The ranching industry’s toxic grass problem

America’s “fescue belt,” named for an exotic grass called tall fescue, dominates the pastureland from Missouri and Arkansas in the west to the coast of the Carolinas in the east. Within that swath, a quarter of the nation’s cows — more than 15 million in all — graze fields that stay green through the winter while the rest of the region’s grasses turn brown and go dormant. 

But the fescue these cows are eating is toxic. The animals lose hooves. Parts of their tails and the tips of their ears slough off. For most of the year, they spend any moderately warm day standing in ponds and creeks trying to reduce fevers. They breathe heavily, fail to put on weight, and produce less milk. Some fail to conceive, and some of the calves they do conceive die. The disorder, fescue toxicosis, costs the livestock industry up to $2 billion a year in lost production. “Fescue toxicity is the most devastating livestock disorder east of the Mississippi,” said Craig Roberts, a forage specialist at the University of Missouri (MU) Extension and an expert on fescue.

In Elk Creek, Missouri, cattle stand in a pond to cool their fever caused by fescue toxicosis, which costs the beef industry as much as $2 billion a year in lost production.

By the early 20th century, decades of timber-cutting and overgrazing had left the ranching region in southern states barren, its nutrient-rich native grasses replaced by a motley assortment of plants that made poor forage. Then, in the 1930s, a University of Kentucky professor spotted an exotic type of fescue growing in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which seemed to thrive even on exhausted land. Unlike most native grasses, Kentucky-31, as it was called, stayed green and hearty through the winter. Ranchers found the species remarkably resilient and, if not beloved by cattle, edible enough to plant. Over the next 20 years, much of the country’s southern landscape was transformed into a lush, evergreen pasture capable of supporting a robust cattle industry. 

As early as the 1950s, however, ranchers began to notice tall fescue’s disturbing effects. One study from that time showed that cattle had to be fenced out of other grasses before they’d touch fescue. When they did eat it, the cows saw only one-sixth of their normal weight gain and lost eight pounds of milk production a day. 

Between the cells in fescue grows an endophyte, a fungus living symbiotically inside the grass. The endophyte is what makes the fescue robust against drought and overgrazing, but it’s also what makes it toxic. When scientists engineered a version of fescue without the fungal endophyte, in 1982, its hardiness disappeared and ranchers saw it die out among their winter pastures. Farmers learned to live with the health impacts of the toxic version, and today it remains the primary pasture grass across 37 million acres of farmland. 

It’s a longstanding problem, and it’s spreading. Warming temperatures from climate change are now expanding the northern limit of the fescue belt, and the grass is marching into new areas, taking root on disturbed land, such as pastures. Northern Illinois and southern Iowa could already be officially added to the fescue belt, Roberts said, introducing toxicosis to new farming regions.

Illustration of the tall fescue endophyte made from a scientific photo. By Amelia Bates/Grist

“It’s becoming not just present but part of their normal pastures,” he said, noting that he increasingly gets calls from farmers in this region who are wondering what to do.

As more ranchers find themselves facing the challenges of toxic fescue, there are two strategies emerging to finally solve the decades-old problem, though in diametrically opposed ways. One involves planting a modified version of tall fescue — called “friendly fescue” — in which the toxic endophyte has been replaced by a benign one that still keeps the grass hearty and green all winter. Another would abandon fescue altogether and restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once dominated the region, helping to revitalize natural carbon sinks and fight climate change.

For a variety of reasons — some economic, some cultural — neither solution has really taken hold with most fescue belt ranchers. But the debate embodies the agricultural industry in the era of climate change: As ecosystems shift and extreme weather makes farming even more precarious, ranchers are facing tough decisions about how to adapt their land use practices. What is best for business, and will that ultimately be what’s best for the land and for the changing climate? 

Friendly fescue hit the market in 2000, developed by Pennington Seed, Inc. It looks identical to toxic fescue and behaves almost identically, thus requiring little change to the ranching habits of fescue belt farmers over the last 70 years. 

It would seem an ideal fit for an industry focused on maintaining the status quo amid climate challenges. But ranchers have been slow to embrace it. For one thing, friendly fescue, formally known as “novel endophyte fescue,” costs twice as much as the toxic variety — $4 for a pound of seed versus $2. And replacing one grass with another is labor-intensive; a 2004 report by the University of Georgia said it would take ranchers who made the switch about three years to break even. Matt Poore, a professor of animal science at North Carolina State University, chairs the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, a national organization dedicated to eradicating toxic fescue. Yet Poore, who also raises cattle, has only converted 30 percent of his fields, preferring to do it slowly. “The fear of failure is a big deal,” he said. “You’re sticking your neck out there when you go to kill something that looks really good.”

An overgrazed fescue pasture in Elk Creek, Missouri. Many ranchers are reluctant to abandon fescue, despite the problems it causes, because the fields stay lush and green through the winter.

Many ranchers would like to avoid the risk of total pasture makeovers, if they can. Until now, they have found ways to scrape by, relying on a parade of treatments that have come out through the decades, promising relief from toxicosis. 

They can supplement their cows’ diets with grain (an expensive remedy), or cut and dry their fescue and feed it to them as hay, which reduces its toxicity somewhat. They can dilute the toxicity of their fields by planting clover among the fescue, or clip the especially toxic seed heads before cows can graze them. They can try to genetically select cows with moderate fescue tolerance, which can salvage as much as a quarter of their losses. Poore counts over 100 such remedies. “If you do enough of those things you can tell yourself you don’t really have a problem,” he said. Meanwhile, the lush ground cover that fescue displays in winter is seductive.

A lack of trust, too, is a problem. In the early 1980s, when researchers introduced endophyte-free fescue, it was hailed as the answer to toxicosis, a way to save the industry. Ranchers trusted the scientists, and they lost a lot of money when that version withered in the fields. The sting of that debacle persists as researchers try to convince ranchers to trust friendly fescue. “The sins of the past have come back to haunt us,” MU’s Roberts said. “It’s going to take a while to overcome that screwup.”

Every March, Roberts and other scientists travel around the fescue belt giving workshops on friendly fescue to anyone who will listen. He tries to assuage ranchers who are worried about the expense and labor of pasture conversion. 

There aren’t good numbers on adoption rates because seed companies are guarded about how much they sell. But Roberts says he knows it’s rising. Some states promote it more than others, by offering cost-shares, for example, and hosting workshops like those Roberts leads.

A clump of native grass that has been browsed by bison in one of Amy Hamilton’s native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri. The roots of native grasses reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks.

It doesn’t help that endophyte-free fescue — the one that fails in the winter — remains on the market. The state of Kentucky even provides cost-share funding for ranchers who switch from toxic fescue to endophyte-free fescue. And several Kentucky ranchers said they were still unclear on the differences among toxic fescue, endophyte-free fescue, and friendly fescue. Farm supply stores often don’t even stock friendly fescue seed, as it’s less shelf stable.

Roberts noted that toxic fescue exudes fluids that “pretty much destroy the food web,” poisoning insects that quail and other creatures feed on. A 2014 study showed that climate change could increase the endophyte’s toxicity. Friendly fescue soil, by contrast, has more microbes than toxic fescue soil. And water quality is better with friendly fescue, too, since sick cows don’t have to congregate in streams and ponds to stay cool.

Despite the confusion and slow uptake, Roberts is optimistic, noting the 30 years it took for farmers to embrace the revolution of hybrid corn in the early 20th century. And he can point to some wins. Darrel Franson, a Missouri rancher who remembers the endophyte-free fescue debacle, nevertheless decided to take the risk, converting his 126 acres to friendly fescue. He loves the results. “It’s hard to argue with the production potential of tall fescue and the length of season it gives us,” he said.

Roberts’ employer, the University of Missouri, is betting that a modified version of exotic fescue will appeal to ranchers more than the idea of converting to native grasslands. “What we’re promoting is environmentally friendly as well as economically sound,” he said. “When you seed a nontoxic endophyte and add legumes [to dilute pasture toxicity], that works as well as anything, and we have a lot of data on it. It may take another 20 years for it to catch on, but it’s not going away. It’s too good.”

For decades, Amy Hamilton and her late husband Rex fought fescue toxicosis in Texas County, Missouri, the heart of the Ozarks. They watched their and their neighbors’ cows lose tail switches, hooves, and parts of their ears to gangrene. Finally, they’d had enough. 

But the Hamiltons didn’t reach for an artificially modified version of the exotic grass. Instead, in 2012, they converted 90 acres of pasture to native warm-season grasses, using their own money and cost-share funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The effects were immediate; the next year they documented increased conception and weaning rates in their cows and calves. Since then, they’ve converted another 75 acres. A former soil conservationist with a degree in agronomy, Hamilton’s mission became to annihilate fescue, on her property and across the fescue belt.

Amy Hamilton, seen here in a patch of prairie blazing star in one of her native grazing fields, has made it her life’s work to eradicate fescue.

I visited Hamilton’s ranch in November 2022, where they run about 45 cows and 150 bison. She and her daughter Elizabeth Steele, who helps run the family’s native seed company, walked through a pasture where fescue grew 15 years ago. Now big bluestem, little bluestem, and sunflowers fill the main body of the pasture, and freshwater cordgrass and ironweed decorate a creek’s edge. Quail have returned for the first time in decades. 

Unlike the Hamiltons’ neighbors’ pastures, however, this field was not green; most of the plants had gone dormant for winter. Hamilton reached through a thick mass of bluestem and pointed to two diminutive, green plants: wild rye and a sedge species, cool-season grasses that provide a native analogue to fescue — and, crucially, winter forage.

“This is what would have been here pre-settlement,” said Steele, referring to the land before Europeans arrived. “A functioning grassland with different plants serving different functions. Nature’s design is not for monocultures.” 

To understand the fescue-native debate requires an understanding of the ecological tradeoff between warm- and cool-season grasses. Simply put, warm-season grasses grow in the summer, harnessing the strong sunshine to grow tall and robust; then they go dormant in the winter. Cool-season grasses do the opposite, putting their evolutionary resources into frost-tolerance. As a result, they tend to be smaller than their warm-season counterparts, providing less biomass and less food per plant for the cows that graze them. 

Hamilton and Steele have decided to bet on biodiversity. Instead of a year-round monoculture of fescue, they have a biodiverse mix of warm- and cool-season grasses, along with wildflowers. It’s not as visibly lush as a fescue field, but the benefits to cattle health, soil health, and climate resistance make it worth it. “It is a kind of faith that these prairies evolved for the good of the native species that were here,” Hamilton said.

Even with the leaner cool-season grasses, their native fields produce twice as much forage as the old fescue fields and generate a much higher amount of organic matter, enriching the soil and allowing the pasture to hold more water. A soil-health specialist from NRCS tested their soil’s organic matter content before the 2012 restoration, then again five years later. The result was pastureland that holds up to a half gallon more water than a typical fescue field. 

In a warming climate with more extreme droughts — much of the Ozarks was in severe drought last year — that extra water storage can make a critical difference for cattle and soil health. The southeastern U.S., the heart of the fescue belt, faces a future of more intense drought and floods. The Hamiltons’ biodiverse style of ranching helps address both extremes, and they expect their native ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change.

Elizabeth Steele, with help from her niece and sons, gathers native flowers for a bouquet near their ranch in Elk Creek, Missouri. “Nature’s design is not for monocultures,” she says.

“[The extra water] trickles into our stream through the year, as opposed to running off in a flood,” said Steele.

The roots of native grasses also reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks. Grasslands are uniquely good at carbon sequestration. Unlike forests, they store more than 80 percent of their carbon underground, where it’s more safely sequestered than in aboveground trees where the carbon can potentially volatilize and return to the atmosphere. What’s more, intensive grazing of monocultures makes it hard to sequester carbon. A 2019 study, published in the journal Nature, showed that native, biodiverse, restored grasslands hold more than twice as much carbon as monocultures. The deep roots of the Hamiltons’ native species lock carbon deep underground, where it can take hundreds or even thousands of years to return to the atmosphere.

In the years since the Hamiltons converted their fields, the use of native warm-season grasses has gained momentum in the ranching industry. The University of Tennessee — firmly in the fescue belt — opened a Center for Native Grasslands Management in 2006 aimed at getting ranchers to incorporate native warm-season grasses (known as NWSGs) into pastureland. The Missouri Department of Conservation conducts workshops to familiarize ranchers with NWSGs. Research by the native grasslands center found that pastures of native switchgrass financially outperform fescue pastures. 

And Patrick D. Keyser, the center’s director, said native grasses significantly outperform fescue in climate resiliency. Fescue, he says, wants it to be 73 degrees and rainy every other day. “Think Oregon or Scotland,” he said. Native warm-season grasses in the fescue belt, on the other hand, can go weeks with blistering heat and drought without a problem. “To them, the worst climate projections that we’re getting really aren’t a big deal. From a resiliency standpoint, they absolutely win.” 

If replacing fescue with natives is moving slowly in general, replacing it with native cool-season grasses, to get year-round forage, remains nearly unheard of. As with friendly fescue, cost is partly to blame. Elizabeth Steele’s “cowboy math” estimates that a native conversion today would cost around $365 per acre, a scary number for ranchers. Proponents of native conversion also face a more complicated obstacle than cost as they seek buy-in from ranchers. The debate over how beef cattle are raised is caught up in the culture war over climate change. By some estimates, meat production accounts for nearly 60 percent of the greenhouse gasses generated by the food system, with beef as the leading culprit. Even as the concept of “regenerative ranching,” a method of cattle farming that tries to restore degraded soil and reduce emissions, has secured a toehold in the industry, “climate change” remains a political term in farm country, one that is largely avoided.

Ranchers like Amy Hamilton risk getting marginalized as “progressives.” So while she believes diverse native grasslands will make pastures more resilient to climate change, she doesn’t mention that when proselytizing to fellow ranchers. Instead she talks about increased water infiltration, more abundant wildlife, and improved soil health — things that matter to ranchers no matter their thoughts on climate change. 

She also tells them that native conversion pencils out. Hamilton doesn’t fertilize her pastures, and she rarely uses hay, as most ranchers do to supplement their cows’ fescue diet. And Steele estimates that, because native pastures produce more forage than fescue monocultures, increased forage and resulting weight gain makes up for the initial conversion costs in less than two years. “The more you emulate natural systems, the less money you have to spend on stuff like baling machines, herbicides, toxicosis effects, and fertilizer,” she said. That extra forage also allows ranchers to feed more cows. So if a rancher wants to expand their herd size, they can either expand their fescue acreage, for $3,000 an acre, or spend $365 an acre to convert the land they already have to natives. 

Saving money matters in the fescue belt. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, 60 percent of farms in Texas County, Missouri, run a deficit, and every state in the fescue belt loses money on agriculture, except for Illinois, which is largely a crop state. 

“Agriculture is so hard that if you don’t do it with your pocketbook in mind, you can cause people to go broke. I don’t want to do that,” Hamilton said. Hamilton estimates that more than 100 other fescue belt ranchers she’s in touch with are in the process of converting some or all of their pasture to native grasses. One of them, Steve Freeman, co-owns Woods Fork Cattle Company with his wife, Judy, in Hartville, Missouri. Freeman has converted 80 acres of fescue to natives, with plans to convert 180 more in three years. In total, that will make a third of his pasture diverse native grasslands.

Hamilton’s bison herd browsing in one of her native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri.

“Almost all my inspiration has come from going to [the Hamiltons’] field days every year and seeing what this land could be,” Freeman said. For him it’s not just about eradicating fescue toxicosis, it’s about the whole suite of benefits for biodiversity, soil health, and water retention. “I realized we’re not going to get there with the grasses we have.”

Freeman notes the power imbalance between the informal effort to promote native grasses and the universities and beef industry groups that are pushing modified fescue. “There’s no money that backs this,” he said of native restoration. “The novel endophytes and those kinds of things, there’s a lot of money to be made. They’ve helped the universities. I think [Hamilton] is starting to change people’s minds, but it’s been 15 years of doing this.”

For his part, MU’s Roberts hears the subtle dig at his work. “Friends of mine in conservation groups think the university professors are hooked on fescue,” he said. “They’re not. What they’re hooked on is a long grazing season, good yield, and good quality. They’re hooked on criteria, not on a species.”

Either way, change on this scale takes time. The University of Missouri claims that 98 percent of pastures in the state are still toxic, with ranchers slowly opening up to either friendly fescue or native forage. “I’m sure there are ranchers out there that think we’re absolutely nuts,” Hamilton said. “But some of them are interested in thinking about new ways of doing things.”

As we drove out to visit her cows, we passed some of her neighbors’ fields. In one, a herd of emaciated cattle had grazed a fescue field down to stubble. In another, all but a few cows stood in the middle of a pond, trying to cool themselves on a mild, cloudy day. 

“These are good people,” Hamilton said. “They’re just trying to make a living.”

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Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution.

This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

Josh Payne planted chestnut trees six years ago. The rows of nut trees haven’t fully matured yet, but he’s banking on the future shade they’ll provide to shield his animals from sweltering heat. 

“We started with that largely because we want to get out of commodity agriculture,” Payne said. “But also because I’m worried that in our area it’s getting hotter and drier.” 

Payne operates a 300-acre regenerative farm in Concordia, Missouri, an hour outside of Kansas City, where he raises sheep and cattle. By planting 600 chestnut trees, he is bracing for a future of extreme heat by adapting an agriculture practice known as silvopasture. Rooted in preindustrial farming, the method involves intentionally incorporating trees on the same land used by grazing livestock, in a way that benefits both. Researchers and farmers say silvopastures help improve the health of the soil by protecting it from wind and water, while encouraging an increase of nutrient-rich organic matter, like cow manure, onto the land. 

It also provides much-needed natural shade for livestock. According to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit climate change research group, chunks of America’s heartland — including Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri — could experience at least one day with temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter by 2053. 

When temperatures rise above 80 degrees, the heat begins to take a toll on animals, which will try to cool themselves down by sweating, panting, and seeking shelter. If they are unable to lower their body temperature, the animals will breathe harder, becoming increasingly fatigued, and eventually die.

Research shows that as the planet warms, livestock deaths will increase. Last year, when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in southwestern Kansas, roughly 2,000 cattle in the state died; the Kansas Livestock Association estimated each cow to be worth $2,000 if they were market-ready, equaling an economic loss of $4 million. And so far this year, the trend is continuing, with livestock producers in Iowa already reporting hundreds of cattle deaths in the latter half of July alone.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the ideal temperature for beef and dairy cows ranges between 44 and 77 degrees. Above those temperatures, heat stress causes cattle to produce less milk and decreases their fertility. 

Payne’s family farm is a microcosm of American agriculture’s monocrop past and its changing future. He inherited the land from his grandfather, who spent decades tearing trees out of the ground in favor of growing corn and soybeans, using chemical fertilizers for years. His family was hardly alone in doing so: Along with cattle, corn and soybeans make up the top three farm products in the U.S., according to the industry group American Farm Bureau.

Missouri produced nearly $94 billion of agricultural products last year — an economic driver under threat from climate change, which has brought more intense floods and droughts to the state. Last year, the Mississippi River, which flows through Missouri, reached severely low water levels in the face of a historic drought, stopping the barge travel that supports the country’s agricultural economy. When Payne spoke to Grist in July, he was hoping for rain to come soon amid the humid 98-degree heat.

To prevent harm to his 600 sheep and 25 cattle, Payne currently uses portable structures to provide artificial shade while he waits for his chestnut trees to mature. This technology acts like a big umbrella that can be moved as a herd moves, but it doesn’t protect animals from reflected heat and sun rays from the sides the same way a tree canopy can. 

In addition to the shade his future nut trees will provide, they’ll be a source of income, too. Payne said it’s likely he’ll make more money on 30 acres of chestnut trees than he would on 300 acres of row crops like corn.

“We’re rethinking the farm process based on climate predictions,” Payne said. “Here we are planting trees in our pastures, so that in 10 to twelve years we can have dappled shade.”

Planting trees in a field seems almost too simple as a way to keep livestock safe and healthy in a hotter world. But Ashley Conway-Anderson, a researcher at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, knows better. She said of all the USDA’s land management systems used to blend forest and livestock, silvopasture is the most complicated, as it requires a delicate balance between planted trees, natural forests and brush, and livestock. 

But she will admit the practice is common sense. 

“Trees provide shade. That’s the place where you want to be when it’s hot, right?” Conway-Anderson said. “The idea behind a well-managed silvopasture is your taking that shade and dispersing it across the field.”

Conway-Anderson said farmers are adapting their land to silvopastures at a time when agriculture as a whole is wrestling with its role in climate change. The sector accounts for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA. 

In addition to mitigating extreme heat risks and promoting soil health, trees planted on pastures and fields act as a way to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit known for its expansive list of practices to prevent further climate harm, estimates that silvopastures could sequester five to 10 times the amount of carbon than a treeless pasture of the same size. 

Notably, however, while carbon accounts for the main source of human-caused greenhouse gasses, agriculture’s role in a warming planet largely comes from methane produced by livestock and their waste. But silvopastures help combat that — animals that move around to graze end up trampling on their waste, working it into the soil where it’s repurposed as a natural fertilizer; in contrast, most farm operations pool all livestock waste together in large ponds from which a concentration of methane is then emitted. 

Conway-Anderson said agroforestry and silvopastures aren’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. She said farmers are having to “get big or get out,” and aren’t always able to invest the time or money in planting trees or revitalizing woodland they might already own. 

“We’ve created an economic system where we have incentivized and subsided specific crops, products, and ways of doing farming and agriculture that has really sucked the air out of the room for smaller, diversified operations,” she said.

On the other hand, she said silvopasture practices can be successful because of their flexibility. Farmers can use trees they already own. They can graze goats, pigs, sheep, cattle, and more under the shade of nut trees, fruit trees, and trees whose trimmings and branches can be harvested and sold to the lumber industry. 

“Silvopastures are not a silver bullet,” Conway-Anderson said. “But at this point, I don’t think we have any silver bullets anymore.”

At Hidden Blossom Farms in Union, Connecticut, a rural town located near the border of Massachusetts, Joe Orefice has been methodical in his implementation of silvopasture. 

Orefice, a Yale School of the Environment professor of agroforestry, raises tunnel-grown vegetables, figs, and roughly two dozen grass-fed cows that enjoy the shade of apple trees on a 134-acre farm. He said there are currently only two acres of fruit trees the cattle use for cover. 

Despite the small acreage, Orefice said, he has focused primarily on soil health, a key aspect of silvopasture management. Without properly maintained grasses and soil, trees won’t grow, and there wouldn’t be any shade for his cattle. 

“You need to manage the grasses so young trees will grow,” he said. 

In addition to land management and soil health, Orefice said the animal welfare benefits of shade were top of mind. 

“I don’t want to eat a big meal if I’m sitting in the sun on a hot and humid day, and we want our cattle to eat big meals because that’s how they grow or keep their calves healthy by producing milk,” he said. 

Orefice said a common misconception about silvopasture leads to farmers just taking livestock they own and putting them in the forest without any additional management. He said this can damage soil when livestock, especially pigs, aren’t routinely moved. While it might seem counterintuitive, he said one of the first steps of creating a proper silvopasture from an existing forest is to trim trees and till the soil.

While he only raises 25 beef cattle, Orefice said he’s seen larger farms begin to implement silvopasture practices. He said raising tree crops, like nuts or figs and other fruits, is a boon for farmers who switch to more diversified crop operations versus large, concentrated animal-feeding operations. 

For example, Orefice noted that if farmers in the Corn Belt, who are facing continued droughts and an extreme heat future, switched to tree crops, the upfront costs might be expensive and hard. Still, they would eventually make more money on tree crops than on corn or soybeans. The problem, as he sees it, is there is no incentive or safety net for farmers to begin to adopt these practices at the same rate as they have mainstream ones. 

“The question isn’t really, ‘Is silvopasture scalable?’” Orefice said. “The question is, ‘Does our economy allow us to scale pasture-based livestock production?’” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution. on Aug 15, 2023.

Facing high fertilizer costs, farmers still struggle to use less

This is the fifth and story in a series, “The Price of Plenty.”

As a young boy in the late 1950s, Frank Glenn knew the soft, freshly-tilled brown dirt lining his family’s fields signaled the start of another planting season.

“Back when we were young buckaroos, we would plow and disc and get a crop of weeds to come up [and then] knock them down,” Glenn said.

Frank and his younger brother John would hop on the tractor and start pulling their blue plow through the fields in February and March. Then they would go back with a tiller and turn over the topsoil before planting corn, soybeans, wheat and oats.

Today, the Glenns are still running their family farm in Columbia, growing corn, soybeans and hay. But about 25 years ago they transitioned to a majority no-till operation, no longer digging up the first few inches of soil before planting. Their fields are now filled with big clumps of dirt and old roots from previous harvests.

No-till farming helps decrease erosion and runoff. It’s one of several regenerative farming methods that help farmers’ fertilizer stay in fields and not run off into nearby waterways.

Rob Myers, director of the University of Missouri Center for Regenerative Agriculture, said less than half of Missouri farmers are using a regenerative method such as cover crops, no-till or integrating crops and livestock. Cost is one of the factors holding farmers back, Myers said.

Farmers use fertilizer to build their soil’s fertility and help increase crop yields. But less than half of the nitrogen fertilizer applied is taken up by the crops. These excess nutrients wash into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone where fish and shrimp cannot live. But nutrient pollution is not just an environmental problem – it’s a business one.

Farmers are responsible for the cost of implementing alternative practices, and they bear the risk if it doesn’t work. Bruce Shryock, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Auxvasse, said farmers are stuck between science and the economy.

“If you spend more and then don’t make any more, then you’re in trouble,” Shryock said.

Matthew Backer spreads anhydrous ammonia onto a field on April 4 at Wise Bros Inc. in Kingdom City, Mo. (Photo by Kate Cassady/Columbia Missourian)

Farmer finances on the line

A report from the University of Missouri found that net farm income in the state is projected to decrease by 14% this year, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture anticipates national farm income to fall by a fifth. Meanwhile, farmers’ input costs have increased 55% since 2020.

Fertilizer accounts for about a third of these annual costs, and it now costs farmers nearly 73% more than it did in 2020. But farmers continue to buy it because it offers a good return on investment, said Ray Massey, a professor in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“The economics said that you can make more money if you have higher yields,” Massey said.

Farmers also must factor in other input costs like seed, pesticide, equipment and fuel. Crop revenue has increased but the prices for inputs have continued to rise, so their margins have stayed about the same, Frank Glenn said.

 “It seems like they (the ag industry) don’t want farmers to make any money,” he said.

Some farmers coped with the price increases by cutting back on the amount of fertilizer they apply. Glenn said he and his brother went from applying 180 pounds an acre to 120 pounds last year. He said they were lucky crop prices were high or they might have not been able to survive the fertilizer price hike.

“Jesus, it makes you wanna puke,” his brother John Glenn said. “It’s so expensive.”

Frank Glenn plants corn in a minimum-till field on April 11, 2023 at Glendale Farm and Stables in Columbia, Mo. That day, Glenn had tuned into a country music station during his drive through the fields. (Photo by Maya Bell/Columbia Missourian)

Promoting intentional fertilizer use

Because fertilizer is expensive, farmers want to get the most bang for their buck, said Andrea Rice, director of research, education, and outreach at the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board.

The agency enforces Missouri fertilizer laws, conducts nutrient research and helps farms implement alternative farming methods.

Rice said high costs and current profit margins discourage farmers from applying more than the recommended amount, noting that farmers lose money if the fertilizer washes off their fields.

Heavy rain or snow melt washes fertilizer into waterways, polluting water and creating toxic algae blooms in lakes and rivers. Ultimately, some of this pollution travels downstream to the Gulf of Mexico and creates a hypoxic area called the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River where water oxygen levels plummet. Any wildlife in these areas must move or suffocate.

“The Gulf hypoxia situation – that’s not something that any farmer would want to cause,” Rice said. But she said the problem did not appear overnight and is going to take time to solve.

Farmers have several ways of measuring how much fertilizer they need to apply to their fields. This includes soil testing and looking at past harvests to compare their yield to the amount of fertilizer they applied.

The Glenns use a satellite to create a grid of their fields and take samples from each block on the grid. They can see how their soil structure varies and pinpoint the exact nutrients each block needs.

Miscalculations such as applying too much fertilizer, applying it on frozen ground or overwatering fields will increase the runoff potential.

Sarah Carden, a senior policy advocate at Farm Action, an advocacy group opposing corporate influence in agriculture, said the industry is set up to support conventional farming, which disincentivizes alternative practices.

It’s easier for conventional farmers to qualify for crop insurance, Carden said, but it gets harder when a farmer wants to decrease the amount of fertilizer they use.

“It becomes a lot riskier for a farmer to participate in alternative forms of production,” Carden said.

Matthew Backer wears a gas mask as he spreads anhydrous ammonia onto a field on April 4 at Wise Bros Inc. in Kingdom City, Mo. (Photo by Kate Cassady/Columbia Missourian)

Making change happen

One method farmers can adopt to minimize the harmful effects of fertilizer is to plant cover crops, which help decrease erosion, hold moisture in the ground and reduce weeds.

Integrating cover crops was a learning experience for Shryock, the farmer from Auxvasse. In his first year planting cover crops, a wet spring spurred his rye to grow to about 8 feet tall. Getting that tall rye out of the field was a challenge, as it wrapped around his planter shaft and damaged the bearings on his equipment.

“I cussed it that first year,” he said.

Shryock has since learned to kill rye when it’s about 2 feet tall. He saw the benefits of cover crops after that first year as it helped his soil and decreased runoff.

Shryock also no-tills in addition to cover crops. These practices take more time, he said, but they’ve been worth it. He cut back on the amount of fuel he uses, but he still has to buy seed and pesticide and must spend time planting the cover crop. Shryock thinks more people would plant them if there was an incentive to help cover their costs.

Rice said education can help increase the adoption of cover crops, though some farmers are used to doing things the way they and their families always have.

She first advises new clients to do soil sampling. Then, she discusses the type of fertilizer they are using, the amount, application times and if they are using cover crops.

“If we take those things and we do a little bit at a time and we keep encouraging and keep educating over time, there will be a big impact,” Rice said.

The MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture has recently been awarded two grants: $25 million to offer financial incentives for farmers to implement regenerative practices and $10 million to research how to improve varieties of cover crops.

The grant will pay farmers to adopt grid sampling, cover crops and livestock grazing systems to decrease nitrogen runoff. It also will fund programs to help farmers learn about these methods and their benefits.

“It takes time to keep making changes and improvements in agriculture,” Myers said. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction with these practices.”

This story is part of The Price of Plenty, a special project investigating fertilizer from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative and distributed by the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

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DOJ: Minneapolis police discriminated against Native Americans

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that federal investigators found, for the first time ever, a U.S. police department discriminates against not only Black people, but also Native Americans.

The Justice Department also made another first-time finding: the Minneapolis Police Department discriminates against Black and Native people by disproportionately using force during stops.

A two-year federal investigation sparked by George Floyd’s 2020 police murder found MPD routinely uses excessive force and discriminates against people based on race.

Investigators reviewed five years of data — about 187,000 traffic and pedestrian stops from November 2016 to August 2022 — and found MPD searches and uses force on Blacks and Native Americans more frequently than during stops of white people, even when they behave similarly.

“This is the first time we have made a finding that the police department unlawfully discriminates by using force after stops against Black and Native American people,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, during a Friday news conference.

Garland launched the investigation into MPD shortly after he took office in the spring of 2021, and found MPD recklessly, routinely uses excessive force, is inadequately trained and rarely held accountable for misconduct.

Mike Forcia, a Native activist who works at a homeless shelter for Native Americans, said the finding “wasn’t shocking in the least.”

“They spent all that money to come up with what we’ve been saying for years,” said Forcia, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Yohuru Williams, a history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, said, “It was good to see that named. I think it was very important to have those experiences validated for the indigenous community, particularly.”

Police brutality is one of the reasons the American Indian Movement was formed in Minneapolis in 1968.

It’s the reason Arthur Cunningham, head of the NAACP in Minneapolis, accused the MPD in 1975 of declaring war on Blacks and Indians, he said.

And it’s the reason why in the 1980s, Native Americans said they were being targeted by police, who justified it by saying they were drunk and disorderly, Williams said.

In 1975, when the state Department of Human Rights held hearings on police and the Black community, Indigenous people said, “that’s us too,” Williams said.

“It’s a longstanding problem with the department,” he said.

Even though Minneapolis has a large number of Native Americans, their allegations of disparate treatment in traffic stops and excessive force get less attention, he said.

“Indigenous folks are still invisible in our community as a whole, even now,” Williams said. “We just don’t — for a host of reasons, all of which are not flattering to our community — recognize the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people.”

Before Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara was hired, Forcia took him to Little Earth, a housing complex that serves mostly Indigenous people, and explained how the American Indian Movement started. O’Hara asked Forcia to speak at his ceremonial oath of office event.

Forcia agreed, and during the event, he talked about how they were planting seeds of trust, transparency and community — but planting is the easy part. The hard part, he said, is cultivating and pulling weeds.

Forcia told O’Hara he knows what it’s like to have the knee of a Minneapolis cop on his neck: He was paid a $125,000 settlement after getting beaten in 1999 by police who thought he stole a car because “I was a Native American with a jean jacket and ponytail running from the scene.”

One of the officers who assaulted him, Brian Sand, was later promoted to be internal affairs commander.

Last year, Forcia worked with Sand for a May Day Parade. Sand apologized.

“I forgave him,” Forcia said.

This article was originally published in the Minnesota Reformer

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Religion News Service

Millets — ancient drought-resistant grains — could help the Midwest survive climate change

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Midwest is known for its rows and rows of corn and soybeans that uniformly cover the landscape.

But in central Missouri, farmer Linus Rothermich disrupts the usual corn and soybean rotation with Japanese millet. He has been growing it since 1993.

“Golly, I have to think how far back that is,” he said. “I was a young man and I was looking for alternative crops to grow to make more money. We just weren’t making a lot of money in agriculture then.”

Compared to his corn and soybean crops, he spends a lot less on Japanese millet. Because its growing season is shorter, it fits perfectly into the rotation of the crops he already grows. It’s working so well for him that he wants to keep the grain to himself.

A farmer harvests proso millet in Matheson, Colorado. Proso millet is currently mostly grown in states like Nebraska, Colorado and South Dakota.
(Photo courtesy of Bailey Sieren, Dryland Genetics)

“I have recommended it to other farmers, as long as it’s not my Japanese millet,” he joked, pointing out prices likely would drop if a lot of other farmers start growing it.

But these humble grains soon may garner more attention after the United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. It’s part of an effort to encourage more awareness and a bigger market for millets, which the UN points out are extremely sustainable, weather resilient, nutritious and could help diversify the global food system.

However, the grains have not gotten nearly the same level of policy and research attention compared to corn and soybeans in the United States, or even compared to other crops in the global market.

“Millets had gotten sort of marginalized in its place, and therefore, it didn’t get the same investment and research attention that maize, wheat and rice have received over the last decades,” said Makiko Taguchi, an agricultural officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “so in that sense we consider millets as one of the sort of neglected crops.”

She said that millets have an opportunity to assist with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and that hopefully will bring these climate-friendly grains more attention — similar to the success of the UN’s International Year of Quinoa in 2013.

Farmer Jeff Taylor started growing proso millet on his farm outside of Ames, Iowa, around 6 years ago. He uses much of the same equipment that he uses for his corn crop. (Photo by Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media)

A climate-friendly crop

There are several different kinds of millets. In addition to Rothermich’s Japanese millet, there is pearl millet, foxtail millet, proso millet and more. Sorghum can also be considered a millet.

Millets tend to need less fertilizer and are more resistant to insects and diseases (although sometimes birds like to eat them). Farmers can also use most of the same equipment for millets as they do for corn and soybeans. And while, so far, millets don’t produce the same yields as those commodity crops, Rothermich says it’s worth it.

“It’s not as high-yielding, but it also has lower inputs on it,” he said.

Perhaps more important today in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, many types of millets are known to be incredibly drought resistant.

Matt Little, a farmer just outside of Arnett, Oklahoma, started growing proso millet last year. He expected the crop to burn up alongside his wheat crop during the extreme heat and the drought, but he managed to harvest and sell the crop.

“I’m really impressed with it. I’ve never seen a crop that stood the heat and stood the drought and still made me money,” he said.

Japanese millet survives hot humid conditions and is often used for planting in creek bottoms to support wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Linus Rothermich)

Millets are also getting attention at the University of Missouri’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture, which is providing information to farmers on the grains.

The center’s director, Rob Myers, said that millets are versatile. Proso and pearl millet would do well in drier states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Japanese millet survives hot humid conditions and is often used for planting in creek bottoms to support wildlife.

“We see millets being used in some of those areas because of concerns about the supply of irrigation water,” he said.

Other millets would be better in places that are prone to flooding like the Missouri and Mississippi River bottoms. That includes the Japanese millet Rothermich grows in Missouri.

The market for millets is not a large one in the United States, except for its use as songbird seed. However, millets could be used for livestock feed, cover crops and even biofuels. Myers said that they could even become a more popular food option as people look for gluten-free alternatives.

“I expect the market opportunities to continue to expand, but it’ll be incremental,” said Myers.

Research and policy investment

Because the market is not as large, millets are not as well-known as other crops in the United States.

Ram Perumal, the head of Kansas State University’s millet breeding program, said millets don’t get the same level of federal protection as corn and soybeans.

“Those are all cash crops: They have insurance; the prices; the market is there; commodity grant support is there,” he said.

Proso millet does not require a lot of water, which also makes it a good cover crop option because it won’t take as much moisture from the other crops. (Photo by Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media)

While there is insurance available for proso millet, it is only available in certain parts of the country. Perumal said that lack of support and protection also makes it harder to get research grants. He’s hoping the UN Year of Millets will help highlight the importance of millet science.

More research is needed to really advance millets, said Myers of the University of Missouri.

“If you spend an extra $1 million on corn research, you don’t necessarily advance the state of corn science very much,” he said, “but if you spent a million dollars on millet research, you might suddenly create a whole lot of new information that we didn’t have before.”

For example, millet yields would be easier to improve than getting corn to take up less water, according to James Schnable, a professor at the University of Nebraska. He and his father, Patrick Schnable, a professor at Iowa State University, co-founded the start-up, Dryland Genetics. A lack of funding for research is partly why they started a company to research and breed proso millet.

“(Proso millet) is in this weird hole in the federal funding schemes, which is part of why we ended up using private money to start Dryland Genetics. Because it’s a grain, it doesn’t qualify for a lot of the specialty crop grants,” said James Schnable.

In Ames, Iowa, farmer Jeff Taylor said he started growing proso millet about six years ago, with the help of Dryland Genetics. He thinks more farmers would try new crops if federal programs would shoulder some of the risk.

“It would be wonderful if crops like proso millet were researched more and there were some incentives for farmers to consider planting alternative crops outside of just corn and soybeans,” he said.

This story was produced by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report For America.

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Black Farmers Looked to Cash In on the CBD Industry. Now, Hemp Is in Decline.

When Brendalyn King and her partner, Osei Doyle, quit their jobs and left Brooklyn, New York, in 2020 to buy land, they had high hopes of entering the growing industrial hemp industry.  They moved to Salem, Illinois, to farm on a family friend’s land until they were able to buy the property. However, they never […]

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