In late June, Chert Glades chapter members took advantage of an opportunity to learn more about prairie reconstruction and experience results of projects underway at Shawnee Trail CA. Early spring training sessions with Dave Darrow had not allowed us to actually see the fruits of his team’s labor and he had repeatedly offered to host a return when forbs were showy. While Dave is now a Private Lands Manager for MDC, the decades he has invested in prairie and Shawnee Trail management still inspires him to share both details of planning as well as results, good and not-so-good, with other prairie enthusiasts.
The first thing we learned was that a clear understanding of the specific grassland resource, a plan with stated goals, and lots of patience were critical to any reconstruction project. At Shawnee, there is a small remnant prairie plus a mix of over 3,000 acres of grassland, pasture, overgrown fields and rented cropland intended to provide good habitat for grassland wildlife species. In addition to fishable lakes and ponds for fishermen, the acreage attracts hunters, hikers, birders, and nature photographers.
While native prairie is a mix of grasses and wildflowers (forbs), Dave has always preferred to first concentrate on establishing forbs, and often includes 70 or 80 species in a seed mix. The number of species and varieties depend on what has been harvested from Shawnee fields for the season. Some seed is held back to enhance the next year’s planting mix, but germination dwindles greatly after a year in storage. He would like to “fine-tune” some locations with additional species that either didn’t show or were not included in an initial mix. That option is now out of his hands
We were shown adjacent fields where varying amounts of seed had been initially sown (5/8/10 lbs/acre) and told that after 3 years sampling they exhibited the same degree of density and biodiversity. Dave wishes this “experiment” could have included even fewer lbs/acre which is an important cost consideration for those who must buy in native seed. While it was obvious the floristic richness in each field was similar, there were subtle differences in these fields even though the same species mix had been used. These differences might be a reflection of the soil or soil history onsite and informs one of his other “research” impulses to engage in annual or biannual soil sampling on the reconstructions.
Sharecrop agreements with local farmers help provide food and cover for wildlife. Agreements specify acceptable practices as well as which chemicals can be used. Mowing and controlled burning are used regularly to manipulate vegetation in the grassland fields to improve habitat. Where the “Roundup Ready” corn fields were along the road, it was easy to see the unnaturally clean soil under the crop. Surprisingly, this is advantageous in the long run, since a few years in corn can exhaust the fescue and other exotic seeds and allow a much easier establishment of native grassland species when the time comes.
Dave and Nick, the new manager, would like to expand these practices to include cattle grazing, but due to the current controversy over “patch-burn” grazing must , for now, limit this option to fields where it was previously introduced. The timing of this decision led to one of Shawnee’s biggest “failures.” Dave showed us, a field where gamagrass has become dominant and overwhelmed the rich mix of forbs. The grass had been added to the seed mix in anticipation of inclusion in a “patch-burn” plan, since gamagrass is like “ice cream” in attractiveness to cattle and promotes rapid weight gain. Without cattle in place the grass has definitely reduced the floristic richness and another means must be devised toimprove this field.
We learned there are many ways to approach prairie reconstructions, and no two managers share the same philosophy. Dave does not favor widespread use of herbicides except for spot-spraying things like sericea. An interesting aside, experimentation at Shawnee has shown that using the manufacturer’s recommended rate of application on sericea “shocks” and kills the top of the plant while not allowing translocation to the roots. By cutting the dose down substantially, the top dies more slowly, translocation to the roots is accomplished, and this nasty exotic can be eliminated!
Later in our tour, we stopped at two adjacent fields, 1 and 3 years into their reconstruction, it was easy to recognize that after 3 years a field starts to show some recognizable prairie forbs, but after 1 year it does not resemble prairie at all to the uninformed (or informed either, according to Dave). This stop emphasized the need for patience…but not without hope.
At last we arrived at the piece de resistance, the oldest reconstruction at Shawnee, at least 10 years old, and here we experienced a very prairie-like situation with a very proud Dave Darrow who was there a decade ago when it was birthed. As if to underscore success and satisfaction, the iconic prairie species, Bobwhite quail, serenaded us with its call, from a gate post, although Nick noted the “patch burn” fields across the road provided more critically productive habitat for the “Bob.” Here, Dave took time to share his discomfort with terms like “prairie restoration” and “prairie reconstruction,” feeling another term should be applied, maybe “diverse grassland planting.” He emphasized that it would take many lifetimes for this acreage to approximate what nature actually provided as prairie before the time of European settlement.
So ended a wonderfully enriching field session with much to ponder…You should have been there!