Grazing Guidance | Selma Mascaro, MO State Grazing Specialist
Manage Kentucky 31 Fescue with rotational grazing and diversity.
Selma Mascaro brought three decades of conservation planning experience to her new role as Missouri’s State Grazing Specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) when she started April 1, 2019. Working “in a field office with producers for 30 years,” was the perfect background.
NRCS provides technical assistance without fees to conservation-minded producers interested in starting one or more beneficial practices. They can choose from over 200 methods to decrease erosion, improve soil health, and support clean water. Mascaro also helps producers with managed grazing practices, pasture seeding options, and planning for maximum hay production. Livestock carrying capacity, fencing systems, and forage availability are key components within ideal systems, but brush and weed control are examples of additional considerations for some farmers. And, many methods emphasize innovation and technology.
“Although we assist regardless of program participation, we also carry out farm bill programs designed to assist producers applying conservation practices financially,” says Mascaro. “As the State Grazing Specialist, I update state standards and specifications used by field office staff and producers to plan and apply conservation practices.” She also provides technical input developing farm bill program policies within the Show Me state while assisting with quality reviews and statewide training.
That means Mascaro works closely with people both inside and outside NRCS. “External customers are NRCS clients, owners, and operators interested in conservation on many different land uses,” Mascaro explains. “Internal customers include field staff looking for practice clarifications or guidance.”
Grazing in Missouri
“Most farms in Missouri have Kentucky 31 Fescue as the primary grass, along with some clover,” describes Mascaro. “Kentucky 31, a cool season grass, has some good points and some bad!”
Traditional fescue contains an endophyte that provides the plant stability and persistence, allowing it to withstand overgrazing and drought more easily. But, most producers also realize the downside of Kentucky 31 Fescue is the toxin it produces, which negatively impacts livestock.
“When Kentucky 31 is consumed by animals, the toxin increases the animal’s internal body temperature and reduces blood flow,” explains Mascaro. Long term effects include decreased gains and lower conception rates.
“The negative impacts of Kentucky 31 can be managed with rotational grazing and diversity,” she says. “And, options exist for producers who wish to renovate their pastures to novel fescues and legumes or native warm-season grasses.”
Fescue also works well for stockpiling, which extends Missouri’s grazing season into the winter months. “In Missouri, there is a multi-agency effort to increase the number of acres planted to native warm-season grass,” shares Mascaro. “The warm-season grasses are a great compliment to cool-season grasses in a grazing system.”
Missouri continues to rank in the top five states for number of cows nationwide. “The future of grazing in Missouri is strong,” Mascaro forecasts. “Missouri NRCS and University Extension have been on the forefront of educating producers about managed grazing for over 30 years by holding more than 30 grazing schools for producers across the state each year.”
“As the profitability of farming becomes more challenging, producers are interested in learning a better way to do business,” says Mascaro.
Pasture Pro Training
“Selma’s expert grazing advice is widely respected and sought after in Missouri,” explains Cody Dvorak, Business Development Manager with Gallagher’s Passion for Pasture Program. “Her guidance has made a real difference in pastures throughout the state.”
Mascaro presented a workshop at the last Pasture Pro training for Gallagher. She believes specialized training is vitally important for grazing professionals.
“Understanding the science behind grazing systems and why they work makes it easier for professionals to explain concepts to producers,” says Mascaro. “In preparing for the Gallagher Pasture Pro training, I was excited to see how similar our agency message was with the internal Gallagher training material. It's a win for everyone when producers hear the same message from public agencies and the private sector.”
Cliff Ham’s Story
With three decades of NRCS service, Mascaro has worked with all sizes of projects and all types of people. Some clients had more pasture experience than she did in the beginning, and she worked hard to learn from each one. Other clients needed a little more direct help.
“I have had the opportunity to work with some outstanding individuals over the years, but there are always a few that stand out,” Mascaro admits. One producer, in particular, had no farming background at all.
“Cliff originally purchased a forested tract, and we began working on it with forest stand improvement and wildlife practices,” she explains. “Those practices lead to the installation of a small Monarch pollinator plot.”
“A few years later, Cliff purchased an adjacent pasture farm,” Mascaro continues. Never having had cattle, he was very open to new ideas and hungry for information.
“Cliff attended grazing school, did a lot of homework, and started planning his system,” she recalls. “In the last 10 years, I worked with him to improve both his forest and pasture.” The Wayne County, Missouri producer installed a complete grazing system with fence and water infrastructure. He began stockpiling forages to extend the grazing season and fenced livestock out of creeks. Cliff also installed more pollinator-attracting plants along creeks, woodland areas, and in previously planted annual food plots.
“Cliff is very conscientious about soil health, sustainability, and the impact of his actions,” Mascaro summarizes. “I have learned so much from him by sharing in his conservation efforts. He is a true steward of the earth, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him.”
Mascaro knows the bottom line drives most of Missouri producers’ pasture management decisions. But, many of her clients also take a longer view of success.
“I think some producers are looking to improve the stewardship and sustainability of the land and leave it better than they found it.”
Karena Elliott is an International Freelance Writer who specializes in the agriculture industry. She makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.
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