the idea of a contest because the instructors felt that the atmosphere created interest in students.
They first worked with vo-ag teachers in Howell County to develop the contest, and took a composite team from three chapters to the National Land and Range Judging Contest in Oklahoma. “That contest was focused on range conditions which did not apply in Missouri,” said Jennings, who now works for Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas. “We started overhauling it to try to make it fit Missouri. We knew we needed to add a wildlife component, too, so that’s when we called Dave Pitts.”
Pitts had worked with landowners in a variety of capacities since joining the Conservation Department in 1967. He also co-authored the Department’s book Wildlife Management for Missouri Landowners, a free publication still distributed to landowners today. “The whole process turned into about a 12-year venture, since it required a lot of ‘in the field’ experimenting and ground-proofing,” said Pitts. He feels the contest is still evolving, but the lessons it teaches remain the same.
“Students learn that everything on the landscape is connected and what happens to one part, in turn, affects the remaining parts,” he said. “All of this, of course, is dependent upon good soil stewardship.”
Mid-America Grassland Competition
The “Mid-America” part of the event’s title is something of a misnomer; the contest includes teams from across the country. It is the championship rung of a competition ladder that starts on the district level. The contest consists of four parts; grassland condition, wildlife habitat, soil interpretation and plant identification. Each team has a maximum of four competing members (teams can have alternates). At the competition, contestants have 25 minutes to judge each of the four segments. While judging, participants are not allowed to talk to anyone, use any printed materials for reference, to touch the plants used for plant identification or step into the 50-by-50-foot judging plot. The site of the contest is not revealed until the morning of the event to ensure local teams can’t do any additional preparation. Not just any patch of grassland will do for the event.
“We try to find a site that is suitable for wildlife, has a variety of different plants, has some slope, a variety of soil types and a mixture of grasses and legumes,” Melodie Marshall said. “This way, each section of the contest can be clearly defined.”
The assessments participants must make of this plot include the amount of grazing pressure it has received, the plant composition of the tract, if the growth cycle of the vegetation matches the seasonal peak nutritional needs of the livestock herd that’s using it, the distance of the vegetation plot from other types of wildlife habitat, its surface texture, the permeability of its soil and what type of management practices would work best there.
Before they reach the national final, contest participants have honed their skills for several months in district competitions, practice events and classroom work. Much of the classroom education comes from the Grassland Evaluation Contest Study Guide, a textbook developed by the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the USDA-NRCS and the University of Missouri Extension. While the lessons learned in the classroom and in the field may seem complex and specialized, contest coordinators say they’re actually basic and across-the-board.
“Any of these students that are going back to the farm can utilize this information,” said Jim Sowash, a resource conservationist/grassland conservationist with the NRCS. “This information works for small landowners, too. They can apply this information to whatever size of farm they have.”