A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

I blame whomever named the plant.  Giving a plant the name “ironweed”, apparently – according to Google – because of its tough stem, creates an unnecessarily negative connotation right from the start.  It’s an unfair connotation for a plant that is both beautiful and important.  It’s also a big favorite of butterflies; something I can attest to after spending a couple hours last weekend chasing monarchs and others around ironweed patches at our family prairie.

Ironweed at our family prairie, growing abundantly in a smooth brome-filled draw.  The abundance of the plant goes up and down each year, but it never spreads beyond the draw or shades out the grass around and beneath it.

There are three species of ironweed (genus Vernonia) in Nebraska, and two that are common in the prairies I am most familiar with.  Both of those – V. fasciculata and V. baldwinii – seem to act in similar ways, but the first likes a little wetter sites than the second.  Both species can occur as scattered plants across a prairie, but are also often found in fairly dense patches where conditions favor them.  That patchy local abundance is the first mark against them by people who don’t appreciate their value.  The second mark is that cattle absolutely refuse to eat them.  This both helps them stand out (especially when blooming) in heavily grazed pastures and helps them spread across those same sites since they gain a strong competitive edge when surrounding plants are all being grazed hard.

Like many other plant species I tend to admire and write about, however, ironweed is not an invasive plant – it’s an opportunist.  It takes advantage of soil and management conditions that favor it, but doesn’t just spread aggressively across pastures.  If you look online, it’s not hard to find websites that encourage its control in pastures.  I dispute that.  At least in my experience, ironweed has its favorite locations (often in draws or other low spots where moisture and nitrogen are high) and pulses in abundance within those locations as grazing treatments and weather vary from year to year.  At our family prairie, ironweed is fairly abundant in some of the low draws where high nitrogen also strongly favors smooth brome, but while there are years when those patches are thicker than others, the overall patch sizes and stem densities of ironweed aren’t any higher today than they were 15 years ago.  That matches what I see elsewhere in central and eastern Nebraska.

(I found a university website online that blamed ironweed for making cattle have to look harder to find grass, thus reducing grazing efficiency.  Give me a break.  That’s the same attitude that leads to people spraying pastures to remove everything that isn’t grass, and then wondering why they need to fertilize their grass and supplement their cattle’s diet.  The same people blame others for the lack of wildlife and pollinators on their land.  …Ok, I’m done ranting – let’s talk about butterflies.)

When I arrived at our family prairie last weekend, I immediately noticed monarch butterflies flying all over the place.  I’d seen a surprising number of larvae back in July, so figured we might have a good August, but I was still impressed with how many adults I saw.  I’m guessing there were 40-50 or more across our 100 acres of prairie.  They kept moving, so it was hard to count them…

Almost every monarch I spotted was either flying or feeding on ironweed.  A few other flowers got attention too, including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii), and some early tall thistle blossoms (Cirsium altissimum), but ironweed clearly monopolized most of their attention.  I started stalking monarchs with my camera and eventually found a couple that let me get close enough for to capture reasonable photographs.  While I was doing that, I also spotted myriad bees, along with quite a few other butterfly and moth species.

Here are some photos of the butterflies and moths that were kind enough to let me get close.  I didn’t ever get a good shot of a bee, though there were at least a dozen species feeding on the ironweed flowers, and I also never caught up to one of the many silver-spotted skipper butterflies that were all over the place.

This is one of many monarchs that were floating from plant to plant across ironweed patches last weekend.
I haven’t looked up this moth yet. Maybe one of you can save me the trouble? Thanks in advance.
I’ve been seeing a lot of adult swallowtails around lately, including this tiger swallowtail , which was pretty easy to spot, even from across a large draw.
Ok, this black swallowtail wasn’t on ironweed when I photographed it, but it went to ironweed after feeding on this native thistle.  I was taking bets (in my head) about whether or not the crab spider on that thistle would be able to take down the big butterfly. The butterfly eventually moved within striking distance, but the spider didn’t attack, so I’m guessing it decided to wait for something a little smaller.
Thanks to Neil Dankert, I can tell you that this gorgeous little brown skipper butterfly is a tawny-edged skipper.

Ironweed is too beautiful and important for its name.  Maybe we need a campaign to rename it, and maybe that campaign would help convince people, including those at a certain unnamed university, to leave this plant alone to do its job.  Either way, it might be fun to think about potential names.  Any ideas?

Aggressive Weed or Opportunistic Plant? It’s Good to Know the Difference

“Those weeds are really taking over my pasture!”

I cringe when I hear that sentence because it’s often a precursor to broadcast spraying of herbicide and the subsequent loss of most plant diversity in a prairie.  That’s really bad.  What’s most frustrating, however, is that the sentence is rarely true.

East Dahms pasture. Ragweed in degraded pasture.
The ragweed in this pasture is not acting aggressively.  It is filling spaces left open by grasses weakened by intensive grazing.  Within a year or two of this photo, this site was dominated by big bluestem.

It’s easy to understand how a landowner would look at a pasture that is visually dominated by ragweed, buffalo bur, snow-on-the-mountain, hoary vervain, or a number of other weedy plants and think those plants are aggressively pushing grasses out of the way.  In almost every case, however, the opposite is true.  Grasses are usually the bullies of the plant community, and only when they are suppressed by fire, grazing, or some other pressure do the “weeds” thrive.

There are a few weeds that can out bully grasses, of course.  Leafy spurge, crown vetch, and sericea lespedeza are good examples in the central United States.  They seem to be able to invade and spread regardless of the vigor of grasses and other competing plants.  Landowners should absolutely work to control those aggressive perennial species before they get a foothold across large areas.

Leafy spurge at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa.
Leafy spurge can be a serious threat to prairies and should be dealt with quickly to prevent it from spreading throughout a site.

However, while there are some important exceptions, most pasture weeds are more opportunistic than aggressive.  Opportunistic plants don’t compete well with grasses or other perennial plants when those plants are at full strength, but can move quickly to fill spaces left between plants that are weakened by intensive grazing or drought.  Many opportunistic species are short-lived, and produce huge numbers of seeds, and those seeds sit in the soil waiting for a chance to germinate and grow.  When the tops of grasses are grazed off, the roots below shrink up as well, creating the perfect opportunity for seeds to germinate and new plants to establish.

The majority of those new plants will survive only as long as the vigor of the surrounding grasses remains low.  As those grasses recover, they regain their advantages, both above and below ground.  Annual plants may bloom and drop more seed, but those seeds have to wait until the grasses are weakened again before they can germinate and grow.  Perennial opportunistic plants might stick around a little longer, but most of those will also lose out to recovering grasses because of their poor competitive ability.

These "weedy" species are filling in while grasses recover from a grazing bout. In the meantime, the hoary vervain (purple) and upright coneflower (yellow) are providing important pollinator resources and great habitat for other species, including insects, reptiles, and birds like northern bobwhite.
These “weedy” species are filling in while grasses recover from a grazing bout. In the meantime, the hoary vervain (purple) and upright coneflower (yellow in foreground) are providing important pollinator resources and great habitat for other species, including insects, reptiles, and brood-rearing habitat for birds like northern bobwhite.

There’s an easy way to find out whether or not the “weeds” in a pasture are aggressive or opportunistic – build an exclosure or two to keep grazing out for a year or more.  If the grasses within those exclosures regain their vigor and dominance, you’ll know it was the grazing pressure that was creating opportunities for weeds.  If the weeds continue to dominate the area inside the exclosure for a couple years (assuming you’re not in the middle of a drought that is keeping those grasses down), you’ll know that either the grasses have been debilitated to the point of no return or the weeds are truly aggressive and in need of control.

Grazing exclosure at the Dahms Tract.
Even a small and simple exclosure can help determine whether weeds are suppressing grasses or just taking advantage of grasses already weakened by grazing.

As a final note, it’s important to understand that grazing hard enough to suppress grasses and allow weedy plants to flourish temporarily is not at a bad thing.  Ecologically, the habitat conditions created by those tall weedy plants are critically important for many wildlife species, including upland game birds.  Many important wildflowers also benefit from the opportunity to reproduce during short periods (a year or two) of weakened grasses.  As long as the grasses are allowed to recover before they are intensively grazed again, they’ll be fine, and the wildlife, pollinators, and plant diversity of your prairie will all benefit from the temporary reprieve from grass dominance.  Shifting intensive grazing and subsequent rest periods around a large prairie, especially when those grazing/rest periods are a couple months long or longer, seems to be a great strategy for maintaining prairie health.

Opportunistic plants suffer from a public relations crisis.  While they are scorned by most people, these valuable plants are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.  They are the temp workers of the plant community – the substitute teachers, backup quarterbacks, and house sitters that keep prairies humming along when dominant grasses are on sick leave.  By filling spaces between temporarily shrunken grass plants, opportunistic plants can help prevent the truly aggressive weeds from easily gaining a foothold.  They can also provide much needed habitat for wildlife and pollinators.  Ragweed, hoary vervain, and buffalo bur aren’t the villains of the story at all – they’re the heroes!  We just have to get used to seeing them that way.



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.

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.


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.


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.


The emotional response you have to this photo will say a lot about your background, experience, and cultural influences.

A profusion of sunflowers in sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in north central Nebraska.
A profusion of annual sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris) in sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in north central Nebraska.

The sandhills of Nebraska consist of nearly 20,000 square miles of prairie.  The scale can be hard to comprehend until you have driven through it for hour after hour, gaping at the beauty spreading out all around you.  When I drove through a good portion of the eastern sandhills this week, a lot of it looked like this photo – covered with blooming yellow sunflowers.

Many readers of this post will be thinking, “Wow!  What a beautiful year in the sandhills!”  But I know others of you are thinking, “Ugh, what do we have to do to get rid of these invasive weeds?”

I’m going to get to that discrepancy, but let’s first back up and look at why the sunflowers are so abundant this year.  First, the sunflower species we’re talking about here is an annual called plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).  It germinates from seed in the spring, flowers in the summer, and dies at the end of the same year.

During the drought of 2012, annual sunflowers were among the few plant species able to continue growing and flowering during the hot dry summer.  Because of that, sunflowers were able to produce copious amounts of seed, many of which ended up on the ground at the end of the year.  Few other grassland plants produced anything comparable to the seed crop of those sunflowers.

The spring of 2013 brought abundant rain to the dry sandhills.  In addition, the plant litter from last year’s dry growing season was thin and sparse, allowing a lot of light to hit the soil. That combination of abundant light and moisture was exactly what all those plains sunflower seeds needed, and they germinated.

Of course, germination doesn’t ensure survival, and many annual plants germinate each year, only to be quickly overshadowed and outcompeted by strong perennial plants.  Perennials have the advantage of a pre-existing root system that can monopolize moisture and nutrients from the soil while annuals are still struggling to get started.  In years when perennial grasses and wildflowers are strong, there is very little space for annuals to grow, except in places where the soil and plant community were disturbed by digging animals or intensive grazing/trampling.

However, in the spring of 2013, not only were conditions perfect for plains sunflower germination, competing perennial plants were also weak from drought and grazing in 2012, leaving lots of open space belowground for sunflower roots to take advantage of.  In short, you couldn’t have designed a better situation for the sunflower.  It was one of the few plant species to produce seed in 2012, and then it got light, moisture, and weak competition in 2013.  It’s no wonder the hills are yellow!

Some people will look at this photo and see an amazing abundance of pretty wildflowers.  Others will see weeds running amuck.
Some people will look at this photo and see an amazing abundance of pretty wildflowers. Others will see weeds running amuck.  At the Niobrara Valley Preserve, last year’s wildfire increased the favorable conditions for plains sunflower by creating massive amounts of bare ground for germination.  While it looks like a monoculture from a distance, hidden among the sunflowers are lots of grasses and other plants that are slowly regaining their vigor.  By next season, this will be a very different looking prairie.

Ok, back to the perception issue.  Sunflowers are one of the most popular and well-known flowers in the world.  They are big, attractive, and easy to recognize.  On the other hand, many farmers and ranchers have grown up learning that sunflowers (of any kind) are weeds.  The presence of sunflowers in a field or pasture – especially an abundance of them – can be seen as a badge of shame for the landowner who is clearly not managing his/her weed problems adequately.

The important thing to remember if you’re a rancher, however, is that the sunflowers are not outcompeting perennial grasses.  Instead, the sunflowers are opportunists, taking advantage of the fact that grasses are weak.  As perennial grasses recover from last year’s drought and/or grazing, they will reclaim the root space they lost in 2012 and sunflowers will have much less room to grow next year.  Plains sunflower is a native prairie plant, and it’s role is to fill the space left when other plants are weakened (similar to ragweeds and other opportunistic species).  If sunflower wasn’t filling that space, another “weedy” species would, and the alternative could be much worse.

Some ranchers will be tempted to spray their pastures to kill off the “invading” sunflowers, but that’s actually a counterproductive strategy.  First, the annual sunflowers are going to die at the end of the season anyway, so if you want fewer sunflowers next year, the best strategy is to focus on limiting the germination and growth of next year’s crop by allowing perennial grasses and wildflowers to regain their dominance.  Second, herbicide spraying will kill a number of other plant species that are both valuable as forage and competitors with sunflowers and other annuals.  Why spend money to weaken the long-term viability of your grassland?

It’s also important to remember that cattle do eat sunflowers – they particularly like them early in the season when the leaves and stems are tender, but will also seek out the nutritious buds and flowers later in the season.  The evidence of that can be seen right now; pastures grazed at certain times this year have many fewer blooming sunflowers than those that haven’t yet been grazed this season.  In addition, of course, sunflowers are among the most valuable grassland plants in a prairie for wildlife and pollinators.  They produce large nutritious seeds for birds and other wildlife, and have abundant and accessible supplies of nectar and pollen that attract numerous pollinator species.  In short, sunflowers may not be everyone’s favorite plant, but they’re far from a useless weed or invasive threat.

For those of you who started out reading this post as fans of sunflowers, good for you!  If you get the chance, you should take a drive through Nebraska’s sandhills this summer and enjoy the scenery – it’s not likely that we’ll see another year like this for a while.  For those who are appalled by the abundance of sunflowers this year, maybe you can take some comfort from the fact that it’s a temporary phenomenon, and one tied to a particular combination of weather factors more than anything you or others did as land managers.  Things will be different next year.

Regardless of whether or not you like sunflowers, I guess there’s one thing we can all agree on.  The year 2013 will be one to remember!

Note:  Nebraska has nine species of native sunflowers, seven of which are perennials.  All of them are valuable for wildlife and pollinators, and important components of a healthy grassland community.

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.

An Unexpected Traveler

My sons and I were at our family’s prairie and farm this weekend.  At one point, we noticed that the cattle seemed agitated and were making a lot of noise and milling around.  We walked up to see what was going on, and when we got close enough, we could see that the cattle were focused on an animal of some kind that was slowly making its way through the grass. 

A snapping turtle and some very agitated cattle.

I’m not sure if they’d ever seen a snapping turtle before, but it was clear the cattle weren’t happy about having it in their pasture.  They took turns charging at it and making angry sounds that would have intimidated most creatures.  Whether because it was unworried or just figured the best way out of the mess was to keep going, the turtle just kept steadily moving through the short grass toward the distant pond. 

After watching for a few minutes (from a safe distance – agitated cattle can be unpredictable), I took pity on both sides of the dispute and hauled the turtle off toward the pond.  I’m not sure what it’s going to find for food there – maybe some of the countless tiny leopard frogs we saw along the banks – because I don’t think there are any fish.  Maybe it’ll just enjoy a short respite from its bovine tormentors before setting out across the landscape again.

I wish him luck.  The cattle, on the other hand, probably have less charitable thoughts…