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Champion Stewards

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Published on: May. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

The contest is putting new emphasis on an old principle—sustainability of the land. In pre-settlement times, this occurred naturally on Missouri’s grasslands. The heartiness of the native plant species, mixed with benefits provided by the browsing of large herbivores like bison and elk, and the occasional prairie fire, produced a diverse and deeply rooted prairie landscape that provided a self-renewing habitat for a variety of grassland wildlife species.

Settlement brought huge changes to landscapes that had been awash in native grasses and wildflowers. Purposely introduced aggressive exotic grasses such as fescue and lespedeza crowded out native plant species like Indian grass and little bluestem. Large stretches of prairie that had received intermittent grazing from wildlife began receiving regular, and heavy, grazing from domestic livestock. These botanical alterations have been followed by biological changes. Prairie chickens, once numerous enough to be hunted, have almost disappeared from the state. Bobwhite quail, formerly the state’s reigning game bird, have also been in decline. These are only two of the higher profile members of a collection of grassland species that are struggling.

Learning how to balance our dependency on the land with the reliance species of wildlife have on the same turf is the true mission of the Mid-America Grassland Competition.

Healthy Competition

“I think this contest is great,” said John Tummons, a vocational agriculture instructor, FFA advisor at Linn High School and advisor of the Linn team. “It has a lot of realworld application, whether it be for students who want to farm or students who want to manage wildlife.” His praise echoes what contest coordinators have heard from other teachers, FFA advisors and 4-H leaders who have participated in the event.

“The vocational agriculture teachers who take part in this contest refer to it as ‘the most practical contest that they participate in,’” said Melodie Marshall, a district conservationist for the NRCS and one of the people who has been instrumental in keeping the contest going from its inception in 1991. “It teaches the students information that will be useful to them throughout life, whether they stay in the agricultural field or not.”

One area of the participants’ education involves understanding how warm-season native grasses can mix with cool-season exotic grasses in a complementary forage system that allows herds to feed on high-quality forage longer. By utilizing each type of grass during its prime growing season, livestock owners can keep their herds feeding on high-nutrition forage the entire grazing season.

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.

Founding Fathers

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 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.”

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