MANATEE — When Chuck and Peggy Johnston started Two J Farms in Sarasota County back in the 1970s, they wrote notes about their cows in a red notebook.
Thirty years later, Chuck Johnston follows his entire Brangus beef herd on 10 leased tracts in Manatee and Sarasota counties using a program called “Cattlemax” on a laptop computer in his Chevy truck.
But his computers aren’t the only things that define Johnston as a modern rancher who has reinvented himself with the times.
Johnston uses the word stewardship often, describing his efforts to not only get the most yield out of his land, but also be an eco-friendly neighbor.
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For his efforts, Johnston recently became the first local rancher or farmer to be awarded a contract under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s stewardship program.
Authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, the Conservation Stewardship Program offers payments to commercial producers who agree to participate in the program.
Johnston’s five-year contract begins this year and will award him one lump payment each year for the next five years.
One of Johnston’s creative ideas is to leave a buffer of vegetation around his cattle pastures, so that their manure can be filtered.
“What Chuck is willing to do is establish these buffers to allow more time for fertilizer and manure to get trapped and be used by buffer plants,” said Jack Creighton, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “He’s created a natural filtration process.”
Johnston also works with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the University of Florida extension labs to make sure his grass is rich in nutrients for the cows.
“We are not using any fertilizers on any of our tracts,” said Johnston. “We now know exactly what nutrients the cattle need to take off the land and we know exactly what we need to put it back in the land.”
Johnston practices erosion protection, rotational grazing, protection of water and eradication of invasive species.
The Corbit Branch, a creek tributary of the Manatee River, runs through Johnston’s S.R. 64/C.R. 675 tract and is one of the areas surrounded by a natural buffer.
Johnston could put more cows on the tract if he allowed them to feed in the rich tall grasses surrounding Corbit Branch.
Since the cows can’t eat there due to a fence, they can’t produce manure that could seep into the creek.
The creek eventually flows into Lake Manatee, Manatee County’s source for drinking water.
Both Johnston and Creighton are somewhat disappointed that no other commercial farmer or rancher has applied for the program to see if their ideas could win a contract.
“There are a lot of good ranchers out there that this program could use,” Johnston said.
The program is open to anyone who does commercial agriculture, which is defined as producing $1,000 or more annually.
Eligible lands include cropland, pasture land, rangeland and non-industrial forestland.
The deadline for entering has been extended to June 25.
The annual payments vary depending on the number of acres and the type of land being worked.
“If they have undeveloped grazing land, they might get $7 to $14 an acre,” Creighton said. “Pasture land is a little higher and crop land higher still. The max is about $16 to $18 an acre.”
Participants do not give up their development rights, but they break their contract immediately and the payments cease if they develop the land, Creighton said.
“They are supposed to control the land and keep it in agriculture,” Creighton said.
For information on applying for the program, call 907-0011 or e-mail Jack.Creighton@fl.usda.gov.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686