Indigenous people all over the world learned how to manage their lands by facilitating natural processes to achieve the results they desired. Working to do this on the farmstead is a learning opportunity that is challenging our level of awareness about the land, growing our appreciation for today's holistic land managers, and taking our respect for traditional ecological knowledge to new levels.
On April 7th, there was ice on the ground at the farmstead. Within just 5 weeks, the temperature was already into the triple digits. Until three days ago, it had not rained since we hit those temperatures. This has led to challenges for some of the plants growing in the sandy uplands that cover about half of the farmstead. The dry conditions there have been exacerbated by past management practices that have removed most of the carbon from the soil, making it less able to absorb and retain moisture. It is now nearly July, and the non-native Bermuda and Bahia pasture grasses that have been planted there are still mostly too short to graze.
This spring has been an entirely different story, however, for the native grasses (see October 2017 post). We’ve learned that moving our buffalo herd from pasture-to-pasture in such a way that after they graze an area, they don’t return for 90 days, creates conditions for native grasses to thrive. To date, we’ve identified 19 different native grass species on our land that are reappearing from seeds in the soil, or expanding outwards from areas that had some protection from overgrazing.
In summers like this, if the Bermuda and Bahia were all that we had, we’d be looking at spending money on hay, irrigation, and soil amendments. Conversely, with the 19 different native species, you can be assured that a poor growing year for some species will likely be a good year for others. Diversity is resiliency. Scribner’s Panicum, a native tallgrass that we had not seen much of before, has popped up all over the farmstead this year and is among the buffalo’s favorite feasts.
The native grasses are long-adapted to Oklahoma’s growing conditions. Most of them have extensive roots. For example, we've learned that an acre of Big Bluestem grass has roughly 14,000 pounds of roots. Not only do those roots allow the native grasses to be twice as efficient in transforming a given volume of rain into edible biomass for our animals, they also support a vast and complex array of microscopic organisms in the soil that allow it retain more water and absorb more carbon. This year, some of our struggling patches of Bahia grass are being invaded by vivid green clumps of 18-inch-tall Purple Top Drawing moisture and nutrients through its 6-foot-deep roots, this native tallgrass is currently out-competing the shorter-rooted non-native grass and the buffalo prefer it.
We’re learning that it’s not just about individual plants, though; it’s about ecosystem. Native grasses provide a burst of protein right when the buffalo need it for calving and breeding. In the fall, they provide the energy that the animals need to prepare for winter. From limited, but growing strongholds, native grasses combined with diverse native forbs, are reforming prairie sod on some areas of the farmstead. The picture above shows such a patch, dominated Purple Top, which thrives in our sandy soil. What you can’t see in this photo is the dense and deep mat of roots that is developing under these robust plants. Under the current management conditions, this prairie sod is expanding and in so-doing, is giving our uplands more protection against future drought and erosion.
Human-caused climate change is a reality and it is accelerating in ways that increasingly challenge plants and that will ultimately challenge humanity’s own existence. Native prairie can help us face this challenge on several fronts. The diverse ecosystem of the native prairie, adapted to the climate extremes of the last 10,000 years, can thrive under a variety of harsh conditions where introduced pasture grasses struggle. This can not only save farmers money on hay and irrigation, but can buy portions of our food system time as the world transitions to a renewable energy economy. Current climate projections indicate that to avoid the worst of climate change, even if the world economy fully transitioned to renewable energy, it wouldn’t be enough. We also have to remove some of the carbon that we have put into the air over the last century. Native tallgrass prairie can hold up to 20 tons of carbon per acre in its deep roots. A prairie restoration can pull up to one quarter ton of carbon out of the air each year and put it in the ground. Multiplied over our 160 acres, that more than offsets the carbon than is currently released by our own household and vehicle into the atmosphere each year. The side effects are increased soil fertility, added protection against drought, providing our buffalo with the types of grasses that they prefer anyway, and making things a little easier for pollinators, like the monarch butterflies.
Without a concerted effort to eradicate the invasives, native plants may never completely take over our farmstead. However, with the 90 days periods of rest, the pendulum has definitely swung back more towards natives and the land is trying to find a new balance. It will be interesting to see where that new balance lies in a few years. In the meantime, we leave you with two graphics that have been food for thought to us. The first one is a vintage shot of a clump of Little Bluestem grass in northern New Mexico that has prevented feet of topsoil from eroding through its massive root system. The second is of the root system of introduced pasture grass (left) compared with the root systems of several common prairie plants.