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Profiting from Prairie

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

with Steve Clubine, a Conservation Department biologist. Twenty years ago, when Meadows was just getting started, Clubine was beginning his job as the Conservation Department's grassland biologist. He came to the ranch on a request for management guidance for native grasses. Meadows had tried late summer grazing cattle on a small amount of natural prairie that had developed on its own. They found it tough and unpalatable. "The cattle broke down the fence to get out," Meadows says.

Clubine suggested that the cattle would eat prairie grasses, but the yearly cycle had to be taken into consideration. He recommended early spring grazing and occasional burning on the prairie land, followed by summer rest. The cattle could be returned to the rested pasture in the fall. Together, Clubine and Meadows developed a plan.

"One of the reasons we've gotten along is we have an element of trust," says Clubine, explaining that he always keeps in mind the fact that Meadows has to make a living on the land and cannot treat it as an experiment. "It's been a good relationship," he adds.

Meadows agrees, noting that Clubine is a "down-to-earth guy." If they had not been able to work together, Meadows says he would have done as his neighbors have and plowed the prairie under.

Early spring burning reduced the dominance of cool-weather grasses and legumes. Because the land had never been plowed, there were still living root remnants of the prairie plants. Freed from competition from exotic grasses, these remnants pushed up new shoots. They produced seeds and deeper, healthier root systems. Little by little, the prairie started to reappear.

One feature of the plan was early grazing. "The next year, the cattle broke down the fence to get in," says Meadows, "so I realized that if you did it right, it would work."

Meadows began a systematic program and applied his own keen powers of observation. He built fences to divide the prairie into 200-acre pastures, and he rotates the cattle between pastures all year. At any time, one-fourth to one-third of his land is being grazed. The remainder is at rest.

Meadows has found that, although the mix of grasses and flowers varies from field to field, he never has to seed or fertilize to maintain his prairie's health. To control pests like thistle, he tries to find biological solutions. For thistle, he chose to buy weevils, which eat the thistle, instead of herbicides. He

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