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Native Seed Program

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Planting Native Grass

If you talk to 10 different people you will get 10 different opinions on how to plant native grasses. This can lead to confusion, frustration and less than adequate results. Here are some basic rules that, if followed, will give you the results you want.

1. Buy quality seed! Always buy seed on a Pure Live Seed (PLS) basis. Don't buy seed that is less than 50% germination and make sure a germination test has been done on the seed in the last 6 months

2. You need a firm seedbed (Conventional method would be to plow, disc at least twice, and cultipack. No-till is best into soybean stubble but is still effective in any situation, I like to mow or chop corn stalks before planting in corn stubble.) Native grass seeds need good seed to soil contact.

3. You must plant the seed shallow (1/4 inch). This is critical to remember with grass mixtures but even more important when planting forbs with your grasses. Some mixes can become very expensive and planting the seed too deep is asking for failure. A good rule of thumb is to check your planting directly behind your drill. You should see some seed on the surface even if as much as 40% of the seed is visible on the surface, that is ok, you are planting shallow.

4. You should try to cultipack or roll after seeding. Remember again, native seed needs good seed to soil contact.

5. For the first year you should mow 3 times, the first mowing should be fairly quick, about 3 or 4 weeks after seeding (obviously you will adjust with weather conditions). Mow the first time at a height of 4 to 6 inches. The next two times you mow should be at a height no less than 8". You should mow every 3 weeks depending on the amount of rain. The last mowing should be done by the 1st week or 2 of August. Then let your planting grow through August, this will give the young prairie plants a chance to build up some energy reserves so they can start strong next spring. Stay on top of your mowing responsibilities! One very common mistake is to get behind on mowing and then rush in and mow down 3-foot tall foxtail. The mowed material piles up like mulch and hurts your seed more than it helps. If it is mid to late July and you have not mowed your seeding, it is best not to mow now, you would probably do more harm than good.

6. Sunlight is important for young prairie plants, but just as important is moisture. Mowing your new seeding in a timely manner allows young prairie plants to utilize all of the available moisture possible. The mowed weeds die or shut down for a period after mowing and your young prairie natives use that available moisture. Another reason to mow often!!

Planting into brome fields (old CRP)

First you must kill the brome. Best technique is to mow in late summer and kill with Roundup herbicide in the early fall, and spray again in the spring. Journey herbicide can help.

If you are establishing prairie grass with no-till equipment into brome grass or a pasture, you must be sure to kill off all perennial cool season grasses (brome) and forbs before you plant. This is most often accomplished with Round-up herbicide. If you did not kill the brome in the fall and are now faced with trying to kill the grass in the spring - this can be difficult. Best management may be to burn the old brome early in the spring (March for Ia.). Allow the new growth to come back and then spray with 2 quarts per acre with Roundup herbicide. Read the label and try to get your timing perfect. It is difficult to get a complete kill on brome in the spring so be diligent and if you are really concerned follow this spray with tillage.

You must again be conscious of not planting too deep. One technique that has worked very well is to kill off the brome with Round-up, after the brome has died you should burn off all the dead grass with a small fire. You can come right in and seed (if the fire worked well you may not even need a no-till drill). The blackened earth warms up quickly; I've had native grass emerge in 5 days using this technique.

Journey Herbicide can make your life easier!!

Journey Herbicide is a new product that is available for native grass seedings. Journey is a mix of glyphosphate (roundup) and Plateau. This product will not hurt some native grass and forb species (You need to read the label). It is an excellent product for spring burn-down of unwanted grasses and broadleaves. There is not much glyphosphate in Journey so in many cases you will have to add extra Roundup. This product can be a very useful tool when building native grass and forb stands. Remember to always read and follow the label directions.

Spring Seedings

There are 2 schools of thought on when it is best to plant native grass in the spring, early and late. The answer is: plant as early as you can. Early is better, but you must mow to control foxtail and other weeds the first year. You can plant native grass as late as the end of June, even later on good years with enough rain. In fact the first two weeks in June is a very good time to seed natives. If it should happen to be a wet spring, your seed is delivered late, or the drill breaks down for 3 weeks, no problem. You can fall back to a later planting time. But go early if you can.

The Bottom Line on Native Grass Seeding:

If you prepare the site correctly, plant the seed correctly, and mow the site a few times the first year, you will probably have a good stand in one year. If you plant correctly but do not follow the maintenance directions, you will have a stand in three to four years.

You can download this document in PDF format:

Holy Grail on Native Seed Planting


Adding Stucture to your Native Prairie Planting

Have you ever noticed how you can walk all day through a grass field and the only places that your dog points a rooster is in the road ditch or grasses waterway? Or...just as you enter a tall patch of switchgrass a huge buck gets up and bounds down the hill in front of you. Did you also notice that those are the areas in the field where the vegetation is more diverse or in some way "different" from the remainder of the field? This is no coincidence. It is a known fact that wildlife species diversity increases as the habitat becomes more diverse. That is why adding structure to your prairie can help you to achieve increase diversity and increase wildlife benefits on your property.

What is "structure"?

Structure can come in a number of different forms. Some of these are:

  • Height of species (i.e. average height of the species in a mix)
  • Size of patch (i.e. area that is planted to a specific mix)
  • Time of green-up (i.e. mixes which develop earlier in the spring)
  • Species diversity (i.e. increased forbs)

Planting various groups of species, with various characteristics, in different parts of your field can achieve great results. Historically under natural conditions species would separate themselves by adjusting to the conditions available to them (i.e. moisture, sunlight, soil type etc.) Structured plantings attempt to mimic this natural phenomenon. By matching your field conditions with the needs of the plants you can create a variety of blocks across you property which will vary in composition and appearance and thus result in greater diversity in your field. Ultimately resulting in increased use by wildlife.

The Goal:

To match site capabilities with plant species known to thrive under particular conditions thus establishing native plants which are well adapted to the differing soils and drainage gradients encountered across a field.

Why add "structure"?

Increasing the diversity of habitat types in your field can really add benefits for both game and non-games species. For example: planting species which are taller and denser can benefit species like deer who are looking for a good, hiding place to bed down for the day and are also good for winter cover for pheasants. But, planning patches rich in forbs can provide great habitat for baby pheasant chicks who thrive on the insects that live around forb species. Also, planting species that green up earlier in the spring can provide benefits to certain grassland song birds looking for a place to nest.

Another great benefit is weed control. By planting a diverse mix of early succession forbs along with more conservator forb species, these "good" plants can occupy many of the niches that weeds may invade. More diversity can save the landowner many headaches. On dry soils under prolonged adverse climatic conditions such as drought, weedy species may be able to invade knoll areas as the planted species struggle to survive. By planting species (typically short grass species) that are adapted to dry conditions you can reduce the invasion of weeds thus resulting in less need for maintenance.

So you can rest and find your dog once in awhile. We have all busted through large areas of tall grass prairie. Can't find the dog, can't see 20 feet let alone a flushing rooster. Plant short grass prairie mixes on the south and west facing slopes, on dry sites and you will not only increase diversity and structure, you will have a place you can find that darn dog! Bottom land riparian areas full of switchgrass and Big bluestem can be improved by locating low moist soil areas and planting cool season natives and sedge mixes.

What the heck is a Forb? A forb can be a legume or flower. A forb is any broadleaf plant that does not have a woody stem. (alfalfa, prairie clover, pale purple coneflower, strawberry)

How to add "structure"!

1. Determine the type of soils on your site. Stop by your USDA Service Center, they can help.

2. Categorize the soils into zones.

Divide your property into the following categories and outline the soil boundaries on a map.

High Prairie Zone (eroded knolls) Diverse mixes adapted to dry soil conditions are planted here. Mid-Prairie Zone, medium to fine textured soils (side-hills, slightly elevated areas) Diverse mixes with Big bluestem, Indian grass are excellent for these areas. Low Prairie to Wet Meadow Zones (swales, waterways, bottomlands) Diverse mixes with cool season native grasses along with more traditional grasses and forbs are best for this area. You can also select low areas for specific wet meadow mixes for additional diversity. Firebreaks, Use a mix with introduced cool season grasses with alfalfa and clovers will add great structure (and safety) to your native seeding. Firebreaks should be 30' wide if possible and often follow waterways when possible.

3. Prepare for seeding.

It is advisable to mark out on the zones by driving around the areas with a tractor or drag-type devise (whatever you have available for equipment) to make it easy for the boundaries to be seen when planting.

4. Seeding.

Seed the high prairie mix on the knoll area first. Overlap the mix boundaries by about 10 yards to avoid any missed areas. If planting on steep slopes, be sure to check drill occasionally to ensure that the seed is being evenly distributed along slope.

No one can wait the 100 or 200 years it will take for your native prairie seeding to sort itself out. You can greatly increase diversity and structure by planting different mixes on the various soil types. Best of all the work will reward you with better habitat and more birds.

You can download this document in PDF format:

Adding Structure to your Prairie Planting