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Native Grass Gazette: Workshops and Debunking Myths

Working with Dr. Pat Keyser, Center for Native Grasslands Management (CNGM), and a host of local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, I recently finished conducting the first two Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) in-service training workshops, one in Missouri and the other in Kentucky. The workshops are to provide support and training for the WLFW Bobwhite in Grasslands project. We cover some bobwhite habitat basics but really immerse participants into the reasons for using native forages, establishment and grazing management, finally integrating grazing management with grassland wildlife. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and CNGM are under contract with NRCS to conduct seven or more (depending on how far the money goes) of these workshops in the Bobwhite in Grassland states. I’m proud to report workshop evaluation surveys completed at the conclusion of each of the workshops for the question, “Considering this workshop in its entirety, how would you rank it?” averaged 4.65 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Workshops begin with an indoor presentation before proceeding outdoors.

High scores are something to feel good about, but are our objectives really being met? In both instances, there were about 30 NRCS, University Extension, state wildlife agency staff and partner biologists attending. Respectable numbers and a good cross-section of participation, also a good crowd size for free and open discussion.

The question that has to be asked, why not more? Was the timing poor with too many conflicts, is it a topic staff aren’t interested in? Was it because there was travel and potentially an overnight stay required? Our survey can’t get those answers, how do you survey someone who wasn’t there? In the meantime we need to figure out an effective way to get our message about integrating native forage into grazing systems and integrating bobwhite management to a larger audience. Workshops are a great way to convey the message and can provide an excellent learning opportunity. The drawback is there are only so many workshops that can be physically conducted within a defined timeframe. Recording the workshops and setting up on-demand webinars can help alleviate the problem of limited time, but typically don’t provide as good a learning opportunity as a workshop combining classroom time and field tours showing examples. With the technology available today, perhaps a live broadcast available for remote viewing and connectivity allowing questions from viewers in real time is an option. Regardless, NBCI will continue to explore the options available and meet the demand to the best of our ability and technical capability.

A significant part of the workshop is challenging long-held beliefs about native forage and bobwhite habitat using science-supported facts about native forages to debunk the common myths.

For example, everyone knows – or least has been told for years, that native grasses are difficult to establish. Not so true, The CNGM looked at their 14-year history of planting native forages and found 85% of the time they were able to establish a production stand of native grasses. Weather extremes were responsible for the majority of the 15% failures. Establishing native grasses is an agronomic practice and as long as you follow the agronomic procedures they are not difficult to establish. When weather extremes are the culprit, it doesn’t matter what you’re planting, it’s going to fail. I’ve not seen the success rate for introduced species for comparison and I’m not sure one exists, other than anecdotal.

So maybe native grasses aren’t so hard to establish, but you can’t graze them for 2 or 3 years. Ever hear that before? Again at the CNGM, they have been consistently able to graze stands in the first

Field tours show workshop participants real-life examples of native forages in production use.

growing season after planting, admittedly not at as high of level as a fully established stand, but they can provide grazing the first year after planting. Because planting native warm-season forage is a deliberate move a grazier can plan accordingly; adjust stocking rate, paddock size or plan for supplemental feeding.

Native grasses are a poor quality forage, why would a rancher want to purposely plant them? Forage quality tests of native warm-season forages don’t compare favorably to introduced species, especially when using forage tests designed for cool-season species. The ultimate test of any forage is animal performance. It has been well documented, over a long period of time, across multiple studies, average daily gains on native warm-season forages falls within the range of 1.5 to 2.0 pounds during the summer months. Conception rates are high, lactation is greater, average weaning weights are higher and, overall, other animal health issues are fewer. Poor quality forage doesn’t have these attributes.

But they are so expensive to establish. If you are doing a prairie restoration with a complex mix of grasses and forbs, yes, they are expensive. Under a production scenario using simple mixtures, depending upon species selected and species being compared to, establishment cost can range for 20% less than introduced species to 50% more. Seed cost can, but not always, be more expensive, but when you look at total establishment cost, considering other inputs, native warm-season forages can be very competitive with introduced species. In economic analyses conducted by CNGM, including establishment cost, a big bluestem-indiangrass mixture was compared to bermudagrass and sudex for hay production, using a $65 per ton price, found a producer could recoup their investment in year 4. The producer would never recoup their investment for bermudagrass or sudex. Now consider this, steers grazing big bluestem/indiangrass provided the least expensive cost per pound of gain at 31 cents, bermudagrass at 54 cents and sudex at 75 cents.

Yeah, but they are hard to manage. If you like continuous grazing, you can keep continuous grazing. Do simple pasture rotations, you can continue simple pasture rotations. Like management intensive grazing, you can keep management intensive grazing. Proper grazing, regardless of forage – cool-season, warm-season, introduced or native, is about proper forage management. The process isn’t any different, only the trigger points for decision making. Of course, proper forage management includes proper stocking rates.

There are many other advantages to incorporating native warm-season forages into a grazing system, some not as easily quantified. There are advantages to soil health, water quality, soil conservation and wildlife. I think if a producer takes an unbiased look at native forages, without the interference of all the misinformed nay-sayers, they will find native warm-season forages to be a valuable addition to their grazing systems.

Fescue fields in the background are brown from the drought.

Shell’s Covert: A Burning Controversy…Fire During the Nesting Season

A May 3, 2017 prescribed burn on a WMA in Virginia. Goal was to reduce rapidly encroaching sweet gum and red maple understory, a task which cannot be accomplished with winter burning alone.

“I understand the need for fire, but when you are burning in May, you are burning up quail, turkey and grouse nests and that can’t be good. Why don’t you burn in winter, or early spring before nesting begins in earnest?”

I am sure many of us who practice prescribed fire have started to hear this more often. And it is partially our fault…as we have not done enough outreach and education about why we sometimes burn in late spring. I have also had it expressed to me that some believe this “growing season” burning occurs primarily due to fear of lost money. Meaning that if an agency has set a budget for burning, and winter weather delays it, if they don’t burn in late spring, they’ll lose the funds.

I’d like to first say that I have seen prescribed fire professionalism increase year-after-year-after-year for over two decades. With increasing public scrutiny, and more and more human encroachment surrounding public lands, the need to be completely professional in the use of prescribed fire has increased. Everyone I know in the profession of wildlife management and forestry use prescribed fire for all the right reasons. With regards to the funds…it is true that in many cases they can’t be carried over from one fiscal year to another, but, in most cases they can be redirected to other appropriate uses during that same fiscal year. The money does not evaporate if not used.

From an economic standpoint, nothing in our wildlife management tool box can treat more acres faster and at a lower cost than prescribed fire. I once helped bush-hog some heavily overgrown fields on one of our Wildlife Management Areas. It took two of us working all day for three days running two 75 horsepower tractors to complete 40 acres of mowing. That same acreage could have been safely burned in 3 to 4 hours. But we had fallen behind on burning…and the vegetation had reached a stage where fire would no longer set it back to the desired condition. And this is one key reason growing season fire is sometimes applied. It can be the only time during which fire will have enough impact to set back plant succession to the desired condition to favor, quail, grouse, woodcock, turkey and many songbirds and pollinating insects.

Let me explain a couple things. First – it is good to mix up the timing of burning. A good practitioner would never want to burn a particular tract only in the winter, or only in the late spring, etc. Fire practitioners often use winter fire to reduce heavy fuel loads after a thinning operation. Winter fire can also top kill some young pine and hard wood competition, help scarify native plant seeds to increase germination rates, and remove duff making foraging easier for some wildlife species. But if managing for quail, grouse or turkey is your goal, some growing season fire is going to have to be applied. And sometimes that may be later in the season…into May. This may seem counterintuitive, but let’s stop and think a minute.

Suppose we can’t burn a timbered tract (either thinned pines or hardwoods) in late winter because it stays wet and cold. It stays wet into spring, and then we finally get some good burning weather in May. We have choices. We can delay and perhaps try again in fall. Or we can delay a full year, hoping for good conditions in early spring, or we can burn it now…in May and risk losing a few nests – though studies show percentages of lost nests are low (Kilburg et al. 2104). Given that most entities using fire have limited budgets, staffs and time, and given that we cannot predict the weather in two weeks, much less months…many good managers would choose to burn in May. If we don’t burn in May, and then we can’t burn the following year…for all practical purposes that block of habitat is going to be “lost.” Meaning we have no real way of managing it now until it is clear-cut, replanted and reaches thinning age again in 20 to 25 years. What we have done is traded a few nests this year for potentially far more nests in subsequent years if we had been able to stay ahead on the management of the unit.

It is also funny as humans we tend to use rationalization when it benefits us. How often do we make decisions based on short-term gain that could lead to long-term loss…debt comes to mind…go ahead and buy that boat and worry about paying for it later. Right? You only live once. But rarely do we use the counter-equation – “Short-term loss for a long-term gain.” Such as “I don’t really need a 64” flat screen TV to watch the Superbowl…let’s save that money for a trip this summer.” In the case of growing season fire, we make a very well thought out decision based on short-term loss traded for long-term gain. I think if you asked most of the tax-paying public…they’d appreciate our use of that view. I am not sure why when it comes to prescribed fire they don’t seem to.

I stated all the above as a seasoned professional, and I know these things to be true after 26 years in this profession reading about fire, practicing fire and observing the results of fires on a variety of landscapes. My colleagues and I will continue to make decisions about the use of fire based on science, knowledge and practical experience with wildlife’s and the public’s best long-term interests at heart.

Citations and further reading:

Lightning Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Cox, J. and B. Widner. Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Miscellaneous Publication 17/ http://www.talltimbers.org/images/pubs/FireBreedingBirdsBooklet-small.pdf

Kilburg, E., C. Moorman, C. Deperno, D. Cobb and C. Harper. 2014. Wild turkey nest site survival and nest site selection in the presence of growing season prescribed fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(6): 1033 – 1039.

Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue Among Scientists, Planners and Land Managers. Eds. W.T. Rankin and Nancy Herbert. U.S. Forest Service: Research and Development Southern Research Station. General Technical Report SRS-189.

Shell’s Covert: Bridging the Gap with Cut-Over Management BMPs

I have been known to say the following: “If it were not for cut-overs, there may not be a quail left in Virginia.”

Some may want to tar and feather me for making such a statement. It is not entirely true, because there are a lot of landowners, non-governmental organizations, corporations and other entities who are doing “purposeful” early-succession species management. But timber harvesting is one of the few activities on our current landscape that creates between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of early-successional habitat annually in Virginia. That acreage dwarfs those purposely created specifically for wildlife. It is one of the few examples of things that occur on our landscape from which quail can still be considered a by-product.

I also believe that modern cut-overs, or clear-cuts as some call them, do not produce wildlife habitat like they did 40 or 50 years ago. Many attribute this to the intense herbicide treatments required for production forestry in many cases. I agree that this is part of, but not the only reason. I also want to state what I am saying is not criticism of the forest products industry or forestry in general. Modern timber management relies on more efficient harvesting methods and equipment, and more on herbicides and less on mechanical disturbance and fire for site preparation. This has pros and cons from a wildlife standpoint. There is no argument that modern forestry makes much more efficient use of the wood harvested. Which means that there is less debris left over on cut-over sites, and mechanical windrowing and site preparation burning is a thing of the past. Those old unsightly windrows made some excellent hedgerows for quail and that mechanical soil disturbance scarified seeds and produced ragweed, partridge pea and poke weed in abundance. But it also contributed to soil erosion and reduced water quality. So gains made on those fronts offset the losses in other areas. Regardless of whether we all agree that cut-overs are better or worse for wildlife these days, that is not what I’ve set out to address. I’d rather focus on the things that landowners can choose to do to give their modern cut-overs a boost from a wildlife standpoint.

Clear-cut, or cutovers, can be managed effectively for quail and other wildlife. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

First – assume it is a given that herbicides are going to be used in the reforestation of a clear-cut…at least east of the Blue Ridge. Clearcuts in the mountains may still be allowed to regenerate naturally. What can be done prior to any herbicide work, or after it, is the widening of logging roads and the expansion of logging decks to create wildlife corridors and clearings. You might even be able to work with your logger to gain some help. They often have a dozer on site and may be willing to do some of this work for you as a side job.

Identify logging roads you may wish to continue to use to get around your property. Widen each edge out 30’ feet or more if you can afford the lost future timber income (it’s easy to do the math to figure out how many acres of future timber you are giving up – length times width in feet divided by 43,560 = acres). By doing this you allow sunlight in to keep your roads dry during bad weather. You also create long corridors that can be managed by periodic disking or mowing to keep them open. They can also be planted with wildlife friendly mixes depending on what species you want to help most.

Logging decks can be expanded in much the same way as road edges. It’s OK to leave a few slash piles around a deck, but debris piles should not surround the deck. It’s best to spread the slash back through the timbered area evenly, leaving only a few piles to form thickets on the deck edges. Even quail do not like to be completely surrounded by slash piles. Once the deck has been cleaned off, a sub-soiler, or ripper, which is usually pulled by a dozer or very strong tractor, can be used to break up the compacted “hardpan” soil before it is disked. If this isn’t practical for you from a financial standpoint, you can also top sow a cheap cover crop like browntop millet or buck wheat. Success can be achieved even without disking. The dozer work to clean off the deck leaves nice track prints crisscrossing the ground. These track marks capture seed and, more importantly, hold water when it rains. This allows good plant germination. These plantings immediately start to help rebuild the soil. Use a cheap cover crop when planting because herbicides have not been applied yet. After herbicides have been applied, more options open up.

The key to planting after herbicides is to make sure you know what was applied. Some herbicides used in forestry have quite a lengthy soil residual period. This means that they continue to control plants for 90 to 120 days or more after being applied. Make sure you work with your forester and understand what was applied and when it will be safe to plant.

You might also choose to create some additional openings. Tall Timbers Research Station’s work has shown that, depending on soil quality, as much as 30% of the timbered area should be in well distributed fields 2 to 5 acres in size. The lower the soil quality, the more important the fields become. This will, of course, cost you in future timber income, but should be based on your goals and financial situation. These fields are called “brood fields” by the TTRS folks and their goal is get a high amount of ragweed on them. Many times this can be accomplished by fall disking and sowing of winter wheat, then simply leaving fallow. As with logging decks and road edges, don’t plant these fields until after all herbicides have been applied and the safe “plant back date” has been achieved.

Lastly, you might also consider marking some mast-producing leave trees within the cut-over. In the mountains this can be especially important for grouse. Grouse in their southern range eat a lot of acorns. They love the cover produced by regenerating clear-cuts, and more of that cover will also provide food if some good mast-producing trees are left. The edges of the cut-overs and all streamside management zones should have plenty of oak, cherry, dogwood, etc. available. But, on larger clear-cuts there will be a dearth of food-producing trees out in the cut itself. In the mountains where follow-up herbiciding is not as common, the leave trees won’t interfere with herbicide applications. But in the east, they might. Work with your forester to plan ahead and identify areas within a clear-cut where some leave trees will not adversely affect competition control.

These were just a few ideas you might choose to implement after timber harvest on your land. As always your best route is to work with your local forester and wildlife biologist together to come up with a plan best for your land.

Native Grass Gazette: If Pollinators Like Penstemon…

Penstemon digitalis the spring following an August burn and September herbicide treatment for sericea lespedeza.

… then I have pollinator habitat! The field pictured, I presume, is the result of my sericea lespedeza management program. The field has a serious infestation of sericea lespedeza, which I have been haphazardly trying to control the past few years until last year. Last year the infestation became severe enough I decided to get aggressive with it or fear losing it to total dominance by sericea and loss of significant habitat value.

The field was burned the second week of August and patches of sericea that didn’t burn because they were too thick, were mowed. I followed that up with an herbicide application of PastureGard HL at the rate of 1 pint per acre in late September. The above image is what the field looks like this spring.

Admittedly, there was penstemon present before sericea treatment but not at this density. The questions in my mind are: Did killing the sericea release the penstemon? Did burning in August stimulate the penstemon? Is penstemon tolerant to PastureGard HL? Or all of the above? All questions I hope to learn the answers to over the next few years.

The good news, upon casual observation, I got 90 – 95% control of sericea. There are still plants there but some targeted spot spraying will keep the sericea in check – for this year.

Bees visiting penstemon flowers. I guess this answers the question.

 

After photographing the penstemon I took a look around at a few other native plants flowering on my farm. Spiderwort has always intrigued me. Most folks I know call it spiderwort but there are a couple of common names used that I think best describe the plant, a.k.a. snotweed or cow slobbers. When the stem is broken it oozes a clear, viscous sap that resembles . . . one of its common names. I really think cow slobbers is the best descriptor.

There are several species of spiderwort and, of those, they can be basically divided into two different categories, one group of species adapted to woodland settings and the others to open grasslands. Spiderworts are used by a number of pollinators.

Tradescantia sp. attracting a bumblebee

 

Eastern gamagrass is a perennial grass that is a distant relative to corn. Like corn, it is monoecious, having separate male and female flowers on the same plant, but unlike corn, both are on the same spike. The photographs below show the stamens and stigmas. The timing of the photographs just happens to be of only stamens and stigmas. Both will be expressed on the same seed stalk within hours or a day.

Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) stamens

 

Eastern gamagrass stigmas

 

Sensitive briar or cat-claw sensitive briar has an interesting bloom, the pink florets arranged to form a pink ball, with each floret tipped in yellow. Close examination of the “thorns” show they are shaped like a cat-claw and if you’ve ever inadvertently walked through them in the prairie you understand how this plant got one of its common names, devil’s shoestrings.
In summer, when the seed pods ripen and dry, they will twist and split open, expelling their seeds on the ground. Collecting their seed can be a challenge, one because of the “cat-claws” and two your timing has to just right or the pods have burst open and shattered all their seed. The folding leaves of sensitive briar are fun to show kids why this plant got its name, when they fold up upon touch. Livestock and deer browse the plants; quail, other birds and rodents eat the seeds.

Sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis) blooms

 

Things are happening in the prairies and grasslands this time of year. Get out and enjoy the wildflowers and wildlife.