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7 Tips for Prairie Establishment

Prairie plantings and wetlands can bring a different kind of wealth to your farm.

Prairie plantings are gaining in popularity. Their multi-purpose values make them even more attractive to landowners. Prairie plantings can provide wildlife cover, pollinator habitat, hay production, or help reduce erosion.

To make a prairie project succeed, there are several things you should be aware of. Here are seven tips for planting and maintaining a prairie project.

1. Know when to plant.

A dormant seeding in the fall is the “absolute best time” to plant prairie, says Pete Berthelsen, a Nebraska-based prairie expert. “A dormant seeding occurs after the first hard freeze so that the seeds you plant will not germinate and grow that fall,” he says. “Cold temperatures and winter precipitation settle the seed into the soil and will stimulate germination in the spring.”

Spring seeding before your crop planting can work, too. It’s ideal to plant prairie following a soybean crop and burndown herbicide.

2. Get a good mix.

There are numerous planting plans and seed mix designs available on the web, says Laura Jackson, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa (tallgrassprairiecenter.org).

A good native seed company for your region likely will have a prairie mix that is appropriate for your site, including plants that are all native to your region, are specific to sun or shade conditions, and are for wet, mesic, or dry sites, she says.

If you plant in the spring, Jackson recommends a one-to-one mix (seeds/square feet) of grasses and sedges to wildflowers. If planting in the fall, double the amount of grasses in the mix. Your seed mix should include an array of grasses and flowers, up to 40 or more species.

The larger your planting, the more species you can include. Seed can be expensive, but don’t skimp if you want to get a good stand of prairie habitat, Jackson says. “If you get sticker shock on the seed prices, remember that you only have to plant it once.”

3. Make sure you mow.

Mow frequently in the first year, keeping stands trimmed below knee height, even mid-calf height, and mowing to 4 to 6 inches, Jackson says.

“The prairie plants are all perennials, and they will not generally bloom the first year anyway since they’re busy growing roots down. Mowing lets light in down to the surface of the ground where the prairie seedlings are still small and vulnerable. The second year, you will still have a lot of weeds, but the prairie plants will be strong enough to take them on,” she says.

In the second year, Jackson recommends mowing once, early in the year.

4. Use all the tools.

Managers at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, a 5,600-acre prairie restoration in Iowa, use a variety of tools for preparing and managing the large tract, including mechanical means such as mowing, chemicals when necessary, and fire.

“Use the least harmful method that will effectively control the invasive species in your plot,” says Megan Wandag, a park ranger at the refuge.

“For some, simply mowing or cutting them when they are flowering and before seeds are produced is effective. Fire can be used to control some invasives, especially if your planting is larger. For a few plants, chemical treatment with herbicide is the only way to control them,” she says.

5. Take the long view.

Any habitat can always be improved, if time and resources allow, Wandag says. You can increase plant diversity by overseeding and mowing closely the first year, she says.

“Habitat will always need to be managed for invasive plants. With native plants, it’s also a good idea to cut back, mow, or burn the dead plant material at least every few years in the springtime. The duff can build up quickly, making it harder for plants to sprout in spring and harder for new seeds to grow.”

Jackson recommends suppressing perennial weeds like Canada thistle that are commonly found in farm country. “Learn to recognize it while small and spot-spray, rather than wait until you have a huge colony of it,” she says.

6. Find financial assistance.

USDA’s CRP continuous sign-up can reduce your prairie establishment costs by 80% or more. In some cases, it can provide annual rental payments that can offset your opportunity costs and can rival returns from marginal cropland.

Additional financial incentives may be available for practices like filter strips and riparian buffers. Though the name has been changed to the Wetland Reserve Easements program, USDA-NRCS continues to provide technical and financial assistance for 30-year, term, and permanent easements for wetlands conservation like the Willis project. (See story above.) Federal, state, and private programs offer various types of financial and technical support.

7. Be patient, enjoy the ride.

Your planting is not going to look like a prairie the first year, experts say. It’s going to look more like a weed patch.

“Enjoy the ride, enjoy the process, enjoy the development of the plants and the different wildlife species that come to use your planting,” Wandag says.

Just add water

Paul Willis simply broke a couple tile lines to create a wetland on his place. It wasn’t long before willows and other water-loving plants showed up. Ray McCormick, an Indiana farmer and national conservation leader, points out that adding water to land in the form of a wetlands restoration can make an immediate impact on the landscape, including providing habitat for endangered pollinators like honeybees and monarch butterflies.

In creating a wetland, you’ll tap the native seed bank, McCormick says. “Seed from plants like milkweed and swamp smartweed, long dormant in the soil, will spring to life in the wet soil and bring all sorts of benefit to pollinators,” he says.

Another technique using plants that can stand wet feet is to create a rain garden, McCormick says. Locate one someplace that can collect water, like at the end of your driveway, which produces a lot of runoff including pollutants. Plants take up the pollutants, improve water quality in your watershed, and create habitat for wildlife and pollinators, McCormick says.

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