Restoring prairie on the Great Plains

Feb 4, 2016

A combine rolls through a Nebraska prairie to collect grass seed. (Courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute)

  From the air, the Midwest looks like a patchwork of cropland and pastures. But before the land was turned over to plows and center pivots, most of it was a sea of grass. 

Native grasslands were first plowed by pioneers homesteading on the plains. More land was converted to crops as tractors and machinery arrived on the farm and conversion of land intensified. 

Loss of grassland has been a challenge for many of the region’s native residents. Birds, insects and other wildlife that need a prairie ecosystem to survive have less room to roam. David Wedin, a professor at the University of Nebraska’s School of Natural Resources, says much of the area converted to cropland is marginal land, highly susceptible to erosion and the runoff of agricultural chemicals.

”Grasslands are our best resource to prevent soil erosion,” Wedin said. “And frankly, grasslands do a better job than forests. They certainly do a better job than croplands of preventing soil erosion, water erosion, runoff.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually pays farmers to convert highly erodible land back to native vegetation with the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. First implemented in 1985, it was an attempt to turn the tide of over-development.

“CRP has been by far the largest conservation program in the history of the United States,” Wedin said. “Just millions of acres -- private acres -- that have been replanted in grassland.”

In recent years, CRP has faced competition from high grain prices. As the economics of agriculture have changed, farmers have decided to return much of that CRP land back to crop land. A 2013 report by the USDA showed that in 2012, Nebraska led the nation in converting non-cropland to cropland. Not all of this would be CRP or grassland, but over 54,000 acres were converted in Nebraska alone. Nationally, almost 400,000 acres were converted.

“Even though our awareness of the issues has increased, and our desire for habitat for pollinators, and even though the availability of native seeds had increased the economics has been against grasslands in our agricultural landscapes the last few years,” Wedin said.

Now, several environmental groups are working in the Midwest to turn back the dial of history.

The Prairie Plains Resource Institute, a Nebraska nonprofit that educates people about the prairie, is laboring to save local grassland seed and restore Great Plains prairie.

Inside a shed on the Institute’s grounds just outside of Aurora, Neb., is where the life of a new prairie begins. Rows and rows of garbage barrel containers are piled to the brim with some 250 species of seed. Some of the seed was harvested by hand and some by combine, but all of it is from existing Nebraska prairies.

“Our approach is to do what we call high-diversity local ecotype,” said Mike Bullerman, an ecologist with Prairie Plains. “Which means we collect as many species as we can throughout a growing season and it all needs to come from wild, local populations. They are, in our minds, best suited to do well in any range of conditions.”

Bullerman and two assistants put on dust masks and goggles. They dump a few barrels of seed in a circle on the floor, then use shovels to heap the contents into a six-foot pile in the center. Sarah Bailey, the Prairie Plains greenhouse manager heaves a scoop of seed into the mixed pile.

“You're seeing all that hard work from the harvest go into something where there's anywhere from 100 to 200 species,” Bailey said. “And you know that's going to get out on the ground and become a natural area that's going to be awesome in the future.”

Bullerman and the crew haul the seed on a flatbed trailer 30 miles away to an ex-cornfield that is to be planted back to tallgrass. The team dumps the seed into 1950s-era spreaders hitched up to four-wheelers to plant the ground.

The land is flat, but water has pooled in a few shallow areas – and that’s by design.

“This piece of land has been in a traditional soybean corn rotation up until 2014,” Bullerman said.  “Then it was entered in the WRP, which is the Wetland Reserve Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service – a program that seeks to create and enhance wetlands throughout the country.  It was allowed to go fallow in 2015 and at that time, they did some excavation to create some wetlands, and then after that it was shredded and disked to prepare the seedbed for what we're doing today.”

The two four-wheelers set off, pulling their spreaders. Clouds of dusty seed fall to the ground. It will be 3 to 5 years before this plot looks like a mature grassland, but Bullerman says that’s a scene worth the wait.

”These plants that we're working with are the progeny of what were here prior to settlement,” he said. “Genetically, it represents what's left of Nebraska's natural history. Metaphorically, it represents the future. We're planting seeds, creating prairie plant communities, for not only wildlife habitat, but for the public to enjoy.”