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 the 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:
Prairies will have taller grasses than a steppe
Significant differences in biodiversity — hundreds of species of grasses, herbs, mosses, and other plants in prairies and steppes
Prairies 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.
Fire: Eliminates trees and shrubs; improves the growth of grasses and wildflowers
Bison: Prairie plants have adapted to grazing by bison and other large plant-eaters by having underground growing points that quickly sprout after being eaten
Drought: 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, perhaps in conjunction with the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.
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.
The inclusion of these various species in the seed mix helps create habitats and food sources for indigenous insects, pollinators, and wildlife.
It’s important to note that if your intention is to establish a conservation prairie and rehabilitate your land, it is not suitable for activities such as forage production, commercial purposes, or high-impact recreational pursuits (e.g., operating 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:
Seed harvesting on occasion
Low-impact recreational activities (hunting, hiking, etc.)
5. What are the conservation benefits of prairie restoration?
Creating a conservation prairie has the following benefits:
Improve water quality
Enhance soil stabilization
Create habitat for birds, animals, and insects
Support 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:
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: Determine whether the soil is dry, moderate, or wet in nature.
2. Erosion: Identify any steep slopes that are prone to erosion.
3. Herbicide treatment: Assess if there have been any herbicide treatments that could hinder seed germination or pose a 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.
You may or may not need to remove vegetation depending on your land.
In the case of annual crop fields, there is no requirement to remove vegetation.
Simply sow the seeds in the winter after the harvest.
However, if you intend to plant the seeds in the spring after the harvest, it is advisable to conduct a round of herbicide application to manage the growth of annual weeds before planting.
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.
Light crop residue (e.g., soybean field): If the field has minimal crop residue, such as in a soybean field, lightly harrowing the area with a spike tooth harrow is sufficient.
In cases of frost seeding or no-till drilling, site preparation may not be necessary at all.
Heavy crop residue: For fields with significant crop residue, you can take the following steps:
- Mow the stalks
- Optionally, lightly disc the site to incorporate the crop residue into the soil (skip this step if it is unnecessary for the site conditions).
- Make a seedbed by cultipacking or rolling the site
- If the soil is compacted, till it to a depth of 4 inches and use a drag harrow or chain link fence to break up soil clods. Be aware that this process may bring weed seeds to the surface, so herbicide applications might be necessary.
Seeding 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 seeding, utilize an agitating spreader (such as a Vicon seeder mounted to a tractor or ATV) to broadcast seeds into prepared seedbeds.
To incorporate the seeds into the soil during broadcasting, employ a light drag, such as a piece of chain link fence or packer pulled behind a tractor.
During certain periods of seeding, you may not need mechanical incorporation.
These periods include frost seeding, snow seeding, and ash seeding.
The conditions during such periods 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.
- May 1
- July 1
- When soil temperatures are above 50 degrees
Spring and early summer seeding promote warm-season grasses.
When dormant seeding, you should plant:
- December 1
- April 20
- 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.
- For sites with dry/mesic soils, use a single seed mix evenly distributed.
- If soil moisture varies across the site, apply separate seed mixes tailored to the different soil conditions.
- Dry ridge tops benefit from a dry conservation prairie mix, while areas with moderate soil moisture are suitable for a mesic mix.
- Wet to wet-mesic soils should be seeded with a wet prairie or meadow seed mix.
Finally, use the following seed rate depending on your site’s conditions.
- Plant a minimum of 40 seeds/square foot. This helps to reduce the risk of weed invasion.
- Decrease the seed rate to 30 seeds per square foot for areas with minimal weed pressure and excellent site preparation.
- Increase the seed rate to 50 seeds/square foot on steep slopes.
- For dormant seedings, increase seeding rates by 25 percent to account for lower germination rates and loss of seed to wildlife.
Establishment 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.
Furthermore, frequent mowing can prevent annuals from forming a dense canopy that hampers the growth of 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.
- Mowing to control annual weeds
- Selective use of herbicides to manage invasive perennial species
- Utilizing fire to promote native prairie species and discourage further invasion — burning should only be done on a controlled and rotational basis
- Regular monitoring of vegetation to assess the progress 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.
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:
Management level required to control weeds
Types of species and number of species selected for the seed mix
Cost of seed, which fluctuates from year to year
Labor 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.
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.
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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.