COLUMBIA — Columbia resident Russ Chambers has no problem distinguishing between Indian grass and switchgrass or fescue and clover; these are part of a plant identification list of more than 70 species that he has memorized.
He can also tell you that warm season grass is an option for quail populations and that milo is a crop that quails like to eat.
It is details like these that Chambers and his team spent months going over two to three nights a week in preparation for their upcoming grass evaluation contests.
To some, this type of work brings back memories of science class, but for the Columbia FFA team and Boone County 4-H team it has been a long process that has rewarded them with top honors at the 10th Annual Mid-America Grassland Evaluation Contest, which was held in Springfield June 9th and 10th.
“From day one, we did not know anything about grassland evaluation,” Chambers said, a member of the Columbia FFA team. “We had to practice a lot and our adviser, Larry Henneke, taught us everything that we needed to know.”
This year, the competition consisted of 24 teams with 96 students who competed at the national level after qualifying in district and state competitions. Teams consisted of individuals throughout Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas and Ohio.
“State was back in the fall and nationals were early summer," Chambers said. "That’s a long period of time where you can forget stuff. We really had to get our heads together to work hard and come together as a team, but it paid off.”
The competition consists of four segments: grassland condition, wildlife habitat, soil interpretation and plant identification. Members of each team had 25 minutes to judge each segment. In the end, a higher score for Columbia in the plant identification portion of the competition broke a tie-breaker against Aurora.
“We prepared for the competition by going to a variety of pastures and we worked on identification and wildlife evaluation,” Chambers said. “This consisted of determining whether the plot was good enough for wildlife and we graded the plot on a scale.”
Matt Curry, a private land conservationist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, has been one of the annual coordinators for the competition for nine years. He says the main objective of the competition is to make participants better land managers and be able to identify questions and concerns regarding the land.
“We are training future farmers and we're essentially teaching them how to be better at their craft," Curry said. "The curriculum is very difficult and the people who excel in it are bright kids. It’s a real comprehensive hands-on curriculum. We're going to be farming for many centuries and our goal is to get better at it.”