To a casual observer, the 50-by-50-foot patch of ground seemed like a typical piece of Ozarks pasture.
However, the ropes around this plot signified that, at least on this particular June day, this small swatch of grassland on Conservation Commissioner Chip McGeehan’s Webster County farm was something special. So did the flock of teenagers gathered around the ropes. They stared earnestly at the plants before them and made frequent entries on their clipboards.
The answers the teens recorded would determine their placement in the Mid-America Grassland Evaluation Contest, but the lessons learned would help them be good stewards of the land for the rest of their lives.
The annual competition is a cooperative effort of the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, the University of Missouri Extension and local Soil and Water Conservation districts. Participants learn how agriculture and wildlife habitat can be blended together, and that livestock managers can have both cattle and quail.
Agriculture AND Habitat
“Good wildlife management can be a product of good farming,” said Matt Curry, a private land conservationist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and one of the annual coordinators of the competition. “Good grassland managers have good grassland wildlife representation on their property.”
“Now that we have to farm smarter, I think people are making an effort to learn more about these types of practices,” said April Wilson, a district conservationist for the NRCS.
There are wildlife benefits, too. For example, warm-season grasses begin growth later in the year and are not ready to be grazed or hayed until summer. By then, most of the groundnesting wildlife that need these plants for habitat have hatched or given birth to their broods, and the offspring have left their homes.
“Producers are learning to manage the grass or forage first, then allow the grazing system to produce the end result of beef, dairy or even, nowadays, goats and many exotic species,” said David E. Pitts, retired Conservation Department wildlife management biologist.
Pitts, along with John Jennings, formerly with the University of Missouri Extension, and Howard Coambes of the NRCS, could be termed three of the founding fathers of the Mid-America Grassland Evaluation Contest. The trio, who knew each other from collaboration on previous projects, began formulating the event in the 1980s.
Coambes and Jennings were working with vocational education instructors in teaching students about proper grazing and grassland use. They came up with