• Ian Thompson

The Attack of the Killer Foots


Those of you who have been following our blog for a while know that Nan Awaya Farm is about more than raising buffalo. One of our goals is working to restore the farm’s landscapes back into a functioning native ecosystem, more similar to what was here before colonization. The buffalo are just one part of that. Native ecosystems are, of course, essential for the continuance of the traditional culture that we are a part of. At a broader level, healthy ecosystems are just as essential for the future of humanity at large, from producing the oxygen that we breathe, to supplying the insects that pollinate the agricultural crops that feed us.


Our posts have shared several ways that we are working towards restoring our pastures into being native ecosystems. After implementing new management techniques we've seen many dozens of native plant species reemerge from the soil. However, in some areas the damage caused by past management has been extensive enough that important plants are just missing from the soil's seed bank.


In a recent blog, we mentioned a planting technique we’re trying out this year, which (combined with the right management) seems to have a lot of potential for restoring these plants to the land. We simply go out into a pasture and use a heavy garden hoe to remove the existing vegetation and roots from a 1-2ft diameter circle of earth, and then sew the seeds of the missing plants into the loosened soil. We plant every gopher mound we can too.


This winter, we planted hundreds of these patches with seeds from an assortment of as many different wildflower species as we could collect and/or reasonably afford to purchase. This spring, we’ve been planting native grasses using the same technique. To date, fall-to-spring, we’ve created more than 2,100 of these little seeded patches in our pastures. This effort has been equivalent to clearing and hoeing a continuous garden row 6 city blocks in length - not a labor-free proposition. Yet, other than purchasing some of the seeds, it has been entirely cost-free. For someone who spends way too much time sitting behind a computer these days, the satisfaction of getting to run labor-toughened hands through the soil once again has been priceless.


With warmer temperatures and the little bits of spring rains we’ve had so far, these patches are bursting with new, vibrant, green, native life. Amazing! It's always amazing to see the miracle of life coming up in a new spring planting. This time, the feeling is especially gratifying, because we have tried so hard in past years to reestablish these plants on our farm with little success. Despite four years of our best efforts, last summer we only had one upland sunflower plant on the entire farm. Right now, there are thousands of them, along with many thousands of other native tallgrass plants…all newly planted and currently under 2 inches in height. At this size, they’re a little vulnerable.


The farm may have been the scene of some death-defying feats over time, but this weekend, it became the scene of the feet of death. In other words, we started experimenting with letting the buffalo and Choctaw ponies into areas that had been planted. We began with a pasture that had a few planting scattered here and there and found that the impacts to them were minimal. Next, we moved them to a pasture with some denser plantings. We found that the animals concentrated the activity of their giant clod hoppers, in the more densely planted areas, pummeling the young plants and churning through the softened soil. - Think of 500lb Clorox bottles with sharpened edges and you have a close approximation to the feet of a buffalo bull setting down on a young plant. - Pictured in the image at the top is a patch of young partridge pea tromped by the horses.


...You may have been wondering about this post's catchy title. Well, for the past few weeks, we’ve been enjoying old reruns of the Joy of Painting, with Bob Ross. His mannerism combined with the magical ability he had to make naturescapes appear from a wet canvas are exceptionally effective at melting away the stresses of the day right before bedtime. Mr. Ross often referred to the roots of the trees he painted as their “foots”. Naturally, when we saw some of our plantings with the giant hoof prints in them last weekend, we couldn't help referring to the scene as the “Attack of the Killer Foots”.


Building electrified exclosures to keep the herd out of the planted areas has been necessary to prevent any followup attacks by the killer foots. The fact that exclosures are worth the effort really says something about the effectiveness of the current planting. The 2,000 seed bombs that we had made and planted in our pastures during past years' experiments, only resulted in about 10 mature prairie plants that we know of. Currently, most of the new garden hoe plantings have two dozen plants each in them. For now, this a success rate is 5,000 times better than the seed bombs.


There is no question that this has been a better technique for us, but timing probably has something to do with it too. Specific plant species have to have the right microbes in the soil to be able to grow. After 5 years of managing to prevent our pastures from getting overgrazed, we're noticing a change in the soil. We had never seen an earthworm on our land until a year ago. This year, we've come across earthworms in hundreds of the plantings, both lowland and upland. Although not native, their presence speaks of improving soil health. Soil scientists say that you can't practically increase the organic content of soil through good grazing management, once it has been depleted through bad management. We 're not disputing that, but something is definitely changing. There may not be any test results to quantify it, but the soil in the pastures is noticeably darker and has more of that organic, sweet, garden kind of smell, and less of that sterile sand smell than it did in the past.


Obviously, over the coming year, many individuals within our masses of new little plants will out compete each other, get trampled, dry up, etc. Still, if current appearances are any indication, we’ll definitely end up with mature plants from almost every single planting. We’ll keep planting seeds from a few species until the end of April, and if this technique still looks good, start planting other areas this fall. As these young plants mature and produce their own offspring, these pastures will continue to become more complete native ecosystems right before our/your eyes.

Every day, humanity is damaging the landscapes that support our very existence. Yet, at the level of the household yard, or the family farm, it is entirely possible to reverse this trend, if and when it becomes a priority. If a humble garden hoe has opened up some exciting possibilities in our efforts at Nan Awaya Farm, think of what you can do for the land you interact with.

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