Herman Merkel is a third generation farmer with a cattle operation near Bourbon, Mo. His grandfather ran it as a dairy farm, and his father kept a feedlot in town. Herman runs a calf-cow operation, breeding and grazing calves until they top 500 pounds and can be sold to another operation where they’re raised to full weight. Merkel is 62 years old. “It’s what I do full-time, and it’s what I’ve been doing for 40 years,” he said.
As steward of the family business and the family land, Merkel has more than a passing interest in protecting both. He has worked with local conservation officials for many years to pay for projects that benefit native wildlife and habitat. So when they approached him in 2008 with a project to improve the health of nearby streams and upgrade his farming operation, he was quick to get on board.
“They told me if I fenced off the creek they would install a water system,” Merkel said.
Like a lot of farmers, Merkel divides his pastures into paddocks—fenced-in areas that cattle graze for a few days or weeks before rotating to the next. The method distributes grazing and allows the grass to regenerate. But one area was always under stress. A branch of the Bourbeuse River runs through Merkel’s property and was the only source for water. That meant his cattle were constantly convening near the creek, leaving their waste and trampling the banks.
With the help of his local Conservation Department office, Merkel obtained a cost-share arrangement to pay for the construction of wells and pumps that made water available for livestock throughout the property. In exchange, he agreed to fence off the creek entirely.
“Any time you can concentrate those cows in a smaller area, they’re not disturbing the stream if they don’t have to get into it,” Merkel said. “I’ve seen the stream get clearer and the banks regenerate.”
Local and National Partnerships
Merkel’s efforts span beyond his own fence line. He has served for the past eight years on the six-member landowner committee that guides restoration efforts in the Lower Bourbeuse watershed, which spans Crawford, Gasconade and Franklin counties. With technical assistance from conservation staff, the committee helps landowners apply for funding to help build stream crossings and water systems through programs like the Fishers and Farmers Partnership.
Fishers and Farmers falls under the National Fish Habitat Action Plan—a large-scale initiative to promote stream health and sustainable agriculture. Merkel’s water project is typical of the program’s approach in that it empowers landowners to drive the restoration process through projects that benefit both conservation and their bottom line.
“I love the Partnership,” said Kenda Flores, an aquatic habitat specialist with the Department of Conservation.
Flores already had a reputation for helping farmers build reinforced stream crossings, giving them a reliable place to move livestock and equipment. In exchange, landowners agreed to build fences that keep cattle away from the stream, and to plant grasses and trees along the bank. The measures improved water quality and allowed the banks to heal. The crossings were a big hit.
“When I started putting in stream crossings, my reputation really soared in Crawford County,” Flores said. “That got us miles and miles of riparian corridor.”
Flores and fellow Department biologist Rob Pulliam had long worked together to help landowners offset the costs of projects that benefited waterways. When the Fishers and Farmers money became available in 2008, it meant they could pay for a larger share of water system and crossing projects because it wasn’t expressly a state or federal program.
Non-federal and non-state grants have more flexibility than government programs, which often include stipulations about how much each party can spend. Fishers and Farmers is funded by grants from several organizations including the Audubon Society and the Missouri Agribusiness Association, as well as state and federal partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“Historically, we offered 75 percent cost-share to do these kinds of projects under other programs and partnerships,” Pulliam said.
Despite what they saw as obvious advantages in water systems and crossings, Flores and Pulliam had difficulty convincing landowners to take part. After helping Merkel install his water system, they asked what he thought it would take to get others involved and he said it came down to money.
“We suggested upping the cost share to 90 percent,” Merkel said. “That helped. Everybody needed water because everybody was doing rotational grazing.”
Rotational grazing created an opportunity for cooperation. Farmers like it because it helped them maximize their grazing space. But if they didn’t have distributed water sources, the path to the creek was always under stress and couldn’t be used for grazing. Distributed water sources kept livestock out of the creek, allowing farmers to use all of their space.
Water Quality and Conservation
When livestock frequent a waterway, it degrades water quality. Manure and urine end up in the creek, and the constant pressure of heavy hooves erodes banks. When banks collapse, the sediment load increases, and the insects and invertebrates that make up the bottom of the food chain start to disappear.
The problem isn’t new, but it has taken its toll over time. In 2001, the scaleshell mussel was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The small freshwater mussel was once found throughout the eastern U.S. but is now found in only 14 rivers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, including the Bourbeuse. But what was bad for the scaleshell was good for conservation funding.
“It’s a major advantage to have endangered species because money becomes available,” Flores said. “We want to keep this species in the rivers and we don’t want it to go extinct.”
Water systems, crossings and fences help decrease stress on the streams and benefit fragile species like the scaleshell mussel. By matching landowners with programs like Fishers and Farmers, Flores and Pulliam help pay for projects that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
“When I worked with a landowner I didn’t have a mountain of paperwork for them to sign,” Flores said. “I had a single-page contract. I could say ‘here’s how much money I have. It’s a 90-percent cost share, and here’s how much you’re going to get back.’ And they got it back. That’s really what built the trust. We did what we said we were going to do.”
Dave Dunn runs an operation similar to Merkel’s and lives nearby. A mile-long branch of the Boone River runs through Dunn’s property and is now completely fenced off after he built a watering system on his property. Dunn now serves on the landowner committee and is a champion of the Fishers and Farmers Partnership and the work Flores and Pulliam helped fund.
“The most important thing about it is that people who own the land and the people who have an interest in wildlife need to work together. It’s one of the programs where they can,” Dunn said. “What made it work here was that our contacts with Department of Conservation were sensible and recognized where our needs came together.”
In April 2010, the Conservation Department and the Lower Bourbeuse Landowner Committee received national recognition through the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. At a conference in Washington D.C., Flores accepted the award for Extraordinary Action in support of Fish Habitat Conservation along with Bob and Nicky Baker of the landowner committee.
Pulliam said he sees his job as helping farmers achieve business goals that benefit the land. “There’s no way I’m going to be successful at my job if I don’t understand the business of my target audience,” he said. “We have to find the products and services that help our goals, but it has to help them reach their goals as well.