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Dunn Ranch Prairie is rebuilding the ecosystem of the prairie, one project at a time

Exploring and mapping the Missouri River in the early 1700s, French explorer Étienne Veniard de Bourgmont described what he saw as “the finest country and the most beautiful land in the world; the prairies are like the seas and filled with wild animals…in such quantities as to surpass the imagination.”

Thriving on this country’s sacred and plentiful grounds were the indig­enous societies that existed thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. In the Grand River Grasslands, the Southern Sioux, Osage and Missouria tribes stewarded the tallgrass prairie, which supported a diverse array of flora and fauna.

Until its statehood in 1821, one-third of Missouri had a highly diverse prairie sys­tem. Today, more than 200 years later, less than 51,000 scattered acres of unplowed prairie remain, with approximately 26,600 acres protected by private and state agencies, according to the Missouri Natural Heritage Database.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global conservation group, is doing its part to help protect and restore these native grasslands. TNC owns and manages the 4,000-acre Dunn Ranch Prairie near Hatfield, Mo. The prairie is part of the 70,000 acres that make up the Grand River Grasslands con­servation area.

“We are trying to continue a diverse species presence and be resilient against the new climatic patterns in a sustainable manner,” said Kent Wamsley, TNC’s grasslands and sustainable agriculture strategy manager in Missouri, who has been site manager at Dunn Ranch for three years.

Some 150 years ago, when the Dunn family homesteaded land in Har­rison County, about 15 million acres of native grassland grew in Missouri. Most of the prairie had disappeared by 1950, making the 1,000 acres of unspoiled prairie on the Dunn farm a precious commodity. In the 1970s, TNC learned of this gem and offered to purchase 2,281 acres from the late Billie Dunn Meadows and her husband, Frosty. It took almost 30 years before the family decided to sell in 1999.

Dunn Ranch Prairie is now a successful research center and model for sustainable agriculture. For more than 20 years, its work has included soil health research; pollinator studies; reintroducing bison, prairie chickens and the Topeka shiner; saving water sources; bird surveys; and vegetation and grazing research. 

“There has been so much progress here,” Wamsley marveled while driving through the ranch. “Just think of the early settlers on horseback, riding through the prairie. Switchgrass and big bluestem, 7 to 8 feet tall. It must have been quite a sight and an overwhelming experience.”

Native grasslands

As soon as the land was purchased, TNC began converting the fescue fields to native grasses and forbs. Prescribed burning is used as a management tool to restore soil nutrients, control tree seedlings and invasive species, encourage seed germination and promote the growth of native plants.

“These grasslands store carbon in their roots, help clean our water and protect from flooding and erosion,” said Keith Ben­nett, TNC’s conservation practitioner who specializes in seed collection and prairie restoration. Bennett has worked for 16 years on Dunn Ranch Prairie.

Bennett is the caretaker of more than 300 species and grasses and possesses an impressive, self-taught knowledge of plant life. “I know the Latin as well as the common names for all the native species here. I might not pronounce the Latin name correctly, but I know it,” he laughed.

In the spring and summer, Bennett oversees the seed collec­tion. He does harvest some seed with a combine, but most is done by hand.

“We have some rare native plant species here,” Bennett said, “so it is important to have an organized collection and track all our plant life.”

Across the prairie are mounds that, at first glance, seem to be bison dung. They are not. These are ant mounds, which are beneficial to the tallgrass prairie. Through their tunneling, bur­rowing and excavating, ants affect soil properties and help plant seeds, Bennett explained. They’re a healthy ecological compo­nent of tallgrass prairie management and restoration efforts.

“We have more than 30 species of ants—some are tiny, and others are as big as a pickup,” Wamsley joked.

Bison

In reality, the largest inhabitants of Dunn Ranch are bison, rein­troduced to the prairie in 2011 from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The herd, which began with 35 genetically pure bison, now numbers around 140.

“I’m going to say 143 bison right now, because we started having calves a couple of days ago,” said Wamsley, pointing out the new red calf running alongside his protective mother.

The bison are another management tool to help maintain a biologically rich and vital landscape. Seed pollen is carried in the bison fur, which helps pollinate the plants and flowers. By stomping and lying on the ground, the bison create wallows, which fill with rainwater, allowing other species to thrive. The bison urine and dung enrich the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur and calcium.

“When you look across our landscape, a patchwork develops because of the way the bison graze,” said Wamsley. “They don’t have the Pac-Man philosophy of eating everything in front of them. You will see the bison grazing in one corner of the ranch. Then they decide to go clear across to another pasture. They walk to that area, just walk. No grazing along the way.”

A bison’s diet primarily consists of grasses, encouraging the growth of forbs in the prairie and helping to maintain the eco­system balance. The land on Dunn Ranch Prairie provides all that the bison need to flourish, Wamsley said.

“The only time we intercede is in the fall when we do a roundup,” he said. “That’s when we perform a health check, tagging and processing the young animals. We use mineral on occasion, depending on what we are seeing with the herd. But other than that, we are hands off.”

Prairie chickens

In addition to the bison, Dunn Ranch is home to some of the last flocks of greater prairie chickens in Missouri. In the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens roamed throughout the Midwest. Due to over-hunting and changes to its prairie habitats, the number has dropped to fewer than 100 in the state, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“This spring, the chickens have been pretty few and far be­tween on the ranch,” said Wamsley. “For some reason, they are scattered around the area on the adjacent fields and farms. We are probably around 75 to 100 birds between here and south­ern Iowa.”

There is a viewing blind and a field camera located on one of the leks on the ranch. In the past year, a viewing platform was built off the barn north of the leks, hilltops where the males assemble during the mating season each spring and engage in competitive displays that attract females.

“We wanted a way to bring nature to the people, so we also offer a live stream from the prairie,” said Wamsley. “The prairie chicken’s unique and ancient mating rituals are always a pop­ular attraction. These leks are ancestral sites that the chickens come back to, generation after generation. We don’t have a full understanding why they choose this spot. Some people think it’s because it allows the sound to travel across the landscape. And indeed, you can hear the male chicken’s low, haunting boom for a mile and a half, if the wind is right. The sound reso­nates throughout the prairie.”

The males’ eerie booming calls, unique dance and fights with other males are part of the mating ritual so the hens can select the most fit mate, Wamsley explained.

“All the males show up, puff up their chest and act real tough,” he said. “They inflate their air sacs on the side of their head, put up their feathers in the back, make themselves look big­ger, and then boom at each other. The largest, most impressive male on the lek is usually the one who ends up getting the females.” 

Wings and water

Also benefiting from the restored prairie are migratory birds and butterflies.

“We are a stopover for many dif­ferent songbirds, and monarch but­terflies also use the site during their migration,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of diversity here.”

Other birds that can be seen in the area include the bobolink, Bell’s vireo, dickcissel, grasshopper spar­row, Henslow’s sparrow, northern harrier and short-eared owl.

Land restoration can’t happen without returning the water­ways to a healthy condition, Wamsley said. TNC and the Mis­souri Department of Conservation are working to bring back the Topeka shiner to Little Creek, a prairie headwater stream at Dunn Ranch Prairie.

“We have a lot of threatened aquatic species in our waters,” Wamsley added.

The Topeka shiner was listed as endangered in 1999. The minnow-like fish, less than 3 inches in length, is a silvery-green color with a dark stripe on the side of its body. During spawn­ing, the male has fins that turn bright red-orange. They can be found in small streams with cool, high-quality waters and sand or gravel substrate.

TNC is nearing completion on a project that involved re­building two culverts to help bring the waters and the Topeka shiner across the ranch’s property. The stream banks are being repaired, and vegetation will be planted to improve and sustain the shiner and other aquatic life.

Sustainable grazing

Just south of Dunn Ranch Prairie is Little Creek Farm, 217 acres of once-overgrazed pasture with inadequate fencing that allowed the cattle to roam into the creek. TNC purchased the farm in 2017. In partnership with a local farmer who leases the property, TNC is working on sustainable grazing strategies to increase cattle production and the farmer’s bottom line, while responsibly managing the land.

TNC installed electric fences to keep the cattle out of the creek, and watering systems were added.

“We have individual areas that we can shut off, so we don’t have to run electricity to the whole area. It’s pretty snazzy,” Wamsley said. “MFA did soil sampling so we could see the health of our soil. Adam Jones, conservation specialist at MFA, had the forage analyzed. There are 12 different pastures, and we have a control plot in each of them so we can analyze the vegetation. That’s going to help us determine which forage is working best.”

At Little Creek Farm, new grazing strategies are tested, and native grasses are part of the forage mix.

“We are looking at the big picture,” Wamsley said. “With this program, we are making sure we have quality forage that will benefit cattle production, while making sure our soil and water are in good condition. We are trying to balance both sides of the coin here.” 

In 2018, TNC and MFA, along with other leaders in the agricultural industry, collaborated to launch a 4R Nutrient Management program in Missouri. It focuses on fertilizer management and conservation practices to im­prove soil health and limit runoff into rivers and streams.

The 4Rs refer to the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. Jones works closely with TNC on this project.

“We would like to see a system where managed grazing can be shown to be healthy for a natural landscape,” said Jones. “Some folks get nervous with conservation entities like TNC, but with this demonstration farm, you will see that conserved lands provide a benefit to all. Farmers and conservation organizations can work together.”

Dunn Ranch Prairie and Little Creek Farm projects serve as a model for other pasture and prairie systems in the region, Bennett said. “There is a good balance for wildlife to develop and thrive here in all our little pock­ets and pieces of habitat,” he added.

Wamsley said TNC’s short-term goals are to con­tinue using the lands to promote conservation and ranching strategies, such as controlling invasive spe­cies and woody plants and using prescribed burning.

Long-term goals include working with private landowners to implement conservation ranching and deploying new technology to benefit wildlife, soil, health and water quality while providing farmers and ranchers an economically viable way of life.

“We hope to build Dunn Ranch Prairie into a more resilient landscape as we deploy new strategies based on the scientific research,” Wamsley said. “It is criti­cal to continue to use grazing, mechanical treatment, fire and other management strategies to diversify the landscape so that it can be a permanent home or stopover location for all forms of birds, insects and land animals.”

Visit online at bit.ly/DunnRanchPrairie for more information.

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Sustainability scores big at Lebanon Feed Mill

MFA’s Feed Mill in Lebanon, Mo., has been award­ed the “Highest Sustainability Score” in the commercial dry feed division of the American Feed Industry Asso­ciation’s 2021 Feed Facility of the Year program.

The award was announced Jan. 26 at the Interna­tional Production & Processing Expo in Atlanta.

“All of our feed facilities do a great job and are good stewards of resources,” said John Akridge, director of MFA Feed Operations and Animal Health. “So it comes as no surprise that Lebanon would be recognized for those efforts. MFA feed mills rank with the best.”

AFIA—the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to representing the business, legislative and regulatory interests of the U.S. animal food industry and its suppliers—has been recognizing excellent feed manufacturing facilities through this program since 1985. In 2021, the association began issuing top industry awards to facilities in four categories: com­mercial dry, liquid feed, premix and ingredient, and integrator. In addition, the highest scores in safety, quality and food safety, productivity and efficiency, and sustainability were recognized.

The Lebanon Feed Mill was honored for having a positive environmental footprint, taking into consid­eration such criteria as the facility’s sustainability and recycling programs, energy consumption and use of human food byproducts in manufacturing.

“As we learn more about sustainability for our industry, we want to help manufacturers as they seek to improve on their efforts,” said Gary Huddleston, AFIA’s manager of feed manu­facturing, safety and environmental affairs. “The sustainability section was new to the Feed Facility of the Year application in 2021, and we are expanding those questions for 2022 to make participation in the program even more beneficial.”

Typically, some 60 to 70 facilities, including those operated by some of the industry’s biggest feed manufacturers, enter the annual competition, Huddleston said. A little more than half of those fall into the dry feed category, in which MFA captured the top sustainability score.

“To win this award in its first year is really something special,” said Mark Johnson, MFA feed milling operations manager, who hosted a celebration dinner for the feed mill crew on April 14.

The mill’s 14 employees manufacture around 60,000 tons of product annually, including bulk, bagged and textured feed. Like all of MFA’s feed mills, the Lebanon facility has also earned the AFIA Safe Feed/Safe Food certification. This designation is only given to those facilities demonstrating best-in-class manu­facturing practices that protect workers from harm and produce safe, wholesome livestock feed.

“This award was an honor for us,” said James Nutter, feed mill manager. “I would like to thank my crew for the dedication and work they have done to ensure quality of the feed we manufac­ture and the service our customers receive.”

MFA Incorporated is among AFIA’s more than 650 mem­bers, which include livestock feed and pet food manufacturers, integrators, pharmaceutical companies, ingredient suppliers, equipment manufacturers and other companies that serve the feed industry.

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May 2022 Today's Farmer Magazine

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Finding the balance

MENTAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL HEALTH GO HAND IN HAND— just like livestock farming and veterinary medicine. You cannot have one without the other. Yet, when it comes to mental health, many farmers and veterinarians refuse to discuss it.

“We need to break the stigmas associated with talking about mental health,” said Cliff Miller, DVM, a mixed-animal veterinarian and owner of Green Hills Veterinary Clinic in Moberly, Mo. “We are in this together.”

First observed in May 1949, Mental Health Awareness month was es­tablished to bring attention to the importance of mental health and well­ness. It also celebrates those who are being treated, who are maintaining, and who have recovered from mental illness.

The last two years of pandemic living have made many people realize that stress, uncertainty, depression and anxiety have impacted their well-being. In particular, mental health awareness in the veterinary medical community has come to the forefront with an alarming rise in the number of suicides among veterinarians.

Abby Whiting, DVM, a practitioner at Veterinary Specialty Service in St. Louis, is the chair of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association’s (MVMA) Wellbeing Task Force. She also serves as a moderator for Not One More Vet (NOMV), a professional organization that focuses on trans­forming the status of mental wellness within the profession.

“COVID pulled back the blanket, revealing many of the issues that our field deals with,” Whiting said. “It has magnified problems such as long hours, not enough vets in rural areas, staffing shortages, burnout, over­whelming debt and not being able to balance work with home life.”

In 2020, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported the median salary for a veterinarian as $99,250. However, the average vet school debt, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), is $150,000, with some students reporting more than $400,000 in loans.

“The debt-to-income ratio does not add up, so many leave the profes­sion for higher-paying jobs,” Whiting said.

Adding to the professional stress is when clients try to negotiate the cost and care of the animal, which veterinarians say devalues their services.

“Those of us who are in veterinary medicine are hyper-sensitive to how much our goods and services are,” Whiting said. “We cannot give away services because that is not sustainable. Clients need to understand all the costs and trust that we have their animal’s best interest in mind. We are in the field because we are compassionate people.”

Like farming, veterinary medicine is a career that attracts individu­als who are independent and have a strong work ethic and desire to be self-reliant while helping others. The days are long and grueling, and many times the veterinarian is dealing with life-or-death situations. Emer­gencies and severe trauma to the animal are just as painful to the provider as the owner.

“My generation was told to suck it up,” said Linda Hickam, DVM, who has practiced veterinary medicine for 30 years.

Family life often ends up suffering, Hickam added, because many veterinarians spend so many hours in the office or making house calls and emergency farm visits.

“It is important to find that healthy balance between your work and your home life,” she said. “With our profession, sometimes it is difficult to stop and not take that call as you are walking out the door.”

Hickam, whose daughter is a practicing veterinarian in Kansas, said she thinks the younger generation of veterinarians is doing a better job with that balance.

“I am happy to see that my daughter has a group of people she can reach out to when issues arise,” Hickam said. “Social media has been a blessing for those types of connections. She stays in touch with former classmates, and they seem to be very open to sharing their struggles and supporting one another.”

With 10 years in the field, Jessica Stroupe, DVM, is the owner of Howard County Veterinary Service in Fayette, Mo. She and her staff provide care to large and small animals, while supporting and looking out for each other’s well-being.

“I am very open with my staff about mental health and letting them know that it is normal to feel off,” Stroupe said, adding that she believes most veterinarians are per­fectionists and introverts. “It’s difficult to acknowledge the stress and reach out for help. In my clinic, we foster a positive and healthy culture. When I hire a new vet or staff member, I look for someone who will fit into our culture and who shares our core values. With men­tal well-being, I believe that it is OK to seek help. Do it. You need it. It is not a character flaw. It is a sign of strength and self-awareness.”

To help balance her busy work and home life—which in­cludes two young sons and a baby boy on the way—Stroupe is active with community theater, loves traveling and is an avid runner.

“Daily exercise, healthy eating and weeding out toxic behav­iors keep me on track,” she said. “It is important to recognize that part of mental wellness is having interests that are not part of your profession. Fulfillment outside of the office is vital to staying in check.”

Dr. Hickam agrees. “You need to have a hobby so veterinary medicine is not your only identity,” she said. With an exten­sive background in mixed-animal practices and epidemiology located in rural, commercial and international settings, Hickam’s career has come full circle. She was an associate veterinarian in Mexico, Mo., for 11 years, then moved to MFA Incorporated as the swine vet for three years. She went back into private practice before serving the Missouri Department of Agriculture for 10 years, first as the state veterinary epidemiologist and then as the state veterinarian and Animal Health Division director. Today, Hickam is practicing at the Mexico Veterinary Hospital in Mexico, Mo.

With all of her experiences in the field, she believes that veterinarians are in the profession to develop re­lationships with clients while caring for their animals.

“I love the interaction I have with clients; that is what I love most about my practice,” Hickam said. “It is wonderful to see how these relationships develop and evolve through time. You need to be mentally and physical healthy for your clients and their ani­mals to be a successful vet.”

Dr. Miller, who served as president of the MVMA when the Wellbeing Task Force was founded in 2018, notes that 1 in 6 veterinarians have had suicid­al thoughts due to the stress of the job.

“The epidemic of suicide in our profession is a com­plex topic that requires a multi-factorial approach,” Miller said. “The MVMA leadership team asked what we should be doing to help our members with addressing mental health issues so we don’t reach that extreme.”

To help navigate these issues and to provide resources and support, the MVMA hosts an annual convention with wellness seminars and offers remote learning for its districts.

“We offer continuing education to increase resilience and to support vets and their staff who are dealing with stress and anxiety,” Whiting said. “The Task Force publishes a newsletter and has resources on the MVMA website for those in need. We are also creating a client code of conduct.”

The American Veterinary Medical As­sociation offers a free online course called “Question. Persuade. Refer.” (QPR) to help veterinarians and their staff to talk about ways to deal with those who need help.

“I want to be the bridge to lead people to all the resources we have,” Whiting said. “After taking this class I now know what to say to people—just asking them if they are doing okay.”

The University of Missouri Extension and College of Veterinary Medicine are also working to prevent suicide and promote mental well-being among veterinarians. The Missouri Farm and Ranch Stress project provides free mental health (Mental Health First Aid), suicide prevention (QPR Gatekeepers) and personal well-being (Taking Care of You) programs as well as free telepsychology counseling sessions that include veterinarians and their dependents.

“You are not alone,” said Karen Funkenbusch, project manager for Missouri Farm and Ranch Stress. “There are many resources to help veterinarians, just like there are places for farmers and ranchers to seek help.”

Addressing the issues of stress and anxiety for veteri­narians while they are still in training may help. Toward that end, the MU College of Veterinary Medicine has re­cently embedded a psychologist within the school. This allows students to access the services with greater ease and flexibility since their schedules are so demanding.

Illness and disease—physical as well as mental— strike everyone. Someone who appears to be very healthy and happy on the outside could be fighting cancer or debilitating depression on the inside. There is no difference. However, society often views cancer diagnosis as a battle, while depression can be seen as weakness in character.

Veterinarians are among those who want to see that change.

“We need to open the door and talk about mental wellness. The more we talk, the less of a stigma is attached,” Whiting said. “You are not a bad person or doctor if you seek treatment. There are many people out there willing to talk to you about it. Check on your staff, your classmates, yourself. Together we can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being.”

Self-care for Veterinarians

Well-being isn’t a single measure of health. It is composed of nine unique dimensions that touch upon every aspect of our lives: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional, physical, financial, creative and environmental. These dimen­sions work together and collaboratively contribute to overall mental health. By the same token, when one area is lacking, the others will also be impacted.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, these are the dimensions of well-being:

  • Occupational — Being engaged in work you find satisfying that aligns with your values, goals, and lifestyle
  • Intellectual — Learning new things; participating in activities that foster critical thinking and expand your world views
  • Spiritual — Having a sense of inner harmony and balance
  • Social — Surrounding yourself with a network of support built on mutual trust, respect, and compassion
  • Emotional — Being able to identify and manage your full range of emotions, and seeking help when necessary
  • Physical — Taking care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, etc.
  • Financial — Being aware of personal finances and adhering to a budget that enables you to meet your financial goals
  • Creative — Participating in diverse cultural and artistic experiences
  • Environmental — Taking an active role in preserving, protecting and improving the environment

In each area, assess where you are currently, and decide if you are satisfied with how you are doing. You can then identify areas to target for improvement. For more information and resources, visit www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing.

If you or someone you know needs help with managing mental well-being, these are among the resources available for vet­erinarians, practice management, practice staff, producers and families.

American Veterinary Medical Association Tools for Well-being

avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing

Not One More Vet: Online and anonymous peer-to-peer support

NOMV.org

University of Missouri Extension Show-Me Strong Farm Families

extension.missouri.edu/programs/ agrability/show-me-strong-farm-families

Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program

moshowmehope.org/

facebook.com/MoShowMeHope/

University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work Program (for any veterinarian)

vetsocialwork.utk.edu/

Missouri Crisis Line

573-445-5035 or text HAND to 839863

Show Me Hope Crisis Line

800-985-5990

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741

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