Native Prairies Being Established Locally

Posted: January 28, 2021

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres provide long-term benefits to the environment.

When the last glacier left our area approximately 14,000 years ago it left behind moraines and glacial ridges. Eventually as the temperatures began to rise the tundra-like environment was replaced by cool moist deciduous forests and eventually by oak-hickory woodlands, oak savannas, marshes, and prairies.

Prairies covered a large portion of DeKalb County prior to the European settlements in the 1830’s. Before the early settler’s arrived, native prairie management include fires set by Native Americans, grazing by bison and elk and lightning strike fires.

As we move forward into the current timeframe, we have realized that establishing native prairie on some of our marginal lands has some long-term benefits to the environment, such as improving soil health and water quality along with providing habitat for our wildlife. 

Through USDA programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) farmers have been able to enroll these marginal acres and then receive a rental payment from USDA for the acres that were taken out of production for the program. The CRP cost-share program also assists landowners with the expense of establishing the practice which they must maintain for 10 years or the life of the contract.

Establishing native prairies can take from 3-5 years depending on soil moisture and climate conditions.

Seeding the prairie can be challenging as seeding rates for native seeds can range from less than a pound to over four pounds per acre. Native seeding can be done between April and June 15 in our area.

It is recommended that a companion crop be planted such as oats with the native seed which will provide some weed suppression and it can also help to control erosion as the native plants begin to establish themselves. A dormant seeding can be done after the middle of November and in a lot of cases is more successful as the seed goes through the cold of winter, which helps to break down the seed coat – this is referred to as stratification.

The DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) has been providing custom seeding of these acres with an air seeder which improves seeding rate accuracy and proper seed placement on the farm field. Equipment for this service has been provided by the DeKalb County Community Foundation and the DeKalb County Pheasants Forever Chapter.

Unlike the pre-settlement days we don’t have the frequent burning and bison grazing our native plantings to help manage these acres. Management is the responsibility of the landowner. Controlled burns, interseeding, strip disking and mowing are a part of the management strategies that are used to maintain these sites. 

The DeKalb County SWCD and NRCS can aid in selecting the proper management tool to make your prairie planting successful. Contact the office at 815-756-3234, ext. 3 for further assistance.

Source: Dean Johnson, DeKalb County SWCD