A system of wetlands winds across the Prairie Coteau on the Neil and Muriel Bien property near Veblen, South Dakota. For generations, the Biens have worked to protect the wetlands, to the benefit of the wildlife and their cattle as well.

Four finalists are in the running for the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award, recognizing farmers and ranchers who make an extra effort to promote conservation on their land.

This year's finalists are the Bien Ranch of Veblen in Marshall County, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of Vale in Butte County, Hefner Ranch of Whitewood in Lawrence County, and Johnson Farms of Frankfort in Spink County.

Gov. Kritsi Noem will announce a winner on Earth Day, April 22.

Learn more about each of the finalists:

Bien Ranch

Brothers Niel, Boyd, and Lyle Bien and their families rotationally graze beef cattle on pastures of native prairie. Cover crops and no-till practices build soil health and reduce erosion while growing corn, soybean, oat, millet and alfalfa. Wildlife benefit from the food plots interspersed throughout the ranch and 100 acres of tree plantings.

Blair Brothers Angus

Brothers Ed and Rich, and their sons Chad and Britton, and their families have planted trees that provide shelterbelts and utilize no-till farming practices to reduce erosion and conserve moisture in the soil. They were early adopters of rotational grazing for their beef cattle. They credit conservation practices with benefitting their cattle, watershed and wildlife.

Hefner Ranch

Dan and Deb Hefner’s pastures and hay fields are always covered, so soil erosion is virtually non-existent. They rotationally graze beef cattle on 23 pastures of diverse and productive grasslands. They have designated streambank riparian acres for wildlife. The abundant populations these areas attract are managed by commercial turkey and deer hunting opportunities.

Johnson Farms

Brian and Jamie Johnson raise beef cattle and use crop rotations on their corn, soybean, oat, wheat and barley. Cover crops and no-till practices conserve soil moisture, minimize soil erosion, and build soil health. The cover crops also provide feed for their cattle and habitat for wildlife. They apply variable rates of seed and fertilizer on their fields depending on soil samples and moisture levels.

Award comes with $10,000 prize

“The South Dakota Grassland Coalition commends these four families for their creative application of conservation practices to ensure their family farms and ranches are not only good stewards of our natural resources, but also profitable enterprises to be passed on to the next generation. We thank them for their leadership in South Dakota’s number one industry,” said Jim Faulstich, South Dakota Grassland Coalition Chairman.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes

private landowners who inspire others with their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

The $10,000 award, and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold will be presented to the recipient during the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December.

“SDCA congratulates the 2019 Leopold Conservation Award finalists,” said Steve Ollerich, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association President and beef producer from Dell Rapids. “We’re pleased to be involved with this award that acknowledges and celebrates the role of private landowners in stewarding our national resources. Highlighting the great work of these farm and ranch families is important to SDCA and our Leopold Conservation Award partners.”

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 13 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.