Mike and Julie Livingston of Kit Carson County have been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award. The Livingstons will be presented with the $10,000 award June 17 at the Colorado Cattlemen's Association's 2019 Annual Convention held at the Steamboat Grand in Steamboat Springs.
Agricultural conservation practices have given the Livingstons and their land the resiliency to overcome adversity.
When they bought their ranch near Stratton in 2003, its weed-filled landscape had been abused by years of over-grazing, severe erosion and drought. When rain did fall on barren spots of land, sediment would wash into nearby rivers and aquifers.
"We had owned the property for three years, and each year we reduced our cow numbers because the grass wasn't recovering. What we were doing wasn't sustainable," Mike recalls.
Other challenges loomed on the ranch's horizon. In 2009, a multi-state lawsuit took away their access to water for irrigation, and three years later a historic drought took hold. Their backs against the wall, they enrolled in the Ranching for Profit School. Mike said the "life-changing experience" opened his mind to agricultural conservation practices like cover crops, no-till and planned grazing.
Not tilling the soil and keeping it covered year-round with specialty crops soon led to better rainwater utilization and less soil erosion and runoff. The soil's health rebounded as it retained organic matter left on the land as crop residue. This reduced the need for fertilizer, and resulted in higher yields from their wheat, milo, corn and hay fields.
Mike and Julie, who farm and ranch with their children, Kari and Justin, and their families, also embraced conservation practices that benefitted their beef cattle and created wildlife habitat.
They implemented a planned grazing system with assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Inefficient watering systems were replaced with 100,000 feet of new pipeline. Miles of new fencing replaced the configuration of 36 old pastures, with 119 pastures that are grazed less often. The extended rest period, coupled with planting cool season grasses, meant two more months of green grass.
In addition to a 120-acre wildlife sanctuary the Livingstons created, hundreds of additional acres are left ungrazed from summer through winter to provide additional habitat for turkeys, prairie chickens, pheasants, bobcats, and herds of whitetail and mule deer. Hay fields are harvested with wildlife protection in mind, and cattle watering stations were designed for access and safety for birds, bats and other wildlife.
The Livingstons share what they've learned with fellow ranchers, academic researchers, business and youth groups.
Through hard work, holistic management, and perseverance, the Livingstons have built a ranch that is sustainable for generations to come.
"The 2019 Leopold Conservation Award nominees featured an impressive array of families and operations from around the state. The Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust is proud of the conservation accomplishments of each of the applicants," said Erik Glenn, Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust Executive Director. "These applicants showcase the diversity of agriculture in Colorado and the dedication that farming and ranching families have to the lands they steward, their communities, and their families. We are particularly proud of this year's recipient the Livingston Ranch and the entire Livingston family."
Sand County Foundation, the nation's leading voice for private conservation, created the Leopold Conservation Award to inspire American landowners by recognizing exceptional farmers, ranchers and foresters. The prestigious award, named in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, is given in 13 states.
Among the many landowners nominated for the award were finalists Cory Off of Del Norte in Rio Grande County, and Gregg, Chris and Brad Stults of Wray in Yuma County.
The 2018 recipient was Beatty Canyon Ranch of Kim, Colorado.