Mar 10, 2014

Prairie Planting for Wildlife

By: Steve Jordan

My wife and I were so impressed with the beautiful prairie fields and pot holes in North Dakota that we duplicated it on our Wisconsin property. In North Dakota, they have thousands of acres of public hunting. They call it “plot land” and it is posted as such. It always includes grassland, which includes prairie grasses and wildflower varieties. It usually encompasses many potholes surrounded by cattails, sedges, and other wetland plants.

These “plot lands” hold a variety of upland birds, along with many ducks and geese. Whitetail deer are common in the high grass and cattail areas. 

For our prairie project we worked with the Outagamie County Farm Service Agency, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We had a lot of help from many people in our local office. Julie Peterson was our main contact. She is in a partnership position with the FSA and the Pheasants Forever organization as a biologist. Julie could visualize our idea of replicating the North Dakota landscape. Her help was invaluable. Pheasants Forever is a great resource for most of the prairie seeds that you will need. They also have the knowledge and the equipment to help you maintain your prairie throughout the years. 

Planting and maintaining a prairie may seem simple, but it is just the opposite. You will need the patience of a bow hunter or the patience of a Detroit Lion football fan. If you can babysit your prairie for three years, the maintenance thereafter will be minimal.

A good prairie mix will have up to thirty varieties of grasses and prairie flowers. Each variety is a perennial. Most varieties of weeds are annuals. During the first three years, you will want to mow your prairie periodically at approximately eight inches high. By doing this, the annual weeds that depend on their seed cluster to reproduce are continually chopped off. Eventually the weed dies with no offspring. The prairie plants, on the other hand, are stunted on top, but continually work on their root systems. These massive root systems will eventually choke out most weeds that try to grow amongst them. One example is on one of my first prairie plantings near Readfield, Wisconsin over 25 years ago. I thought about how nice it would be to incorporate some big Russian sunflowers randomly through the established prairie area. I took a 4-foot re-rod, ½ inch in diameter and poked holes 2-3 inches deep. Then I would drop a sunflower seed in the hole and close it up. I planted approximately 100 seeds; they were all choked off and yellow at two inches high. This is what happens to annual weeds on a well established prairie planting.

Here is another example of how thick the root systems get. I had an opportunity to put on a hands-on food plot seminar during the Whitetail Classic event at the Bubolz Nature Center. They gave me ¼ of an acre of an established prairie to work up for the demonstration. The area was mowed and then I had to work up the sod. The root systems were amazing and my disk would not cut into the sod base. I ended up scooping out most of the root systems in this area with my tractor bucket. I ended up with a pile of roots as big as a full-sized van. I've never encountered a sod base as thick and dense as the Bubolz prairie project. 

In some areas of the prairie, trees and brush will try to get established. The mowing will keep them in check for the first three years. A recommended burn of the prairie or area on the fifth year will get rid of them. The Pheasants Forever organization can help you with the burning of your prairie safely. They have access to the equipment and trained staff. 

A common weed that tries to establish itself in prairies is the thistle. After the three year mowing period, you should keep an eye on any of the problem areas. The big bull thistles are easy to spot because they will tower over the prairie grasses. My wife and I will go looking for them with a weed shearers and a small squirt bottle of Round Up. We will cut the thistle to about one foot off the ground to discourage flowering. Then we will carefully spray a few of the lower, wide thistle leaves with Round Up, trying not to over spray anything around it. If you have an area that is heavily infested with thistles in your mature prairie, you can just mow that area to 8-10 inches high. You may have to mow that area a couple of times so the thistles don't flower. In late fall you will notice the prairie grasses turn brown and go dormant. The thistle plants will still be a nice green and very healthy looking. At that time, you can liberally spray Round Up over the entire area. The thistles will die and the dormant grasses will not be affected. Geez.....I wish we could get rid of the pesky San Francisco 49ers that easily! 

At our current place of residence, we have 14 acres of prairie with a one acre shallow scrape or pond. The deer frequently bed in the tall grasses. The geese, ducks, turkeys, pheasants, and a huge variety of songbirds nest and feed in the prairie. We have two acres of a pollinator mix that consists of 100% wildflowers (no grasses) to attract nectar feeding birds and insects. We have had to mow that for the first three years. This coming spring will be the first year of not mowing. This year should be fantastic. It was very hard to mow last year when we noticed some of the wildflowers trying to bloom. 

The strategy behind a well planned prairie is to have some varieties flower early in the spring, some flowering mid-summer, and yet some waiting for the fall. Our prairie grass flower mix is only about 10% flowers and 90% grasses. It's amazing how many flowers bloom in that mix. Prairie plantings are great for enhancing and diversifying your property. You can set up prairies next to food plots, ponds, woods, and agricultural fields. 

Remember, prairie plantings are a lot of work for the first three years, but after that, a minimal amount of maintenance is required. Have a great spring and think prairie for 2014.