Prairie Connection Experiments
We've been silent for a little bit. This blog was temporarily interrupted by life at Nan Awaya Farmstead. In November, we helped run the Oklahoma State Bison sale. At the end of the event, Amy had a terrifying encounter with a panicking animal (she has since made a full recovery). As Amy was healing, we had such a spectacular series of equipment breakdowns that you'd think we were exaggerating if we told you about them. Suffice it to say that when the computer broke down, it took a while to get to it on the fix-it list. Thank you for your patience.
Over the past couple months, we've had some good learning experiences, pertinent to the mission of the Nan Awaya project. When our gas-powered vehicle wore out, we were able to replace it with a lightly used hybrid electric car. Now a significant amount of our travel is powered by the sun. Even in rural Oklahoma, the transition was cheaper and easier than we would have thought. A few weeks ago, we slaughtered another meat animal from our herd. We've since been working to process all of the non-food items into traditional arts, including a braintanned buffalo robe. We'll probably share these adventures some day, but in this post we'd like to add a little more to the conversation about prairie restoration by sharing the experiments that we've been doing in our pastures this winter.
After 5 years of restorative management, we’re seeing our pastures respond in one of two basic ways. In a number of places, mostly on hillsides, bogs, or expanding outward from protected areas, we're seeing a healthy, diverse community of native prairie plants re-emerge from the soil. To date, we've identified 180 species of native grasses and wildflowers in these areas. Although there are a few important plants still missing (e.g. Eastern Gammagrass, Switchgrass, Pale Purple Coneflower) most of the native plant community has survived. Elsewhere, we're seeing a more limited native plant community reemerge, lacking all of the dominant prairie grasses and cow-tasty forbs. These are prime spots to be invaded Broomsedge Bluestem and Bermuda grass. It appears these grasses are filling the void where many important native plants, particularly the dominant grasses, have not survived in the soil.
Broomsedge Bluestem is a native tallgrass that has its place on the landscape. However, it’s roots put toxins into the soil that can prevent other plants from growing. If it gets too much of a head start without other species of plants around to compete with it, the result can be a big, dense patch of nothing but Broomsedge plants. Once they are established, these patches can persist for decades. This is far from ideal. Not only does a mono crop of Broomsedge prevent the plant diversity that provides so many of the benefits from the native prairie, but Broomsedge dramatically loses protein content as the season wears on. By late summer, this grass is almost useless to our grazing operation. Bermuda grass is a non native species, planted by ranchers because its tenacious rhizomes allow it to survive a lot of abuse. It can completely blanket the ground in places where it can find enough nitrogen in the soil. Although planted for forage, this grass is far from our bison's favorite meal. Ironically, the only native plant that seems to be able to consistently out compete Bermuda grass is Broomsedge. After having allowed ample years for native plants in our pastures to recover, it is time to start actively planting prairie seed in the areas where the native plant community has been weakened. In past years, we've experimented with quite a few planting techniques. Our criteria for evaluating them has been that the technique has to be able to efficiently get new prairie plants going without damaging the fabric of native plant community that already exists in the soil, and it has to be easy on our limited pocketbook. Under these criteria, the best technique we had found was to shallowly rake native seed into the areas where wild hogs had rooted up the soil. This winter, rather than waiting for these notoriously uncooperative creatures to root precisely in the spots where we need them to, we’ve been doing their part of the work with a heavy, Amish-made garden hoe. We use it to work over a circular area of ground, usually about 2 feet in diameter, removing the existing plants and roots, and breaking up the soil. Then, we broadcast about 800 native prairie seeds into the loose dirt (200 seeds per square foot) and shallowly cover them. The seed mixtures include as many local, sand-adapted species as we can reasonably get our hands on. We have one mix that is forbs, and another that is mostly grasses. Species that are likely to be aggressive or likely to get completely out competed are planted separately. We planted as many of the forb seeds as early in the cool season as possible so that they could spend the winter cold stratifying in the damp soil. The grass seeds can be planted up until April.
In pasture areas that seem to have a limited native seed bank, we’ve been doing our 2ft diameter plantings on a grid. The idea is to get native plants established that, in combination with the right management, can start to spread. Unlike plowing, with this method, the existing native plant community stays intact and there is no erosion. Because it involves less soil disturbance, maybe it will even lead to less of the disturbance-loving "weeds" that tend to dominate new prairie plantings.
The image at right is an example of adapting this technique to a particular setting. The acre-sized patch of short plant growth in the foreground has had so little vegetation on it that it burns up in the summer sun, even before drought conditions hit. Nevertheless, Bermuda grass is starting to invade from one side, and Broomsedge from another. For this experiment, we made our initial plantings on a 12 ft grid across this area. At the center of each 2ft diameter planting, we spread a mixture of native grass seed. Around it, we planted a forb mixture dominated by Partridge Pea. This legume grows wild just outside the fence line of this pasture. Our hope is that the Partridge Pea will improve the soil enough for the dominant native grasses to take hold. Because Bermuda grass thrives on nitrogen, we avoided planting the legumes in the area where it is invading. After the first planting across the patch, we came back and did a second planting in between the initial rows. The second planting is of Sand Lovegrass and Sand Dropseed, two good-grazing, sand-adapted native grasses that were already beginning to appear in this pasture to a limited extent.
It will take several years to fully evaluate the effectiveness of this technique, but we’re cautiously hopeful. After we started doing it, we learned that researchers experimenting with a similar technique have had good success. It makes sense. With so many seeds of diverse types in contact with a lot of bare soil, it would seem like something is bound to germinate and to like the spot that it is in. Of course, we've tried other techniques that made sense to us at the time, like seed bombs, that so far haven't proven as effective as we'd hoped. On the positive side, this is the first year we’ve found earthworms in our uplands and low areas. Although not native, they are a sign for improving soil health that should support the young plants we're trying to get started.
We’re adapting variations of this basic technique for other experiments. We’ve made some much larger plantings (8ft diameter) within dense stands of Bermuda grass. Picking every rhizome out of the hoed soil by hand before planting, Our hope is that we can get some tall native plants to grow and shade out the Bermuda before it can retake the hoed up territory. If so, we can build hot spots of prairie in these areas and work to expand them at the expense of the Bermuda in the future.
In the dense Broomsedge patches, we’ve been digging out some plants by their relatively shallow roots and doing our plantings on the vacated ground to see if we can insert more diversity. If successful, that might mean we could use Broomsedge plants as a wave of shock troops to invade and weaken dense mats of Bermuda grass, and then use our planting technique to reintroduce native diversity into those Broomsedge patches behind the initial wave.
We’ve planted roughly 7 acres in these experiments so far this winter, but these efforts have been about more than dispassionate experimentation. Although we have purchased some seed, the bulk of what we have planted has come from about 10 different areas that we have hand-collected on. These range from small patches of selected plants across the road from our farm to a much bigger prairie remnant that is under threat of development.
Right before the foundation for our house was poured, under the future footings, we scattered some earth that we had respectfully and responsibly obtained at an ancient Choctaw village site east of the Mississippi River. Nan Awaya Farm is located in the homeland of the Caddo Nation, and we respect that, but every time we go into our home, we are also literally standing on the Choctaw homeland. In a similar vein, Amy’s parents live on 80 acres of her Chickasaw great-grandmother’s original allotment land, a little over an hour west of our house. This is also where Amy lived for a number of years as a young woman. Earlier this year, the BIA cleared out a cedar forest that had dominated that land since before Amy and I had met. With the cedars gone, a beautiful native prairie emerged this summer (image below). Amy’s parents graciously let us collect from the abundant seed this fall. We planted only that seed on a grid across an acre of sparsely covered ground right out our back door.
Much like the part of the Choctaw homeland that lies under our house, when these plants come up out our back door, they will be a connection to the Chickasaw side of Amy’s family and to the land where she spent part of her youth. When we walk among those living plants, when our animals graze them, when we harvest meat and other products from those animals, the connections will only get stronger. It is such a privilege to try to restore native prairie to our farm, and all of the life affirming connections that entails.