets a yard sign in recognition of the award.

The Conservation Legacy Award program is sponsored by the American Soybean Association, Monsanto and Corn & Soybean Digest.

NORTHEAST REGION

John Buck

New Bloomington, OH

When it comes to conservation, John Buck says his philosophy is simple: “There is always more that can and should be done to protect our resources of land and water. We need to be attentive to this responsibility every single day.”

And that's just what he does as third-generation farmer at Buck Farms, New Bloomington, OH, with 800 acres of soybeans and 180 acres of wheat. When he took over the operation in 1999, he gradually increased the number of no-till acres. Four years later the operation was 100% no-till because Buck says he wanted to have a more consistent soil quality, and the ability to regulate his nutrient program.

“I started grid soil sampling and have changed my pesticide and fertilizer practices from self-application to having it all custom applied,” Buck explains. “By doing this, I've been able to use variable-rate technology and global positioning system imaging, making better use of grid sampling. I've also eliminated the safety hazards that are inherent with that part of my operation.”

Buck says all his fuel storage tanks are double-walled, which replaces the need for additional containment facilities. Hazardous waste is also a major concern since he runs an ag repair and radiator shop. “I try to stay current with new laws and ways of handling waste products,” he says.

“On both my land and that of my landlords, I installed buffer strips and waterways to help prevent erosion and chemical runoff,” Buck says. “Protecting the environment from contamination of our watersheds, streams, ponds and rivers is paramount.”

Buck recently installed 11 acres of filter strips to help protect the Lake Erie Watershed. He also maintains a 3-acre stocked pond and mows another 5 acres of grass and barn lots. “I'm passionate about aesthetics and want my farm to portray a positive image for the agricultural industry,” he says.

As part of that image, Buck adds: “I believe we have a duty and obligation to teach and mentor the next generation.”

MIDWESTERN REGION

Dean and Mike Coleman Humboldt, IA

Dean Coleman and his son Mike are all about on-farm research to ensure that they're as efficient and profitable on their Humboldt, IA, operation as they can possibly be. For example, they've participated in Iowa Soybean Association's On-Farm Network doing side-by-side nitrogen (N) comparisons for six years.

“We apply N strips using our normal rate and then reduce it by 50 lbs. to see which rate gives us the most cost-effective amount for our farm,” says Dean. “By working with the On-Farm Network, we've now reduced N rates by 30 units while maintaining our yields.” Similar trials are conducted across Iowa to give participants multiple comparisons.

The on-farm trials don't stop there. The Colemans also do testing to determine if new products and practices work on their farm. They use strip trials and compare two practices or rates side by side in three or more replications to determine what lowest rate or practice works best on their farm, which consists of 50% corn and 50% soybeans. Corn is minimum-tilled and soybeans are no-tilled.

“We farm in an area where fewer than 10% of the crops are no-tilled,” Dean says. “By using no-till we've lowered our energy use on soybeans by more than 50%, and have also reduced our trips across the field. In the winter you can pick our farms out by just watching the white, not dirt, snow drifts in the ditches.”

The Colemans also are cooperating with Iowa State University in a three-year project comparing no-till to conventional-till on soybeans in the heavy, dark soils of north-central Iowa. They've hosted a field day centered on the project's results, too.

When it comes to chemical handling, it's all housed and hauled in a van-style semi trailer, then mixed in the field. “We're able to lock the trailer and this prevents unauthorized access,” Mike says.

On the farms that have timber or other suitable cover, the Colemans leave a strip of standing corn for pheasants and deer. “We even helped two of our landlords establish CRP using warm-season grasses, and now have more pheasants and partridge in those areas,” Dean adds.

Conservation is a daily mindset for the Colemans and they've been recognized for many of their management practices, especially on planting windbreaks.

“Every farmer, no matter how conservation minded, can always find one or two practices to better protect our water and soils,” Dean says. “It may take years to return our soils to their early state, but today is the best day to start that journey.”

SOUTHERN REGION

Rick and Phillip Castlen

Owensboro, KY

Rick and Phillip Castlen first got their feet wet with no-till about 25 years ago. Nine years later they were so sold on its benefits, especially with a “tremendous climb in yields,” that now all of their 1,000 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans at Owensboro, KY, are no-tilled.

The numbers speak for themselves and show why they're committed to conservation. For example, in 2007 the Castlens placed second in the National Corn Growers production contest (Div. A, no-till, non-irrigated) with a yield of 276 bu./acre. And in 2005, they won the Kentucky State Corn Growers no-till yield contest with 241 bu./acre.

But it's not all about yield. They also work with several smaller landowners who have a variety of erosion and drainage problems.

“When land is too steep to grow crops, we sow grass and manage it for wildlife,” says Rick. “We've installed water and sediment control basins, diversions, grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures and filter strips. We also use Best Management Practices, which include annual soil testing, integrated pest management and nutrient management.”

The Castlens are skilled at repairs and have much of their own heavy equipment to execute many of their conservation practices.

“When landowners aren't able or willing to install needed conservation practices, Rick and I have done construction work at our own expense in order to control erosion,” Phillips says.

Fifteen acres of wetlands have been left for wildlife. In flood-prone areas, the Castlens have active CRP contract acres where they've built grassed waterways or filter strips.

“We are stewards of the land and that's why we control erosion problems and leave the non-farming areas to wildlife habitat. We also rely on USDA programs to help us maintain our land,” Phillip says.