Chuck Norris of the Prairie

A big topic of conversation at this year’s Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) workshop had to do with designing seed mixes to combat potential invasive plant problems.  When converting cropland to prairie vegetation, the first few years of establishment are sometimes a race for dominance between prairie plants and invasives.  Once a strong native plant community becomes established, it is more difficult (but still possible) for invasive plants to become dominant, so those first few seasons are critically important.  Over the years, a number of people have tried using extra high seeding rates of various native plants to see if those natives could help stave off invaders.  In an ideal scenario, a high abundance of some showy wildflower would outcompete invasive plants but allow other native plants to establish.  Nice, right?  Lots of pretty flowers during establishment, no invasive species to worry about, and a nice diverse prairie community in the long run.

Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in restored prairie - TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Black-eyed Susan is a species that has shown some promise as a species that can compete against invasives but still allow the establishment of a diverse plant community around it.   The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I first heard about this idea at the 2004 North American Prairie Conference.  In one of my favorite presentations of all time, Shawn Schottler of the Science Museum of Minnesota compared various plant species to celebrities.  As he described his experiments, he said he was trying to find Chuck Norris plants (tough good guys) that could fight off Mike Tysons (aggressive invasives) while still allowing Patsy Clines (less competitive natives) to establish.  As I recall, he was having some luck with Chuck Norris species such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and others.  At this year’s GRN workshop, Jack Norland of North Dakota State University described recent results of some similar experiments on U.S. Fish and Wildlife restoration projects.  The “spike” treatments they used consisted of ultra high seeding rates of species such as plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), and others.  His data showed Canada thistle to be much less abundant in spike treatments than in the controls.

Interestingly, we’ve had some accidental experience with this topic here in our Nebraska Platte River Prairies.  During the drought years of the early 2000’s, some of our prairie plantings ended up with lots and lots of Canada wild rye.  In some cases, the species was so abundant that our plantings looked like wild rye monocultures.  We weren’t the only ones.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute had plantings that looked much the same during those years.  There was some hand wringing about whether or not the plantings had failed, especially given the drought conditions at the time, but Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains assured us that it wasn’t a big deal.  He was right, as usual.  The plantings eventually emerged from their wild rye phase and turned into very nice prairies.  In fact, our site that had the “worst” wild rye infestation is now the showiest (in terms of big colorful wildflowers) prairie we have.  I’m not sure the wild rye helped suppress any invasive species, but a high density of wild rye plants didn’t seem to keep Patsy Clines from eventually thriving.

This 2004 shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth.  Canada wildrye is visually dominant, but other species are present as well.

This 2004 photo shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth. Canada wild rye is visually dominant, but other species are present beneath its canopy.  Many of our young plantings from about that time period looked much like this for several years in a row.

After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years but today is our showiest wildflower patch.

After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years.  Today it is among our most diverse prairies and showcases our showiest wildflower patches.  (July 2015 photo)

Spike treatments/Chuck Norris species/etc., are really just variations on the idea of using a cover crop – planting something intended to establish early and then fade away (mostly or completely) as the desired vegetation takes hold.  In some places, cover crops are very useful in agricultural systems as a way to prevent soil erosion and loss of fertility, suppress weeds, and/or preserve soil moisture.  It seems logical that they would also help with prairie restoration establishment.  In fact, I recently talked to someone with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in north central Nebraska who says their best successes in restoring sandhill prairie come when they use a cover crop of millet.

On the other hand, I remember a GRN workshop about five or six years ago when we had a group discussion about our experiences with various cover crops.  Participants from across the Central U.S. seemed to reach consensus that cover crops were as likely to be counterproductive as helpful to prairie restoration efforts.  This seems to conflict with the successes seen by people like Shawn Schottler, Jack Norland, and others.  Why the differences?

Part of the issue is certainly that we’re still experimenting with different species, and still have a lot to learn.  Beyond that, though, anyone who has spent many years restoring prairie knows that establishment results can be very difficult to predict, even within the same site.  Just when you think you’ve got something figured out, your next planting turns out completely unlike what you’d expected.  Those kinds of inconsistencies, combined with differences in site attributes such as soil texture and fertility, rainfall, and latitude make it almost impossible to come up with restoration recommendations that apply everywhere.  In fact, if we’ve learned anything through the Grassland Restoration Network, it’s that it’s important to start big projects by doing some small experimental plantings to see what works best in that place before investing in larger scale work.

Grassland Restoration Network Meeting.  Hosted by TNC Minnesota.

There is great value in getting a bunch of restoration practitioners together in one place.  We often bring home new ideas to try.  Sometimes they even work.  2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop – Minnesota.

Clearly, the idea of “spike” treatments and similar strategies hold a great deal of promise if they fulfill their promise of preventing invasives while facilitating establishment of diverse plant communities.  However, since it’s also clear that successful strategies from one site don’t always translate well to others, we may each have to find our own formula for success.  Hearing about Dr. Norland’ experiments in the Dakotas has inspired us to do some more experimentation here.  Maybe we can find a few Chuck Norris species to keep the peace in our Platte River Prairies.

If you’ve had positive or negative experiences with cover crops in prairie restoration, or have found your own Chuck Norris of the prairie, please share what you’ve learned in the comments section below.  Thanks.

P.S.  You may have seen or heard some of the many Chuck Norris jokes out there that play on the idea that he is seemingly invincible.  My 14-year-old son likes to share them with me now and then.  A few of my favorites are:

Chuck Norris doesn’t wear a watch. He decides what time it is.

Chuck Norris makes onions cry.

There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because no one crosses Chuck Norris.

When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

A bulletproof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.

Our New Mechanical Seed Harvester

Seed harvest is a big part of our work here at the Platte River Prairies.  We don’t do as much complete restoration (converting cropland to high-diversity prairie) as we used to because we’ve just about run out of land to restore.  Instead we’ve shifted most of our seed work toward overseeding degraded remnant prairies that are missing many prominent wildflower species.  As a result, instead of harvesting from 230 plant species a year, we’re mainly focusing on getting as much seed as possible from about 30 to 40 species.

Nelson Winkel harvests Maximilian sunflower seeds by hand.

Nelson Winkel harvests Maximilian sunflower seeds by hand.

Most of our seed harvest is by hand, and when needed, we’ve been able to get adequate seed for up to 200 acres of cropland conversion work per year that way.  We’ve also used mechanical means to supplement our hand harvesting, including a couple different combines we’ve owned and pull-behind seed strippers we’ve borrowed from partners.  The mechanical harvesters have been helpful for getting big patches of seed from some grasses, sedges, and a few forbs.  However, the combines we’ve used aren’t very flexible about where they can go (hills and wet areas are tough) and the seed strippers’ brushes haven’t been aggressive enough to remove seed heads of some of the species we really wanted big quantities of – especially for our overseeding work.  However, a recent grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, via the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, made it possible for us to purchase a new mechanical seed harvester.

Here, Nelson is harvesting grass seed with a mechanical seed stripper borrowed from Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Here, Nelson is harvesting grass seed with a mechanical seed stripper borrowed from Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

After exploring a number of options, we decided to buy a seed stripper from Ned Groelz at Graywind Industries, Inc.  Our friends at Prairie Plains Resource Institute bought a pull-behind stripper built by Ned many years ago, and we liked a lot of its features – especially the ability to remotely control the harvester’s brush on the fly (turning it off and on and adjusting its height while driving through the prairie).  When we ordered our machine, we told Ned we were hoping to harvest large amounts of seed from plants with tough-to-remove seedheads and we weren’t sure a brush would be able to handle those.  He said he’d play with some ideas and see what he could do about that.

When Ned delivered the machine to us, he had a big grin on his face – a sure sign that he’d come up with something for our tough-to-harvest seed problem.  His solution was to replace the harvester’s brush with a more aggressive tool that included “stripping elements” – metal fingers, essentially –  made by the Shelbourne Reynolds company.  (Shelbourne Reynolds sells an attachment for combines that strips, rather than cuts, the grain from crops such as wheat and rice.)  Ned adapted their design for use in his pull-behind seed stripper and he was dying to know whether it would actually work.  Just to be safe, he designed the machine so that we could easily remove his experimental portion and replace it with a tried-and-true brush if we wanted to.

A close-up of the Shelbourne stripper elements included in Ned's new harvester design.

A close-up of the Shelbourne stripper elements included in Ned’s new harvester design.

Ned was so interested in testing his new design, he came out a couple weeks ago to watch it in action.  Without going into a lot of details, let me just say – it works great!  So far, we’ve tested it on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoiensis), as well as a few others.

The

Nelson and Ned watch the new stripper as it harvests seed from Illinois bundleflower.  The machine is offset from the UTV so the UTV doesn’t smash the vegetation down before it is harvested.

The stripper removes some stems and leaves, as well as seed pods, but leaves most of the plant behind.

The stripper removes some stems and leaves, as well as seed pods, but leaves most of each plant behind.

Ned and Nelson evaluate the performance of the new machine and talk about ideas for further improvements.

Ned and Nelson evaluate the performance of the new machine and talk about ideas for further improvements.

Hand-harvesting will still be an important component of our prairie restoration work. Many plant species are scattered here and there across a prairie and hand-harvesting is the only feasible way to obtain their seeds.  However, other plants occur in big patches, and this new machine is going to let us quickly harvest large quantities of seed from those, which will be a tremendous boon to our overseeding efforts.  We’ll need to do a little more seed processing (using hammermills and screens to separate seeds from the pods, stems, and leaves picked up by the stripper) than with hand-harvested seed, but that should go pretty quickly.

One of my favorite aspects of prairie restoration is the innovation displayed by people trying to come up with new effective ways to harvest seeds.  This new mechanical stripper is one more addition to a long list of those innovations.  Keep ’em coming, folks!

For more information and pricing of Ned’s mechanical seed harvesters, contact him at:

Ned Groelz – Graywind Enterprises, Inc.

2927 W 700 S
Syracuse, UT 84075-9764
Mobile: 801-803-0412
E-mail ngroelz@gmail.com

I want to be perfectly clear -this post was not sponsored by Graywind Enterprises, and we paid full price for the seed stripper and its components.   All the opinions about this equipment and how it worked are just my opinions.  My intent is to let others know of the existence of this machine in case it can help move prairie restoration and conservation work forward.