Demolition before restoration

By Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, TNC

Sometimes, before restoring habitat we first have to remove old buildings and  infrastructure.

This Fall we closed on a tract of land with a house, two mobile homes, and three huge pole barns, a garage, a little shed, tons of rusty steel horse panels, and lots of box elders popping up in the yard.

Below is a before view:

Below is an after view.  That is an old bur oak back to being in the open on a soon to be prairie hill.

Below we had an excavator demolish all the buildings.  We first disconnected the electric power.  We sealed the water well with bentonite.  We recovered about 5 semi loads of scrap metal we hauled to the scrap metal yard.  We made a number of runs to the land fill.  We had the excavator pluck out a bunch of weed trees (box elder, elm, black cherry, mulberry) that were in disturbed ground.  A bulldozer pushed them into piles.  We seeded the area with combine harvested prairie seeds.

We still have plenty of work to do away from this developed area but we feel good about this leap forward.


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The Timing of Prairie Seeding Matters!

By Julianne Mason, Restoration Program Coordinator, Forest Preserve District of Will County

Here is a strong visual example of how the timing of prairie seeding matters.  A former agricultural field in Will County, Illinois was seeded with rather diverse mixes of wet and mesic prairie seeds in early 2018.  The contractor was busy doing mechanical clearing and other winter projects that need frozen ground conditions.  They hoped to catch the end of the frozen ground window to do the seeding.  Only part of the field was broadcast seeded under good conditions during mid February, 2018.

Photo 1

Photo 1 caption: Broadcasting native prairie seed under good winter conditions – frozen ground, light wind, and light snow cover to show the seeding coverage.

Photo 2

Photo 2 caption:  View of native prairie seed and carrier (rice hulls) broadcast onto the snow surface.

Photo 3

Photo 3 caption:  By the next day, the ground had thawed, and the tractor got horribly buried in the mud.

By the time the tractor was able to be unstuck, it was half way through the spring burn season.  The rest of the field was broadcast seeded in late March.

The same seed mix was broadcast seeded by the same operator using the same equipment in the same field.  The only thing that was different was the timing of the seeding.  During the second growing season (2019), the area that had been originally seeded during the winter looks great.  There are already dozens of native plant species that cover the whole seeded area.  Each square foot has many native wet prairie plants establishing.

Photo 4

Photo 4 caption:  By the second growing season (2019), the portion of the field that was originally seeded during the winter looks great, with a diversity of native plant species establishing.  Blue vervain, tall coreopsis, common boneset, sneezeweed, water horehound, black-eyed Susan, and false boneset are visible in the photo.

In contrast to the portion of the field that was seeded during the winter, the area that was seeded during the spring burn season is underwhelming.  There are a few native plant species scattered in the late-seeded area.  However, most of the vegetation is foxtail, an annual grass that tends to fade quickly in restorations once the native plants get established.  The continued dominance of foxtail during the second growing season indicates a lack of initial native plant establishment.

Photo 5

Photo 5 caption:  During the second growing season (2019), the portion of the field that was originally seeded after the spring burn season was still dominated by foxtail, an annual grass, with only widely scattered native plants establishing.  See the lone black-eyed Susan in bloom.

Native prairie seed is expensive, and it takes a lot of time and resources to collect, clean, and broadcast.  To give that investment the best chance of success, native seed needs to be broadcast in the late fall or winter, and most certainly before the end of the spring burn season.  This is especially true for forbs, sedges, and other species that need a period of cold moist stratification before they are able to germinate.  By giving them the early spring window to cold moist stratify, those species are able to germinate and grow during the first growing season.  This greatly improves the opportunity for a diverse prairie restoration.

Take-home message:  Schedule the initial seeding of a prairie restoration during the first window of suitable ground conditions during the late fall or winter.  Other work can wait.  Don’t wait until spring to seed a diverse prairie mix, unless you want to give warm season grasses an advantage at the expense of diversity.

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Seed Hammer Mill

By Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands TNC

This is a hammer mill used to break apart seed heads of all sorts of native seeds.
The mill is under the red housing which has spinning hammers inside.  It has a galvanized chute and a custom made seed table on wheels.  Mill is by C.S. Bell Co.  It is like a life mulcher.

When we want to mill a barrel of seed we dump the seed on the table, or lay the barrel on the table and use the half moon bracket to hold it steady.  We feed the seed heads, stems and whatever else we have down the chute.  Not the scissors.

Below I am touching a hammer inside the mill and my thumb is on one of four screens we have.  The smaller the screen holes the longer the seed heads are exposed to the spinning hammers.  We feel confident that most seeds are not damaged from the spinning hammers.  If we run some big seed, like a Silphium, then we use the big hole screen.  If you get too aggressive you can see broken seeds, but most of the time they look in tact.

Below is vervain seed heads being run through the mill.  The pvc pipe is used if some clogging occurs at the inlet.  Wear safety glasses.

1,500 pound pile of dry-mesic mix from 2008.


Below we see the blue Baileigh cyclonic dust collector.  This is a few horsepower of air suction and it is hooked direct to the bottom of the hammer mill.  It is typically used in carpentry shops to collect sawdust. The plant parts are all pulled very fast past the mill, up the clear tube, into the blue cyclone.

In the cyclone the plant parts are circling the blue can very fast.  The speed is especially fast in that funnel shaped part of the blue vacuum.  Seed is dense with its DNA, fats, proteins and those seed spin down into the white drum.  Even pussytoes, Antennaria, won’t go out the exit pipe you see going through the exterior wall.  Hard to believe but true.

You can blow seed out the exit tube if you clog the intake tube.  Don’t do that.

The mill and vacuum are 220 volts and lots of amps.  You need an electrician to wire it up.

When you turn off the mill and vacuum the seed and many other plant parts are in the can.  It is still a dusty product so this louvered dust fan helps get the fine dust outside as you pour out the barrel.  As you pour seed keep the barrel close to the fan.

Below is from 2004 with a very similar system.  Cost is about $10,000.

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UTV tanks for prescribed fire

By Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, TNC

I hope you all don’t mind another fire equipment post.

UTV skid unit tanks:  The best part of a Utility Vehicle is its mobility on prescribed fires.  In my humble opinion 50 gallons of water is plenty to carry on a UTV.  RKO Enterprises ordered me in this tank from United Plastics Fabricating as I wanted to reuse an old reel and pump and save money plumbing it myself.

Although 50 gallons is plenty, back then I purchased a 90 gallon tank for a Kubota RTV, which is a beefy but slow UTV.  It lugs this load even slower.  Lesson learned is less is more.

I point to the sump on the bottom of the tank.   If you don’t have a sump then you will carry water around your tank that your pump can’t access to spray.  Make sure you buy a tank with a sump.

The tank has internal baffles that diminish the slosh as you drive.

The skid unit should be small enough to fit in the bed with tailgate up.  You want the weight as far forward in the bed as possible.  The tank should be low enough for the driver to see over the top of the tank.  The pump motor is on a skid platform rear of the tank.  The hose reel is either next to the pump and motor if there is room, or on top of the tank if need be.

I like the half inch thick black polypropylene tanks.

Bolt the tank through the UTV bed and use wide washers to spread the force.

More info here:


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Fire, Rubus and Geranium

By Bill Kleiman

In a closed canopy oak woods we have been doing annual fire for a long time.  The Rubus allegheniensis, common blackberry is slowly fading in stature and density, while the wild geranium, G maculatum, has become abundant.   This is what I think I see.  I don’t have data to prove it.

The invasive honeysuckle shrubs in this woods also keep re-sprouting after our fires.  Those plants are still there, but smaller in size, and not big enough to flower and then seed.

The fires top kill the woody stems of the briars which yields more sunlight to the herbaceous plants of geraniums, and other forbs, sedges and grasses.

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Wild Parsnip. Is it invasive or just a weed?

By Bill Kleiman, The Nature Conservancy at Nachusa Grasslands

Pastinaca sativa, wild parsnip lives two years, with flower and seed set on year two. Every June you will find us mowing it somewhere on the preserve, as this is when they are in full flower.   We also use our weed spades to cut the root which looks like a carrot.  Before the flower stalk bolts a broadleaf herbicide is effective.

Parsnip does not compete well in prairie plantings or prairie remnants, except where the vegetation has been disturbed by some past issue, like brush encroachment.  Parsnip does well in low competition areas where past disturbance has left a simple plant community.  We mowed a bush honeysuckle thicket several years previously and it filled with wild parsnip a few years later.   I sprayed a pasture to reduce brush and a few years later there was the parsnip.

There are various weeds we put some effort into in case their small populations might increase if left alone.  Weeds like parsnip, king devil, butter and eggs.  You may have such a list.  Then there are weeds that are everywhere, like the exotic cool season grasses, so we shrug our shoulders and don’t attempt to control them.

Our resources are limited so we manage what we need to, and not more.

Here is a link to some resources on invasive weeds:

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Prescribed fire pumper units

by Bill Kleiman, The Nature Conservancy, Nachusa Grasslands

At Nachusa Grasslands we use several vehicle mounted water sprayers on our fires.  We call them “pumper units”.  Photo above is a crew about to start their test ignition.   You don’t see backpack water sprayers as most crew are assigned to a pumper unit.

The pumps we use are piston pumps because they use a small amount of water per minute and produce a high pressure.   These work well for our grass and leaf litter fires and are common in the Midwest.

Centrifugal pumps are the standard on wildfire crews you see across the nation.  Centrifugal pumps typically produce modest pressure, and can pump a lot of gallons per minute. This is good in that you may knock down an escaping fire with all that water output, and bad in that you may run out of water before that escape is extinguished.

Below is one of our units.  Note rake strapped at an angle such that it does not hit you in the head when you start the pump motor.  Our name is on the rake so we get it back at the end of the day.  The hose is yellow so you see it in the grass. The hose is a narrow diameter so it is light weight to maneuver easily.  The drip torch holders are made from wood painted black. The laundry detergent bottle in the box is filled with Class A foam.  “Add two caps of foam” says the print on the side of the tank fill.  And it all fits in the bed with the tailgate up.  The tank is 70 gallons which is about ten gallons too heavy.

Our water tender is a 425 gallon tank with a high flow centrifugal pump mounted in a truck. It is to fill all the other pumpers in the field and carry extra tools.

I wrote up a short summary of pumper units designs:


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