Featuring facets of agriculture and conservation as diverse as the region itself, the 78th Elk County Livestock and Conservation tour spanned a wide range of topics and topography.

Beginning at Howard, Kansas, the tour featured 4-H member Wyatt Fechter, who showcased his family’s Maine Anjou cattle herd as he spoke about genetic concerns within their breed.  Tibial hemimelia and pulmonary hypoplasia with anasarca are two recessive genetic conditions resulting in calf loss each year, especially in Maine Anjou or Maine Anjou influenced breeds.

“TH originated in Galloway cattle in the 1960s but the current breeds affected include Maine Anjou, Shorthorn, Chianina and Simmental cattle,” Fechter said. “To break the name down — the tibia is a bone in the rear leg and hemimelia means total or partial absence.”

TH symptoms include malformed or fused joints due to twisted tibia bones, Fechter said. Calves with the condition may also have abdominal hernia, skull deformities or a shaggy long hair coat and will be stillborn or die within a few days of birth, as TH is a terminal trait. 

PHA is also a difficult obstacle for Maine Anjou breeders. The two traits are genetically linked and both result in death.

“These calves are born with small, underdeveloped lungs,” Fechter said. “Anasarca is a term for generous swelling of the body due to excessive fluid accumulation and many of these calves will be aborted early due to that fluid accumulation.”

Calves with PHA that would normally weigh around 80 pounds at birth can weigh as much as 200 pounds due to fluid accumulation — resulting in increased dystocia and often early abortions. Fechter urged producers to consider genetic testing to avoid the effects of breeding carriers.

“Because both of these traits are recessive traits and can be so devastating, testing has become very important to the Maine Anjou breed,” Fechter said. “A simple blood, hair or semen test can be performed to make sure you’re not breeding a carrier.”

Timber Marketing and Woodland Management

While timber may be overlooked as a valuable commodity in the Flint Hills, Dennis Carlson, a district forester with the Kansas Forest Service, said oak and walnut trees can be a valuable asset.  He advised landowners to consider lasting effects on the woodland areas and forward thinking management practices before deciding on a harvest strategy.

“Right now most of our trees like hackberry, sycamore and elm can be harvested but the cost to haul to the mill is so high that a lot of times you’ll get very little or nothing at all for them,” Carlson said. “If you’re only cutting walnut and oak out of your woodlands then we are hitting an unfortunate cycle where we’re allowing less desirable species like hackberry trees to take over.”

Factors like overcrowding in the tree canopy affect walnut stands, while oak trees are more dependent on the use of deliberate fire to encourage healthy growth.

“Oak especially requires fire because it is a fire-dominant species,” Carlson said. “We saw that at the turn of the century especially — there was more oak because fire was a much more common occurrence in these areas and now we’ve taken it out of the equation.”

Aside from management and tree selection, marketing oak and walnut timber is mostly about the size and condition of the trees. Trees producers can’t encircle with their arms will normally be 17 inches or more in diameter and are a good size for harvesting, Carlson said.

“When loggers come out to take a look they talk about logs whereas I talk about trees — and there’s a huge difference between the two when you’re talking about board footage,” Carlson said. “Loggers are looking at a log on the ground measured inside bark diameter — that cylinder through the tree.”

Loggers look for long, straight trees without low branches and will typically take only the largest part of the trunk, leaving all of the limbs behind.

 “A lot of times limb wood has a different cellular strength and will make boards turn over because of the compression and tension in those limbs,” Carlson said. “When they log a tree, everything except the very straight portion through the center of the tree will stay here.”

To gain perspective on tree value, Carlson suggested a walk-through of the trees on your property to look for defects and to take size measurements. Tree value decreases quickly if the tree has blemishes, so it is important to know if the tree is worth more to the landowner than it would be to the loggers.

“You’ll look at the tree on four sides, the same way you would look at it if you were putting it through a sawmill,” Carlson said. “What you’re looking for is any defects — those could include lightening strikes, limbs, swirls or bird pecks.”

The chances of a perfect tree are pretty low, Carlson said. Most trees will always have some defect and only 7 percent of trees in unmanaged woodlands will fall veneer.

The Kansas Forest Service has resources including timber guidelines and a recommended list of timber buyers by county. For more information, visit www.kansasforests.org/resources/.

No-till Farming Practices

Natural Resource and Conservation Services Rangeland Management Specialist Ethan Walker made a splash during the tour, doing a side-by-side soil health demonstration using two samples of the regional silty clay soil. Walker compared a sample from an 18-year no-till operation with a conventionally tilled field just feet away, showing the importance of water infiltration and soil structure.

Ethan Walker

Ethan Walker, NRCS rangeland management specialist, demonstrated soil health on the tour in a side-by-side comparison of silty clay soil.

“We’ve had a lot of emphasis on the physical properties of soil and have kind of ignored the biological properties of the soil — and I think a lot of that is because we just don’t know what’s going on beneath our feet,” Walker said. “We’ve got some new research and technology that has allowed us to see and further understand those biological properties in a way that’s truly amazing.”

Emphasizing the importance of the underground, living ecosystem to overall soil health, Walker urged tour participants to keep in mind the many predator-prey relationships in their underground food webs before exposing the soil to the sun and potentially throwing delicate relationships out of balance. 

“What we see a lot of times in conventional tillage systems is a broken ecosystem,” Walker said. “In a broken ecosystem, our soil turns to dirt.”