How did everything work this year?

This is one of my favorite times of year.  It’s not the cool temperatures, the fall colors, or even the fall migrations of birds and insects coming through.  Instead, I like this time of year because it’s time to figure out how this year’s prairie management worked and start planning for next year.  Closing that adaptive management loop (gleaning lessons from one field season and applying them to the next) is really fulfilling for me.  I get to learn something and then put it right to use.  The only downside is waiting another year to see how things turn out again!

Northern bobwhite on fence post. Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

This northern bobwhite was calling from a fence post along the edge of our prairie earlier this summer.  Bobwhite are abundant in our prairie, probably because of the wide variety of habitat types available.

Earlier this week, I walked through our family prairie and tried to capture the results of 2015.  I wasn’t collecting data.  Instead, I took a few photos, wrote a few notes, and looked back at some photos and notes from earlier in the season.  I mainly tried to measure what I saw against the basic habitat objectives we have for our prairie.

Helzer Prairie Habitat Objectives

1) HABITAT HETEROGENEITY.  Provide patches of habitat that cover the spectrum from short/sparse to tall/dense vegetation, with areas of mixed-height structure in between.

2) PLANT DIVERSITY.  Increase plant diversity over time by allowing all plant species a chance to bloom and reproduce every few years, and periodically suppressing grass dominance to allow wildflowers a chance to maintain or expand their “territories”.

In general, I was pretty happy with what I saw this week.  There was definitely a wide range of habitat structure across the prairie.  We began the season by grazing most of the prairie pretty hard to knock back the vigor of smooth brome.  After that, we put the cattle into about 1/4 of the prairie for the month of June and then gradually gave them access to more of the prairie as the season progressed until they were grazing about 3/4 of the site by September.

Helzer prairie grazing. Pasture #2 se of water tank

This photo from earlier this week shows the contrast between the area in the foreground that hasn’t been grazed since May and the background where cattle have been grazing since late July.

Helzer prairie grazing. Pasture #1 nw of water tank

Some of the areas opened up to grazing late in the season weren’t grazed very hard because the grass was pretty mature by the time cattle came in.  However, the cattle did graze in patches, and also knocked down the vegetation as they walked around – altering the habitat and making it easier for both wildlife and people to walk through.

The grasses in the 1/4 of the prairie we grazed in June stayed short all season, and many of the wildflowers were also cropped off.  However, some of those wildflowers had a chance to grow back as we spread the cattle out across a larger area and they became more selective about what they ate.  Other plants went ungrazed, or only lightly grazed, all season.  As a result, the habitat structure was a mixture of short grasses and medium to tall forbs.  In July, I found a family of upland sandpipers feeding in that part of the prairie – their still-flightless chick searched for insects in the short grass while staying near the protective cover of the taller forbs.

Young upland sandpiper. Helzer family prairie. Stockham, Nebraska. USA

This young upland sandpiper and its parents were enjoying a part of the prairie where cattle had been grazing most of the season, keeping grasses short but allowing some forbs to grow tall.  The chick could feed in the open but remain close to protective cover.

Elsewhere in the prairie, the height and density of the vegetation varied by how much grazing pressure it received.  Areas that were rested much of the year were dominated by tall warm-season grasses, while areas grazed from July through September had much shorter vegetation.  Despite the fact that we’re still trying to boost plant diversity across the site (which consists of small prairie remnants surrounded by former cropland planted to grasses by my grandfather in the early 1960’s) there were good numbers of wildflowers blooming through the whole season.  In the more intensively-grazed portions, only a few species such as hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii), goldenrods (Solidago sp.), native thistles (Cirsium sp.), and other species panned by cattle were flowering.  However, there were many other wildflowers blooming across the rest of the site, including purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), leadplant (Amorpha canescens), stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), several milkweed species (Asclepias sp.), and many others.  The most abundant wildflowers were found in the portions of the prairie the cattle had grazed intensively in 2014 – grass vigor was still suppressed in those areas, allowing both “weedy” and “non-weedy” forbs to flourish.

Regal fritillary butterfly on milkweed at Helzer prairie, south of Aurora, Nebraska.

Regal fritillaries and other butterflies are common in our prairie. I photographed this one a few years ago as it was feeding on common milkweed in part of the prairie was only lightly grazed that year.

During 2015, just about any animal species should have been able to find what they needed in our 100 acre prairie.  Regal fritillaries had violets for their caterpillars and monarch butterflies had milkweed for theirs – and both found abundant nectar plants, including in the most intensively-grazed areas.  The varied vegetation structure supported a wide range of grassland nesting birds, including grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, western meadowlarks, northern bobwhites, dickcissels, sedge wrens, and others.  Small mammal trails were abundant, as were burrows of the badgers and coyotes that hunt those mice, voles, and ground squirrels.  Best of all, there were myriad bees, grasshoppers, katydids, prairie cicadas, spiders, and countless other invertebrates doing their jobs to support and nourish the plant and wildlife communities.

I haven’t yet worked out all the details of next year’s management plans, but I know a few things.  The portions of the prairie that were grazed hardest this year will be rested for most or all of next season.  We’ll likely bump the cattle stocking rate up a little because of this year’s abundant rainfall and strong grass growth.  I’ll try to make sure cattle have early summer access to the areas where I saw lots of first-year sweet clover plants this year – grazing those areas will greatly reduce flowering and seed production.  Finally, I’m thinking about letting the cattle stomp around for a week or two in one of the wet areas they’re normally excluded from because the vegetation is getting excessively thick there.

I’ll meet with my grazing lessee (the guy who owns the cattle) in late fall or early winter.  Between now and then, I’ll likely change my mind several times about some of my plans and come up with some new ones.  Next season we’ll make adjustments on the fly as we see what happens with rainfall, grazing behavior, invasive species, and all the other factors that influence management decisions.  Then, about this time next year, I’ll be walking around the prairie, trying to interpret the results of all those ideas and adjustments.

…and I’ll be having just as much fun as I am now.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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13 Responses to How did everything work this year?

  1. Jim in IA says:

    Good work there. I’m sharing this with friends who have several acres of prairie.

  2. Lee Selisky says:

    I have fired two prairie management companies over the past number of years and have taken on the task myself and am much happier, but much more tired. I have spent countless hours this year spot-spraying Canada goldenrod and have it down by 90%. Two areas that the “professionals” seeded will have to be completely redone and in the process of doing it myself. 16 acres of prairie-a lawn would have been easier but not as enjoyable.

    • James McGee says:

      After a few years the prairie will be easier to maintain than the lawn. If you are spraying Canada goldenrod then you are going to be setting areas back to square one and prolonging the need for higher levels of maintenance. I think the best way to deal with Canada or tall goldenrod is by repeated cutting. I cut the stem at the upper most dead leaves. After the plant resprouts I cut off the newly emerged leaves at the top of the stem. However, this is really just a temporary fix until you can get a good population of rope dodder established.

      • Lee Selisky says:

        No offense to you, but I don’t think you know what you are talking about. There are herbicides that prairie grass friendly (Transline and Garlon 3A) and stooping down to cut and pinch thousands of Canada goldenrod plants and resprouts is both impractical and unrealistic for 16 acres. I fail to see how I am setting the prairie back as I walk through my seven foot tall grass prairie.

        • Lee Selisky says:

          It appears your comment regarding dope dodder is also misplaced as it is considered a noxious plant and is Federally regulated and need permits. https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/flower/rope-dodder

          • James McGee says:

            A prairie is more than just grass. If CRP is what you want then that is fine, but it is not prairie.

            I have seen the result of spraying and it tends to change the ecosystem to ruderal species.

            In the Chicago Region stewards often use scythes to cut the tall goldenrod. I personally use a machete because I don’t have a scythe. For larger areas people use brush cutters or mow.

            It is true that a number of non-native dodders are serious crop pests. This is the reason permits are needed for importation. However, our native dodder species are important to the dynamic of the prairie ecosystem. From the dominance of Canada or tall goldenrod in prairie restorations I would say that our native dodder species are just as important for maintaining diversity as are bison.

          • Lee Selisky says:

            That is why I spot spray. We have tall goldenrod, butterfly weed, gentian, and a host of wildflowers. The issue with Canada goldenrod is that, while under professional management, it got out of control despite raising my concerns. I want a broad spectrum of plants and to not allow any one species to dominate the landscape. There are fallow fields next to me and the CR and reed canary grass is all that exists in these fields. My prairie is not perfect but a far sight better under my care.

          • James McGee says:

            I’ve actually found that pulling the tall goldenrod after a good rain works well. This eliminates the problem of hitting non-target species with herbicide and persistence soil effects. Cutting is easier, but it tends to only eliminate seed set and not the tall goldenrod unless it is done so frequently that the entire prairie community is set back to ragweed. I would not normally put so much effort into pulling this native plant. However, when tens of thousands of dollars of plugs and seeds are being shaded out in a high school ecology class prairie restoration in the middle of town you tend to go above and beyond.

  3. Danny Staehr says:

    Chris, you didn’t mention any controlled burns as part of your management plan. Do you use grazing instead?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Danny, I haven’t used prescribed fire on my prairie for a few reasons – primarily because I don’t have the time or energy since I spend a lot of my professional life doing it. I’m a big fan of fire as a management tool, and would love to use it on our family prairie but when the weather conditions are right, I’m usually burning at work. Or I’m just feeling “burned out”, no pun intended. We manage the cedar tree invasion with loppers and manage litter/thatch and other factors with grazing alone. For now. It’s been an interesting experiment to see how grazing without fire can be used to maintain habitat and plant diversity. I would say it’s not ideal, but is doable. For more on how I manage my prairie you could read an earlier post: https://prairieecologist.com/2014/05/13/how-i-manage-my-own-prairie/

  4. Bob Brewer says:

    Congratulations on another year of enjoying the prairie. Thanks for sharing your reflections and visions.

  5. Patrick says:

    Hey Chris – Have you thought of haying the ungrazed area and using it for winter fodder? Why or why not? Seems like a reasonable way of reducing thick grass short of burning.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Patrick,

      I have thought about haying but haven’t yet. Partly, much of the area would be too steep and/or rough to hay (I don’t think I could talk anyone into doing it). That said, there are some areas we could probably hay. But, I also don’t have to support the cattle during the winter. The lessee takes them off and puts them on corn stocks, so I’m not looking for winter forage production from my prairie. I’m glad to have the vegetation structure – at least in some places. As long as I’ve got a mix of tall, short, and mixed-height/density, I’m pretty happy.

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