Blending Farming and Conservation

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Published on: Jul. 16, 2012

Conservation and commerce are compatible. With help from the Department of Conservation and other agencies, conservation can even make farms more successful. Here are just a few examples of how good stewardship and resources can improve nearly any type of farming operation.

Coexisting With Wildlife

One mile south of Interstate 70 in southeastern Lafayette County, lies a farm that has been in the same family since 1839. The 700-acre farm, owned and operated by Steve and Sharon Oetting since 1979, is located near Concordia and produces mostly corn and soybeans and up to 2,400 hogs annually.

Along with the farm’s growth, the Oettings have made a concerted effort to implement a wide range of conservation practices aimed at protecting soil, water and wildlife, proving that production agriculture and stewardship of natural resources can go hand in hand.

As the Oettings put it: “Caring for the environment is not only the right thing to do for our family but [also] for the community and future generations. We feel strongly that it is our opportunity to leave one of the greatest legacies in the world: land that has been used for what it can provide but responsibly cared for and in a condition to continue to provide for generations yet to come.”

The Oettings are clearly passionate about family farms and natural resources, and their activities and achievements speak to their commitment to both. Sharon serves on the Missouri Farm Service Agency’s State Committee and actively promotes family farms through multiple avenues. Steve served on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Quail and Grassland Bird Council and is an avid quail hunter. Their farm won the National Pork Board’s Environmental Stewardship Award and Missouri Master Farmer Award.

The Oettings have taken advantage of programs offered through multiple agencies to both improve the farm’s efficiency and to conservethe land. The Lafayette County County Soil and Conservation District provided cost-share funds to design terrace and waterway systems that reduce soil erosion on row crop acres. The terraces slow the flow of water across a field, and the waterways channel water through a stable grass strip that filters water before it enters a stream. The terrace and waterway system acts to conserve soil for future generations that will farm this land.

The Oettings have also used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program EQIP), funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to help make their hog operation more efficient and environmentally sound. Hundreds of native trees were planted around the hog barns, forming windbreak to capture and divert odor from the barns. A fertilizing system uses GPS and previous soil sample tests to feed precisely controlled nutrients that correspond with the soil’s changing needs across each field. Additionally, equipment upgrades allow the Oettings to more accurately apply lagoon effluent from the hog operation as a natural crop fertilizer.

The majority of the Oetting’s conservation practices have been funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Local USDA staff from NRCS and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) helped the Oettings install field buffers through the Conservation Reserve Program. These buffers were planted to either wildlife friendly native grasses or native tree species to provide wildlife cover, reduce soil erosion and protect water quality. Over the years, the Oettings have planted nearly 10,000 trees and more than 35 acres of native grass buffers. The Oettings receive annual rental payments for taking these environmentally sensitive areas out of production, making the conservation practices pay their way for the farming operation.

The Oettings completed management practices serve to protect and improve the natural resources for future generations while adding to the farm’s bottom line. The farm is an example of how a successful production agriculture operation can thrive, while also incorporating land stewardship practices.

Steve and Sharon sum it up best: “In our day-to-day operations, we don’t believe that we have ever made a conscious effort to be environmental stewards, but rather that it is something that has been instilled in our hearts, our minds and our production practices in being responsible workers of the land.”

Grasslands

Restoring prairie ecosystems requires collaboration between state agencies and local residents. In Harrison County, 30,000 acres have been designated as a focus area for tallgrass prairie protection and restoration. This area is commonly known as the Grand River Grassland Conservation Opportunity Area. With Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie near the center, the geography has special significance.

Within this grassland, Missouri conservationists are working to restore populations of the greater prairie chicken. Hundreds of thousands of these birds once populated Missouri, but those numbers have dwindled to the hundreds. The relentless loss of prairie, the introduction of tall fescue and the encroachment of trees added to losses of prairie chicken populations. About 93 percent of their original range is now gone.

In response, several conservation organizations identified the Grand River Grassland Conservation Opportunity Area for protection. Landowners with property within the area can take advantage of conservation opportunities, including a cost share to enhance and expand prairie chicken habitat.

Robin and Debbie Frank have been especially active in conservation programs in the area. The Franks are cattle producers in the northwest corner of Harrison County. Their 3,000-acre ranch is home to 800 cow/calf pairs. The Franks work with local Conservation Department staff to implement practices that benefit wildlife, as well as their cattle business.

Grassland wildlife rely on large areas, and the support of private landowners is critical to the expansion and preservation of their living spaces. Tree removal, legume interseeding, prescribed fire, native warm-season grass establishment, exotic species control and fencing benefit both prairies and producers.

Other vegetation, such as red clover and alfalfa, can add nutrition to a producer’s grazing or hay rotation. Many wildlife species also benefit from interseeding legumes. Prairie chicken broods are attracted by the insects that usually accompany legumes. About 500 acres of interseeding has been implemented on the Frank Ranch, improving forage and brooding habitat.

The Franks have focused on removing unwanted woody vegetation from fence rows, from around ponds and from the upper reaches of several headwater streams. Besides reducing potential lightning rods, tree removal enables the growth of more valuable forage. If you combine the harvest of commercially valuable trees, fencerow renovations and timber thinning, the Franks have removed more than 100 acres of trees during the past 5 years.

Prairie chickens prefer a habitat that offers a diversity of plants and a mixture of plant heights. A mosaic of vegetation from 6 to 18 inches high is ideal. Fields that are never grazed eventually get too tall and too thick. Grazers like cattle provide this patchwork structure.

Warm-season grasses are well adapted to northwest Missouri soils and offer nutritional forage in the warmer months of June, July and August when cool-season grasses are less abundant.

To provide better nesting for prairie chickens and to offer alternative forages for cattle, Robin Frank has used several programs to convert 400 acres of fescue pasture to warm-season grasses. He plans to convert about 20 percent of his available grazing acres to native plants. “Cattle do well on this summer native warm-grass forage,” he said. “I have experienced increased conception rates and gains when compared to normal fescue pasture.”

Cattle Country

Richard and Tina McConnell’s 80-acre farm near Morrisville combines fields of lush cool grasses and native warm-season grasses with a shaded stream flowing across the property. Their cow/calf herd, consisting of 21 cows, is content grazing across the fields.

In June 1993, they purchased the land, which had a mix of pastures, small woodland and a stream. “When I purchased the property, it was nothing but overgrown fence rows and sprouts, and the pastures were nothing but broomsedge,” Richard said.

Bob Howe, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), completed an inventory of McConnell’s new farm and developed a conservation plan for the property. That plan provided the road map the McConnells have followed for the past 19 years.

The McConnells knew the broomsedge was an indication of poor soil fertility. They conducted the first soil test in 1994 and began applying lime and fertilizer. “I knew the pH of the soil would be low, but one thing that really struck me was how low the percent of organic matter was,” said Richard. In 1994 the organic material was 1.9 percent and below for all the fields. In 2011 the organic material ranged from 5.4 percent to 7.3 percent for all the fields. The pH readings now range from 6.3 to 6.5, which is a significant increase.

In 1994, fencing was constructed for the rotational grazing and alternative water system. State cost-share funds from the Polk County Soil and Conservation District (SWCD) and Missouri Department of Conservation’s Landowner Assistance Program were used for this project. The initial grazing plan was designed with five fields. The McConnells have the farm split into 14 paddocks that range from 2 to 8 acres. They move the cattle daily so they are always grazing on new grass.

In 1995, the McConnells used the SWCD cost-share program to interseed legumes into

his pastures. They drilled a mix of four species of clover into 21 acres. Their goal was to reduce the amount of nitrogen required in the fertilizer because the legumes would add nitrogen to the soil. The legumes also became a food source for deer and turkey.

As that was completed, the McConnells were ready to address the summer slump of pasture from their cool-season grasses by converting two fields to native grasses. In 1997, they planted 9 acres to switch grass. That seeding never took off; so in 2000, they replanted the switch grass and also planted 7 acres of eastern gamma grass.

The warm-season grasses are vital to their farming operation. The summer of 2007 was very dry, and most of McConnell’s neighbors were feeding hay during July and August. However, the 16 acres of warm-season grass provided 53 days of grazing during July and August. “When the neighbors were feeding hay, all I was doing was moving a poly wire to provide new grass,” Richard said.

Reducing the amount of soil erosion occurring along the stream also became a priority. They noticed that the amount and diversity of aquatic life seemed to be on the decline. Although the rotational grazing system had reduced the effects the cattle were having to the stream banks, the McConnells wanted to expand the riparian corridor and make that area more wildlife friendly.

They followed the conservation plan that included fencing off a half-mile of stream from cattle, restoring a 50-foot-wide riparian corridor along the stream, constructing two rock stream crossings and enrolling the riparian corridor area into the Conservation Reserve Program.

Now, nearly 15 years later, the riparian corridor is dense and thick, providing shade for the stream and much cooler water temperatures. During most of the summer there are pools of water full of minnows and crawdads. Before the modifications, the stream would normally dry up in June. Deer and turkey are regularly seen using the riparian corridor as a travel lane and to drink water. The McConnells also noted that now during heavy rain, the stream will rise but not with the same violent force that it did before. The water color will be milky but not the deep brown it once was. These changes mean that the soil particles are staying on the streambanks and not being carried downstream.

When asked if there is anything else they have planned for the farm, Richard said, “No, I finally have it pretty much how I envisioned it 19 years ago when I purchased the farm.” He then added, “Without the technical assistance from employees of the NRCS, SWCD and MDC and various cost-share programs through these agencies, I would have never been able to achieve this dream.”

Visit us online at mdc.mo.gov/node/2089 to learn more about resources for landowners and farmers, or see Page 3 for regional contact information. Discover how conservation can benefit your farm, our economy and everyone’s quality of life.

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