Combining prairie

by Bill Kleiman

If you want a high diversity prairie restoration nothing beats picking by hand. You likely don’t need a combine, but perhaps you would find it interesting to see how ours works. Here is a half minute video of this machine harvesting a prairie planting at Nachusa Grasslands https://youtu.be/qH106Ort_JY

This head does not cut the plant, but rather strips the seed heads with those metal fingers which spin fast on the rotor. This helps the combine by not importing all the stems of a prairie into the machine which can cause a combine to bind up. Combines are made to move corn, soy, wheat and other monocrops.

The harvest looks like this when the prairie has a lot of forbs in it. If you harvest an area with invasive weeds you get those too. We avoid areas with lots of the tall grasses or weedy goldenrods. We tend to harvest from a handful of plantings annually. A combine produces lots of what you got. For our new plantings we use our precious hand harvested seed. We don’t use much of this product in our new plantings. The combine mix has several dozen species and it is good for certain situations, and we trade it with conservation partners.

You are looking down at the grain tank of the combine. There are two augers at the bottom with metal covers hovering over and therefore hiding the augers. If you take the auger covers off the augers will bind from the prairie material, belts will smoke, wrenches will be weilded. If you leave the auger covers on the mix won’t go into those augers unless you continuously poke at the mix. This we do and use the ten foot long two inch white PVC pipe you see. It takes about 30 minutes to fill the tank, and about the same time to get it out of the tank into the grain wagon.

We unload into one of several old grain wagons. We cut a hole in the wagons and installed a perforated drier tube with the red fan which allows the seed to dry in the wagon, saving us a step of unloading damp seed and reloading dry seed a few days later. I see retailer Dultmeier makes a drier fan and I hope to try those as these red ones have motors that are failing early.

This is looking down in the grain wagon at the white perforated metal seed drier tube. I recently added the black 4 inch diameter perforated black tube because we had some very damp seed that was struggling to dry. This seems to work better.

Keeping it simple is always good. Scissors and buckets are our main harvesting tools. Above, Becky Flack Neal is pulling a Prairie Habitats seed stripper back in 2003. That machine still harvests annually for us.

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Growing Comandra with Plugs

By Bernie Buchholz, Nachusa Grasslands Steward

Photo by Greg Baker

Comandra umbelata (bastard toad flax) is notoriously difficult to grow from seed, but we’ve had success growing it from plugs.

Photo by Charles Larry

In 2008, we dug five plugs from inconspicuous spots on the edges of a relic prairie, where the grasslands faded into trees and shrubs. We planted them in both a degraded remnant and in a planting.  We planted those initial five plugs, they prospered over time and eventually became the source for 175 plugs without putting any pressure on the remnants. It’s been a slow, labor intensive, but very rewarding process.

Here is how the process has worked best in our sandy-loam soils:

  • We transplant in both early April, as soon as new growth appears, and in early November when the plants are dormant.  You’ll need to mark potential plugs in the summer for fall transplant so you can find them.
  • A straight edge shovel is handy for digging nice square plugs. We like them to be about 8” x 8” x 8”, but deeper can be better.
  • Since we want comandra to have the opportunity to spread across our entire plantings, we chose to plant them on roughly 25 meter centers.  Based on our experience, the plugs might connect in about 15 years.  Like I said, it’s a slow process.
  • Keeping transplants moist is critical while they get established. That’s why we set the plugs 1.5” to 2” inches below the adjoining surface.  Creating this square pool enables us to deliver about a gallon of water with no runoff, both while transplanting and in the following weeks if the weather is droughty. Water your spring transplants before they show dryness. Late watering reduces chances for success.  We never water after the first season.
  • Reduce the risk of your transplants drying out by applying an inch or more of clean mulch in the “pool” and the edges of the plug where water might tend to escape through evaporation.
  • Collect the soil you remove to create the transplant holes and use it to fill where you dug the plugs.  The spots where we dug plugs (grown from our original five plugs) and refilled the holes, these areas quickly blend into the adjacent flora and are recolonized by comandra over a period of several years
  • It takes about 3 hours to dig and replant ten plugs into nearby plantings and repair the borrow site.

Don’t expect to see much growth the first 2 to 4 years.  We celebrate seeing just a couple of surviving stems.  The plugs tend to be resilient.  We average about 90% survival, although some plugs seem unwilling to expand for quite a while.

Working from seed will ultimately be the way to make comandra a routine part of our plantings.  Here is an abstract of recent research into comandra which was funded by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands: science-symposium-abstracts-2019 .  Scroll down to Mycorrhizal fungi community and population genetics of Comandra umbellata, Emma Leavens. One of the great joys of spring is to see which plugs send up a few shoots and how much the clones grew from year to year. 

photo by Charles Larry
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New seed room

Above is our new stewardship building at Nachusa Grasslands. The left half, with the lower roof height, is the seed room and science prep room. A few years back we ran out of room in our old HQ timber frame barn and so we banished the hired seasonal seed crew out of our that old barn and put them in an unheated shed which ended up having a leaking roof. The volunteers stayed in the heated Headquarters. This new Seed Room reunites volunteers and crew and we like that vibe. Here is a photo tour.

Bernie is giving a tour to two folks and the crew is pondering where harvested seed should go to be dried. Here is a ten second video of the crew working the room. https://youtu.be/ayLGdWVx0EI

These dangling tubes have room temp air blowing gently through them. They hook to PVC tubes with holes drilled in the plastic that let air filter up from the bottom of the barrel of damp seed and dry it out so it does not mold in storage.

This is a “squirrel cage” fan with the motor inside the cage for maximum cooling of the motor.

We installed a four speed fan switch to save energy and noise and can turn off the fan quick when we want quiet. Details of this drier system were the topic of a previous post https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2019/11/07/seed-drier/

The seed racks were how we dried all our seed before we came up with the dangling tube Medusa drier. They are nice racks with four foot deep trays, and the trays slide in smoothly. Small white boards can be written on. These trays can be used to store little bags of seed for the season.

Cindy Buchholz milling seed, perhaps lead plant. There is a previous post about hammermills: https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2020/01/16/seed-hammer-mill/

Matt Nugent filling a barrel with milled seed, which is dusty. The wall mounted exhaust fan is huge and moves the dust outside.

It is seed mixing time! After a long year of harvesting the crew reviews spreadsheets from past years to see where each species of seed could be distributed. Mix choices are dry prairie, dry mesic prairie, mesic prairie, wet prairie, savanna, woodland. Note the Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm and Rericha is open. This Flora helps them think about where a species could grow.

Crew leaders Matt Nugent and Anna Scheidel. Behind them are some barrels of seeds of various species all layered up in the barrel. Later they will take all the dry mix barrels, dump them on the floor, use a shovel to mix them and then refill the barrels. Then they do this for each mix, a dusty job. Then they will be ready to plant.

Matthew Togger splitting seed to various mixes.

The seed room can get crowded with barrels and bags of seed. To lower chaos we have the hired crew using white seed tags and white barrel tags while the Stewards use green.

End

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Saving Bell Bowl Prairie

By Bill Kleiman

If you are from northern Illinois you have heard about Bell Bowl Prairie, a remnant prairie that sits in the way of the current design for the Rockford Airport expansion.   There is a website created for the purpose of saving this remnant, https://www.savebellbowlprairie.org/.   Perhaps the airport authority can be convinced that a rare prairie remnant can coexist within an airport’s footprint.

This is a blog site about habitat restoration.  We who work to recreate/restore grassland habitat are keenly aware of how irreplaceable remnant habitats are.  We share best practices and lessons learned. Many of us claim success when we create habitat that has enough similarity to a remnant that our goals are met, such as a certain plant diversity, a return of birds, insects, and other critters calling our restorations home.

However, we don’t want remnants destroyed with the belief that the same habitat can simply be created elsewhere. Think of an art metaphor: a Rembrandt painting is not replaced with a pretty good copy.

There have been a few times when a remnant was to be destroyed and so plants were dug up and transplanted to new areas.  This would be the Rembrandt painting cut up into pieces and moved from a museum to a warehouse.

We who create habitat appreciate remnant habitat.  

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Lisa Schulte-Moore

by Elizabeth Bach

It’s not very often that prestigious national awards recognize the hard work and positive change happening to restore grasslands in North America. Last week was one of those rare moments. Dr. Lisa Schulte-Moore was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the “genius grant,” is awarded to individuals in recognition of exceptional creativity, promise of important future advances, and potential to facilitate on-going creative work.

Lisa Schulte-Moore

Dr. Schulte-Moore is a professor of landscape ecology at Iowa State University and the key driving force behind the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project. The STRIPS project works with farmers to plant native prairie buffer strips within row-crop fields. Incorporating prairie plantings into 10% of a field can:

  • Increase insect taxa richness 260%
  • Increase pollinator abundance 350%
  • Increase bird species richness more than 200%, including species of greatest concern
  • Reduce water run-off 37%
  • Reduce soil erosion 95%
  • Reduce phosphorous loss by 90%
  • Reduce nitrogen loss by 85%

The STRIPS program is integrating native prairie restoration within working landscapes as a tool to improve biodiversity and environmental quality across the Midwest and downstream.

The MacArthur Fellowship brings well-deserved attention to Dr. Schulte-Moore’s work. It also provides an exceptional opportunity for her emerging work, including continued efforts to scale-up the STRIPS project and adoption on the landscape. Congratulations!

Photo above is from our 2012 GRN workshop at Neal Smith NWR. This is a flume at one of the initial STRIPS trials. Flumes capture water run-off  from a watershed catchment so they can measure soil, N, and P run-off from the whole field.

Learn more about Dr. Schulte-Moore and her work:

https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2021/lisa-schulte-moore

https://www.nrem.iastate.edu/landscape/

Schulte et al. 2017. Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

http://www.pnas.org/lookup/doi/10.1073/pnas.1620229114

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Grazing Bison at McHenry County Conservation District- A New Venture

By Adam Rex- Restoration Ecologist, McHenry County Conservation District

Entrance gate into the new bison pasture

McHenry County Conservation District has been leasing ground at the 2080 acre Pleasant Valley Conservation Area for cattle grazing for many years. Even before the district owned Pleasant Valley the land was utilized by a large cattle operation on the north end of the property. This was an intensively managed cattle operation with concrete corrals and complex feed lots. Like so many large scale cattle grazing operations the land was overgrazed resulting in little to no ecological diversity.

After the district purchased the property they started leasing ground to local cattle farmers splitting the north side of Pleasant Valley into two grazing areas which we refer to now as the east and west pastures. The contracts that were initially agreed to definitely favored the farmers as opposed to the ecological benefits of the grasslands. When the cattle leases ended for the previous tenant on the east and west pastures MCCD started thinking of other ways to manage the grasslands with grazing. We started learning about rotational grazing, patch burn grazing and continuous grazing methods using sheep, cattle or even bison.  After a lot of research and attending a grazing workshop with Wisconsin DNR we felt that a patch burn grazing/rotational grazing method was the right direction for us. The 188-acre East pasture is now leased to a local farmer who is rotating significantly fewer cattle and sheep with great results. District staff felt the West pasture would provide a great opportunity to incorporate additional grazing on a large newly created prairie restoration.

Former cattle operation corral and feedlot buildings.

A Request for Proposal was put out to the public for a rotational grazing plan at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area with optimizing grassland bird habitat as the focal point. This proposal was to be for either cattle or bison.  

Once the proposals came in, the winning proposal was from Ruhter Bison (www.ruhterbison.com). Their plan is to graze a non-breeding herd of bison for meat production. This herd of 1 to 3 ½ year old animals will remain on the site until sold.

On the top of their priorities is the importance of using the bison to meet the ecological goals that we have for the area. It is evident by viewing their own ranch that this is something very important to them which is obviously very important to us. Educating the public on bison and the project itself is also important to both parties and will be a large part of future planning. MCCD plans on using the bison as a tool to assist us in restoring the ecological system to our prairies as well as educating the public on this iconic part of the American prairie and the part it plays.

Since we now knew there was a high likelihood of bison being on conservation district property we felt that we needed to educate ourselves on bison and bison handling. Although Ruhter Bison would ultimately be responsible for the care and control of the bison, we felt we need to be ready for whatever situation could arise. We began talking to other agencies including Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, who have both successfully reintroduced bison. We spoke with a bison professional from a Turner Bison Ranch in Nebraska, which was extremely informative. We also gathered as much knowledge from literature and lessons learned from the bison world as we could.

Finally and most importantly we visited the Ruhter family bison ranch in central IL. We observed their corral, fencing and assisted in loading two of their bison onto a trailer. It was a great time to discuss their procedures and philosophy on bison handling. They exercise a low stress method of handling, using positive reinforcement by luring them with mineral cakes, which is very effective and used by many bison managers.

Ruhter bison herd
MCCD Restoration Ecologist Chris Zeiner manning the trailer awaiting a young bison bull to load.
MCCD Restoration Ecologist John Peters using the big guns to take down an old corn crib.

As part of the lease MCCD agreed to remove all remaining cattle fence as it was inadequate to hold bison. We also needed to get rid of an old corn crib, concrete slab, and many old tires and other garbage. This part of the project took a team effort including a great volunteer group who knocked out a large chunk of the fence in one day. The natural resources crew took care of the rest, and after four large metal dumpsters and three large garbage dumpsters were filled, the first phase of the cleanup was done.

MCCD Restoration Ecologist Jeff Murray, Nathan Grah, and Paul Bruett pulling fence.
Piles and piles of old fence and posts that were not adequate for bison.
Pulling fence posts and fencing with the Terex track loader.

In early September the tenant began building the fence. The whole fence was up in about a week with a five foot woven wire fence with a three foot stand off and top electric wires. Gates were strategically placed to accommodate expansion onto an additional 80 acres that is currently corn and will be planted to tallgrass prairie this coming winter. The first phase of the project is 30 acres in size and will begin with a small number of animals increasing when the new acres of prairie are established for grazing. The final acreage that will be grazed is about 188 acres.

This is a long term project with potential to grow and we are excited to see where this partnership goes in the future. Even in the early stages this project has required and will continue to require assistance from every department at MCCD, this is definitely a district wide team effort including the support of our board. With proper management it should improve the ecological value of the site, provide great grassland bird habitat and also provide the public with an opportunity to see bison on a native landscape in McHenry County.  

Example of the bison fence showing electric wires and woven wire, bison capable fence.
Map of the total 188 acres that the bison will graze, expanding gradually over the next 3 to 5 years.

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Needle in a Haystack

By Bryon Walters

Lespedeza cuneata is a serious invasive plant. It can be very problematic and can form large colony patches if left unattended. There have been many land managers implementing different methods and trying various herbicide products in hopes of ridding this invasive. Early detection and early treatments can greatly reduce its severity. Deal with it before the white flowers produce seed. The optimal window of treatment is before it even produces a flower.

For small patches, finding Lespedeza cuneata, in a late summer prairie can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. 

Once you find one flowering plant it can be easier to find any others that may be out there. They usually grow in loosely spaced groups. If the soil is very moist you can sometimes pull a plant up and get most of its long tap root. But usually the late summer prairie soil is as hard as a rock and you will not be able to pull up the plant. The stem may break but the root remains in the ground and you just kicked the can down the road, in that the same plant will regrow there next year. 

There is a surgical approach to dealing with this invasive plant and the results appear to be a 100% kill rate.

You can purchase these nice syringes on line in 10 packs. I buy the good ones with metal needles and plastic caps that stay on securely.

Before heading into the prairie I prepare my herbicide tool. Practice drawing up and dispensing water first so you have a feel for how the syringe works. Pour a 20% solution of Triclopyr (Garlon) 4 mixed with basal oil into a small measuring cup. Draw up the herbicide half way or more if you need it.

After placing the plastic cap on the syringe, grab your favorite sharp hand clippers. I like Felco #2’s. Find and cut the Lespedeza low to the ground.

As soon as you snip it take the syringe and hold the two side tabs. Then carefully push down on the top of the syringe which expels the herbicide on the cut stem. It’s ok to let a little dribble down the side of the cut stem, but don’t overflow. 

Take the entire plant you just cut and put it where you will not lose it. Gather them all up and look back, making sure you retrieved all cut plants. You do not want to go through all this work and leave a thousand seed plant laying in the prairie.

I then take these plants and place them on the burn pile.

Heading back to the shop sink. Put a little soap in a cup and run the soapy water through the syringe a few times to clean it up good.

I squirt the soapy water into my rinseate drum, not down the drain. 

Dry it off and place the plastic cap on and it will be ready for your next needle in a haystack surgery.

The cut and syringe method is useful for small to medium sized patches. There is great satisfaction in knowing you can have zero off target damage to the neighboring native plants. In one hour I was able to cut, treat and haul away about twenty-five plants. That was all that was needed, this year. If you had quite a few more than twenty-five plants, with a helper and three hours to spend some morning, you two could remove and treat 150 or so plants. If you have more than 150 plants in your project area, you have a major infestation. Other control methods may be necessary. As a land manager, you have to make this logistical calculation. Can you spare the manpower and hours for this type of work, or is a broadcast type method more practical? Try one of the methods, as procrastinating too long sows the seeds for restoration failure.

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Basal bark G4 on Echinacea purpurea

By Bill Kleiman

Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea is a wonderful native plant, but it is out of range, out of place for Nachusa. We have the E pallida, pale purple coneflower. Years back, the nursery that sold us the invasive Lespedeza (see earlier post) also sold us the wrong Echinacea. We now rarely buy seed. Since we have the occurrences of this “exotic” in just a few small patches I continue to treat them to try to drive them to zero.

The E purpurea is above, with a can of blue tree marking paint, and a Stihl SG11 hand sprayer with a standard 20% solution of Garlon 4 in basal bark mineral oil carrier.

Above is Aeroe brand tree marking paint. Nelson brand is also fine. These paints are made to mark things. Much better than paints for metals or other things.

I spray a small amount of the basal bark mix where the plant emerges from the ground. I cut off the flower heads. I sprayed half a dozen blue to find them later to see what happened.

This photo is typical. Four weeks after treatment all plants appeared dead. Collateral damage is modest. You will recall from an earlier post that this method also worked well on birdsfoot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. I could have chosen to foliar spray, or perhaps dig them up.

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Meet Agnes and Dana, citizens creating habitat

By Bill Kleiman

These two have a lot of energy. On the left is Dana Sievertson and the right Agnes Wojnarski.

This is their back yard in Prospect Heights, a suburb of Chicago. They started growing plugs six years back. Annually, they grow about 20,000 prairie and wetland plant plugs from seed! One year they grew 35,000 plugs.

The early plants emerging in their modest green house. When the seedlings are big enough they separate them into cells, and maybe later separating them again into even more cells.

Depending on the need for the year, they grow about 40 species and have them ready for installation. They also trade plugs for seed from other organizations.

Transplanting seedlings with the help of the Poplar Creek Volunteer Stewards, a group that has been managing and restoring habitats for decades.

The plants are in their cells with space to grow out to vigorous plugs.

Flats are eventually placed outside for the season.

Looking down at many flats of plants. All the blank areas are flats that were recently installed.

Agnes and Dana are commissioners with the Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, which hosts volunteer workdays where citizens help care for and eventually install the plugs. Recently 2,000 plugs were installed in an area once dominated by cattails. They have created prairie plantings in park district lawns. They installed plugs in open water where they excluded carp. They also pick and plant seed and often add seed where they are plugging. They work carefully with neighbors to get buy in. They also burn these habitats.

Installing plugs in an area where cattail were cut and herbicided. Their volunteer base is about 40 citizens. A typical workday is a 12-15 people, but they can get a group of 40 to show up. They sometimes get help from the local schools and Eagle Scouts.

It won’t be a surprise that the front yard of Agnes and Dana is all prairie plants rather than lawn. These are seed sources for their works.

A visit often includes a sumptuous meal made by Dana who attended a culinary school, and has an art degree. Their house if full of art works, wagging dogs, and a comfort that is palpable.

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Beware what seed you buy

by Bill Kleiman

You likely don’t know invasive Lespedeza daurica. I will tell you why in a bit. But it is similar to the invasive Lespedeza cuneata, but more likely found prostrate like the specimen I put in the pot above. This was years ago, when my daughter and Jay would tell stories and laugh. They are still good buddies.

Lespedeza daurica above. We had made a purchase of a native seed mix from a seed nursery and had ordered Lespedeza virginica, slender bush clover. It appears that this nursery was wild harvesting from the only site in the state with L daurica and sold it to us by error. The occurrence of this invasive legume matches perfectly with all the places we planted that seed mix. The correct Lespedeza is nowhere to be found in those plantings. I informed the nursery once we figured this out, but the damage was done.

We kept trying to key out this Lespedeza to what we ordered, but it would not go there. Nor would it key to anything else. So we sent a specimen to the Illinois herbarium and another expert looked at a specimen. We had half a dozen top botanists view specimens. We were kindly informed that we appear to be one of the few occurrences in the state of this invasive. Such an honor.

This was back in September of 2007. We started to go after this species with vigor. Above, a young Josh Clark is cutting and barreling the plant. We applied herbicide to the cut stems. Today on cut stems we use basal bark mix or concentrated glyphosate. We hauled many barrels away. For foliar spray we use a tryclopyr. Transline does not kill Lespedeza. Plants are hard to dig up but it is possible when soils are soft.

Four of the infected plantings are still here. We dropped the occurrences to a scattering of plants but finding those needles in the prairie stack is an annual challenge. One large planting that was full of this weed we boom sprayed back then, and continue to boom spray. We do this to lower the threat of spreading. That field has been reduced to a sad collection of grass and monocots.

Fourteen years later and we are still doing our annual L daurica weed sweep. We gps locations and we keep pushing. My wife and I were just out at sunset checking a patch. We found about a dozen. Snip, spray, and bucket.

Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

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