Prairie Restoration: 8 Things (2022) You Have To Know

Prairie restoration is the effort to restore prairie lands that were destroyed because of industrial, agricultural, commercial, or residential development.

Today, only 4 percent of original tallgrass prairies remain, and they face continued threats from agricultural development.

If you’re a landowner (particularly in the Midwest) who wants to use their land for something good, this conservation option may be for you!

In this blog, we’ll focus on how to transform existing agricultural land (or crop fields) into conservation prairies.

Here’s what you should know.

1. What is a prairie?

A prairie is an enormous stretch of flat grassland with moderate temperatures, moderate rainfall, and few trees.

Prairies can sometimes go by a variety of other names depending on the region.

Prairie is the most common name used in the Midwest.

You may also hear a prairie referred to as a grassland, pampas (South America), steppes (Central Eurasia), or savannas (Africa).

In reality, these names are simply referring to other types of grasslands.

There are two main kinds of grasslands: tropical and temperate.

The North American prairie is a temperate grassland along with the Eurasian steppe and the South American pampas.

The hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa and northern Australia are the tropical grasslands.

Still, you’ll hear these terms used interchangeably because they are highly similar.

Here are a few examples of the slight differences:

bulletPrairies will have taller grasses than a steppe

bulletSignificant differences in biodiversity — hundreds of species of grasses, herbs, mosses, and other plants in prairies and steppes

bulletPrairies have less than 10 percent of tree cover while savannas have less than 30 percent of tree cover

In this blog, we’ll focus solely on prairie restoration.

2. What is the foundation of a prairie?

Generally speaking, prairies develop where rainfall is lower and summer temperatures are higher.

Here are three factors that have influenced the prairie grasslands in the midwestern U.S.

bulletFire: Eliminates trees and shrubs; improves the growth of grasses and wildflowers

bulletBison: Prairie plants have adapted to grazing by bison and other large plant-eaters by having underground growing points that quickly sprout after being eaten

bulletDrought: Prairie plants often go dormant during droughts and then begin to grow again after droughts end

3. What is a conservation prairie?

If you’ve previously used a plot of land for farming, you may decide to convert it into a conservation prairie.

To do this, you’ll need to follow the steps for prairie restoration.

Here’s what you should know about a prairie conservation before beginning this process.

A conservation prairie is designed to closely mimic a native prairie (see above for more information).

You do this using a seed mix that includes a variety of flowering plants and grasses.

This mix of species helps to provide habitats and food for native insects, pollinators, and wildlife.

If you’re interested in creating a conservation prairie and restoring your land, then you should note it isn’t suitable for forage production, commercial uses, or high-impact recreational activities (i.e., driving ATVs).

4. What are the compatible uses of land after prairie restoration?

Because conservation prairies cannot be used for commercial uses or high-impact recreational activities, you may be wondering what exactly you can use them for.

Here are the compatible uses of land:

bulletCarefully managed grazing for habitat goals

bulletHaying for habitat goals

bulletOccasional seed harvest

bulletLow-impact recreational activities (hiking, photography, or hunting)

5. What are the conservation benefits of prairie restoration?

Creating a conservation prairie has the following benefits:

bulletImprove water quality

bulletEnhance soil stabilization

bulletCreate habitat for birds, animals, and insects

bulletSupport threatened and endangered plants and animals that depend on large continuous areas of prairies (grasslands)

6. What are the steps to restoring a native prairie?

Prairie restoration includes the following steps:

bulletSite assessment

To successfully take a crop field to a conservation prairie, you must do a site assessment.

This is because the success of a conservation prairie relies on site characteristics.

Here are some site characteristics that your assessment should identify before you get started.

1. Soil: Dry, moderate, or wet soil

2. Erosion: Steep slopes that are vulnerable to erosion

3. Herbicide treatment: Herbicide treatments that prohibit seed from germinating or risk of herbicide drift from neighboring crop fields

If you’ve never attempted prairie restoration previously, we recommend working with an expert in this field.

They can help to develop a restoration plan specific to your land and ensure your goals make sense with the site’s characteristics.

bulletVegetation removal

You may or may not need to remove vegetation depending on your land.

For annual crop fields, vegetation removal is not necessary.

Just plant the seed in the winter following harvest.

If you plan to plant the seed during the spring following a harvest, do a round of herbicide to control the annual weeds before planting.

bulletSeedbed preparation

Seedbed preparation is normally unnecessary unless crop residue is heavy enough to interfere with seeding.

An ideal “start state” for prairie restoration is a soybean field.

These fields are ready to seed using a broadcast seeding method.

If you’re starting with a different type of field, the best method will be influenced by the site conditions.

Here are the recommended protocols for seedbed preparation for both light crop residue and heavy crop residue.

For fields with a light crop residue (such as a soybean field), you should lightly harrow the field with a spike tooth harrow.

You do not need to prepare the site at all if frost seeding or no-till drilling.

For fields with a heavy crop residue, you can take the following action.

  1. Mow the stalks
  2. Lightly disk the site to incorporate residue into the soil (avoid if unnecessary for the site conditions)
  3. Cultipack or roll the site to create a firm seedbed
  4. Till to 4-inch depth and harrow with something like a drag harrow or chain link fence to break up soil clods if soils are compacted. This process can bring weeds to the surface so herbicide applications may be necessary.

bulletSeeding and planting

For successful planting, maximize seed-to-soil contact.

Upland prairies should be seeded using a no-till drill or the broadcasting method.

Broadcast seeding is recommended for conservation prairies because it creates a more natural appearance.

It also favors flowering plant species which contribute to the diversity of a prairie.

When you seed, you should broadcast seeds into prepared seedbeds using an agitating spreader (i.e., a Vicon seeder mounted to a tractor or ATV).

Use a light drag (i.e., a piece of chain link fence or packer pulled behind a tractor) to incorporate the seeds into the soil while broadcasting.

During certain periods of seeding, you may not need mechanical incorporation.

These periods include frost seeding, snow seeding, and ash seeding.

These conditions help to naturally incorporate seeds into the soil.

Your planting dates will depend on both the weather and location within the state.

Consult with native plant or seed suppliers or restoration specialists to determine the best planting dates.

Growing season plantings can occur during a few different times of the year.

  1. May 1
  2. July 1
  3. When soil temperatures are above 50 degrees

Spring and early summer seeding promote warm-season grasses.

When dormant seeding, you should plant:

  1. December 1
  2. April 20
  3. When soil temperatures are below 50 degrees for a consistent period

It helps to time up seeding right below a snowfall.

This can help prevent the loss of seeds from wildlife consumption.

Dormant seeding occurs in the late fall (also known as frost seeding) and promotes cool-season grasses and flowering plants.

When you plant, you’re using a mix of seeds.

However, you should still take into consideration soil moisture, habitat value, variety of warm and cool-season species, visual interest, etc.

The design of your site will vary depending on the site conditions.

Here are some tips you can use in your design.

  1. If your site has dry/mesic soils, sow a single seed mix evenly across the land.
  2. If soil moisture varies, apply separate seed mixes suited to the different soil moisture conditions.
  3. If your site has dry ridge tops, sow a dry conservation prairie mix.
  4. If your site has areas of moderate soil moisture, sow a mesic mix.
  5. If your site has wet to wet-mesic soils, select a wet prairie or meadow seed mix for those seeding zones.

Finally, use the following seed rate depending on your site’s conditions.

  1. Plant a minimum of 40 seeds/square foot. This helps to reduce the risk of weed invasion.
  2. Reduce the seed rate to 30 seeds/square foot if there’s minimal weed pressure and excellent site preparation.
  3. Increase the seed rate to 50 seeds/square foot on steep slopes.
  4. For dormant seedings, increase seeding rates by 25 percent to account for lower germination rates and loss of seed to wildlife.

bulletEstablishment and aftercare

Prairie restoration and the establishment of conservation prairies generally take roughly 5 to 7 years.

The development largely depends on soil moisture and climate conditions at the site.

However, to aid success, early management of the site is essential.

It helps to prevent re-invading weeds and woody species from competing with and displacing establishing natives.

With prairie restoration, annual weeds are the biggest management challenge.

Weeds can shade prairie seedlings and result in decreased growth and survival.

Additionally, frequent mowing can prevent annuals from creating a necessary dense canopy while suppressing native seedlings.

After seeding, aftercare is needed to discourage weeds and encourage the establishment of native species.

Here are some management strategies you can try to help your site succeed.

  1. Mowing annual weeds
  2. Using herbicide selectively to control invasive perennials
  3. Utilizing fire to promote native prairie species and discourage further invasion — burning should only be done on a controlled and rotational basis
  4. Monitoring vegetation to evaluate the establishment of prairie seedlings

With an expert, you should establish a short-term plan for years 1-5.

This management plan may include when to mow (or spot mow), pull plants/weeds, burn your site, etc.

Taking the right steps in these early years will help you to establish your conservation prairie and allow it to last for years to come.

bulletLong-term management

Once you hit year 6, you are in the long-term management phase of prairie restoration.

You’ll need to continue to burn your land in rotation to stimulate the productivity of native prairie plants and prevent the invasion of weeds and woody trees/shrubs.

You may consider adjusting your management plan if your native species are declining, the desired composition of species is not being maintained, or invasive species are increasing.

We recommend consulting with a specialist to see how and when you should adjust your management plan for the best results.

7. How long does prairie restoration take?

The initial phases of site preparation and seeding to create a conservation prairie can be completed within a single growing season.

Once you’ve seeded your site, you should anticipate 3 to 5 years of aftercare before your prairie is “established.”

This period is referred to as “prairie restoration.”

Once you hit year 6, you’ve entered the long-term management phase.

This means you can step back from the frequent and intensive management actions.

Although, you’ll still need to perform occasional management to ensure your prairie’s health.

8. How much does prairie restoration cost?

The estimated cost to restore an agricultural field to a conservation prairie is $1506 per acre.

However, this estimate is nearly a decade old (2013 prices).

With inflation, it’s likely to be much more expensive.

Additionally, costs associated with site assessment and restoration project planning are excluded from this estimate.

Here are all the factors that will influence the cost of prairie restoration:

bulletManagement level required to control weeds

bulletTypes of species and number of species selected for the seed mix

bulletCost of seed which fluctuates from year to year

bulletLabor and equipment available for the project

Prairie restoration can be expensive, and while it may be tempting to cut costs by reducing the number of species planted or the frequency of weed control, these adjustments can be costly in the long run.

When you cultivate a healthy and diverse prairie, you create a more resilient site.

Your diverse prairie will be about to fend off disturbances such as invasion by exotic species and extreme weather events (i.e., droughts) much better than a uniform one.

Final Thoughts

Prairies are critical habitats for native species like birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, and other small wildlife.

While they may appear like empty fields to the naked eye, they hold so much diversity.

Use the tips above to transform your land and participate in prairie restoration today.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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