Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture © Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Missouri

Sustainable Agriculture

Conserving natural resources while feeding the world.

This page was updated on October 29, 2020.

Agriculture is vital to Missouri’s economy—covering over two-thirds of our state’s total land acreage. With a growing global population of 9.6 billion people by 2050, our farmers, ranchers and growers will be faced with a 60% increase in food production to meet the global demand for food. And, they will need to do that using less water and fertilizer, and without expanding agriculture’s footprint.

The Nature Conservancy in Missouri works with partners to promote healthy agricultural practices with two science-driven strategies: Sustainable Grazing and 4R Nutrient Reduction.

Currently, Missouri is the leading phosphorous contributor in the Mississippi River basin, with the Grand River watershed in northwest Missouri as the highest contributor in the state. We are working with private landowners and state and federal agencies to incorporate native vegetation along stream corridors throughout Missouri’s agricultural landscapes; helping secure eroding streambanks using bioengineering techniques, and studying the benefits of native grasses to livestock operations.

4R Program

Increasing crop production and limiting harmful fertilizer and chemical runoff into streams and groundwater is more important than ever as farmers try to meet the needs of a growing population, while maintaining soil and water quality and improving their farm’s sustainability.

In 2018, stakeholders within the state’s agricultural industry, along with The Nature Conservancy and other organizations collaborated to launch a 4R program in Missouri.

Sun setting over a field of corn.
© Will Conkwright

4R focuses on nutrient (fertilizer) management and conservation practices to improve soil health and limit the amount of harmful runoff into our rivers and streams. The 4Rs refer to the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.

“The agriculture industry is challenged with the task of producing more food than ever before with continuous improvement of soil stewardship. Farmers are the decision-makers when it comes to nutrient management, and the 4R program is designed to empower our farmers through educational resources,” said Andrea Rice, Missouri’s 4R Coordinator.

What are the 4Rs?
Understanding the 4Rs Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place

The 4R program provides information and resources for farmers and their advisors as they strive to achieve productive, economic, and environmental goals using an approach focused on sustainability.

TNC is collaborating with landowners and partners to create pilot projects across the state to address the needs, benefits, and outcomes from the growers, producers, and suppliers, while also measuring the impacts to the land.

Little Creek Farm

In 2017, TNC purchased a 217-acre farm adjacent to the rolling hills of Dunn Ranch Prairie. But this property is more than just a farm with a view, it serves as TNC’s first sustainable grazing demonstration farm in Missouri.

Working with private, state and federal partners, TNC is collaborating on sustainable grazing strategies at Little Creek Farm that aim to increase cattle production and the farmer’s bottom line, while also providing benefits to nature.

Currently, Little Creek Farm is being leased to a local farmer, Ryan Cox, who has farming in his blood and a desire to do what’s right by the land. 

A man standing in front of a herd of cattle.
Little Creek Farm Ryan Cox stand with his cattle on Little Creek Farm. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

Ryan Cox was 13 years old when he began farming. Now 27, with a full-time job, a family with young children, and active in the military, he continues to cultivate the land.

Ryan has partnered with The Nature Conservancy by leasing land at Little Creek Farm, TNC’s first sustainable grazing demonstration farm in Missouri. Located in Hatfield, in the Grand River Grasslands, Ryan and TNC will collaborate with additional partners to put sustainable grazing practices into action and test strategies.

Cattle grazing in a field with a small pond.

“It makes sense to want grazing systems in place that will extend my grazing period, make my operation more profitable, and increase the health of the land,” said Ryan.

After purchasing Little Creek Farm, TNC installed fencing to restrict the cattle from the creek. This helps to reduce streambank erosion, restores habitat, and improves the overall health of the creek, which is home to the federally endangered Topeka shiner. Alternative watering systems were added for the cattle, and soon, much of the land will be converted to native warm-season grasses.

“By incorporating warm-season grasses, you extend your grazing period,” said Ryan. “So, when it’s hot outside and your cool-season grasses slow down, you can put your cattle on your warm-season grasses. That grass is going to have more nutrients in it and your cattle are going to do better, while allowing your cool-season grasses to recover.”

Ryan hopes that by working with TNC his operation will be more profitable, and together, they will be able to show other producers the benefits of making similar changes to their farms.

We have the ability to test strategies that will not only benefit the producers’ bottom line, but will increase the health of the land and wildlife habitat.

TNC's Grasslands and Sustainable Grazing Manager

“In the end, farmers are just trying to run a business. If we can prove that simple practices will allow them to run more cattle per acre, while increasing the condition of their cattle and benefiting their land, I think that will get people interested,” said Ryan.

“We are excited to have Ryan on board with us at Little Creek Farm,” said Kent Wamsley, TNC’s grasslands and sustainable grazing strategy manager. “We have the ability to test strategies that will not only benefit the producers’ bottom line, but will increase the health of the land and wildlife habitat. For us, this is a win for nature and for sustainable grazing.”

Dunn Ranch Grassbank

Every spring, Dunn Ranch Prairie pops with colorful prairie flowers, buzzes with pollinators and is serenaded by a variety of birds.

This year, new guests were welcomed onto a portion of the prairie for a very specific purpose—to increase native habitat across the Grand River Grasslands. TNC has partnered with two local ranchers, whose cattle will graze on two specific pastures on the prairie for the next three years. In return, those ranchers will select and implement sustainable grazing practices, such as removing fescue and planting native grasses on their own land. 

Two men standing in a field.
© Kristy Stoyer/TNC
Two men standing in a field.
Grassbank Partner Kent Wamsley, TNC's sustainable agriculture manager in Missouri and Shannon Frank, grassbank partner monitor vegetation growth. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC
© Kristy Stoyer/TNC
Grassbank Partner Kent Wamsley, TNC's sustainable agriculture manager in Missouri and Shannon Frank, grassbank partner monitor vegetation growth. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

“We’re in grazing country,” says Kent Wamsley, TNC’s grasslands and sustainable agriculture strategy manager in Missouri. “If we want to make a difference, we need to work beyond our property borders.” 

While this is TNC’s first grassbank in Missouri, the idea is not a new one. “Grassbanks are a time-tested way to enhance management flexibility, build larger scale collaboration, and efficiently support conservation of important lands and waters,”  says Sasha Gennet, TNC’s North America sustainable grazing lands director. 

“TNC has been at the forefront of developing several grassbanks in the western U.S. and Northern Great Plains,” says Gennet. “The Dunn Ranch project represents the first of its kind in the central U.S., and holds much potential as a model for other pasture and prairie systems in the region.” Grasslands are the least protected habitat on earth.

Cattle standing in a field of native vegetation.
© Kristy Stoyer/TNC

This grassbank gives ranchers the ability and time to adopt and establish sustainable practices on their land, keeping our grasslands ecologically intact and economically productive. “The goal is to transform what sustainable ranching looks like in the Grand River Grasslands while providing for nature too,” says Wamsley. 

Field and Farm Tours

Partnerships play a vital role in the success of our sustainable agriculture work at Little Creek Farm and Dunn Ranch Prairie. The Field and Farm Tour video series brings together a collection of agencies and partners to discuss programs and cost-share opportunities for landowners interested in implementing conservation practices on their own land. 

This video series is supported by a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through their Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG). 

Additional support for Little Creek Farm from the CIG includes the incorporation of exclusion fencing, alternate water sources, rotational grazing, and restoration of native warm-season grass and legume forages. 

You can view the individual interviews below or skip to the playlist to watch all 8 videos.

Video Tours

We've compiled video interviews with state and federal agencies and local ranching partners to provide information about conservation planning and implementation practices that are available to landowners through a host of partners and services. If you have questions about any of the topics you see below, please contact Kent Wamsley, TNC's grasslands and sustainable agriculture strategy manager in Missouri at kent.wamsley@tnc.org.

  • men standing in a field

    Grassbank: Interview with John Lueken - Rolling Prairie Ranch

    Hear from John Lueken about why he chose to partner with TNC on their grassbank and the conservation practices he's incorporating on his own land. Watch the Interview

  • men standing in a field

    Grassbank: Interview with Shannon Frank - Frank Ranch

    Shannon Frank talks about his family's ranching operation and how he's partnering with TNC's grassbank to create more habitat and diversity on his own land. Watch the Interview

  • man and women standing in front of metal corral

    Corral System: Interview with Kendra Pryor - Corbin Steel

    Kendra Pryor with Corbin Steel stops by Little Creek Farm to take you on a tour of our new corral system. Watch the Interview

  • Two men standing in front of a herd of cattle

    Sustainable Grazing: Interview with Ryan Cox - Cox Cattle Co.

    Hear why Ryan Cox chose to partner with TNC at Little Creek Farm and how it's benefitting the land and his cattle production. Watch the Interview

  • two men standing by a stream

    Healthy Streams: Interview with Jerry Wiechman - MDC

    Jerry Wiechman, fisheries specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation explains how protecting our streams starts with protecting the land around it. Watch the Interview

  • Two men standing in a field

    Healthy Soil: Interview with Adam Jones - MFA, Inc.

    Adam Jones from MFA, Inc. explains how soil testing can help improve practices on your land, cutting unnecessary expenses and excessive nutrient treatments. Watch the Interview

  • Three men standing in a field

    Land Management: Interview with Kenton Smith and Garrett Pulley - USDA

    Hear about available programs from NRCS and USDA that can help offset the costs associated with implementing new conservation strategies on your land. Watch the Interview

  • Two men standing in a field

    Healthy Streams: Interview with Chris Woodson, USFWS

    Chris Woodson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service talks about the importance of keeping our streams healthy and ways landowners can implement practices that benefit the land, wildlife and the landowner. Watch the Interview

TNC's Field and Farm Tours are based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number NR196424XXXXG015.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.