Profiting from Prairie

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

"I wouldn't be anywhere else," says Maury Meadows, tramping down a grassy hill. Like a wilderness explorer, he excitedly points out his discoveries. "That's native gama grass. There's big blue, little blue," he says, "and this is Indian plantain-it's rare." He stops, taking a look around the vast prairie. He repeats the phrase, "I wouldn't be anywhere else."This prairie is neither conservation area nor experimental playground; it is Meadows' Harrison County cattle pasture. The prairie plants he has coaxed onto his land are food for his herd. Gamagrass, for example, is liked so much by the cows that he calls it "ice cream of the prairie."

The landscape here is slightly rolling, dotted with small ponds and crossed with creeks. Here and there, a clump of willow trees or elms has sprung up. Pale ripples of white and purple blooms flutter in the breeze. Despite the fencing and cattle herds, the land seems to have reverted to a natural state.

With his father, Forrest Meadows, and a few dedicated hired hands, Maury Meadows has developed a successful cattle business using conservation techniques. "If it's not better at the end of the year than it was at the beginning," he says, "we've done something wrong."

He has spotted prairie skinks, rare in Missouri. One morning he saw a swarm of regal fritillary butterflies hovering over the pasture like a thick mist. In fact, this land shelters many varieties of native flora and fauna.

Blane Heumann of the Nature Conservancy counts over 200 plant species here. "Around 15 of these are rare in this part of Missouri," says Heumann. His list includes thimbleweed, candelabra plant, rattlesnake master and downy blue gentian.

This prairie hasn't returned by accident. It is an ongoing project that Meadows began 20 years ago. And the project was developed with an eye to profitability.

"If you don't manage what you have to the max, you don't stand a chance," says Meadows, pointing to a herd of fat limousin cattle grazing nearby. Just over the hill, a diesel tractor pulls a 14-foot mower over hay ground. On a good day, the crew can cut 80 acres of grass. When it dries, the baler will roll it into 1,000-pound round bales.

Most of the day's activities on this Harrison County ranch are typical of ranching anywhere. The ranchers check cattle, repair fences, worry about coyotes and put up hay. Summer hours are long. A 16-hour day is not 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 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 spared his ponds and creeks the herbicide runoff, and he saved about $20 per acre. "The weevils work 24 hours a day," he says.

Meadows' program has saved his topsoil. A researcher measured 26 inches in one spot, as compared to 10 inches on plowed ground. The perennial plants develop deep roots that interlace and hold the soil. Because the soil is never bare, there is no soil runoff when it rains.

Although the Dunn Ranch restoration has progressed relatively smoothly and quickly, there is some land that can never be restored. Meadows rents and owns land that will stay in annual cool-weather grasses for hay fields. While he has never seeded or plowed the prairie, he disks up poor ground and seeds it with alfalfa.

Every year, based on observation, Meadows develops a plan for each area. Because he rents and owns hay fields of legumes like alfalfa, and because his neighbors have fields of cool-weather grasses, he watches for invasions. It is probably impossible, he concludes, to have a prairie today that is exactly like the prairie of 200 years ago. Exotic grasses always are sneaking in.

In the last 20 years, Clubine and Meadows have seen many changes on Dunn Ranch and the surrounding county. Like other parts of rural Missouri, the county is losing population as mechanized equipment does the job of human power. Many row-crop farmers have turned to ranching. Homesteads, hay barns and grain elevators have been abandoned.

Since 1989, many acres in Missouri have been placed into conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). When the programs end, this land may be rehabilitated for ranching or farming. According to Clubine, restoring native grasses and wildflowers is a logical end for much of this land.

When the Meadows began their program, the idea of prairie restoration was new. Today, more ranchers are becoming interested in alternatives to cool-season pastures. Clubine's job has changed so that he no longer works with individual ranchers. Instead, he works with the state's 36 wildlife management biologists, keeping them informed on the best ways to help landowners. Over time, he feels, more Missouri pasture will be restored to a native prairielike environment.

Clubine emphasizes the fact that, in Missouri, virgin prairie has nearly disappeared. "You can get a prairielike environment in 10 or 15 years. What does it take to make a prairie, with all the micro-organisms, flora and fauna? Three hundred to 3,000 years? Perhaps."

Meadows takes the practical approach, however, "You can make things better every year. You have to have a plan."

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