Feature

Preserving the prairie

Tallgrass prairie once covered more than 170 million acres of the United States, stretching from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas.

The rich soil of the region is only rivaled by the rich natu­ral and cultural history of the prairie, a complex ecosystem of diverse forages, forbs and wildlife.

Nearly all of this native grassland is now gone, plowed under for agriculture or urban development. In fact, less than 4% of original tallgrass prairie remains today, most of it in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. This unique area, named for the chert or flint eroded from the bedrock that lies near or at the surface, nurtures some of the greatest biological diversity in the world.

On the 9,000-acre Pioneer Ranch, situated just outside the Flint Hills near Hepler, Kan., about 2,500 acres of na­tive prairie endure. Flourishing with tallgrass species such as little bluestem, big bluestem and Indiangrass, among others, these prairie remnants are carefully managed through grazing and burning—just like they have been for thousands of years.

“It’s just good to have some native grass around,” said Dean Hoener, Pioneer Ranch foreman. “There’s not much of it left around here anymore. We’re trying to preserve what we’ve got.”

Prairie persists here mainly because much of the terrain is more suited to cattle than crops. When settlers discov­ered that their livestock gained weight easily on the native grasses, the Flint Hills became known as ideal grazing land. Ranching continues to be the primary agricultural use of remaining tallgrass prairie.

Hoener manages Pioneer Ranch for owner Jim Keller, who runs the backgrounding operation with his children, Landon and Jocelyn. Yearling calves are brought to the ranch in the 600-pound to 750-pound range, kept for about 180 days and then shipped to feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska. At any given time, some 4,500 cattle are grazing both native prairie and fescue pastures on the ranch. The combination of warm-season and cool-season forages pro­vides almost year-round grazing.

“When the fescue is going dormant, coming out of spring into early summer, the native grass is just hitting its stride,” said Joe Murphy, MFA livestock key account man­ager who serves the Hepler area. “And then when you’re running out of native grass in July and August and going into September, the fescue is starting to come on again for the fall. They work well together.”

Like the pioneers who first tamed this land for graz­ing, Hoener has found that cattle perform well on native warm-season grasses as their sole food source. Grazing prairie during the summer avoids problems with fescue tox­icity in livestock. Abundant protein in the prairie plants also provides high-quality nutrition that supports strong weight gain. In contrast, the stockers kept on Pioneer Ranch’s fescue pastures must be supplemented with a daily ration of wet distillers’ grains, corn, straw and MFA feed concentrate.

“We don’t have to feed anything else when they’re on the prairie,” Hoener said. “The cattle will gain between 1.5 to 2 pounds a day. We have to feed the ones on fescue to get that much gain out of them.”

Although native prairie grasses have a shorter grazing sea­son than fescue—from about the first of May until early Au­gust—they have a number of advantages. They tend to need less fertilizer and lime than cool-season grasses, yet they yield as much or more per acre. Hoener said the ranch can maintain a stocking rate of one calf per 1.5 acres on prairie pastures. Plus, he said, the cattle on native grasses tend to have slicker, shorter hair coats than those grazing fescue.

The deep root systems of native warm-season grasses make efficient use of water and soil nutrients, so they can handle drought well. They also grow in harmony with legumes and other native forbs, which are beneficial to live­stock and wildlife.

For the past year, Pioneer Ranch has shared its grazing grounds with a herd of wild horses, relocated here from federal land in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other areas of the western United States. In effort to ease overcrowding, the federal Bureau of Land Management contracts with land­owners and ranchers to accept shipments of the mustangs and care for them for the rest of their lives. To help manage overpopulation, herds are separated into groups of mares or gelded stallions before being transported to their new ranch homes. The mustangs on Pioneer Ranch are all mares.

“I’ve been around horses my whole life, but never wild horses,” Hoener said. “They aren’t as hard to manage as you’d think. They pretty much just take care of themselves. When we get snow and there’s no grass, we’ll feed them some hay. We make sure they’ve got something to eat and something to drink. If we do everything right, they’ll be here until they die.”

Much like the mustangs, the ranch’s prairieland is fairly low-maintenance, Hoener said. He sprays for weeds when needed and fertilizes according to soil test recommen­dations. And every few years, he sets the fields on fire.

It’s nature’s way of starting over.

Whether sparked by lightning or caused by humans, fire has always been essential to maintaining native prairie in its natural and diverse state. Tallgrass fields accumulate an enormous amount of biomass, eventually covering the ground. New shoots find it harder to take in sunlight. The insulated soil stays cold, delaying spring plant growth. Plant nutrients stay locked away in the slowly decaying leaf litter. Trees and brush threaten to take over. And grazing animals must expend more energy to find fresh forage.

Fire regenerates native grasslands by removing thatch, recycling nutri­ents in the dead plant matter and knocking back undesired weeds and woody plants. Cleared of overgrowth and debris, the blackened ground has more exposure to sun and rainfall to nurture regrowth of the prairie.

At Pioneer Ranch, the prairielands are typically renewed by prescribed fire every three years, Hoener said. This spring, he conducted burns on about 900 acres, each carefully controlled and timed. It’s not as simple as heading outside with a match. The burn must be properly planned and implemented in the right weather conditions and with the right safety precautions.

“You can’t burn too early, and you can’t burn too late,” Hoener explained. “We usually try to do it in early to mid-April, which helps catch emerging weeds while the native grasses are still dormant. It’s amazing how quickly the prairies come alive after that. By the first of May, they’ll be ready to graze.”

In addition to these periodic burns, grazing and haying strategies are also different for native prairie versus cool-season pastures, said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist.

“Managing a prairie pasture is a completely different beast than man­aging fescue,” Jones said. “For one, the growing point on native grasses is higher on the plant. If we graze them down to 3 inches, like we typically do on cool-season pastures, then we’re taking off that growing point and weakening the stand.”

To protect their longevity, Jones recommends that native warm-season grasses be grazed to a height of 10 to 12 inches. This management practice also benefits livestock, he added.

“There’s not much nutritional value in the lower part of these grasses,” Jones said. “It starts to get kind of stemmy. From an animal performance side, there’s really no reason to graze them that short.”

The grazing season must also be carefully managed to protect prairie stands, Jones said. Native grasses need about 10 to 12 inches of growth be­fore winter, which means animals need to be removed 30 to 45 days prior to a killing frost or freeze. Before they go dormant, the plants start storing energy in their extensive root system. Harvesting or grazing those grasses too close to winter won’t allow them to recuperate and rebuild below ground for the following growing season.

“We try hard not to over-graze,” Hoener said. “We get cattle off around the first of August so the grass can come back before winter hits. You can’t abuse the prairie, or you’ll lose it. The fescue already wants to take over, so it’s getting to be a constant battle.”

It’s definitely a balance, Jones said. Properly managed grazing and burning regimes are beneficial to prairies along with the livestock and wildlife that call them home. The right amount at the right time can increase productivity and species diversity on native grasslands. On the other hand, if not conducted properly, these practices will threaten the prairie’s persistence, nutritional quali­ty and habitat structure.

“There aren’t many of these original prairie acres left, and management is our best tool for protecting them,” Jones said. “Farmers and ranchers who are lucky enough to have native grasslands can not only benefit from this valuable natu­ral resource, but they also have the responsibility to make sure they’re around for generations to come.”

For more information on native prairie management, visit with the agron­omy and livestock experts at your local MFA affiliate or contact Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you’re new to using prescribed fire, be sure to learn more about the practice before conducting a burn. The Missouri Department of Conservation, mdc.mo.gov, and the Missouri Prescribed Fire Council, moprescribedfire.org, can provide resources and assistance

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April 2022 Today's Farmer Magazine

FEATURES

Following fertilizer ( Cover Story )
Getting plant food to the farm takes a global, multi-modal logistics chain
By Allison Jenkins

Do biologicals boost nutrient-use efficiency?
MFA agronomic research continues to seek answers to that question
By Cameron Horine

Q&A with MFA - (As Printed)
Learn more about your cooperative leaders
By Gerald Eggerman

Pollinator plots put unproductive acres to work
MFA and partners offer funding opportunity for conservation plantings
By Adam Jones

Safety begins at home (As Printed)
MFA youth share ideas on avoiding farm, workplace dangers
By Allison Jenkins

Pulling double-duty
UltiGraz Pasture Weed & Feed system fertilizes forage, controls problem plants in one convenient pass
By Allison Jenkins

Good data in equals good data out
Careful management of precision information can help growers make better decisions
By Jared Harding

Timing is everything when harvesting alfalfa
Balancing tradeoff between yield and quality takes careful management
by Dr. Jim White

Animal Health
Insecticide Ear-Tag Comparison Chart
(AS Printed)


DEPARTMENTS

Country Corner
American food contributes to global peace
by Allison Jenkins

UpFront
Right time for recognition
MU establishes Rural and Farm Finance Policy Analysis Center
Michael elected as new MFA director for District 2

Markets - (As Printed)
Corn: Confluence of factors creates uncertainty
Soybeans: Prices rise as supplies tighten
Cattle: High feed costs affect livestock value
Wheat: Conflict in Ukraine influences markets

Recipes - (As Printed)
Mush’ love

BUY, sell, trade - (As Printed)
Marketplace

Viewpoint
It takes teamwork to rise above our challenges
By Ernie Verslues

Closing Thought - (As Printed)
Photo by Kerri Lotven
Poem by Walter Bargen

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Pulling double-duty

Two-in-one products can save time and simplify life. Think shampoo-conditioners, clock-radios or laptop-tablets that combine the best features of both into one convenient package.

That same concept is growing in popularity among for­age producers who have discovered the benefits of using dry fertilizer impregnation (DFI) to weed-and-feed their pastures and hay fields. DFI is the process of applying a concentrated herbicide solution to dry fertilizer granules during blending, allowing plant nutrients and weed-control products to be spread at the same time.

“DFI has proven to be a cost-effective way to pair fertility and weed control, and it can offer tremendous time savings during the busy spring season,” said David Moore, MFA Incorporated range and pasture specialist. “MFA has offered this service for several years now, and there’s no doubt adoption is growing. The number of acres we covered last year was way up from the year before.”

The convenience of a two-in-one application is what convinced Mike Theurer and his son-in-law, Darren Gallup, to try DFI on some of the weediest pasture ground on their farm just north of Lockwood, Mo. The pair run a commercial cow-calf operation and raise wheat and soybeans on land that has been in the family for six generations.

“You’re only driving over your pastures once instead of making two passes to put down fertilizer and then your chemical,” Gallup said. “That’s what is most attractive about it—especially now with the cost of diesel.”

He and his father-in-law learned about the practice from their local MFA Produce Exchange in Golden City, which is among MFA facilities that now offer DFI with the “UltiGraz Pasture Weed & Feed” system from Corteva Agriscience. Only a few herbicides are labeled for use with dry fertilizer in this type of system. This year, Moore said most MFA locations will be using DuraCor, a nonrestricted herbicide released by Corteva in spring 2020.

Powered by the first new active ingredient in a pasture herbi­cide in more than 15 years, DuraCor provides broad-spectrum control of range and pasture weeds, including broadleaves, while maintaining grass safety. Its extended control not only stops the weeds that are up and growing but also kills those that germinate later.

In the UltiGraz system, applications are made with a broad­cast spreader just as they would be with fertilizer alone, and then rain incorporates the nutrients and herbicide into the soil. Nearly all the weed control comes from DuraCor’s residual ac­tivity and root uptake, which is one of its strongest advantages, Moore said.

“When we impregnate fertilizer, most of the effect works through the soil, not the prill,” he said. “DuraCor has some­where between 60-90 days’ residual to suppress small or yet unemerged weeds.”

Theurer and Gallup said ragweed and cocklebur are the most troublesome weeds on their farm. Before using DFI, they attempted to control those pesky plants by applying 2,4-D with a mist sprayer.

“It would kind of work, but you had to take the time to do it,” Theurer said. “This was a lot easier and worked really well for us.”

By controlling more weeds, desirable forages respond favor­ably to less competition, Moore said. In fact, for every pound of weeds removed, producers can expect 2 to 5 pounds of grass to grow in its place. Producing grass more efficiently results in more efficient cattle production, which is the ultimate goal, Gallup said.

“If you take care of the land, it takes care of you,” he said. “Making better grass and more of it just makes the cows health­ier and produce bigger and better calves. And if you produce bigger and better calves, people want to buy from you. Just like a craftsman building a house, we take pride in keeping our fields clean and making sure our cows are eating what they’re supposed to eat. That’s important to us.”

While weed control is reduced when using the UltiGraz system—typ­ically achieving 70% to 80% of the results of a conventional applica­tion—Moore said the convenience and yield benefits are worth it.

“You want to fertilize your grass, not your weeds,” Moore said. “DFI allows you to do that. It’s an efficient way to manage weeds on acres that may have not had such control in the past. A lot of producers who have tried DFI had never sprayed pastures before, and they’re seeing how much better it is when they take that competition away. It’s a huge win.”

Plus, UltiGraz allows producers to control weeds in areas that may not be feasible to reach with conventional spraying equipment, said Mike Dawes, manager of MFA Produce Exchange in Golden City.

“You can get closer in around obstacles, such as trees and fencerows, than you can with a boom sprayer,” Dawes said. “That means better weed control on ground you might not be able to cover otherwise.”

There are a few considerations when using DFI, Moore said. Cover­age is king. The herbicide must be applied with at least 200 pounds per acre of dry product to ensure even distribution of the weed-control active ingredient.

Timing of application may also need to be adjusted. The optimal time for DFI is later in the season than typical grass fertilizer applications. For good control on hay fields, timing should be late March to early April, Moore said. On pasture, mid-April to May is an ideal time to take full advantage of the residual control DuraCor provides. 

“One caution I’ll give is that this system is designed to kill broadleaf weeds, not brush,” Moore added. “If you have brush problems, you need a different scenario.”

MFA dedicates equipment to impregnated fertilizer —to be used on pasture and nothing else—to avoid potential for the herbicide to damage sensitive crops. Adding a dye alerts users to the presence of herbicide and makes it easier to tell how well it’s blended.

“There’s just so many crops, soybeans mainly, that this stuff is deadly to,” Dawes said. “We don’t put it in any of our spreader trucks. We have one tender truck that we haul it with. We have designated carts it goes in that never go to a crop field. We don’t want to take the chance of any contamination whatsoever.”

For producers who are seeing resources stretching thinner this growing season, Moore said the UltiGraz Weed & Feed system can help by allowing one less trip across the field and one less application cost while protecting the potential for higher forage yields and more pounds of beef.

“To me, the bottom line is that people are busy enough,” Gallup said. “If you can do two jobs at once—spreading fertilizer and weed control to­gether—it just makes sense. Working smarter, not harder.”

Some 65 MFA locations, mostly in the southern half of Missouri, now have dry fertilizer impreg­nation capabilities. Check with your local MFA manager, agronomist or livestock specialist for more information.

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