Grandpa’s “Accidental” Prairie Restoration Project

In the late 1950’s, my grandfather bought a quarter section of farmland just southwest of Stockham, Nebraska.  At the time, all but about 26 acres of that 160 acre land parcel was in row crops.  The unfarmed areas (the steepest slopes and wettest draws) were a combination of native prairie and other “waste” ground.  From what I understand, Grandpa’s intent was to buy the land and put much of the cropland back to native grass pasture, keeping only the flattest areas and most productive soils to farm.  Regardless of whether or not that was his initial intent, he did indeed do that restoration project in 1962 – using the Soil Conservation Service’s Great Plains Program to provide cost-share for the seeding and construction of a livestock dam.  Approximately 87 acres of cropland was planted with a mixture of native grasses, including primarily big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, little bluestem, side oats grama, and western wheatgrass – with a little blue grama thrown in too.  (We still have the receipts from the seed company.)

Starting in 1964, Grandpa started grazing the new pasture – including the unfarmed portions – and it’s been grazed annually ever since.  The pasture grazing was designed to be both profitable and sustainable, and as far as I can tell it has been.  There is no evidence of chronic overgrazing, and a number of “grazing sensitive” plant species are still abundant, especially in the old remnant areas.  My grandpa died in 1990, and Grandma died earlier this year.  After Grandma’s death, most of the other family farm land was sold, but after some long discussions, we kept the ¼ section in the family.  My wife and I now own a 2/3 interest and my aunt and uncle own the other 1/3.  Although I was helping Grandma manage the pasture for more than a decade before her death, actually owning the land makes me see the pasture in a much different way.  Before we shelled out our hard-earned money to buy it, the pasture was an interesting place to go cut cedar trees and walk around, and I tried to help Grandma set up the grazing leases to ensure that the land stayed in good condition while bringing in a reasonable income.  Now, as an owner, that lease income means a whole lot more, as does the current and future condition of the grassland.  Decisions about how to balance stocking rate and income with plant community impacts are a little more real!

I bring all this up as background discussion for the real subject of this post.  Though I’m sure it wasn’t Grandpa’s intent when he seeded the site back to grassland in 1962, he actually did some pretty great prairie conservation work.  He took a series of very small isolated remnant prairie islands and filled the space between them with grassland habitat.  It’s hard to know how many plant and insect species populations have larger and more viable populations now because of his work.  Certainly the site has improved habitat conditions for the grasshopper sparrows, western meadowlarks, and other grassland birds that are nesting there.

A portion of remnant (unplowed) prairie on our farm. It has retained a good mixed-grass plant community, with fairly abundant leadplant, stiff sunflower, prairie clovers, and other characteristic prairie plants. Shown here are Missouri goldenrod, white sage, stiff goldenrod, and many others.

While any grassland is better than no grassland, the re-seeded areas of the prairie are still distinct in appearance and composition from the unplowed areas.  Many of the prairie remnants contain fairly abundant populations of conservative forb species, including leadplant, stiff sunflower, prairie violet, prairie clovers, and many others.  A few of those species have moved into the re-seeded areas, but mostly at low abundances.  The re-seeded areas are dominated by grasses, but also have an abundance of many common forb species such as goldenrods, white sage, ironweed, hoary vervain, yellow prairie coneflower, dotted gayfeather, yarrow, and others – along with strong populations of sweet clover.

This photo shows some of the re-seeded prairie. Many native forbs have moved into the stand of grass that Grandpa planted, but others are still rare or missing.

I only recently found some hand-drawn maps showing the exact locations of the unplowed areas, and was able to cross-check those with old aerial photos from before and after the 1962 seeding.  Now that I know those locations more exactly, I’ll be able to start making even better comparisons between the remnant and re-seeded areas.  I started that process this last weekend, taking an inventory of plant species in the re-seeded areas (I found 65 species).  I’m sure I’ll add to that list over time, but that’s not too bad, considering only 6-7 grasses were planted there initially.  I don’t know yet how many plant species are in the remnant portions – I’m still working on that.

This aerial photo from 1956 shows our 1/4 section just prior to Grandpa buying it. The darkest areas are the unfarmed portions. You can see how small and isolated many of them were. Only the steepest and wettest areas avoided the plow.

In some ways, it’s amazing to see the diversity of plants in those previously farmed areas.  If I took a botanist to the site without divulging its history, I’m pretty they’d have no idea it had once been farmed.  At the same time, while there is good plant diversity at the site, it’s interesting to see how few conservative plant species have made their way into the previously farmed areas.  I’ve seen a few individuals of leadplant, a few patches of purple and white prairie clover, some areas of purple coneflower, and a few stiff sunflower colonies.  Prairie violets have begun creeping from the remnants into the re-seeded areas too – but in 50 years, they’ve only made it about 20 or 30 yards.

All of this points out the importance of protecting and managing remnant prairies to avoid losing those conservative plant species.  Once they’re gone, it’s not realistic to expect them to just come waltzing back in from nearby sites.  During the last 10 years or so, I’ve been overseeding portions of the re-seeded prairie with locally harvested seed.  As is typical, the results of that have been fairly muted, but I’m hoping my work gets those plants to establish a little faster than they otherwise would have…

This false sunflower is one of a handful of species that is showing up here and there across the old farmed portions of the prairie as a result of our overseeding efforts. It's a slow process, but one that will, I hope, pay long-term dividends.

Of course, if Grandpa’s restoration project was being done today, and the main goal was really to ecologically reconnect those small prairie islands, the cropland around the prairie remnants would be seeded with a high-diversity mixture of prairie plant species.  That would help ensure that the seeded area facilitated a number of ecological needs, including the availability of host plants for a variety of insects and genetic flow between plant species.  In 1962, no one in Nebraska was even thinking about anything like that, and Grandpa’s goal was (I think) simply to take a piece of land that was being overused and make it into productive agricultural land.  I’m pretty sure he’d never heard of a grasshopper sparrow.  Regardless of his initial goal, there is now a 108 acre prairie in southern Hamilton County, Nebraska – and that’s a rare and valuable commodity.  The nearest prairie to ours is at least several miles away, across many acres of cropland.

I don’t know exactly know how to measure the ecological value of our prairie, but I’m sure proud to own it.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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40 Responses to Grandpa’s “Accidental” Prairie Restoration Project

  1. Gen says:

    Do you suppose Gpa’s experience in the Dust Bowl helped shape his conservation efforts? When I hear stories about the soil piling up on top of the kitchen table overnight, it makes me wonder if that upcoming generation of farmers realized they could “un-do” some of the damage that had been done by their plow-happy grandfathers.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      I don’t know. That would sure make sense. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t part of his thought process. Of course, it might also be that he was able to get a good price on the land, which was close to the home place, and figured it was easier to pay off the loan with sustainable, predictable income from grazing (assisted by a govt program to pay for the transition) instead of a very flashy income stream from poor unpredictable cropland. Either way, it was a good thing to do.

  2. Tim says:

    Great post. And nice to see an old aerial photo of the area. Have you looked at recent high resolution imagery to see if you can still spot the unfarmed areas?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Tim, I haven’t looked at that recent imagery. It’s a good idea, though the topographic breaks are in the same places as the old farm breaks so I’m not sure if the boundaries will show up well. Worth a shot though. Thanks for the mention.

  3. David says:

    Chris,

    I think it is fantastic that you and your family managed to keep the ¼ section. I can’t think of a better legacy to pass on.

    Congratulations on becoming a natural lands owner. Being a natural lands owner will likely modify your perspectives on the modern ecological restoration movement. I wish you and your family the best in juggling the conflicting issues surrounding land ownership.

    David

  4. Doug McEvers says:

    Great post, Chris

    Your prairie land looks like a great site and reminds me much of our own grassland, left by my grandfather as well. I had to smile when you mentioned sweet clover, one of my summer tasks is keeping it from going to seed on our restored prairie and remnants. I use a razor sharp hoe to cut individual plants and a gas trimmer with a metal cutting blade for larger areas. Every year I have less sweet clover but I have been very diligent in getting every flowering plant I see.

    Short of rotational burns I try and tread as lightly as possible on the prairie, no chemicals of course and no wholesale mowing of areas. We are in MN, the SE Red River Valley and I have found mowing with a sickle mower favors cool season grasses and really sets back the shrubby natives, leadplant and false indigo. Any weeding is done after July 15 to minimize disturbance to the nesting birds, allowing at least 3 years between burns will help break the 2 year sweet clover cycle.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Doug,

      Around here sweet clover seems to be less of an issue than in other places. Cattle do a great job of preventing it from becoming too overly abundant, but even without cattle, most sites seem to weather the waxing and waning of sweet clover without suffering a loss of plant diversity. That’s actually the subject of a future post – trying to figure out where and why sweet clover is a big problem and where it’s just big and ugly.

  5. Ed Davies says:

    This is wonderful and I love your comment about how different your take is on the property now that you actually own it.

    Would you please define the term “conservative plant species”?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Ed. And yes, I should have defined it in the post. A conservative plant species is defined in multiple ways by multiple people, but typically means a species that requires some level of intact, or high quality, native habitat in order to persist. Leadplant is rarely seen in old cropfields that have just been let go, but is more typically associated with never-plowed prairie (or well-done reconstructed/restored prairies). Annual sunflowers, on the other hand, can be found in intact prairie but also in old fields, so it’s not a conservative species. The term has value but can also put the wrong connotation on species. Leadplant isn’t necessarily more valuable to have in a prairie than annual sunflowers, but probably does deserve a little more attention in terms of conservation because of its more specialized habitat needs.

  6. Tracey says:

    Chris, the restoration gene is alive and well and you, a special gift from your grandpa, whether intentional or not. Your love for the land and plants and all that inhabit those areas is wonderful! Grandpa Nelson’s love for the land and all of nature was passed on to me. I wish I still lived on their farm/ranch in western Nebraska. It was heaven on earth for me as a child, and the best memories of my life. This was a great post! Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. J. Brent Harrel says:

    This is a great story ! Goes to show we don’t know what the future will yield. Much thanks to your Grandfather for being ahead of the curve for his time ! Regardless of how small, we need to preserve, manage and facilitate our prairie reminants. Thank you, I hope your prairie continues to thrive.
    Brent

  8. Ted says:

    Chris,
    It’s a really nice property! Have you done anything about permanently protecting it with a conservation easement or similar tool?

  9. Mark Dietz says:

    Great Post Chris, Keep up the Great Work!

  10. Jeff says:

    Part of the fun doing restoration work is doing the background history. Its so neat your family kept the old seed tags and the history in the family. Its hard for people who have never been on the land to realize the connections that bind families of many generations together because of one piece of land. If more people had that connection I think some of our conservation concerns would fare better. Congratulations becoming a landowner.

  11. Nellie says:

    So interesting that the prairie violet had moved so slowly into the reseeded area. My trip through Nebraska gave me an appreciation of the grasslands an area we always hear about but I had never seen. Your post is so very interesting about the process of restoration of the grassland.
    nellie

  12. Chris – this is a lovely & very personal conservation story. Thank you for sharing it.

    I’ve been told that before a high succession plant community can be reestablished the soil must undergo its own succession that may take many years. Maybe this explains the slow pace of the recolonization of the conservative species?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Suzanne,

      It’s a great question. Certainly, the soil will change slowly over time in many ways. How much that determines the plant community, and how much the plant community determines the soil is something we don’t really understand completely. We have excellent luck getting most (almost all) appropriate native plant species to establish in former crop fields with pretty altered soils. Long-term survival of those species is probably still to be determined. More important, though, is the question of whether the communities of invertebrates, bacteria, and other little bitties are able to colonize along with those plant species and re-form the relationships that drive ecological function. We don’t even understand those relationships when/where they do function, so it makes it hard to study them in restored prairie!

      • Suzanne says:

        Similar to planting an oak tree for descendants to enjoy, we are planting prairies that will reach maturity a long time after we’re gone. I hope that future generations will say “thank goodness they had the foresight”. At least I’m going to work under that assumption.

        • James McGee says:

          Creating a high diversity restoration does not actually take an extremely long period of time. The limiting factor is usually seed and not time. The key to developing a high quality restoration quickly is in how you make your seed mixes. A high percentage of initial seed mixes should be seed of those species that produce only small quanties of seed. Examples include Prairie Violet, Prairie Phlox, Violet Wood Sorrel, Yellow Star Grass, Blue-eyed Grass etc. Sowing seed of these species first will give them the chance to grow and reproduce as rapidly as possibly in a competition limited environment. Weed Control is very important in limiting competition. Aggressive species that quickly dominate restorations like Big Bluestem, Switch Grass, Gray-Headed Coneflower, Wild Bergamont, Tall Coreopsis, and certain Goldenrods should not be seeded initially. I would also not include the more aggressive members of the mint family.

          The above seeding technic can help quickly create a very high diversity restoration. The problem is … with out all the necessary ecosystem interaction with insects, soil micro-organisms, etc. the restoration will lose diversity over time. Since restoration of all the components of the ecosystem is beyond our capability, the restorations with the best long-term chances for success are occurring on land that is adjacent to high-quality prairie. More remnants nearby and larger landscapes improve chances for success even further.

  13. Teresa says:

    Your post is really resonating with me today since we just purchased a property near Crete that has only about 8 acres of prairie. I’m eager to learn more about it’s history, and have had a great time looking at a couple of aerial photos and imagining what happened before and after those moments in time. What agricultural practices actually occurred are only speculation so far. And of course I’m looking at plant species and diversity for clues to my little prairie’s melodrama. Across the road a neighbor has about 9 acres of prairie. It was hayed earlier this year but looked to have similar diversity. So in terms of contiguous habitat we’re close to 20 acres – but that’s still really small within the larger landscape of crop fields. I’m still getting familiar with the area, but I suspect that other grasslands for miles in any direction are similarly small and non-contiguous, So I’ve been wondering – are there species that I should just assume I won’t be able to support? Are grouse out of the question? How about meadowlarks?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Teresa, it’s a great question, and one I’m planning to address in a future blog post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, yes, there are species you should probably not worry about supporting, and grouse are probably on that list. Meadowlarks are still a possibility for your prairie, though nest success might be a challenge. Most other grassland birds are probably iffy, though dickcissels and red-winged blackbirds are possible, along with a few others. Bobolinks, upland sandpipers, and Henslow’s sparrows would be pretty unlikely in a patch that small. Removing trees and other woody cover from inside and around the site will maximize it’s value for grassland birds.

      Many small mammals and insect species should do fine, as long as you are cautious about not uniformly disturbing the entire site at the same time (don’t burn the entire prairie, hay the entire prairie, etc.) so they have some refuges within the site – though it’s likely that others have been lost already due to past management. Many insects are very generalist and adaptable and will be pretty easy to keep around. Others are pretty sensitive to habitat changes and need particular plant species in order to persist. Those will be more difficult. It’s especially important to be looking at what neighbors are doing and providing something different when possible. (I wrote a post about that earlier this year, I think)

  14. Laurie Sain says:

    We have a mature Russian Olive in our yard which we want to remove as its “children” are constantly popping up in our hayfield!

    Any suggestions on how to best remove it, i.e., time of year, method, etc. We plan to replace it with a native tree in pretty much the same spot because we like a tree in that location.

    In the meantime, I’m going to try the fruit, which I read is a popular Turkish snack…

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Laurie,

      Timing doesn’t matter too much, but it’ll be important to treat the stump with herbicide after you cut it down so it doesn’t resprout. There are herbicides for that very purpose that you can find at the local hardware store or garden store. I just bought some the other day, in fact. Triclopyr is a common active ingredient in those products (though not the only one) and is reasonably safe to use. When you cut the tree, just apply that herbicide around the portion of the stump where the living tissue is (not the heartwood in the middle or the bark on the very outer edge). It doesn’t take very much, but you want to hit the right spots. The label on the herbicide will tell you. If you don’t treat the stump, you’ll likely be fighting it for a long time. Good luck with the snack!

  15. Doug McEvers says:

    Chris,

    Have you had normal or above or below average rainfall for this site over the last few years? In west central MN we have had above normal rainfall for the last 18 years I believe. I am seeing Cordgrass come on strong in areas where Big bluestem was dominant. The prairie clovers do not like wet feet, especially white and on my wetter sites I have no clover. I have had good luck hand seeding Amorpha nana in the fall, I suspect Leadplant would take nearly as well. Any Regal Fritillary on the site by chance?, an exciting moment for me was photographing a pair last year on our restored acres. Is your prairie adjoined by any grassland, native or otherwise?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Doug – I’ll try to answer your questions in order:
      - we’ve had above normal rainfall during the last couple of years. The month of August has been dry, though.
      - We had a strong drought for 7 years starting in late 1999. Wet since then.
      - Prairie clovers come in well in our cropland restoration work and decently in some degraded remnant sites when we overseed them after fire/grazing.
      - We have regal fritillaries all over the eastern 1/3 of the state. One of the most common species we have in June/July. They’re on my family prairie and the prairies I manage for TNC.
      - Our family prairie has a small warm-season grass planting – annually hayed – to the north but is otherwise surrounded by cropland. I guess there’s a small wooded stream that trails off to the north as well, but not prairie.

      • Doug McEvers says:

        Chris,
        Thank you for all of the information, I have taken on some interesting projects over the years and our prairie restoration has been the most rewarding. The great thing about a prairie planting is it gets better every year.

  16. Pingback: Photo of the Week – August 26, 2011 | The Prairie Ecologist

  17. George W. Shurr says:

    Hey, Chris~
    Thanks for another interesting and potentially useful post. We’ve just taken ownership of a family farm that includes more than 160 acres of pasture. Our renter has done rotational grazing for more than 15 years and is experimenting with management intensive grazing. We’re grateful to have him. The parcel is subdivided into 18-20 paddocks depending on the season and stocking rate. We can’t yet rationalize a full conversion to native prairie (smooth brome is our main standing crop), but we have had discussions on how to “back into” a progressive restoration. Your Grandpa’s story gives some positive support to that idea.
    Thanks again~
    George W. Shurr

  18. Jim Gorman says:

    Hi, Chris:

    We bought a quarter section in Franklin County and have been working with a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill wildlife biologist under a federal Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program to restore the land as much as possible to its former mixed-grass prairie native state. Starting back in 2007, we have planted 20 choke cherry and plum thickets, conducted several controlled burns (starting over again this fall), tilled and drilled special PF seed mixtures of native forbs and grasses and removed a lot of cedar and locust. Next year we are considering a grazing program. Slowly but surely, we are learning more and more about the various plants and inhabitants of our area. One thing I am interested in is locating seed for some of the native plants that were so important to the Pawnee back in the day that you just don’t find anymore. For instance: prairie turnip and buffalo gourd. Any ideas?

    Thanks for sharing your work and passion for the prairie. If you’re in the Franklin area, feel free to stop by and see our place. Keep up the good work.

    Regards,
    Jim & Randee Gorman

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Jim and Randee – sounds like a great project! I would start your search for seed by talking with Prairie Plains Resource Institute (ppri.org). They harvest seed all over the eastern half of the state for restoration projects and might be able to either get you some seed or tell you good places you could collect it yourself. Another option is Shoestring Seeds – a local seed producer near O’Neill.

      Chris

  19. Steve Clubine says:

    Chris,

    Here’s a question/suggestion for Lauri Sain’s Russian olive question. Does Russian olive root sprout anything like black locust? If you cut a black locust and treat the stump, you will still get hundreds of root sprouts, but if you kill it standing a few months prior to cutting it down, there will only be a few or no root sprouts. Stump sprouting species aren’t quite as much of a problem but killing them standing still reduces the number of stumps sprouts from buds that stump treatment doesn’t always get.

    Steve

  20. Laurie says:

    Yikes! This is important for our Russian Olive removal. Comments? And how do you kill a standing tree?

    Thanks for asking, Steve!

    Laurie

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