Photo of the Week – August 18, 2017

A few years ago, with technical and financial help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, we fenced out the pond at our family’s land and installed solar-powered livestock watering facilities.  It was something I’d wanted to do since taking over management of the land, and I was excited to see what positive impacts might result.  As expected, keeping cattle out of the pond has really transformed it.  The water is much less muddy and vegetation has grown up around and in the water, creating some really nice wetland habitat.  Taking advantage of the new habitat conditions are hordes of dragonflies, damselflies along with many other invertebrates, frogs and water birds.  In addition we find tracks of other wildlife all around the edge of the water.

Here is the shallow end of our pond last week, with lots of blue mud plantain, along with arrowhead, pondweed, and other wetland vegetation.  We’ll still use cattle to manage habitat conditions, but now we can let them in when we want to, and for specific purposes, rather than having them stomp around the pond all the time.

One small but really pleasant surprise has been the establishment of a little plant called blue mud plantain (Heteranthera limosa).  It’s an annual emergent wetland plant that is pretty common around Nebraska but it’s gorgeous and I’d never seen it on our land before this year.  All of a sudden, it’s taken over much of the shallow water areas of our wetland and I couldn’t be happier.  It’s not a rare plant, and I have no idea how valuable it might be for wildlife or pollinators – I’ve just always thought it was a pretty little wetland plant and I was excited to find it at our place.  I spent a little time photographing it last week and came away with wet elbows, wet knees, and some nice images of this great little plant.

Blue mud plantain in all its glory…


This entry was posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

26 thoughts on “Photo of the Week – August 18, 2017

  1. The reduced turbidity (less sunlight absorbed) and wetland plants (shading) will probably decrease the temperature and wind exposure of the water resulting in less water being lost to evaporation. This could be a big benefit if water is in short supply.

    • I did some research and the total evaporation and evapotranspiration losses are only decreased by floating leaved plants like duckweed or water lotus. The increased surface area of emersed plants, like cattails, and floating leaved plants, like blue mud plantain, actually increases water losses.

      • That is very interesting, James. Thanks for doing the research and sharing. I have to control the emergents in my impounds (three ponds and a lake) or the will nearly cover all the surface water. Good to know there is need for a balance.

  2. That is a very delicate pretty little flower, I really enjoy your posts even though I’m in Missouri not Nebraska. Keep up the great work!

    • Hey Patrick, it’s a good question. Here are a couple examples. 1) we’ll probably want to graze down the vegetation surrounding the pond/wetland occasionally to keep it from getting too rank and tall. We might time that grazing to hit brome (a couple weeks in late April, for example) or maybe to hit warm-season grasses – depending upon what things look like. 2) if we get to the point where cattails or other tall dense vegetation starts to take over areas of the pond, we might let the cattle in to stomp/eat those down and get a few years of open water again before the cattails return to their prior density. In our particular wetland, the 1st scenario seems more likely than the second, but we’ll see what happens over time.

      • Thanks for discussing your thoughts on this, Chris. I’ve wondered how much cattle are willing to eat cattails.

        I would like to chime in on your response to Dwight’s question. I agree with your comments. I might also add that given limited funds, private-public partnerships have the potential to extend the scope of restoration, and provide linkages between protected areas that wouldn’t otherwise be achievable given the amount of land held in private hands. However, I lean toward a sentiment which argues if public funds are expended on private lands projects, one of the expectations would be that there should be long-term protection plans for the property (easement, trust, 25yr + contracts, etc) to prevent conversion. As you point out, this may not prevent habitat degradation by neglect, but I think this offers more liklelihood that the habitat can provide long term benefits for the investment.

      • There was a brush pile burn (winter) that was done in sedge meadow on the edge of a fen. I went back the following summer to observe the impact of this burn. The entire area that was sterilized by the brush pile burn filled in with cattails. These cattails were dense, tall, and mature.

        The point is … using grazing to reduce the cattails might simply create conditions that allow the cattails to return. Dominance by cattails might mean other problems may need solving (like excess nutrients) if their re-establishment is to be prevented.

  3. It is an interesting experiment……but…..just wonder about getting help from two government agencies to do this. Is it practical…and the best place for tax dollars? I expect I will get lots of criticism for bringing this side up, but I feel like someone needed to….and I really do wonder about it, and hope it is viewed as a legitimate question as you have many admiring viewers, including me.

    • Dwight, I appreciate the question, including the tone of it. It’s certainly fine to have differing opinions on the topic, but I feel like having government agencies work in partnership with landowners on habitat improvement projects makes sense because of the public benefits accrued. Wildlife is a public resource, for example, so we all benefit from having strong wildlife populations. More importantly, assets like clean water, which are impacted by wetland improvement, for example, also impact the general public. We can try to regulate that landowners follow practices that create clean water, but those kinds of regulations are not usually popular (or effective). I think we need some level of regulation, but I think we can get more done with other tools, including education, but also financial incentives like the cost-share programs I used on my land. Without those additional funds, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to do the project for at least several more years – and I was already highly motivated. There is plenty of room to discuss how much tax money we should spend on private lands habitat projects, and lots of things that could be improved upon in the way they are implemented. One big issue, for example, is a lack of follow-up among some landowners that can eventually result in the habitat benefits disappearing over time due to lack of management after a project is done. There are ways to tweak conservation programs that could probably help with that, and it’s a constant topic of discussion among people working in that arena. Regardless, I feel like the concept of public agencies working in partnership with private landowners to do conservation is a necessary and valuable one.

      • Oh, as a quick follow up, it’s important to mention that I contributed considerably to the project, both in terms of money and labor. I think it was a 50:50 ratio of costs shared between me and the agencies, as I recall. I also had to agree to certain conditions, including a mutually-agreeable management plan, that lasts for the 10 year lifespan of the agreement.

      • No question there can be benefits from public/private partnerships. I was born on a farm in northeast (Knox County) Nebraska in 1934. About 25 miles south of this Niobrara River that is so prominent in your posts, Chris. Times were pretty tough in those depression days, and it was only through some government sponsorship (REA) that we finally got electricity while I was a sophomore in Creighton High School.

        I graduated with Animal Husbandry and Agronomy majors from the U of N in 1955, and many years later my brother and I bought 485 acres on the Niobrara about 15 miles NW of Verdigre. He spent his last 10 years there and loved every second of it. I could only find time to visit, and years later sold most of it to some neighboring folks.

        The point of this story, and my bias against some government programs, is that the buyer as it turned out took advantage of a USDA crop subsidy program to plow up most of it and put it in corn, and when his yields weren’t up to County “average” he got paid anyway! Till then it was native pasture, and not a square inch of that land should have been plowed. I should have put restrictions on it, and feel badly to this day.

        And this is not at all -no way – to suggest that is what you were doing. Of course you were not. It just came to mind when I saw the bit about government assistance, unrelated as it was.

        Please keep up with your fascinating and educational website, “Prairie Ecologist”.


        • Agreed. I saw so many center pivots on what was fairly recently short and mid-grass prairie during my travels though northeastern Colorado and west and west-central Nebraska this summer (seemed far worse in Colorado) that I left feeling that the souls of these places are being lost. And for what? With commodity crop prices so low, I can’t understand how these systems can be financed without subsidies.

        • Thanks Dwight. That’s a tough story to read, and unfortunately, it’s not an isolated case. Federal subsidies have certainly play a part in the plowing up of many other prairie properties. In the case of my land, my grandpa actually went the opposite way. He bought land that was farmed, and shouldn’t have been, and put it back to grass in the early 1960’s (using the USDA’s Great Plains Program) and leaving only the flat tops of a couple hills in farmland. He didn’t do it out of any particular conservation interest (as far as I can tell) but more because he needed some grass close to the home place and got the land for a good price (and cost share for putting it back to grass). My extended family has really helped out, making sure that I’ve been able to buy the land gradually from them. They’re doing it because they want to see the land stay in the family and stay as grassland. Your story and mine show opposite ends of the same spectrum, I guess, when it comes to federal programs. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the one we have. Thanks again for the great comments and perspectives. I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    • Since private ranching generates tax revenue, it is only reasonable that some of this revenue be returned to help willing ranchers improve their operations. In addition to the benefits to wildlife and water quality Chris had mentioned, providing clean water to cattle has shown an increase in calf weight gain.

      In short, this programs entirely looks good for both nature and business.

  4. Chris,
    Nice photos as usual.
    Here on the farm we did the opposite by adding cows to a wetland area to move the ecosystem in a new direction. Marshy area completely dominated by reeds canary and cattails. Utilizing the cow herd we “opened” the area to new vegetation and are amazed at the insects that followed.
    (2015) =
    (2016) =
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for your post…your experiment using cattle to open up a reed canary grass stand is very instructive. It looks like the stand is still quite large. Is your strategy to keep pressing the stand to open up more wetland and further increase diversity, or keep the stand to use as forage for production and allow the cattle to wander in the suppressed area for an occasional change in diet? I also wonder whether you intentionally use the cattle to limit seed production of the reed canary to reduce its spread.

      • Hi Patrick.
        Those are excellent thought provoking questions and I will consider them as we graze this area in the future. In an attempt to answer each question:
        1) Our simple guiding principles to grazing are outlined in this post:
        We are trying to add some chaos to the ecosystem. Since we are human we tend to error on the side of “preserving” the resource, as we currently know it, rather than “pushing” it. The wetland is an example where we “pushed” the resource and are happy with the observed results. This reminds us we need to introduce more chaos, push more!
        2) This year we pushed one half of the wetland hard but actually have left the other half alone. Planned diversity, but of course the un-grazed area is a huge mono culture of reeds!
        3) As noted in our principals, we don’t allow cattle to wander. Animal impact is too much of a game changer to not consider it every day.
        4) As for limiting seed production, I have actually thought about this the past two years but by the time the herd arrived at the swamp it has been to late. It is on our list for next year, wherever we are in the pasture, we are going to jump to the wetland based on the reeds growth stage. Our intention is more in the direction of utilizing the reeds at an early growth stage for the health of the animals rather than limiting seed production (but limiting seed production should happen also). I believe there is enough seed in the soil for the next 1000 years but a little seed reduction may push something else to happen that will be interesting to observe?


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