My Own Prairie, For What It’s Worth

A couple years ago, I wrote about the history of our family’s prairie.  The prairie is about 110 acres (within a 160 acre farm) and is only a ten minute drive from my house.  Most of it was farmed before my grandpa bought it and planted it with six species of grass in the early 1960’s, so the plant community is not very diverse.  However, there is a lot to love about the prairie.  (Did I mention it’s only ten minutes from my house?)

Most of our prairie is old cropfield planted to grass in the 1960's, so the forb community consists mainly of species such as stiff goldenrod and white sagewort that can colonize easily.

Most of our prairie is old cropfield planted to grass in the 1960’s, so the forb community consists mainly of species such as stiff goldenrod and white sagewort that can colonize easily.

Some botanists would dismiss the value of my prairie because only small pockets of it were left unfarmed, and even those have only a few scattered “conservative” prairie plant species such as leadplant and prairie violets.  Those botanists, however, would be ignoring the many other contributions the prairie makes to the world and our family.

While there are a few places that were left unfarmed (foreground), much of the prairie is of low plant diversity, and the draws are dominated mainly by smooth brome.

While there are a few places that were left unfarmed (foreground), much of the prairie is of low plant diversity, and the draws are dominated mainly by smooth brome.

The prairie is the only significant grassland patch within several miles in any direction, so while grassland birds and some larger insects can fly in and out each year, the prairie is a world unto itself for most of the other species that live there.  That makes the prairie both very important to those prairie species and a big responsibility for me as the owner/manager.  I try to ensure that I’m always providing a good mixture of habitat types to allow every species a chance to survive.

Regal fritillaries are one of many butterflies we see in the prairie.  There are apparently enough violets (their only larval food plant) to keep the population going.

Regal fritillaries are one of many insect species we see in the prairie. There are apparently enough violets (their only larval food plant) to keep the population going.

At work, I oversee the management of prairies for The Nature Conservancy, and get to try out all kinds of crazy ideas in the name of science and in the hope of finding tricks other prairie managers might be able to use.  It’s a great job, and the freedom to play with ideas that might fail is a big perk.  Owning my own prairie, on the other hand, is a valuable dose of reality.  My prairie has to pay its own way in the world, and property taxes and bank loan payments are the same during drought years as they are in years of adequate moisture.  We graze the prairie both as a management tool and because we need the income.  I definitely adopt many of the prairie management principles I espouse as a manager at The Nature Conservancy, but the way I manage my own prairie is also very much influenced by my economic bottom line.  It’s a great way for me to stay grounded, and to be able to better think about how to translate some of my crazy ideas from the Conservancy’s land to the “real world” of private ownership.

One strategy I've adopted from my work at The Nature Conservancy is overseeding.  I harvest my own seeds and broadcast them in the fall after a portion of the prairie has been grazed fairly intensively.  The results are not overwhelming, but I'm starting to see some good results, including "easy" plants such as black-eyed susan and bergamot (shown here) but also more conservative plants as well.

One strategy I’ve adopted from my work at The Nature Conservancy is overseeding. I harvest my own seeds and broadcast them, using grazing to weaken competition and give them a chance to grow.  I’m starting to see some good results, including “easy” plants such as black-eyed susan and bergamot (shown here) but also more conservative plants as well.

I don’t do nearly as much monitoring of the plant and animal communities in my own prairie as I do on The Nature Conservancy’s prairies.  That said, I am trying to document the responses of the plant community to my grazing practices and weather patterns.  I make management plans each year based on both long-term and short-term objectives and adapt them based on what I see happening on the ground.  Each time I visit the prairie, I try to take some notes on what I’m seeing, both in terms of management responses and just general observations of species and ecological processes.  I can see improvements in the plant community over time, and I hope I’m also making a difference in habitat quality for the other species in the prairie, though I’m not tracking bees, ants,  or small mammals, for example, as I am at work.

I found this ring-necked snake underneath a small eastern redcedar tree I was cutting down.  My kids got to see it too, which was a nice bonus.

I found this ring-necked snake underneath a small eastern redcedar tree I was cutting down. My kids got to see it too, which was a nice bonus.

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I'm not collecting data on bees at my own prairie, but I definitely pay attention to both the abundance and diversity I see each time I visit, and I take note of whether or not there are always nectar plants blooming across the prairie.

I’m not collecting data on bees at my own prairie, but I definitely pay attention to both the abundance and diversity I see each time I visit, and I take note of whether or not there is a consistent supply of nectar plants blooming across the prairie.

While I think my little prairie has fairly substantial ecological value, for all its shortcomings, I don’t measure it’s worth purely in conservation terms.  I feel very fortunate to be able to carry on the ownership and stewardship of a piece of land my grandfather bought.  Taking my kids out to their own prairie gives them, I hope, an enhanced sense of connection with the land, and a conservation ethic.  I don’t care if they grow up to be prairie ecologists, but I do want them to have an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.  I could take them hiking or camping on other prairies (and I do) but there’s something pretty special about having a place that’s our own.

My kids like to climb trees and make forts in the scattered pockets of trees around the property.  They also dig in the mud, chase grasshoppers, and do all kinds of other kid things.

My kids like to climb trees and make forts around the property. They also dig in the mud, chase grasshoppers, and do all kinds of other kid things.

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I hope that taking my kids camping at their own prairie will deepen their sense of connection with both their land and their family.

I hope that taking my kids camping at their own prairie will deepen their sense of connection with both their land and their family.

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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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9 Responses to My Own Prairie, For What It’s Worth

  1. Lori Phalen says:

    Love your post! Passing along your love for the land and for prairies to your children is one of the most important things you can do, and you are doing a great job Chris!

  2. Mike Suiter says:

    Chris – I enjoyed your post being a small prairie owner – ours is 110 times smaller than yours and only a ten second walk from our house! In only three years since it was converted from brome I’m amazed at all the insects that have showed up. Like you, I wish I had more forb diversity and also battle the brome every spring. What I really like about ours is you can enjoy it year round (and the wildlife does too).

    I have similar butterflies to the one in this post and initially thought they were Regal Fritillaries, but after some research believe mine are Aphrodite Fritillaries.

  3. Jeff says:

    Family land is a special thing. My home ground is now 700 miles away but I can still remember each corner with personal and handed down memories. Bringing another generation into land like that is a joy in itself. Thanks for the post, it brought those memories back.

  4. James McGee says:

    I personally think anyone who wants to work on ecological restoration should own land. I have worked on public land for a couple decades. Frankly, trying to work with public agencies is very difficult at best. If you want to get anything done you have to pester continuously until they finally get annoyed enough to answer you. I have found that with any government enterprise there is a lot of favoritism involved. Only the well connected have a chance at getting anything accomplished. Frequently, volunteers are assigned to Sisyphean tasks that would be completely unnecessary if ecological processes like fire were returned to the ecosystem. I’m always afraid of the next election. I’m wondering if some bureaucrat, who knows nothing about the reconstruction of prairie and does not care about the decades of effort volunteers have given, will decide the location would be better serve the public if it were for example … a convention center. Of course, it is very possible that the local authorities will deem the rare and conservative native plants in my home prairie garden WEEDS, give me a $500 fine, and order me to mow them. Maybe making prairies pay taxes and interest is the only way to save them.
    Sincerely,
    James

  5. Patrick says:

    As a private prairie landowner, I empathize with many of the comments posted here. One of the freedoms that being a private owner affords is the ability to use management techniques that wouldn’t get done on public land, or would be dismissed as the “wrong method”. For example, I cut a lot of cedar at my own pace and stack it. I’ve been told this is the wrong approach…that you should drop them and burn them so as not to sterilize the soil. Well, in my experience, the success of that approach depends on getting a burn done. This can be challenging. If you can’t or don’t get the burns done, then what you end up with is brush growing among the downed cedars, which is difficult to control once established. I’ve seen this happen on public lands as well. It’s also hard to walk among a bunch of downed trees, which diminishes the enjoyment of the property. By contrast, I’ve had rapid recovery of native grasses and forbs once the cedar over story is completely removed, with very little invasion by woody brush. If you enjoy working on the land, it’s better to own your own if you can because more of your time and treasure is directly translated into meaningful results…avoiding the overhead costs intrinsic to large organizations. In many of these organizations, there are too many people performing non-management activities too often, with too few boots on the ground doing the hard (but rewarding) labor of land stewardship. Ultimately though, you can’t take the land with you so if you want to protect what you have worked to restore, you need to have legally binding constraints on future activities, such as an easement. Otherwise the next owner (or heir) can plow it all under or sell it to someone who will.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Great comments, Patrick. For the record, I tend toward your method of stacking downed trees for the very reasons you lay out. Soil sterilization seems to be small scale and short-term in my experience. On the other hand, even with fires, downed cedars take a long time to go away, and in the meantime, they make it difficult to get around the property.

    • James McGee says:

      Hi Patrick, I have had the opposite experience as Chris. I have found that soil sterilization permanently alters the ecosystem. I can point out locations where brush pile burning has occurred where the conservative plants are not recolonizing after many years. Indeed, archaeologists have found hearths that are thousands of years old where the vegetation is still noticeably altered. This is one of my pet peeves regarding working on my counties land. We are required to burn the same day as when we cut any woody material. The only exception is when there is a danger of wildfire. This requirement is not based on what is good for the ecosystem. It is merely imposed upon stewards because some members of the public think brush piles are unsightly or to prevent those who feel it is morally wrong to control invasive species from being force to look at the results.
      There are ways to reduce the impact on the soil. You can burn brush in already disturbed areas. You can pile brush in fall and burn it on a very cold winter day when the soil is solidly frozen. Finally, you can put large logs on the bottom of the brush pile. The large logs will insulate the soil from the heat produced by the faster burning brush. If you must burn at an inopportune time of year, then as a last restore you can dig up the soil and replace it after you have finished.
      Sincerely,
      James

      • Patrick says:

        Your suggestions to mitigate the impact of burning are well taken James. I only burn in the winter, mainly for safety reasons. It does sterilize a small area, but I avoid stacking in areas with high recovery potential (usually in deeper shade areas with little undergrowth). The fires scald or kill the over growing cedars, so I get the benefit of killing more cedars when I burn the pile.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    Well, there is brush pile burning, and there is brush pile burning. Our experience where I work is that a fire burning through loosely piled cedar material does not scar the ground, but brush piles fed for while with additional material dragged in by volunteers (a great winter activity) do sterilize ground. So, where necessary or practical, we do some piling to get the material out of the way (say, of future field mowing), but we no longer “feed” burn piles, even though sometimes volunteers wistfully ask me if we ever will again. But we digress.

    Chris, I love this post! I have no family land, but lived on the land that I have worked on for 20 years. My kids all spent lots of time hiking, playing and even working with me on it. One has gone on to a career with the US Forest Service, and the other two , though gainfully employed in other spheres of human activity, have a powerful love of nature and conservation ethic. What a treasure you have.

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