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.

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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.