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Planting native grasses requires patience

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 09/04/2013 1:59 PM

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PRIOR LAKE, Minn. — About a dozen people disembarked from a bus into a field of grass for a Third Crop Walk-n-Talk.

The group walked and talked in a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community parcel that was planted to native grasses in spring 2008 and another parcel of 100 acres planted in fall 2008.

The goal is to graze buffalo in the grassland.

A member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community was married to a rancher with a buffalo herd. The plan was to graze it on the site. However, the rancher sold his herd, and the grasses haven't been grazed.

Shawn Kelley, an environmental scientist who works for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is still searching for a way to bring bison back to the land in northern Scott County.

He's trying to return the land back to how it looked and was managed pre-settlement, when buffalo grazed 27,000 acres of prairie in northern Scott County.

Kelley has the Public Lands Survey from 1854-55, prior to Minnesota statehood, showing the area's outwash soil from Glacial River Warren was prairie.

The entire area is part of the Big Woods complex. Kelley said it's likely the tribal ancestors used fire to keep the Big Woods complex from encroaching on the prairie where the buffalo roamed.

The land was cropped by 1937, Kelley said. He obtained an aerial photo from the time showing annual crops growing on the marginal land.

In total, Kelley and others working for the tribe have restored about 550 acres of grasslands.

Nick Jordan, a University of Minnesota professor of agronomy and plant genetics and an agroecologist, said there is more interest in grasslands among the wildlife conservation and the soil and water communities. The farming community, however, is skeptical of how grasslands fit into their farming system.

The big issue is the lack of a reasonable economic model that would allow private landowners to grow perennial grasses, Jordan said.

He's keeping an eye on emerging technologies that may make it possible to harvest perennial grasses at a profit.

He's also working on research to develop recommendations for successful planting of native grasses.

There are no guarantees in this business, Kelley said, but the more data available, the better chance of success.

Kelley has done both spring and fall planting. Dormant seeding is his preferred method because some prairie grasses need to go through cold stratification in order to germinate. In other words, the freeze and thaw cycle makes some native grasses germinate better, he said.

Patience is key when planting native prairie grasses, Kelley said. Plan on at least three years of intensive management to get a stand established.

It is often hit or miss when it comes to establishing warm-season native prairies, Jordan said. Fields that have been in long-term annual crop production don't seem to have the right soil make up to support native grasses.

University research is on-going at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to see if planting Canadian wild rye or brassica as a nurse crop will aid the establishment of native prairies, Jordan said.

Canadian wild rye has a reputation for helping to diversify grasslands. It provides a strong canopy in the first few years when the natives struggle and then melts away as the natives gain more traction.

It's important to have a recommendation for successful planting as native seed mixtures aren't inexpensive. Kelley said the cheapest mixture he found this year ran $250 per acre. People need to know when to plant native seed mixtures and how to plant them, he said.

Once established, the grasses are long lived, but maintenance is still required, Kelley said. Maintenance includes burning and grazing.

Kelley burned the 200 acre parcel in 2010 and 2011. He uses GPS technology to identify problem areas in perennial fields and attacks those areas with chemicals, fire or a mower.

This fall, he will burn an area where Siberian elm and leafy spurge are invading.

Kelley struggles with doing burns, though, because he knows the grasslands provide habitat for raptors, coyotes and other predatory mammals.

University of Minnesota Extension educator Gary Wyatt suggested to Kelley that he burn only a small parcel at a time, leaving the remaining acres as habitat.

Kelley liked the suggestion and said he will cut the grassland in half, burning the area with the most invasive plants this year while leaving the rest for habitat.