MAHOMET — Richard Hungerford Jr. spent the first part of his career in the West, becoming an expert on livestock grazing and resource management in the harsh climates and fragile environments of Texas, North Dakota and Nebraska.
Sixteen years ago, he moved to Champaign County and found a land that was quite different.
"When I first got here, I said, 'You can grow more grass here by accident than they can out West, in a lifetime,'" he said. "It's some of the best soil in the world."
Hungerford, a state resource conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, was recently honored with the 2011 Distinguished Grasslander Award at the annual conference of the American Forage and Grasslands Council. The award recognizes individuals over age 55 who have worked extensively in grazing issues and resource management.
A native of southwest Texas — where "it's all pretty much range land," as he puts it — his interest was sparked by watching his father work with livestock.
After college, Hungerford joined the USDA agency now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He helped educate farmers and ranchers about good grazing practices and developed grazing management plans — work he's still doing, 35 years later.
Since then, he's worked in North Dakota and Nebraska before coming to central Illinois in 1995. Although there's more cropland than pasture in this part of the country, "there's more (livestock) here than people realize," Hungerford said.
The premise of livestock grazing might seem simple to those outside the industry, but there's more to it than just setting a herd of cattle loose in a grassy pasture. Hungerford and his staff at NRCS help farmers develop grazing systems specifically tailored to their needs.
He can calculate how many animals can safely graze in a given area, taking into account soil types, varieties of forage and the livestock itself. His job is half education, half technical assistance.
One issue he focuses on is extending the grazing season — planting forage crops such as turnips that grow longer into the colder months, cutting down on the amount of feed that livestock require in late autumn, winter and early spring.
"If you look at livestock operations here in Illinois, 50 percent of (expenditures) are feed costs," he said.
There's a wide variety of forage options for Illinois pastures, from fescue to orchard grasses to legumes. He and his co-workers at NRCS also help farmers deal with invasive plants such as honeysuckle.
Hungerford said that grazing management is "not as complicated" here as in the West, because the comparatively gentle climate.
"It's more forgiving here," he said. In Texas or North Dakota, on the other hand, "if you do something wrong, it could take a lifetime to recoup."
Hungerford also encourages farmers and ranchers to rotate livestock from one pasture to another every two to three days to give forages time to renew themselves. The animals themselves are the best judge of when it's time to seek greener pastures, he said: "They'll tell you when it's time to move."
On his own farm, he grazes cattle and sheep in the same pastures. The sheep eat smaller plants like Kentucky bluegrass, leaving larger grasses for the cows. "The ideal thing is to get a uniform clip across the pasture," he said.
He said that central Illinois is a good place to raise livestock, but that the rich soil and high prices of corn and soybeans make farmers more likely to plant crops instead of pasturing animals.
Hungerford and his wife Becky raise cattle and sheep at his farm north of Mahomet.
"I've just got small acres," he said. "But I figured if I was going to talk the talk, I'd walk the walk."
He's also served with Cornbelt Fire Protection District since 2000.
He walks his pastures several times a week, noticing how the animals and the environment affect each other — the study to which he's dedicated his career.
"We all have to be stewards of the land," he said. "That's one thing I learned early in life."