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Eager for the cackle of pheasants?

Cattle on the Moonstone farm west of Montevideo move to a new paddock with the opening of an electric fence gate. The herd includes Angus and Lowline Angus. <b>(Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)</b>1 / 3
Richard Handeen leads his cattle to a new paddock on Moonstone farm west of Montevideo. Handeen said the decision to return corn and soybean lands to pasture and livestock production has been a good one. <b>(Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)</b>2 / 3
Audrey Arner (at far right) leads a visiting group on a tour of native prairie owned by Jon and Mary Haff located adjacent to their Moonstone farm west of Montevideo. Mary Haff and her children are shown next to Arner. Others identified on the photo are from left: Justin Lee, Judy Swenson, and Emily and Erik Kallio and their children. <b>(Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)</b>3 / 3

MONTEVIDEO -- Pheasant hunters eager to hear the cackle of their favorite game bird might want to listen first for the bellow of grazing cattle.

Wildlife managers are increasingly seeing the value of bringing cattle back to the landscape of western Minnesota. Hooved animals are important to the ecology of the grasslands that pheasants and other ground nesting birds require, including our native meadowlarks and bobolinks.

Grazing animals are as much a part of the natural prairie ecology as fire, according to David Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle refuge. "You can't just take over one part without the other,'' said Trauba as he helped lead a tour July 8 at the Moonstone farm west of Montevideo. Cattle now graze in pastures where corn and soybeans had been raised for decades.

''It's all about diversity and balance,'' said Trauba.

It's also about encouraging more perennial cover -- pasture included -- to create more of that nesting habitat for pheasants and native birds.

Pheasants Forever was among the sponsors of the tour at the Moonstone farm. Anthony Hauck, public relations director, said his organization is interested in opportunities to create habitat for pheasants.

If we can find ways to make it profitable for farmers to return more land to pasture land, we can create more nesting habitat and return more wildlife to the landscape, game birds included.

Richard Handeen and Audrey Arner have been doing exactly that since the early 1990's at their Moonstone farm. Originally homesteaded by Handeen's great-grandfather, the couple began farming it in 1972. They raised corn and soybeans.

Handeen said they began the transition to a livestock-based farm in steps. He can still recall his worries at replacing some of his corn and soybean land with alfalfa.

Today the 240-acre farm is an island of diversity amidst a sea of corn and soybeans. It holds pasture land divided into paddocks for a mixed herd of lowline Angus and Angus.

There's also a vineyard, and the farm itself is crisscrossed by a mosaic of 42-different types of nut and fruit bearing trees.

The farm even holds an over-night guest cabin, the Broodio.

The conversion of the farm occurred in step with their efforts to direct market their grass fed beef and promote a local foods economy, said Handeen.

Today, about one-half of the meat is sold directly to local consumers, while metropolitan area customers speak up for a nearly equal amount.

Handeen said their venture was the right fit for both of them. They appreciated the opportunity to make their customers partners in what they were doing.

And, they appreciated the benefits of replacing the sounds of endless rows of corn rustling in the wind with the songs of an astonishing variety of birds, not to mention of bellow of the cattle.

Despite the risks of their venture, Handeen said they had no qualms about pressing forward. "It was the kind of life we wanted to live,'' he said.

It's still a journey. Raising livestock and direct marketing requires constant innovation and intensive management, he noted.

Some of that is ahead for Trauba as well. He is working on a plan to add about 12-miles of fencing to the 2,000 acre wildlife refuge he manages. About one-half of that land is native prairie.

Trauba said they are developing a plan to graze the lands for the benefit of both the natural prairie and restored grasslands. Similar endeavors are underway on other wildlife lands, including the Ordway Prairie in Pope County, for the same goals of restoring the balance that these lands require.

No one may appreciate the benefits of all this more than those who hunt and fish. Anything we can do to benefit and increase our grasslands will mean more habitat for everything from pheasants to waterfowl, said Trauba.

Grasslands also act as natural filters and have a direct impact on improving water quality, and in turn, our fishing opportunities as well, he pointed out.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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