Native Grass Gazette: The Longest Excuse Ever!

Big bluestem and pin oaks following a February ice storm

I told myself at the beginning of the year I would do a better job of writing blog posts, trying to write one a month or at least one every two months. Well, here it is April and this is my first post of 2018. Time has simply gotten away from me, but I haven’t been remiss in my duties (other than writing a blog post). These first three months have been busy, mostly with Natives First, but there are also a lot of other things going on. I thought I’d take this post to catch you up on a few of those things.

I started out the year wrapping up a project that began last year. Through a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agreement with Pheasants Forever, NBCI and the Center for Native Grasslands Management received an award (originating from NRCS) to conduct a series of technical transfer workshops about establishment, management and grazing of native warm-season grasses for bobwhites in support of the Working Lands For Wildlife Bobwhite in Grasslands (WLFW BIG) project. The workshops will have two components, first is an in-service training for NRCS staff, NGO partners, Extension and state wildlife agency personnel. The second component will be producer oriented to introduce producers to native warm-season forages and their management. Requests for workshops will originate from the NRCS State Offices in the WLFW BIG states (AR, IL, IN, KY, MO, NC, OH, TN, and VA) interested in hosting one. These workshops will be completed over the next 3 years.

While on that subject, as part of the coordination team for BIG, I developed draft technical content for a Northern Bobwhite story board. (It is being modeled after a Monarch story board http://nrcs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=8c9b052d51214cc3b6742a4ddf0a98cc) Other members of the coordination team have been reviewing and editing the story board as well as identifying photographs and images to include. NRCS National Headquarters Public Affairs department will handle the graphic development and distribution. I hope it will be out by May. The purpose will be to promote the WLFW BIG project, primarily prescribed grazing of native forage for bobwhites.

As I mentioned, Natives First activities have been monopolizing most of my time. In January, I established a Natives First Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/natives1st/. For those who are Facebook savvy, that may not sound like much, but for me there was a learning curve. I originally published a personal Natives First page, then discovered I should have published a community page, which I did after some investigation into why the original Natives First page wasn’t working the way I wanted. Rookie mistake, right?

Natives First Facebook page cover image

A lot of the Natives First activity has been providing follow-up to questions and comments. Some to several members of congressional staff, other to NGO’s curious about the proposal and investigating whether they want to support Natives First or not.

One of the most common concerns is what impact Natives First will have on the use of non-native plant material when there are justifiable reasons to use non-native. My first response is, it is a natives “first” proposal, not natives “only.” My second response is, if Natives First is implemented as NBCI suggests, each State Technical Committee will determine which non-native plants can be used under what circumstances. Another question that has arisen is about seed availability and cost. Having worked in the native seed industry I know that seed companies will respond to increased demand. Seed producers are understandably reluctant to expand production of a crop without knowing there will be a somewhat predictable demand. Natives First will help provide predictability, which will stimulate production and stabilize supply and prices. I have been working with the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) since the beginning, keeping them informed. In fact, an ASTA member worked to help develop the language in the Natives First proposal as it relates to seed, sourcing and availability.

Natives First seems to be gaining some momentum … if not momentum then certainly recognition. In February, Tom Franklin, NBCI’s Ag Liaison, and I worked with an outdoor writer providing background and information for an article about Natives First. In late March, Ensia Online published the article by Andy McGlashen, A U.S. Farm Bill Even A Butterfly Could Love? https://ensia.com/articles/farm-bill/. We have received quite a bit of feedback from that article and continue to follow-up on inquiries.

In support of Natives First, on March 1 I presented a webinar, Native Vegetation Investments Pay Conservation Dividends, on Sothern Regional Extension Forestry’s Webinar Portal for Forestry and Natural Resources. It was live viewed by nearly 100 and is available as View on Demand at: http://www.forestrywebinars.net/webinars/native-vegetation-investments-pay-conservation-dividends. This was my first webinar and combined with the technical nature of the content, preparation was very time consuming.

Alyssa Merka, NBCI communications specialist, is working with me developing several one-pagers to help promote Natives First, one being an infographic promoting native vegetation. More accurately, I should say I am working with Alyssa, as she is doing the hard work designing and organizing the documents. The objective is to have brief, succinct facts and descriptions to give readers a quick look and understanding of NBCI, Natives First, the Natives First Coalition and why we are promoting native vegetation. We’ll make an announcement and post them online when they are done.

Promotion of Natives First continues this month. The second week of April, Tom Franklin, NBCI Forestry Coordinator Steve Chapman and I are headed to DC and will be making the rounds at UDSA, USFWS, USFS, BLM and meeting with a couple of members of Congress carrying the Natives First message and discussing NBCI’s agenda for early succession management of forests, thinning and burning, grazing as a management tool and, of course, utilizing native vegetation.

It hasn’t all been about office work. In mid- January I attended an Adaptive Multi Paddock (AMP) grazing workshop conducted by Dr. Allen Williams. We had a meeting scheduled to delve into detail about the “adaptive” part and how to adapt it for bobwhites. Unfortunately, icy weather cut Dr. Williams trip short and we were unable to meet. We’ve rescheduled for mid-April. Stay tuned for the results.

A few days later I attended the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) annual meeting in Louisville, KY where I met with their board of directors. The purpose of that meeting was to introduce NBCI to AFGC and inform them of our support and promotion of prescribed grazing of native forages … and to ask for an advisor to provide technical input to me on grazing matters. An unexpected but welcome result of that meeting is that NBCI is tentatively scheduled to sponsor a grazing and bobwhites symposium at their 2019 annual meeting in St. Louis. This represents the first, to my knowledge, entry by any wildlife interest into the core of the forage production livestock industry.

On the heels of that trip I met Don McKenzie, NBCI director, in West Virginia where, on a blustery, snowy day we toured a potential bobwhite recovery site with WV DNR personnel to give our assessment of habitat condition and readiness for translocations. Following our field tour, the next day, we met with the WV governor to inform him of our assessment. WV Governor Justice has a keen interest in seeing bobwhites recovered in the state.

WV DNR and NBCI visit potential translocation site

 

The last days of January and first couple of February I traveled to Sparks, NV to attend the Society for Range Management annual meeting where I gave a presentation on the Importance of Southern Rangelands to Northern Bobwhites and Other Grassland Birds as part of a Forgotten Southern Rangelands Symposium. You are probably wondering what that has to do with my job duties? Currently, USDA only recognizes “rangeland” in Florida of all the south/southeast. There is an attempt underway to get USDA to add the official designation of rangeland to those southern states. This change will affect practices and cost-share assistance available.

The third week of February, I attended NBTC Steering Committee and NBCI Staff meetings in Knoxville.

Knoxville skyline one morning before NBTC and NBCI meetings

 

On the grazing front I’ve been reviewing grazing allotment management plans and annual operating instructions for the Ozark and St. Francis National Forests as we look for ways to make grazing more wildlife/bird friendly on those forests. I’ve also provided input and review of grazing/wildlife presentations or study designs for Ohio NRCS and KY Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Intermingled among all of this I have been working slowly, but steadily, on the two Grazing Strategies for Northern Bobwhites publications, the western landowner-focused version and eastern, technical assistance-focused version. I’ve been conducting a literature search and review, reading common articles, interviewing grazing managers and researchers, all trying to wrap my head around all of it. Those publications are forthcoming.

So you can see, I really have been busy and haven’t had time to write a blog post.

Isn’t that just about the longest excuse ever? I probably should have gone with, “the dog ate it.”

Native Grass Gazette: ‘Natives First’ Policy for Farm Bill Makes First Leap Forward

Native vegetation filters more nutrients and coarse sediments from runoff than introduced grasses.

“Adoption of Natives First by USDA could be the single most important development in restoring bobwhites and declining grassland birds across their ranges. Establishing a native vegetation standard for public conservation money spent by USDA would be the game changer that finally tilts the playing field in favor of bobwhites and many other declining species on private lands.”

— Don McKenzie, Director, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative

Natives First, the NBCI-led proposal to establish a native vegetation standard for the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill, took a significant leap forward recently. A letter from 20 national hunting organizations was delivered to Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and other key congressional offices of Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees expressing support for a native plant standard in the Farm Bill. An excerpt from the letter reads:

“To help restore declining upland game birds and other wildlife we propose that the Farm Bill direct USDA to adopt a standard for native vegetation that would apply to private conservation and

working lands, where feasible and appropriate. Such a standard should:
• be voluntary and non-regulatory;
• promote the adoption and use of native plants for most purposes;
• allow flexibility for using selected non-aggressive introduced plants that do provide habitat benefits; and
• prioritize financial assistance for native plants in new USDA program enrollments.”

Native warm-season grasses provide excellent summer forage.

The sportsmen’s organizations were joined in their support by 21 other NGOs, private enterprise and industry organizations (see list below). Senator Bennet is drafting a grasslands marker bill to be introduced as part of the Farm Bill discussion. The letter was followed by calls with Senator Bennet’s office and staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee in which NBCI staff discussed the intent of the proposal and answered questions about why native vegetation was preferable over introduced species. At the request of the Senate Ag Committee staff we shared the Native Vegetation Advantage documents: Overview; Water, Soil and Air; Forage and Biomass; and Wildlife. In addition to Senator Bennet and the Senate Agriculture Committee staff, we are also sharing the letter with House Agriculture Committee staff and all agriculture staff of members that serve on the Agriculture Committees.

Drexel Atkisson, NRCS, explains “crumbly” soil under native vegetation indicates healthy soil.

Of course, this is only the first step of a long journey to passage of the Farm Bill. Why is it important that preferential treatment of native vegetation become part of the next Farm Bill? One of the answers is to reverse the decline of grassland birds and pollinators, which is inextricably tied to the quality of grassland habitat. Another answer is that funding in the Farm Bill has the ability to create landscape-scale change impossible through any other means.

For example, in the years 2009 through 2014 the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) enrolled an average of nearly 1.9 million acres annually. In 2014, it is estimated that 66% of the EQIP acres (1.25 million) were enrolled in introduced vegetation. While those enrollments do provide some soil conservation benefits, it is well documented that native vegetation can provide at the very least, equal soil conservation benefit but BETTER soil health, air quality and wildlife benefits. For all those additional benefits it then becomes an economic argument. Native vegetative cover provides more bang for your buck. It is the better taxpayer benefit.

 

In these early stages of the formulation and foundation of the next Farm Bill it is important that we garner bigger and broader support for the Natives First concept. Quickly.
That’s where YOU come in! Help us spread the word and build support! Help us educate! Many in the ag community are reluctant to support native vegetation simply because they are uneducated about its many benefits above and beyond those of introduced species. Others are under the misconception that all grasses are the same and don’t recognize the differences. Public education, Congressional education, industry education and institution education is needed.

We need your help. Please join the Natives First Coalition at: https://bringbackbobwhites.org/conservation/natives-first/. Utilize the Native Vegetation Advantage documents NBCI has made available for your use (Overview; Water, Soil and Air; Forage and Biomass; and Wildlife). You can help spread the word about the benefits of Natives First through whatever communication platforms you have available, whether a website, a blog, a Twitter account, email “action alerts,” etc.

Please become an active participant and join with the following organizations to support Natives First, a native vegetation standard in the Farm Bill:

American Bird Conservancy
American Woodcock Society 
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

Bamert Seed Company
Boone & Crockett Club
Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
Dan Hill

Ernst Conservation Seeds
Izaak Walton League of America
Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition
Missouri Prairie Foundation
National Association of Forest Service Retirees
National Association of Invasive Plant Councils
National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
National Wild Turkey Federation
National Wildlife Federation
North American Butterfly Association
North American Grouse Partnership
Oklahoma Invasive Plant Council
Park Cities Quail
Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever
Placedo Prairie

Prairie Moon Nursery
Quail Coalition
Quail and Upland Game Alliance
Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation
Quality Deer Management Association
Roundstone Seed
Ruffed Grouse Society
South Carolina Native Plant Society
Tennessee Native Plant Society
Tennessee Naturalist Program
Texas Wildlife Association
The Nature Conservancy
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
The Pollinator Partnership
Union Sportsmen’s Alliance
Wild Sheep Foundation
Wildlife Forever
Wildlife Management Institute
Wildlife Mississippi

 

 

 

 

Native Grass Gazette: A Heinous Invader

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) blooms protruding through sericea lespedeza invasion.

Producing one to three million seeds per acre and remaining viable for what is thought to be up to 20 years in the soil, the seed rain alone creates an ever-abundant seed bank. Once established, plants will reduce or eliminate competing vegetation through shading, competition for water and nutrients and allelopathy. Introduced in 1896 at the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station to be tested as an agricultural crop, sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) also known as Chinese lespedeza or Chinese bushclover, made its first recorded entry into the United States. In 1924, the US Department of Agriculture, using seed from Japan, planted it at the Arlington Experiment Farm in Virginia. Sericea lespedeza was commonly used for ground cover in mine reclamations and road construction particularly due to its adaptability to poor soil conditions. In the 1940’s USDA and many state agencies promoted sericea for forage, hay and wildlife food and cover. Reported in 2005, by C.A. Duncan, et al, Invasive plants of range and wildlands and their environmental, economic, and societal impacts, the estimated coverage of sericea lespedeza was 8.6 million acres in 2003. The authors also reported from a study site in Kansas that between the years 1989 – 2003, sericea had increased at a rate of 24% annually. I do not contend that the rate of increase is 24% annually range-wide, but it does demonstrate that sericea lespedeza has the capacity to overwhelm natural systems rapidly. Sericea is best adapted to areas of 30 inches of rainfall or greater and is tolerant of minimum temperatures down to -15 F. Figure 1 shows the approximate area of adaptation, though it is known to exist outside of the area indicated, however in limited distribution.

If you don’t have sericea your best strategy is to be diligent about scouting and treat it as soon as you see it. You can’t do much about the natural source of spread by animals, but be mindful of the human sources of spread. Cars, trucks, farm equipment all can capture seeds in the nooks and crannies then fall out to infest unoccupied areas. Mowing and haying equipment are particularly susceptible, miles and miles of highway rights of way have been contaminated by mowing after seed set. Thoroughly clean any equipment that has been in sericea infested fields. Pay attention to hay being hauled in, when buying, insist that it be sericea free. Don’t buy cattle from sericea infested pastures or farms. Seeds can be entangled in their coats and also pass through their systems to be deposited with manure.

When buying forage or habitat seed, relying on the seed tag analysis may not be enough. Depending upon what state you are in, sericea lespedeza may or may not be listed. It is a state noxious weed in Kansas and Colorado so it is required by law to be listed. Other states, under the “Weed Seed” section of the tag, may list it while in other states it may just be part of the percentage of unknown “Weed Seed” and unlisted. Also check the “Other Crop Seed” section of the tag as some seed companies commercially sell it. It is best to specifically ask if the seed vendor guarantees it to be free of sericea lespedeza seed. I would avoid buying native grass or other seed from any vendor who sells sericea lespedeza seed for fear of cross contamination.

If you have sericea lespedeza, controlling it is a challenge and a never-ending task. Even if you can eliminate established plants and seedlings, one study deduced that spring germinating seed may only represent 1% of the total soil-stored seeds. Based on that estimation, once you have it, you can plan on having it essentially forever.

Grazing, mowing, burning, hand weeding and herbicide provide varying degrees of control, better called suppression. In most instances an integrated approach will yield the best results.

Grazing – For the most part, livestock do not graze sericea due to its high tannin content, or it is among the least preferred so last to be grazed. The regrowth of sericea following a burn is palatable and grazed but quickly grows beyond palatability, likewise early emerging plants are grazed too, however if residual stems from the previous year persist, cattle are less likely to graze it. Some exceptions are in high stock density grazing systems, when cattle are forced to graze it – and may be a good strategy for management. Most studies report that sericea does not increase under grazing. Also, note that goats and sheep seem to do fine with sericea.

Mowing – Mowing during bloom does nothing to weaken the plant but it does prohibit it from going to seed, for the most part. Often, mowed plants will re-bloom and attempt to produce seed. If you have a late frost, they may produce viable seed. Mowing when carbohydrate reserves are low can help reduce vigor and annual mowing can reduce the stand, assuming you are also mowing during bloom to prevent seed-set. Lowest carbohydrate reserves are typically early-summer, after green up in spring. Continued mowing during the summer will continue to stress the plants and reduce their vigor.

Burning – Timing of prescribed fire has varying impacts on sericea lespedeza and can increase plant density and vigor. Spring burning stimulates sericea, which if done by itself is not a good strategy. Burning helps scarify seeds and stimulate germination, however if done in conjunction with other methods such as herbicide, grazing or mowing, can be effective. Burned plants are more palatable and burning removes residual stems which inhibit grazing. Because burning stimulates a flush of new seedlings, herbicide treatments following can help reduce the seed bank pressure while also eliminating established plants. The same principles for mowing following burning apply as listed above. Recent research conducted in the Great Plains have shown a reduction in sericea lespedeza with repeated annual growing season burns conducted when sericea is in peak bloom. It should be noted that successive burns may not be possible with heavy infestations of sericea due to lack of ground level fuel to carry the fire.

Hand weeding – Hand weeding is only effective for new seedlings. Established plants have a significant tap root and are next to impossible to pull out of the ground. Hand weeding would only apply to very minimal plant infestations on a very small scale due to the labor intensity.

Herbicide – Herbicide as a stand-alone practice is probably the most efficient but it has its drawbacks. Herbicides that are specific to sericea lespedeza do not exist. The common and less expensive broadleaf herbicides, (2,4-D, dicamba, picloram) are not effective. Glyphosate can be used but is not recommended because it is non-selective. Triclopyr, metsulfuron and triclopyr plus fluroxypyr are the most effective and cost efficient, but still expect chemical cost to be between the upper teens to low twenties per acre. All three have slightly different specifics about their use in relation to their rate and timing of application. In many cases broadcast applications are not desirable due to the presence of other favorable forbs and off-target damage, while spot applications are more targeted they can also result in off-target damage and are more time consuming. Broadcast applications are best suited for heavy infestations or in stands without forbs. Spot application works well for scattered plants or where other sensitive, desirable plants occur such as remnant prairie or in pollinator plantings.

An integrated approach to sericea suppression provides the best results. Combining burning with grazing, mowing or herbicides significantly reduces the population. In organic systems, burning with grazing and/or mowing can provide acceptable results.

The “take home” points:

  • If you don’t have sericea lespedeza do everything you can to keep from getting it.
    • If it shows up, get on it immediately, don’t wait for it to get to a threshold level before implementing management.
  • Once you have sericea lespedeza, you are always going to have it.
  • Be diligent in your sericea management strategy, don’t skip a year. You may be able to lessen effort in certain years based on plant population but don’t skip a year.
  • Use an integrated approach for best results.

Get mad, no, get angry at sericea lespedeza and attack it with a vengeance and don’t let up. It certainly isn’t going to let up on its invasion. Heinous invader.

Native Grass Gazette: “That One Thing”

Preface

I had the joy and privilege of filming and producing the Firing Up Your Beef Production video. Aside from being an avid hobby photographer, which is one reason why this project was so enjoyable, I met some of the most genuine, sincere and interesting people. During the interviews, it was obvious each and every one, in their own unique way, had a passion for what they were doing and the land they were on. This has been a rewarding project.

 

If you were a ranch owner and cattleman in the Great Plains and there was one thing you could do to halt and/or reverse woody encroachment, increase your carrying capacity, increase water availability, increase animal performance, increase forage quality and quantity, reduce parasites, improve grazing distribution, improve range health and protect against wildfire, would you do that one thing?

According to the ranchers and researchers interviewed in the recently released NBCI video, Fire Up Your Beef Production – A Ranchers’ Perspective of Prescribed Burning for Range Management, that is precisely what prescribed burning does.

Ranchers who are using prescribed fire on their ranches to improve their beef production shared their experiences for the filming of Fire Up Your Beef Production. It became apparent after the second interview there was a common theme developing … all the ranchers, in their own way, were saying the same things about woody encroachment control, water availability, carrying capacity, forage quality and quantity, range health and other topics. It was a script that was writing itself.

The focus of the video is on the ranchers but researchers were included to throw a little science in for those who want to hear that aspect, though in the real world most folks find those ranchers who are practicing what they preach to be very credible and, in the end, this video is targeted to ranchers.

The ranchers are the stars of the video. After all, when you get quotes like…

 “…springs started to flow again.”

“The thing with prescribed burning and grazing management is we’ve been able to run more cattle through the ranch which increases the bottom line significantly.”

“Range condition has definitely improved, (we have) a lot more tall grass than we used to and just all around better plant health.”

…then how can you go wrong? Ranchers are telling their own stories of how they use prescribed burning on their own ranches to improve their operation. These testimonials are sure to resonate with other ranchers who view this video.

The National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Grassland and Grazing Lands Subcommittee charge in developing this video was to target it to ranchers, knowing if prescribed burning is implemented along with grazing management, bobwhites and other grassland wildlife will benefit. Wildlife enthusiasts are likely to ask why there isn’t more about bobwhites or wildlife in the video. Again, wildlife managers and bobwhite enthusiasts are not the target audience for this video, though there is plenty a wildlife manager could learn from hearing these landowners tell their experiences. Keep in mind, ranchers trying to make a living are the target audience.

Moving outside of our traditional NBCI promotion circles, cattlemen’s associations, grazing lands coalitions, associations of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, prescribed burn associations and several other groups received the news release announcing the video, and, of course, our traditional network of contacts. The video, in both long and short versions, is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/user/BringBackBobwhites/videos. Entities interested in obtaining copies for group screenings may contact Alyssa Merka at amerka@utk.edu for copies on DVDs or flash drives.

This project wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the ranchers, but there were many other people involved in the background who coordinated site visits for filming, set up the interviews, provided drone footage, answer the call for “b-roll,” reviewed our effort and provided quotes for our news release, and on and on. I am going to attempt to list everyone who had a hand in this project in one way or another. I apologize in advance for any omissions.

The state quail coordinators in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska… Robert Perez, Derek Wiley, Jeff Prendergast and Jeff Lusk, respectively.

All of the ranchers: Linda Evans, Jerry Hunter, Cody Sander, Ted Alexander, Brian Alexander, Tom Carr and Greg Hurlbut.

Crew of many others: Alex Lyon, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT); Allen Wilson and Reading Benefit Fire District, KS; Ken Brunson, The Nature Conservancy-Kansas; Barth Crouch, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition; Craig Woods; Oklahoma State University (OSU); Russel Stevens, Noble Research Institute; Blayr Gourley, OSU; Chris Schenck, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) ; Kyle Banowsky, TPWD; Carol Baldwin, Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, Kansas State University (KSU); Aleksey Sheshukov, KSU; Tom Gross, KSU; Dan Donnert, KSU; Eva Horne, KSU; John Weir, OSU; David Engle, OSU; Brian Teeter, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever; Alva Gregory, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; Mike Remund, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; Chuck Stanley, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Troy Smith, KDWPT; Society for Range Management; NBCI staff.

I hope I got everybody. Thank you!

The Native Grass Gazette: Ready, Set, BURN!!!

Prescribed burning in grasslands during the growing season as a management practice has been quietly taking place for a number of years, primarily by out-of-the-box thinking land managers. It is only recently that researchers have been looking at the practice and others are beginning to take notice. I suppose you could say it is in the early adoption phase.

Many are skeptical that a burn can be conducted during the growing season. After all, how can something that green burn? What about fuel moisture and the humidity? Typically, those are higher than what we normally conduct burns under. Then there are others concerned about the loss or damage to flora or fauna, and while those concerns are warranted, if the burn is planned and implemented properly, those impacts are minimal.

Growing season burns often create a burn mosaic, leaving valuable habitat for insects and pollinators as well as creating additional edge. (Jef Hodges)

 

First, as long as there is residual dead material from previous years’ growth, lush, green native grasses will burn during the growing season. Surprisingly well, in fact. The key is enough residual old growth to be fuel for the fire. Without that, it won’t burn – except under extreme circumstances under which you shouldn’t be conducting a prescribed burn anyway. Second, fuel moisture is much higher in the new green growth but fuel moisture in the dead residual material is much lower, though not as dry as during the dormant season; humidity varies greatly from west to east and relative to rainfall zones but is usually higher than during the dormant season as well. These two factors combined actually make growing season burning safer and less work than dormant season burns because the fire is less volatile, much slower moving and easier to extinguish.

Finally, to address the potential loss or damage to flora and fauna, burn only a portion of the total area within the field or planning unit. While burning during the growing season will damage some plants and animals, if areas are left unburned, they will serve as refuges, thus not eliminating entire populations of susceptible species and providing sources to repopulate the burned area.

I will provide a personal example of how growing season burning can create biodiversity. I don’t recall exactly when, but somewhere around 2000 I decided to try a growing season burn on an old big bluestem seed production field that was no longer productive. I conducted the burn in late July. The first thing I noted was the regrowth the bluestem put on after the burn. Within just a few days, bluestem shoots were emerging from the ground and by the time of our first frost plants were 12 – 18 inches tall.

From the bobwhite management perspective, this is an ideal height for nesting cover the next spring and the residual leaves can provide nest building material. The following summer I saw a number of different forbs begin to show up, ones which I’d never noted before. The balance of grasses to forbs was shifting. After several years of growing season burns the area is now a mixture of grass and forbs with about a 50:50 ratio of the two.

Recent research supports my unscientific observations. Researchers are finding nearly two times the plant biodiversity in growing season burned plots compared to unburned and even traditional spring burned. They are also finding more insect abundance.

This is the same field used to show the mosaic burn pattern of a growing season burn but this photo was taken the spring following the August burn. Note the mixture of grasses and forbs. The flowering plants are foxglove beardtongue. (Jef Hodges)

June is a good time to start planning your growing season burns, in preparation for late July or August. If planning to burn CRP as a mid-contract management practice be sure to check with your state about the primary nesting season dates and be sure to burn outside of those. If not burning CRP, burning can be conducted anytime, just be sure to leave unburned areas as refuges.

NOTE: there is always concern about destroying or disrupting bobwhite or other grassland bird nests with growing season burns. Weigh the risks against the benefits when deciding when to burn, keeping current habitat condition in context. If the grasses are thick and rank with lots of accumulated litter, odds are against quail nests or broods being present, whereas newly burned areas will provide ideal nesting in the future.

You should also prepare your fire guards. If mowing, mow them regularly to keep them functional. Fire guards mowed a few days before the burn don’t function very well; duff from the mower is likely to carry fire. Bare dirt fire guards left idle can grow up in annual plants, providing brood cover and high energy food sources later in the season.

Other considerations about growing season burns:

  • Growing season burns are easy to control and take minimal effort for those involved, however, it is important to recognize that heat can be an issue and everyone involved needs to stay hydrated and aware of their physical wellbeing.
  • Growing season burns spread out the workload and allow for more burn days in a year instead of trying to pack all your burns into a 6 to 8 week spring burn season, thus increasing capacity.
  • Growing season burns are very, very smoky. Smoke management is extremely important.
  • Growing season burns are slow. Allow 2 to 4 times as much time to complete burns as with similar sized dormant season burns.
  • Growing season burns when timed just before seed set can suppress sericea lespedeza and limit its spread.
  • Growing season burns provide good woody plant control.
  • Growing season burns provide spikes in forage crude protein just as burning does with spring burned native pastures.

There are many benefits to growing season burns, but also a number of precautions. Consider each on their own merit, weigh your objectives and begin planning your growing season burn.

Growing season fires are very smoky, so smoke management is extremely important. (Jef Hodges)

 

Native Grass Gazette: A Culture of Prescribed Fire (and a Safety Note)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog. Part of the reason for that is one of the topics I am covering in this post. I apologize for being so long between posts.

Make Safety a Priority

Lucky to be alive after being hit by a falling tree. Imagine what my head would look like if I had not been wearing the helmet.

This is off topic for a grassland blog … but not entirely. However, I think it is an important message to share. When I was working as a conservation contractor, felling trees, for one reason or another, was part of that work. As a result, I established a policy related to using chainsaws. There were three simple rules: 1) always wear saw chaps; 2) if felling trees, always wear a helmet; and 3) if felling trees over 8” dbh, always have another person present.

Earlier this year I was taking out some frustration on some trees (that’s how grassland people release frustration, that or burn something) when a 20” dbh tree I was felling started to lean one direction then took an unexpected change in direction, falling back towards me. I ran, but was unable to get out of the way before it came down on top of my head. I suffered a severe concussion along with some nerve and muscular injury to my neck and back. Had it not been for rule #2 and #3, rules I still follow though not doing contracting work any longer, it is likely I would not be writing this blog.

The message I want to share: always wear your safety gear. If you don’t have it, buy it. It’s a cheap investment. In this case, the quick action of the person that was with me and a $75 helmet, I’m convinced, saved my life.

 

A Culture of Prescribed Fire

Ranchers in the Flint Hills and other areas of Kansas are well equipped for conducting prescribed burns. Many coordinate with neighbors to facilitate burning. In some areas, Prescribed Burn Associations or rural fire departments conduct or assist with burns.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is a video on prescribed fire for cattle production in rangeland. Recently I was in Kansas shooting video, upon completing shooting for the day I headed from Kingman, KS to Medicine Lodge. At one point during the drive I could see no less than a dozen smoke plumes rising into the sky. In any other part of the county there would be general alarm at such a site, but in some parts of Kansas during the spring it’s part of everyday life, the people are accustomed to it. Though seeing a dozen smoke plumes was significant enough, it wasn’t nearly as significant as where it was. Last year, the Anderson Creek wildfire, which gained the dubious distinction of being the largest wildfire in Kansas history (312,427 acres) occurred just south and west of the town of Medicine Lodge in Barber County, KS (and other counties). This year, just 30 miles west of the area impacted by the Anderson Creek wildfire, the Starbuck wildfire in Clark and surrounding counties eclipsed the previous year’s record fire consuming 502,000 acres. You would think that following two consecutive years of record breaking wildfires, ranchers and citizens would be leery of fire, but not so. The locals have learned, many passed down through generations, that fire is good for rangeland; in that part of the country ranching is the primary industry and the economy is based on the productivity of the rangeland.

I certainly don’t mean to minimize the effect of wildfires on the ranchers and homeowners who were directly affected. Losing their homes, cattle and miles upon miles of fence will certainly have its financial and emotional impact, my thoughts and prayers go out to them, as well as my respect and admiration of what they are enduring.  But if there is any silver lining in the tragedy at all, it is the fact that the rangeland will be more productive, which will translate to better cattle performance and hopefully better returns at the sale barn.

Scene from the Starbuck wildfire which burned March 6th and 7th in Clark County, KS. Rangeland wildfires fanned by high winds and low humidities are non-discriminatory, consuming everything in their path across large landscapes.

Post fire green-up in the Starbuck wildfire. As devastating as the loss of infrastructure is, the silver lining is rangeland thrives following fire. Depending upon timing, green-up can be as quick as 3-5 days. Trees, consuming up to 30 gallons per day of valuable water, killed by the fire no longer compete with grasses.

Driving back to Missouri through Kansas took me through the southern Flint Hills. Arguably, the Flint Hills are the longest, most continuously burned landscape in the US and world. Indigenous people burned this landscape to facilitate bison hunting and that legacy has continued ever since as free roaming bison herds transitioned to domestic cattle production. Burning the Flint Hills is an annual ritual and part of the culture. If you live in or around the Flint Hills, you expect a good portion of them to burn each year. In some cases, too much burns; to the detriment of wildlife through the destruction of cover over a wide range, sometimes thousands of acres in one block. But given the choice of burning or not, in this landscape, burning is better.

 

A smoky haze fills the air across the Flint Hills of Kansas during the spring time. Look closely to see the wind farm, just less than 4 miles away from the vantage point of the picture.

 

Native Grass Gazette: NatiVeg – Helpful Tool or Curious Tchotchke?

I hate answers that begin with “it depends.” That usually means you are about to be inundated with tons of detailed, probably useless information which ultimately ends up with no clear answer to your question.

So, is NatiVeg a helpful tool or just a curious tchotchke? As much as it pains me to say this, it depends. How are you going to use it and what do you expect to get out of it?

First, for those not familiar, NatiVeg is a mobile website (https://www.quailcount.org/NatiVeg)  developed by NBCI to aid planners in selecting the correct native vegetation for their geographic location (limited to the 25 NBCI states) for their intended use. Released publically for comment on Nov. 16, 2016, NatiVeg can be used either as a desktop application or with a smartphone with GPS capability. An internet connection is required.

Many land planners dealing with working lands have limited knowledge of native vegetation, let alone its adaptability to a specific site or for specific purposes. NatiVeg was developed to provide planners with no or limited knowledge of native vegetation a tool for identifying native vegetation adapted to their selected location for their selected use. The target audience is persons providing technical assistance to landowners and/or landowners with the primary objective of incorporating native vegetation into their working lands.

NatiVeg uses Plant Hardiness Zones (PHZ) and Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA) as spatial components for search criteria of a database of Natural Resource Conservation Service Plant Material Center (NRCS-PMC) releases. NatiVeg returns a list of species known to be adapted to your selected geographic location. Herein lies the answer to the question of whether NatiVeg is helpful or a curious tchotchke.

Plant materials in the NRCS-PMC database have been through a process to document a variety of criteria, depending upon the intent of the release. In a majority of cases seed is commercially available or foundation seed is available for commercial increase, many of the releases have been planted in growing trials and their area of adaptation is documented, cultivars and selections have been made for desirable characteristics and there are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria. (Both of those last two attributes are either good or bad depending upon your intended use and location) However, there are some limitations to the NRCS-PMC database; there are a limited number of releases (306 in the NBCI modified database) compared to a list of species that would have historically occurred for a location and there is skewed geographic distribution of native species releases, leaving limited choices for selected areas within the NBCI states.

MLRA’s are large geographic areas that are geographically associated land resource units based upon the dominant physical characteristics using physiology, geology, climate, water, soils, biological resources and land use, and they are thousands of acres in size. Obviously, there is variability within these areas, so though you may be in an MLRA where little bluestem is adapted, your specific location may be mesic or wet mesic and not suitable for little bluestem. For that reason, it is also important to consult the “Details” section of each species in NatiVeg to determine its appropriateness for the site. Information about collection location, comments or site adaptations can provide additional information to aid in decision making. If you still have questions or would like help there is a link to the state agency to help you find local assistance.

What about our non-target audience? Since the launch of NatiVeg I have received several comments from ecologists  wishing the application were more specific in relation to local ecosystems and vegetation communities. Fair comments, though those changes wouldn’t particularly serve our target audience any better. Remember a few lines above where I was listing the attributes of using the NRCS-PMC database; “There are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria?” In some areas within the NBCI states there have been ecotype collections made and seed increases done. South Texas and Iowa/Missouri are two examples. Ecologists working in those regions will find plant materials suitable for restorations. Unfortunately, there is limited species availability and our database returns still don’t give a “big picture” list of species endemic to the location.

We are working on ideas to address this and determine if we even need to. It appears, based upon feedback, there is some need/desire for this type of product. At this point we don’t know if we will develop an entirely new product or work to expand NatiVeg, but we are examining options using NatureServe data or NRCS Ecological Site Description data. There may be others and we’ll examine all options.

Knowing some of the limitations of the database and spatial criteria, and understanding how to use additional resources to deal with those limitations, NatiVeg should be a helpful tool for our target audience … and in some instances our non-target audience. If you’re expecting a list of species endemic to your local ecosystem, then NatiVeg is probably a curious tchotchke.

To answer the question,” Is NatiVeg a helpful tool or curious tchotchke?”  It depends.

Images from the Grasslands

Hardwoods get all the attention this time of year for their fall color but ask me and I say the prairies are just as colorful.

Fall Color

Fall Color

 

The full moon on November 14th, which coincided with perigee, resulted in the closest supermoon since 1948 promised to provide some excellent opportunity for lunar photographs. I set up in a prairie planting in anticipation of the rare event, hoping to capture some once in a lifetime images. Unfortunately, clouds obscured much of the moon that evening in my location. What do you do when you are all set up with camera gear then can’t get the conditions you want? You take pictures anyway. Here are some of the shots I took.

bluestem-super-moon_reduced

Bluestem Super Moon

 

I used the moon to silhouette a senescing stem of big bluestem. After taking this shot I wondered how different it would look if the bluestem were illuminated.

 

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

 

 

I can’t decide which one I like best. What do you think? After taking this shot I decided to experiment with a technique called light painting, where you use a light source to illuminate the foreground while the exposure is being made. You can come up with some interesting results using this technique.

light-painted-bluestem-super-moon_redcued

Light-painted bluestem

 

 

 

Not to be denied a lunar image, a couple of nights later, under clear skies, I got a shot of the waning gibbous moon. It’s not the supermoon, but it’s pretty good. I call it Perigee Minus 2.

 

Perigee minus 2

Perigee Minus 2

 

 

Don’t let the weather keep you out of the prairies. Get out there and enjoy their beauty, regardless of the conditions there is always something picture worthy.

Miscellany November ’16

save-the-date-poster_reducedThe Fire Summit 2016: Changing Fire Regimes, a regional conference on fire science in the Great Plains, is set for Dec. 7-9, 2016 at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center in Manhattan, Kansas.

Landowners, fire managers, firefighters, agency personnel or anyone with interest in prescribed fire are invited to attend. The history of prescribed fire, current status and future will all be topics of the conference. Discussions will include national policy, partnerships, prescribed burn associations, smoke management, wildlife, funding sources, burn planning and much more. A tour of the world renown Konza Prairie is being offered as a post-conference activity.

Registration and additional information can be found at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fire-summit-2016-changing-fire-regimes-tickets-27490002337

 

Northeast Oklahoma Trex – Monday, March 13, 2017, 8:00 AM – Friday March 17, 2017, 5 PM
Vinita, Oklahoma

TREX is a prescribed fire training exchange that brings together fire practitioners from diverse backgrounds to obtain hands-on fire experience, share knowledge and expertise, and better understand the art and science of fire management and ecology.

In the field, hands-on training in prescribed fire planning, preparation and implementation, along with classroom sessions on fire ecology and fire line communications, will combine to form a busy week for participants in this first TREX (training exchange) ever for Oklahoma. We will be burning on several sites in an oak-pine ecosystem in northeast Oklahoma.

This training is for all interested fire practitioners and no NWCG certification is necessary to participate. College students, private landowners, tribal members, and fire fighters who are interested in learning more about utilizing prescribed fire as a land management tool are all welcome.  Registration for this training is limited to 20 people.

To Register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/northeast-oklahoma-trex-tickets-29086926781

 

Progressive Cattleman – an online publication from Progressive Publishing recently posted a two-part series, Straight Talk on Native Grass Forages – by Patrick Keyser of the Center for Native Grasslands Management.

In my opinion, this is one of the best, most comprehensive, straightforward presentations of the facts about native grass forages, as well as some practical information. It addresses many of the myths and long-held misconceptions about native grasses as forages and backs it up with research evidence, not hearsay. Well worth the read and worthwhile to save to have on hand for future reference or to provide a copy to anyone interested in the facts about native grass forage.

You can find Part 1 at: http://www.progressivecattle.com/topics/range-pasture/7439-straight-talk-on-native-grass-forages. Be sure to click on the link to Part 2 to get the full story.

 

The National Provisioner reports on a study from Mississippi State University about native grass grazing and beef quality. Bottom line, no difference in quality but research also found steaks from cattle fed a big bluestem, indiangrass and little bluestem mix were less susceptible to lipid oxidation and had lower total fat percentage compared to cattle fed bermudagrass. You can read the article here: http://www.provisioneronline.com/articles/103632-does-native-grass-grazing-affect-beef-quality  Related article: http://mafes.msstate.edu/discovers/article.asp?id=18

The Root of It All … Don’t Forget Natives’ Role in Soil Health

2015 was the International Year of Soils and the fervor over cover crops that resulted still continues today. It seems every time I turn around I’m seeing another notice about a workshop or webinar addressing cover crops and their benefits.

Though the line between fact and commercial claim is somewhat blurred, it is generally recognized that cover crops provide the advantages of reduced soil erosion, increased water infiltration and water holding capacity, increased soil organic matter, reduced compaction and nutrient recycling.

To a large part, owing to their multiple benefits, is their claimed deep rootedness. With many of the common cover crop species, their roots fall within 2 to 3 feet of the soil surface, with some

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

reporting rooting as deep as 5.5 feet. Impressive to the uninformed, but amusing to those familiar with the roots of native vegetation.

As early as 1919 research of the roots of native prairie plants was conducted, followed by a number of other research projects through the 1930’s. While there are a handful of prairie plants whose roots lay within the upper 2 feet of the soil, the vast majority of native grasses and forbs root to a depth of over 5 feet with many well beyond that, some to depths greater than 15 feet.

In healthy prairie, below ground biomass far exceeds above ground biomass by two times or more depending upon species. Studies on big bluestem and little bluestem reported 5.4 tons/acre and 4.4 tons/acre respectively of root material in the upper 12 inches of soil. Talk about erosion control … every one of those root fibers is like re-bar in concrete!

All of those roots in the upper soil lead to increased water infiltration by increasing the macropore space (along with earth worms and other in-ground fauna), allowing the water a route to travel into and through the soil. Those roots and their ancillary structures also increase the micropore space which creates the water-holding capacity along with soil organic matter.

Over a three year period, depending upon the species and environmental factors, a very small percentage to as much as 100% of the root system dies and is regenerated. Using 50% just to provide an example and the examples of big bluestem and little bluestem above, 2.7 to 2.2 tons per acre of organic matter are added to the soil. It is a perpetual cycle that constantly replenishes itself.

The sources of compaction on native grasslands are entirely different than on cropland, thus the issue is different; however, when crop land is converted to native grass/forb mixtures, compaction issues are eliminated, or at least significantly mediated, through the deep rooting structure of the native plants.

A large part of the nutrient recycling provided by cover crops is due to nutrient uptake and subsequent release through decaying plant material. In a perennial plant such as native grasses or forbs this is much less significant, but the deep roots are able to tap into nutrients otherwise unavailable. This, in combination with associated mycorrhizal fungi, make native plants very efficient users of nutrients and moisture, thus their reduced or lack of need for supplemental nutrients and drought tolerance.

Following the International Year of Soils and all the attention given to cover crops, give some consideration to the value of the roots of native vegetation and their role in supporting soil health.