Since 1990, the Missouri Grazing Schools have provided its more than 18,000 participants with pertinent information related to management-intensive grazing (MiG). The schools, a partnership between the University of Missouri and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are designed to touch on each aspect of management-intensive grazing, delivering research findings and vital information to its attendees.
A recent economic impact study, conducted by the University of Missouri Extension Commercial Agriculture Program, estimates that management-intensive grazing has raised the economic output of Missouri’s beef industry by more than $125 million every year, supporting more than 2,000 jobs in the state.
“The key to the schools – and why the philosophy is so popular – is that they cover everything,” said Craig Roberts, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and MU Extension state forage specialist. “We teach soil science, animal nutrition, plant growth, forage quality and economics. There are also demonstrations on fencing and water systems. We bring in producers to share their testimonials.
“We allow the regional instructors to tweak their schools as well. We’ve learned that when some of the decisions are local, there’s great ownership of the schools.”
The Forage Systems Research Center (FSRC), located in Linneus, Mo., is where the Missouri Grazing Schools got its footing. Jim Gerrish, owner of American GrazingLands Services, LLC, provides consulting and speaking services related to grazing. Gerrish was a faculty member at the University of Missouri for more than 20 years, helping FSRC become a nationally recognized research facility.
Gerrish’s research showcased the positives related to rotating cattle throughout a field instead of keeping them grazing on the same paddock for months at a time.
“Management-intensive grazing, when well-run, increases the productivity of a field,” Gerrish said.
Gerrish said the two terms to focus on when it comes to grazing is residual and flexibility. Residual refers to the living green plant material left behind after grazing. If more residual is left after grazing, the plants can regrow quicker with the help of photosynthesis. Flexibility is important because landowners have to be patient while the forage grows back. It’s not always a quick process.
Rotational grazing is a very adaptive management style.
“Change is always a part of agriculture,” Gerrish said. “The climate changes, the markets change. Being able to adapt is incredibly important.”
With Gerrish’s stellar work in the area of grazing, he was approached by Ron Morrow, a faculty member in animal sciences at MU for 20 years. Morrow liked the idea of conducting a multi-day grazing school where participants could receive a complete education about MiG.
“We realized that it was hard to fit everything in a 15-minute talk during a field day or even an hour conversation during an event,” Gerrish said. “Grazing and all of its components are very complex. You really can’t cover everything in less than three days. There is also a big hands-on component to this school. Three days actually allows us to see results and review the projects that we set up.”
“Each school had 60 people,” Roberts added. “With six schools each year, we taught 360 individuals per year at Linneus. We had to turn people away every time. People were attending the schools from other states and even from overseas.”
After a few years of holding the schools at FSRC, the schools began to be taught throughout the state. MU and NRCS broke Missouri into nine regions with each region coordinating their schools. It was around that time that Roberts took over the schools, serving as the MU leader, after teaching at them for several years.
“Every year we host schools in different areas of each region,” Roberts said. “For example, in the southwest region, they may decide to host schools in Bolivar and Buffalo one year and host in other towns during the next year.
“We now host between 24 and 36 schools every year across the state. Our record attendance for one year was 801 attendees. It’s still as popular as ever.”
The schools are held between April and October. It has been important for the schools to be taught during the growing season, as there are classroom and field elements to the schools.
“It’s incredibly important for us to go back and forth between the classroom and the field,” Roberts said. “Otherwise it’s just all theory.”
FSRC continues to play an important role with the Missouri Grazing Schools. The location has turned to a train the trainer site.
“FSRC is where the research was done and where the schools were held for years,” Roberts said. “Now, we use that Research Center as our training ground. All of our NRCS and Extension folks go to Linneus to learn. Superintendent Dave Davis runs a clean ship and really understands what we’re here to do. All things run through FSRC.”
When Roberts, along with Mark Kennedy (NRCS), took over the schools, he began measuring the economic impact that management-intensive grazing and the grazing schools were having throughout Missouri. The most recent economic study was completed by Ryan Milhollin, Joe Horner and Hannah McClure, MU Extension and Division of Applied Social Sciences. The group used data from NRCS, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the USDA’s Census of Agriculture to showcase the economic impact.
They only examined the impact from cow-calf operations as part of the study, though other animal industries and sectors, such as dairy and beef cattle backgrounding, for example, have benefited as well.
“We used an NRCS spreadsheet tool that is tasked with detailing a producer’s existing operation and the basic assumptions before adopting management-intensive grazing and then after adoption,” Milhollin said. “We went through and developed a scenario where we said, based on the level of adoption in Missouri, what would be the net benefit per acre for making that adoption. The data from the Census of Agriculture estimated how much acreage adoption there has been in the state. We then made an estimation using the cost-share dollars that we’ve seen.
“Basically, we’re taking those net benefit per acre numbers, ramping it up by the number of acres of adoption we see in Missouri, and then running the total through the economic impact software we’re using.”
MU and NRCS partnered with DNR and Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) in a pilot cost-share program two years after the schools began. The program was so successful that it went statewide within four years after the pilot practice was established. Those dollars continue to play a big role in the Missouri Grazing Schools.
To get the cost-share dollars from the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Program, participants are required to attend the Missouri Grazing Schools. Along with the cost-share dollars, the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Program does give a one-time payment of $75 to the participant to help cover the cost of attending the school.
“The Missouri Grazing Schools wouldn’t exist without this partnership,” said Colleen Meredith, director of the Soil and Water Conservation Program. “It’s important that each program is making a concentrated effort to push the same information. There’s a lot of information and I think it’s exciting that the participants get a complete education, as well as help with infrastructure. There is also the opportunity to connect with other land owners, which can be exciting for the participants. With the field portion of the school, they get to see a grazing system with their own eyes. It helps them visualize what this could look like on their property.”
The Census of Agriculture, which was most recently conducted in 2012, showed that 28.6 percent of beef farms in Missouri practice rotational or management-intensive grazing. The USDA reported that 16,882 farms did some sort of grazing on their farms – ranking second behind Texas. The southwest part of the state proved to be a strong adapter.
New Census of Agriculture data should be available next year. Milhollin said he is interested to see the continued impact of MiG.
“From MU’s standpoint, the Missouri Grazing Schools are a great partnership,” Milhollin said. “We work closely with state and federal agencies, as well as state and regional Extension specialists, who play a huge role in the schools. I’m excited to reanalyze the new data.”