Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Old" Prairie, "New" Prairie

My family is lucky enough to own about 40 acres of native prairie. This is the ecosystem that existed before white settlement. Less than 1% of Minnesota's native prairie remains. 
Our little patch escaped the plow because it is hilly and rocky. Cattle grazed on it years ago, but since prairie once supported bison, the cattle did not hurt it. 

The 80 or so acres around it had been farmed, but through much of the 1990's it was put into a government program called "Water Bank." My grandfather was paid a small rent to keep it out of production for 10 years. He was instructed to plant brome grass, clover and alfalfa. The Water Bank was successful, the clover and alfalfa restore the soils and the grass provides cover for wildlife. Pheasants in particular loved the area.

The problem for me was that the brome grass was invasive. Over the years, it spread to the native prairie and was choking out the native flowers and grasses. We talked about spot treating the brome with chemicals, but decided that unless we deal with the 80 acres of it surrounding the prairie, it would probably be futile. 

Once the Water Bank contract expired, Poppy and I discussed what to do with the land. We hayed it for a year or two while we explored options. My main concern was getting rid of the brome. I would rather have a field of corn or soybeans surrounding the prairie than the invasive grass.

Waiting paid off. The opportunity to sign up for a new program presented itself. The government announced a signup period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). One of the CRP programs called for planting native grasses and flowers. Landowners bid on what rent they will accept in exchange for planting natives and leaving them in place for 10 years. The program includes some cost share for the seeds and planting as well as conservation practices half way through the program. (Burning for example.)

We put in our bid and were accepted into the program. So, in the fall of 2003, we treated the Water Bank area with Roundup to kill all the brome. In the spring of 2004, the area was disked, then when the weed seeds germinated, we treated the area with Roundup again. Then disked, and packed the ground to prepare the seedbed. The grass seeds were planted using a "no-till drill." That lightly cut the soil and dropped in the seeds.

The grass seeds were purchased from a local company. They harvested the seeds for us from local prairies. The grass seeds we used were: Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Side Oats Gramma, and Canada Wild Rye. We applied for special permission to wait on the flower seeds and planted only the grasses in the Spring.

The grass came up in rows - just as it was planted. But along with the grasses came weeds. The reason we planted the grasses by themselves, is that we were able to treat the area with the herbicide Curtail. Curtail kills broadleaf weeds, but does not harm grasses. 

Flower seeds were planted in the fall, just before the frost. We rented the same no-till drill for the flower seeds. I selected 3 different seed mixes - one for upland, one for moist/wet areas, and one for the areas in between. Flower seeds are very expensive, and I did not want to waste seeds for plants that crave moisture by planting them on the hilltops and vice versa. Each of the mixes contained over 20 different species of flowers. 

In January of 2005, Poppy drove around scattering seeds on the frozen ground. (It was too bumpy for me as I was 7 months pregnant at the time.) The seeds he scattered were ones I had hand collected on the native prairie and dried in the barn. 

The plantings were very successful. The new prairie has many beautiful flowers, tall stands of grass, and very few weeds. Last summer, we came to the middle part of the contract and were required to either mow or burn. According to the contract, if we mowed, we either had to leave the clippings in place (which would choke out the growing plants) or haul the clippings away and burn them off site. Burning is beneficial to native grasses, so that was the natural choice for us.

Continuing to do the best job we could, we decided to split the area into two parts and burn half each year. The animals can escape the flames, but the crawling insects cannot. By splitting the area into two, the insects can re-populated the burned area.

So in 2008 we burned half the area. It was only on the "new" planted/restored prairie. This year, we burned the other half. This half included all of the "old" or native prairie and the remainder of the "new" prairie that did not get burned last year.

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