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A grassbank in Missouri welcomes cattle, showing how grazing and 'hoof traffic' help conserve prairie

Two men stand in a prairie, talking to each other, with cows behind them.
Eva Tesfaye
Harvest Public Media
Rancher John Lueken (left) and The Nature Conservancy’s Kent Wamsley (right) work together to graze cattle on Dunn Ranch Prairie, helping both the prairie and Lueken’s pasture.

Dunn Ranch Prairie has the first grassbank in the Midwest, a partnership where The Nature Conservancy allows local ranchers to graze their cattle on its grasslands while the ranchers’ pasture is allowed to rest.

A pristine tallgrass prairie in northern Missouri is home to hundreds of wildflower species and birds.

Herds of cattle help keep these 3,000 acres a sanctuary for diverse plants and wildlife — just by wandering around and munching on a tallgrass buffet. The cows eat invasive cool season grasses, while their hoof traffic pounds seeds into the ground.

“You got that benefit from the grazing side of things, but also I think one of the things that people don't really look at is the hoof traffic benefit,” said Kent Wamsley, the grasslands and sustainable agriculture manager at Dunn Ranch Prairie.

The Nature Conservancy owns this prairie land and entered into contracts three years ago with two local ranchers. It allows them to graze their cattle on the conservancy's land for a few months out of the year, while the ranchers’ pastures rest. The partnership has worked so well that the conservancy will offer to renew the contracts for another three years.

“We're getting great benefit from the cows in the early season months, getting on the fescue and grazing that,” said Wamsley. “They're getting great benefit at that time of stockpiling some stuff, giving some rest on some of their pastures.”

Grasslands are disappearing

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, one-third of the state used to be covered in native prairie; today less than 0.5% of that prairie remains. As conservationists work to restore grassland in the Midwest, it’s clear that it is not enough to simply fence off the land.

According to Laura Paine, the outreach coordinator for Grassland 2.0, a sustainable agriculture project based at the University of Wisconsin, research shows that management practices such as controlled burns and grazing have become necessary.

The natural processes that kept the prairies healthy in the past before our current agriculture system, they're not as influential now,” Paine said. “If we just let a grassland grow and not do any management, we're as likely to get a lot of weeds and invasive species as we are of getting the natural species that we want to come back.”

Historically the prairie wasn’t left alone. Native tribes in the region used controlled burns to hunt bison and restore grasses that attracted them. The burning and grazing worked in tandem to keep the grassland healthy.

In addition to cattle, the Dunn Ranch Prairie benefits from its own bison herd. And as prairie land gains from bison and cattle grazing on grasses and pounding their hooves into the soil, other ranch land is allowed to rejuvenate.

John Lueken, one of the ranchers The Nature Conservancy has partnered with, said that his land is seeing native warm season grasses such as milkweed and Indiangrass returning, as well as some wildlife. He also thinks resting his land has helped it through the drought affecting the region.

“We're capturing more water and building root mass. So we've noticed it this summer more than anything, we've gotten below average rainfall, but we don't get no runoff,” Lueken said. “A lot of people’s pastures look pretty brown and we're still growing grass.”

Cows stand in the middle of a prairie.
Eva Tesfaye
Harvest Public Media
Lueken brings 100 cows to the prairie to do rotational grazing a few months out of the year.

‘A working landscape’

While larger grassbanks exist out West where the concept was invented in the 1990s, the Dunn Ranch Prairie was the first in the Midwest.

Yet when it was first proposed, the grazing program met with resistance from some environmentalists. Some at The Nature Conservancy did not want to risk cattle destroying the pristine prairie they had worked so hard to conserve.

“Some people within our own organization could look at it and say, ‘Wow, you're grazing that versus leaving it out there for the wildlife,’” said Wamsley. “And what I appreciate from our leadership and our supporters here in Missouri is looking at it in a sense of our land here is within a working landscape.”

Grassland 2.0’s Paine said the idea that prairie should remain untouched is a challenge to creating grassbanks elsewhere.

“There are enough people in the natural resources community that aren't thinking that way, that we have some barriers to using grazing effectively,” she said.

For grassbanks to work well, Paine said ranchers and conservationists need to be on the same page and potentially make compromises.

“It all comes down to how you manage those animals, and making sure that the person who is managing them knows both what they need for their livestock’s health and growth, and what the resource needs to be protected and improved through the grazing,” she said.

Rancher John Lueken said his cattle are healthier on a more diverse and plentiful diet that the grassbank is providing. He hopes that the program shows that conservationists and ranchers who use pasture can work together, not against each other.

“A lot of negativity has been put on cattle, because people see feed lots or confined things,” he said. “And that is part of the system, but people don't realize we're still learning how to graze cows. We're trying to do rotational grazing, but the benefit to the environment of having cows out there is a lot more than what people realize.”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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