Queen of the Kingdom of Callaway

An extraordinary event is occurring just north of I-70 between Kingdom City and Columbia. An ancient queen is returning to the Kingdom of Callaway. And, true to her noble nature, she’s rewarding those who serve her with health and prosperity.

An ancestor of hybrid field corn, the queen is Eastern gamagrass, a tallgrass prairie species. Before settlement, deep-rooted Eastern gama grew in Missouri’s bottomlands and wet prairies, where it soaked up water and provided habitat for wildlife, especially grassland birds.

When settlers came, they replaced Eastern gamagrass with more familiar Old World crop and forage species. Unfortunately, these aren’t nearly as good as native plants at controlling stormwater, supporting wildlife or feeding livestock during late summer months and periodic drought years.

Today, land managers are rediscovering Eastern gamagrass and its many virtues. Farmers especially appreciate the species’ lush, warmweather productivity and drought-resistant qualities, and some stock growers have even been inspired to call it the queen of forage grasses.

Clifford Borgelt is among Eastern gamagrass’s many devotees.

“In the hot months,” he said, “Eastern gama really puts the pounds on the cattle.”

One June morning, his Eastern gamagrass leaves were thigh-high and the tassel-like seedheads nodded in the cool morning air. Across the lane, his herd of stocker steers was busy cleaning up a paddock of Eastern gama and red clover, Clifford’s favorite forage legume. He planned to turn them into the new paddock the next day.

“This mix of gama and red clover lets my cattle maintain their rate of gain,” he said. “Especially in a drought like we had in 2005.”

As he looked out over the crown-shaped bunches of grass with their fringy seedheads, Clifford mused, “I wish I had a hundred acres of this stuff.”

A Healthy Prairie

Like most farmers, Clifford appreciates any approach that helps him make more money with less cost and effort. His reasons for using Eastern gamagrass for help with his farming operation, however, are unusual and deeply personal.

In the early ’90s his wife, Mary Ann, got sick and couldn’t get well. It turned out that she is allergic to petro-chemicals—or anything made with oil. She and Clifford replaced their synthetic carpets with wool and cotton rugs, and they gave away any item of clothing made with polyester or acrylic.

Although the changes Mary Ann and Clifford made to their house kept her safe inside, they couldn’t protect her from the things Clifford commonly used in his row-crop and cattle-feeding operations: oil, herbicides