Photos of the Week – April 1, 2022

One of the most gratifying parts of my career has been the opportunity to design and carry out restoration work – especially taking cropfields, adding wetlands to them, and then planting them with diverse seed mixes. It’s really hard to encapsulate the joy, energy and pride that comes from that work.

I could make squiggly lines across a site with flags and big equipment would come in and turn those into wetland sloughs. I could walk around with buckets strapped to my waist and grab seeds from plants and at least some of those seeds would germinate and establish diverse plant communities. Most importantly, I could then spot the same bees, grasshoppers, small mammals, ants, and birds in those restored sites as could see in the adjacent unplowed prairies, helping me feel like I’d accomplished the primary goal: stitching fragmented grasslands back together.

Hubbard Fellow Emma Greenlee plants prairie with a ‘drop spreader’ that literally drops the seed right on the ground.
Our other Hubbard Fellow, Brandon Cobb, drops more seed on the ground. He’s using a more specialized upland mix on some of the spoil piles created during wetland creation. He’s demonstrating a ‘straight downward toss’ technique because the wind was howling as he did the work.

Since I’ve moved out of the role of land steward for the Platte River Prairies, I’ve gotten to watch and help other people experience those same emotions. This time around, it’s Cody Miller, our Preserve Manager, who is directing the latest restoration project. My jobs are to give ‘old man advice’, when asked, and to cheer everyone on from the sidelines. …And to take photos, which is why today’s post is another one (two in a week!!) full of people photos, instead of insects, flowers, or other small things. Don’t worry, I’ve got a couple of old standards coming soon.

A mixture of seed from both the mesic and wetland mix floated to the edge of a small pool of water in one of the wetlands.
Here’s a view of the drop spreader as Emma went past. Below is a video of the machine in action. It’s very exciting. It drives both up AND back across the field!
Cody (left) and Booker Moritz fill barrels with seed to load into the spreader when Emma gets back to the edge of the field.
Here is the hand-harvested seed that got mixed in with machine-harvested grass seed and put into the spreader. The total mix for the site had 153 plant species represented.
You can see that the seed mix is plenty messy. We run it through hammermills to break the seed apart but don’t worry about removing inert matter. The drop spreader handles quite a bit of junk, which saves us time on seed processing.
Here is Cody’s wetland design, which closely followed old river channel scars (the whole Platte valley is alluvial soil laid down by the river many years ago). Groundwater is not far below the surface at this site, so those shallow sloughs will turn into sedge meadow habitat with some exposed open water during high groundwater periods. Below is a fly-by of the same wetlands.
Cody and Emma talk about the restoration process as they plant.

This 50 acre site will be very weedy for a few years, but by year 3, 4, or 5 it should be dominated by the plants we harvested and seeded. Once everything is established, Cody will start using fire and grazing to manage for habitat structure and help encourage as many animals as possible to colonize the restoration from adjacent prairies. He’ll also get to experience the wonder of walking around a site he turned from bare ground into prairie and wetlands. I can’t wait to watch him do it.

Many thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and Nebraska Game and Parks for helping to fund this project.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – April 1, 2022

  1. What incredible work!!!! Couple questions—is the drop seeder (vs drill seeder) specifically because of all the variety and detritus? And then, how does the seed make it on top of the soil (birds, rodents, wind, etc)?
    And where do these students publish their observations and studies?

    • The drop spreader is definitely easier to use with messy and varied seeds. It’s also faster than a drill, as well as MUCH cheaper and accessible to anyone. The most expensive version we’ve ever bought cost a couple hundred dollars.

      Broadcasting the seed also gets us away from worries of planting the seed too deep or accommodating a wide range of optimal seed depths across species. In our soil type (sandy loam) we’ve not seen any issues with getting good seed/soil contact just from time, rain/snow, etc. We’ve experimented with packing and harrowing and haven’t seen any real differences. Birds, insects, etc., surely do get some of the seed, but not (apparently) enough to cause us problems.

      There’s a loose group called the Grassland Restoration Network that includes most of the bigger restoration projects across the Plains and Midwest and nearly everyone in that group broadcasts seed instead of drilling it. It’s very effective and proven successful across a wide variety of sites and projects. I think drilling can also work just fine – I just think it’s slower and a little flinkier to get everything to work right.

  2. This is an awesome update of seeing the prairie seed (so diverse!), the spreader in action and the people doing the great work. Thank you.

  3. I used a drop seeder many years ago and it worked very well. Do you ever cultipack or roll after spreading? I found it a valuable practice, greatly increasing the percentage germination and rate of growth of seedlings. I wish I still had one.

  4. Fascinating to see how this process is starting! Thanks Send the photos of followup years and the previous years to compare.

  5. Nice article. I had good luck several years ago with a “scaled-down” version of this technique is an ordinary lawn tractor and relatively inexpensive drop spreader attachment (e.g. Agri-Fab). You have to experiment a little with the spreader opening and your particular seeds/mix (in some cases I taped over sections of the opening to drop some but not too much seed), but it works. Not practical for dozens of acres, but not bad for a couple.


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