Ronnie Crawford's 300-acre pasture and forage operation in Prentiss County is the kind of conservation success a Mississippi State University initiative is trying to encourage across the state.
Crawford is part of MSU's Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat, or REACH, initiative. This effort is spearheaded by Robbie Kroger, assistant professor of aquatic sciences in the MSU Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture. REACH is a collaboration of MSU's Extension Service, the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and the Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
"Our goal with REACH is to create a network of cooperative farms with different types of agricultural practices that will showcase conservation practices, demonstrate how well they work for agriculture and the environment, and serve as models for sustainable methods," Kroger said.
Kroger said REACH experts share scientifically researched best practices with producers and landowners.
Crawford's land is mostly in pasture, but he has some acreage in forage production and some in the Conservation Reserve Program. He joined the REACH initiative to team up with MSU experts to create the most profitable combination of soil improvement practices and land management for wildlife in his pasture and forage operation.
"I'm interested in experimenting with a variety of things, such as applying fertilizer versus no fertilizer and taking soil samples each year to see how the soil is improving," Crawford said. "I'm looking for ideas from them on different variables we can inject into what we've got on our land."
Crawford has been using soil and water conservation practices on his farm for years and planted a 50-acre pasture in native grasses three years ago.
"I had initially gotten interested in native grasses due to wildlife interests, specifically Bobwhite quail," Crawford said. "It seems that the native grasses served several purposes, among them being wildlife, conservation of the soil, production of a forage crop and something that would improve the quality of the environment."
He said using native grasses as an alternative crop has some applications for cattlemen and forage producers who are interested in environmental issues.
John Gruchy, private lands habitat coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said the REACH program helps tie together landowners' interests in soil preservation, wildlife habitat and profitability.
"This practice of using native grass forages for hay and grazing is an innovative practice but something we've needed for a long time," Gruchy said.
He said landowners in the eastern United States are using a lot of improved grass forages, such as Bermudagrass and fescue, that work really well for livestock but are not ideal for creating wildlife habitat.
"We were looking for something that we could use to interject some wildlife habitat in small places on a production livestock operation," Gruchy said. "This would distribute the habitat through the farm and the landscape so we can get maximum benefit for wildlife."
Crawford is growing native big blue stem and Indian grass on this REACH acreage. Native grasses such as these are not only great for wildlife, but also profitable to producers because they require fewer inputs, Gruchy said.
"Wildlife may be one of the primary reasons landowners are drawn to native grass forages, but what a lot of them are really looking for are ways to decrease inputs," Gruchy said. "These native grass forages have very low input costs in terms of fertility requirements, and they're also extremely drought-hardy."
Native grasses provide a financial benefit over some of the nonnative forages frequently grown in the state. Native grasses are typically cut twice a year, maybe three times on rare occasions.
"You can get comparable production on two cuttings of native grasses than you maybe can on three cuttings of Bermudagrass," Gruchy said. "It just makes more tonnage per haying operation in addition to improving the wildlife habitat of the area."
To date, nearly 30 farmers are enrolled in REACH, and the program impacts management practices on 96,000 Mississippi acres.
"These farmers have a conservation mindset, and they want to be a part of REACH to get access to expertise across the MSU campus and from the many collaborating agencies," Kroger said. "They get scientifically defensible data from us, and they get to tell the story of what they're doing on their land."