Prairie cut and baled for hay.
Making prairie hay
Better than a snowbank.
"Conservation Practices can help producers weather historic drought," proclaimed the August 2012 headline on the home webpage of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
This was welcome news for many drought-strapped farmers in southern Wisconsin who could then take advantage of an expedited Compatible Use Authorization (CUA) allowing haying or grazing on conservation easements administered by the NRCS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One such beneficiary was third-generation dairy farmer Stewart Badertscher of Brodhead.
"My grandfather pastured his cows on marsh hay by the Sugar River," Badertscher recollected. "In fact, he used to hunt prairie chickens down there in the floodplain around 1905 or 1910."
Badertscher described how his father then drained the low-lying land and farmed soybeans and corn on it for about 30 years. A few years ago, though, Badertscher took advantage of the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program (originated in the 1990s) and restored a prairie to 80 acres of floodplain, protecting it under a permanent easement. Under a costshare agreement, the NRCS helped seed it with native species such as switchgrass, Indian grass and big bluestem.
In August 2012, these same acres of restored prairie provided an emergency source of hay in a drought-plagued year.
"We usually get four cuttings of hay on my other 100 hay acres," he offered. "The first one this year was the usual high quality hay that I like for the milk cows. But due to the drought, I was short on the later cuttings that provide the lower quality hay I need for my heifers and dry cows. It isn't the highest quality hay but it is 'better than a snowbank,' as we say around here!"
There is a benefit to society at large as well. The ability to put more hay on the market from conservation lands in spite of the drought helps keep the supply up and prices down. Everyone benefits.
There are some restrictions on exercising compatible uses. Foremost is a critical period designated by each state to protect nesting birds. Haying can only commence after most young birds have fledged. In Wisconsin, this translates to the month of August.
NRCS conservationists can also require that an equivalent part of an easement is left unmowed, to provide ongoing wildlife habitat, as was done on Badertscher's acreage. Occasionally, concerns about endangered or threatened species prohibit the implementation of a compatible use, but usually there are solutions to agency concerns and permission is granted.
Many of our richest Wisconsin agricultural lands were once veritable seas of tall grass prairie. Originating at the close of the last glacial period some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, the diverse mixture of grasses and forbs called tallgrass prairie covered nearly all of Iowa, the northern two-thirds of Illinois, and stretched north to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and south to Arkansas and Missouri.
The deep and spreading root systems of prairie plants thwarted initial attempts at cultivation until the invention of the commercial steel moldboard plow in the 1860s. With cultivation came settlement, and conversion of rich prairie soils to crops of corn, wheat, soybeans and more.
Eventually, only remnants of the original vast prairie remained. Once estimated to cover 2.1 million acres in Wisconsin, today only about 10,000 acres of prairie remain. The story is similar wherever prairie existed as the dominant original vegetation on the Midwestern landscape.
In low areas that are difficult to cultivate, patches of wet prairie persisted into the 20th century. These areas of "wild hay" or "marsh hay" were commonly used as pasture land by farmers (as was done by Badertscher's grandfather). They were also often cut for hay or bedding late in the summer when soils were dry enough to allow access by horses and wagons.
One such area, the focus of a seminal Wisconsin study, "A biological and statistical analysis of the vegetation of a typical wild hay meadow," was published in 1914 in the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. For his study site, botanist Arlow Burdette Stout needed to go no further than a wild hay meadow owned by the Dane County Fair Association near Madison. There, using labor-intensive transects, Stout recorded a noteworthy total of 110 plant species!
Gradually, however, even these few remaining patches of wet prairie were drained and cropped, or degraded by hydrological changes on the larger landscape. "Marsh hay" was but a memory passed down to today's landowners along with recollections of prairie chickens or other prairie wildlife. People began to miss some of their other ecological functions as well – water quality protection, aquifer recharge, and erosion and flood control.
There also were people who remembered the plaintive song of the eastern meadowlark, the exuberant song of a bobolink in flight, or the riotous blooms of butterfly milkweed and blazing star. They missed the aesthetics of the prairie. Some of these people also began to think about ways to restore prairie.
With the establishment of the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985 (vegetating marginal, erosion-prone farmlands), and the Wetland Reserve Program in 1990 (restoring and enhancing formerly drained wetlands), new opportunities arose for re-establishing prairie on the landscape. Both of these Farm Bill programs operate with voluntary participation by private landowners.
In these efforts, diversity matters – both species diversity on each particular field as well as the distribution and types of restored prairie patches. The Department of Natural Resources addresses the latter by linking restored private prairie lands to State Natural Areas wherever possible, forming larger contiguous blocks of varied habitats. They also look for opportunities to purchase private easements to expand public access.
The value of plant species diversity is acknowledged, but implementation is often constrained by cost and personnel. In an effort to improve both outcomes and efficiency, the NRCS in neighboring eastern Iowa began using a third-party vendor, Applied Ecological Services (AES) of Brodhead. The two worked closely to establish protocols that ensure locally buildable projects and measurable outcomes.
With this partnership, Iowa NRCS became a leader in diversity prescriptions, advising mixtures composed of 30 to 50 species rather than the usual five to 10. AES is assisting in fine-tuning mixtures to each site's moisture and soil type, and in recommending local seed sources, further ensuring successful outcomes.
A diverse restored prairie is a rich tapestry; its many layers, shapes, textures, and colors are interwoven in an intricate design. This design includes species of butterflies, birds, and mammals, many of which have declining populations throughout their ranges.
In a successful restored prairie ecosystem, the regal fritillary butterfly caterpillar can find the violet species it needs as a host plant and its favored milkweed nectar sources. A northern harrier benefits from a robust base of prey – rodents and other small vertebrates – allowing it to nest and raise young. Upland plover, bobolink, grasshopper sparrow and Henslow's sparrow are among the species that find the requisite area, vegetative structure, and abundant insects crucial to successful nesting and raising of young.
At the same time, the complex root mass of prairie plants facilitates groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, and soil development. As an added bonus, with most of their biomass underground, prairie species are adapted to withstand drought, and require only modest maintenance effort such as periodic prescribed burning or mowing.
In myriad ways, patches of restored prairie act as natural savings accounts, much as that marsh hayfield in the days of our ancestors. The human landowner is afforded the security of dipping into compatible uses of grazing and haying while still leaving the principal intact.
It is that principal – diverse, vibrant and complex restored prairie communities – that will help stitch our landscapes together again. So, how about that soggy field where the corn crop floods out most springs? Or that droughty patch of sandy soil that is the first to scorch in the summer? What about the old field in your local land trust? Might there be a prairie in your future?
Elizabeth R.Tiller, Ph.D. is an ecologist and ornithologist who works as a communications associate for the ecological restoration firm, Applied Ecological Services of Brohead. She traces her passion for prairies to growing up in the "prairie peninsula" of Michigan, near Kalamazoo – often searching for prairie remnants along railroads and old cemeteries.