An extraordinary event is occurring just north of I-70 between Kingdom City and Columbia. An ancient queen is returning to the Kingdom of Callaway. And, true to her noble nature, she’s rewarding those who serve her with health and prosperity.
An ancestor of hybrid field corn, the queen is Eastern gamagrass, a tallgrass prairie species. Before settlement, deep-rooted Eastern gama grew in Missouri’s bottomlands and wet prairies, where it soaked up water and provided habitat for wildlife, especially grassland birds.
When settlers came, they replaced Eastern gamagrass with more familiar Old World crop and forage species. Unfortunately, these aren’t nearly as good as native plants at controlling stormwater, supporting wildlife or feeding livestock during late summer months and periodic drought years.
Today, land managers are rediscovering Eastern gamagrass and its many virtues. Farmers especially appreciate the species’ lush, warmweather productivity and drought-resistant qualities, and some stock growers have even been inspired to call it the queen of forage grasses.
Clifford Borgelt is among Eastern gamagrass’s many devotees.
“In the hot months,” he said, “Eastern gama really puts the pounds on the cattle.”
One June morning, his Eastern gamagrass leaves were thigh-high and the tassel-like seedheads nodded in the cool morning air. Across the lane, his herd of stocker steers was busy cleaning up a paddock of Eastern gama and red clover, Clifford’s favorite forage legume. He planned to turn them into the new paddock the next day.
“This mix of gama and red clover lets my cattle maintain their rate of gain,” he said. “Especially in a drought like we had in 2005.”
As he looked out over the crown-shaped bunches of grass with their fringy seedheads, Clifford mused, “I wish I had a hundred acres of this stuff.”
Like most farmers, Clifford appreciates any approach that helps him make more money with less cost and effort. His reasons for using Eastern gamagrass for help with his farming operation, however, are unusual and deeply personal.
In the early ’90s his wife, Mary Ann, got sick and couldn’t get well. It turned out that she is allergic to petro-chemicals—or anything made with oil. She and Clifford replaced their synthetic carpets with wool and cotton rugs, and they gave away any item of clothing made with polyester or acrylic.
Although the changes Mary Ann and Clifford made to their house kept her safe inside, they couldn’t protect her from the things Clifford commonly used in his row-crop and cattle-feeding operations: oil, herbicides and fertilizer. What do you do when you discover the main tools you use to make a living threaten your beloved’s health?
“We decided to put the fields near the house in native warm-season grass,” Clifford said.
Mary Ann herself came up with this solution one bright fall day when she and Clifford had driven south of Kingdom City to visit her cousins, Larry and Garry Houf.
At the time, Larry was the Department of Conservation’s district wildlife supervisor for the Ozark region. He and Garry, a forest biologist with the Mark Twain National Forest, had planted their family farm in native warm-season grasses, which turn rich, warm shades of gold, orange, red and purple in the fall.
“Mary Ann really liked those colors,” Clifford said, “she asked why we couldn’t plant those grasses on our place.”
At the time, Clifford didn’t know much about planting prairie grasses or designing management-intensive grazing forage systems, but he soon found out.
Clifford first met Missouri Department of Conservation grassland biologist Steve Clubine in 1991 at a Missouri Prairie Foundation meeting. They talked about adding native warm-season grasses to Clifford’s operation.
Steve visited Clifford’s farm and suggested a planting mixture of big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem, sideoats grama, Eastern gamagrass and Illinois bundle-flower on 87 acres of his 575-acre operation. The Borgelts also planted a 5-acre buffer next to the house to protect Mary Ann from corn herbicides.
In 1994, Steve scheduled a drill and operator to plant Clifford’s 92 acres. 1994 wasn’t as wet as 1993, the year of the Great Flood, but it still rained a lot and weeds were heavy. In spite of this, Clifford kept his paddocks clipped, which gave the grasses a chance to establish. Steve inspected the planting a couple of times the first and second summer, and Clifford began grazing it in 1997.
In the meantime, Clifford also attended a management-intensive grazing school presented by the Audrain County Extension and local United States Department of Agriculture service center staff. There he learned the basics of rotating tight groups of cattle quickly through small paddocks of mixed grasses and legumes.
He also sought help from his USDA service center in Fulton. Resource conservationist Cheryl Livengood helped Clifford complete his grazing system with costshare programs for water lines and tanks. She also wrote his burn plans. Like all native prairie grasses, Eastern gama benefits from periodic burning, so he added prescribed fire to his forage system management regime.
She wanted to make the farm natural; he wanted to make it pay. Switching from row crops to summer grazing granted both their wishes.
Like most of his neighbors, Clifford grew row crops such as corn, beans and wheat in the summer, and he fed light calves to 1,200-pound “fats” in the winter. His nearly 600 acres of flat, poorly draining, silt-loam Putnam clay did about as well as any similar farm in his neighborhood.
Since dropping crops and winter cattle feeding, however, his earnings per acre have increased. This is because his production expenses are low, his cattle are able to maintain a steady rate of gain during the summer, and cattle prices have been strong the last several years. He said that adding Eastern gamagrass with red clover to his grazing system helps make his farm more profitable.
“Native warm-season grasses are ready when European cool-season grasses like timothy and brome fade out,” Clifford said. “Even as dry as it was in 2005, my Eastern gamagrass stayed green.”
Although he appreciates other native warm-season grasses, he finds that only Eastern gamagrass will tolerate red clover. In fact, Eastern gamagrass performs best for both livestock and wildlife when it’s mixed with other grass and legume species.
It’s pure fancy to say that Clifford and Mary Ann Borgelt serve the queen of the Kingdom of Callaway. It’s also inaccurate—it implies submission and sacrifice. In fact, establishing Eastern gamagrass on their operation has helped the Borgelts achieve the freedom to enjoy retirement on their family farm with less work, more income and better health than if they had continued farming as usual.
It’s far more accurate to say that the Borgelts and their gamagrass sustain each other, as well as the natural community upon which we all depend.
Whether you’re a stockgrower, an acreage owner or a park landscape manager, you can use these tips to help ensure a good stand.
Get help. Your county’s USDA service center, which includes personnel from the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Missouri Department of Conservation, can help you find the seed, the equipment and even an experienced contractor to plant native warm-season grasses properly.
Kill existing cover and prepare the seedbed. Eastern gamagrass and other native warm-season grasses can’t compete against fescue and other non-native species. Use a non-selective herbicide to kill them, once in the fall and again in the spring before green-up.
Buy cold-treated seed. Eastern gamagrass seed has a higher dormancy percentage than other native grasses, and dormant seed won’t germinate unless it has been held in cold storage a certain length of time.
Install it at the right time, in the right way. The best time to plant is late spring or early summer. Plant large areas using a corn planter. Unlike other native grasses that have chaffy seed, Eastern gamagrass seed is about the size of corn kernels. Make sure to set the planter no more than 1 inch deep.
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