Profiting from Prairie

"I wouldn't be anywhere else," says Maury Meadows, tramping down a grassy hill. Like a wilderness explorer, he excitedly points out his discoveries. "That's native gama grass. There's big blue, little blue," he says, "and this is Indian plantain-it's rare." He stops, taking a look around the vast prairie. He repeats the phrase, "I wouldn't be anywhere else."This prairie is neither conservation area nor experimental playground; it is Meadows' Harrison County cattle pasture. The prairie plants he has coaxed onto his land are food for his herd. Gamagrass, for example, is liked so much by the cows that he calls it "ice cream of the prairie."

The landscape here is slightly rolling, dotted with small ponds and crossed with creeks. Here and there, a clump of willow trees or elms has sprung up. Pale ripples of white and purple blooms flutter in the breeze. Despite the fencing and cattle herds, the land seems to have reverted to a natural state.

With his father, Forrest Meadows, and a few dedicated hired hands, Maury Meadows has developed a successful cattle business using conservation techniques. "If it's not better at the end of the year than it was at the beginning," he says, "we've done something wrong."

He has spotted prairie skinks, rare in Missouri. One morning he saw a swarm of regal fritillary butterflies hovering over the pasture like a thick mist. In fact, this land shelters many varieties of native flora and fauna.

Blane Heumann of the Nature Conservancy counts over 200 plant species here. "Around 15 of these are rare in this part of Missouri," says Heumann. His list includes thimbleweed, candelabra plant, rattlesnake master and downy blue gentian.

This prairie hasn't returned by accident. It is an ongoing project that Meadows began 20 years ago. And the project was developed with an eye to profitability.

"If you don't manage what you have to the max, you don't stand a chance," says Meadows, pointing to a herd of fat limousin cattle grazing nearby. Just over the hill, a diesel tractor pulls a 14-foot mower over hay ground. On a good day, the crew can cut 80 acres of grass. When it dries, the baler will roll it into 1,000-pound round bales.

Most of the day's activities on this Harrison County ranch are typical of ranching anywhere. The ranchers check cattle, repair fences, worry about coyotes and put up hay. Summer hours are long. A 16-hour day is not