A Missouri grass bank welcomes cattle, shows how grazing and ‘passing of hooves’ help conserve prairies

Dunn Ranch Prairie owns the Midwest’s first grass bank, a partnership where The Nature Conservancy allows local ranchers to graze their cattle on its grasslands while allowing ranchers’ pastures to rest.

A tall meadow in northern Missouri is home to hundreds of species of wildflowers and birds.

Herds of cattle help preserve this 3,000-acre sanctuary for diverse flora and wildlife – just by strolling around and dining on a tall buffet. Cows eat invasive cold-season grasses, while their hooves pelt seeds into the ground.

“I’ve got this benefit from the grazing side of things, but I also think one of the things that people don’t really look at is the passing advantage of hooves,” said Kent Wamsley, Director of Grassland and Sustainable Agriculture at Dunn Ranch Prairie.

The Nature Conservancy owns this prairie land and entered into contracts three years ago with two local ranchers. They are allowed to graze their livestock on the territory of the reserve for a few months of the year, while the farm owners’ pastures rest. The partnership has worked so well that the Conservation will offer to renew the contracts for another three years.

“We get great benefit from the cows in the first season months, as we get the fescue and we graze on it,” Wamsley said. “They get great benefit at that time from stocking some things, and giving a rest in some of their pastures.”

Grasslands disappear

According to the Missouri Department of Life Conservation, one-third of the state was covered in the original prairie; Today less than 0.5% of that prairie remains. As conservationists work to restore grasslands in the Midwest, it’s clear that simply fencing the land isn’t enough.

According to Laura Payne, communications coordinator for Grassland 2.0, a sustainable agricultural project based at the University of Wisconsin, research shows that management practices such as controlled burns and grazing are becoming essential.

The natural processes that kept the prairie healthy in the past before our current agricultural system, Payne said, are no longer influencing now. “If we just let the grassland grow and don’t do any management, we could potentially get as many weeds and invasive species as we get the natural ones we want back in.”

Historically, the prairie was not left alone. Indigenous tribes in the area used controlled burns to hunt down bison and recover the weeds that attracted them. Burning and grazing work hand in hand to keep pastures healthy.

In addition to livestock, Dunn Ranch Prairie benefits from its own herd of bison. With prairie lands gained from bison and cattle grazing on weeds and pounding their hooves into the soil, other farm lands are allowed to regenerate.

John Lueken, a rancher with whom The Nature Conservancy shares, said his land is seeing the return of warm season grasses like milkweed and Indiangrass, as well as some wildlife. It is also believed that the comfort of his land helped it during the drought that hit the region.

“We’re collecting more water and building a mass of roots. So we’ve noticed this summer more than anything else, our precipitation has fallen below average, but we’re not getting runoff,” Lueken said. “A lot of people’s pastures look brown and we’re still growing grass.”

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