Kansas City, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the National Audubon Society hosted a partnership meeting on Oct. 23 designed to help imperiled native grassland bird populations and serve cattle producers. The Audubon Conservation Ranching (ACR) program helps ranchers implement management practices in grazing and haying pastures that benefit grassland birds. Consumers in Missouri, Kansas, and other states can help by buying beef at retail outlets that bears Audubon’s green label “Grazed on Bird Friendly Land.”
The market-based approach adds a new way to help private landowners care for Missouri’s natural grasslands, said MDC Director Sara Parker Pauley. Grasslands support a wide variety of wildlife as well as the state’s cattle industry, Pauley told attendees at MDC’s Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center in Kansas City.
“This initiates a new market-based approach for grassland conservation that complements our traditional approaches,” Pauley said. “The strength of this program will rest on the shoulders of all our partners in conservation, private landowners, and the citizens of Missouri.”
Attendees at the event billed as the KC Conservation Ranching Initiative brought together cattle producers, representatives from the restaurant and retail food industry, and conservation experts from several states. A chef prepared and served beef raised under Audubon’s ACR program. The program currently operates in 13 states with a variety of ranchers and food industry businesses participating. Audubon sees Kansas City as a logical regional marketing hub for connecting Missouri and Kansas consumers with grassland conservation. Plus, they can draw upon the region’s rich Cowtown history.
“As a city at the crossroads of the original tallgrass prairie, it only makes sense that this Cowtown supports ranching that protects our grassland birds,” said Mary Nemecek, president of the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City.
Nemecek noted the severe decline of grassland birds in her lifetime. Cooking beef for her son that was produced on bird-friendly grasslands made her feel part of a broader community that cares about birds, she said.
Prairie and woodlands with native grasses and wildflowers provided the original habitat for birds such as bobwhite quail, prairie-chickens, meadowlarks, and Henslow’s sparrows. But those species have declined and some are endangered because very little native prairie habitat remains. The rich prairie soils became the base for America’s bread-basket agriculture crop production. Where pastures and hay meadows now dot the land, many have nonnative grasses and are managed in ways that are not friendly to grassland bird nesting, feeding, and over wintering.
The use of native grasses and forbs (wildflowers) in grazing regimes has proven profitable for cattle producers by boosting calving rates and weight gains in summer. Grazing warm-season natives in summer also allows producers to stockpile cool-season grasses for winter. But incorporating natives requires some initial planning and costs to establish usable forage. The Audubon ACR program provides cattle producers a profitable link to a beef marketing program that can help them afford range management practices benefitting grassland birds.
“This Conservation Ranching program is the best idea in ecosystem conservation right now,” said Marshall Johnson of North Dakota, an Audubon national vice present directing the ACR program. “Our best partners are ranchers and consumers.”
The program makes investments in family farms that enables affordability for conservation in farm operations, said Jake Davis, co-owner of Prairiebird Pastures of Columbia, Mo., one of the ACR program’s retail and wholesale beef outlets. A fork and knife slicing into beef is now also a tool for conservation, Davis said.
Audubon uses third-party experts to audit conservation practices being implemented on farms. In Missouri and Kansas, the private Missouri River Bird Observatory will monitor bird populations every two years to measure results. Audubon officials thanked Max Alleger, an MDC wildlife ecologist who helped the national program get its start in Missouri and assisted other states in setting protocols for grassland management beneficial to birds.
“The motivation of MDC is grassland bird conservation,” Alleger said. “We provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. We help them engage in ways that are better for the birds.”