Profiting from Prairie

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

unusual. Summer comes for three or four months, and the grass grown has to take the cattle through the entire winter.

The difference between this and an ordinary Missouri cattle ranch is in the Meadows' conservation management. While most ranchers seed their pastures with clover, fescue and bluegrass, these ranchers have brought the prairie back on 1,200 gently rolling acres. "The Dunn Ranch," named for Maury's mother's family, boasts the largest contiguous Missouri prairie north of the Missouri River.

The ranch has never been plowed, a matter of pride to Meadows' grandfather. The family will tell you that his last words were "Don't plow it up." Still, exotic grasses had taken over the pastures. The prairie grasses and flowers, and all the wildlife that depend on them, had almost disappeared.

The land, which has been owned by the family for 100 years, had been rented out. With an eye on profit and no knowledge of the needs or value of native plants, the renters had put too many cattle on it and replaced the prairie with planted grasses, like bluegrass, alfalfa, fescue and clover. "When we started," Maury says, "this was all bluegrass pasture in rundown condition."

A prairie is different than a typical planted pasture. In a healthy prairie, many varieties of plants thrive side by side. Most are perennial plants that come back from root year after year. Some of them do best in early spring, blooming and growing as soon as the ground thaws. Others take over when the days get longer. Still others perform best in the fall. In a prairie, there are plants that do well in dry years. Others like wet years. The prairie never looks exactly the same two years in a row.

Grasses like bluegrass and fescue replaced prairie plants because they provide good nutrition, are hardy and are easy to manage. When one grass dominates, the field all ripens at once, making it ideal for hay harvest. These grasses also are popular because many of them have been developed by research centers and promoted heavily by seed companies.

In Meadows' case, prairie made up the gap when his alfalfa and clover crops were wiped out in the 1993 rains. He cut and baled twice as much prairie hay as usual and gave himself time to re-seed alfalfa ground. When other farmers sold cattle because they had no feed, he was able to buy.

Meadows' management plan was developed

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