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Establishing Prairie Grasses: Q&A

This time of year, many habitat managers have food plots on the brain. But, it's also the time of year that long-term habitat improvements need to be implemented, such as tree planting and establishment of Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG). Just last night, I receieved an email from a website visitor - Bill Burk - who had some questions about a NWSG project he's planning, and I asked if I could respond to him in the DLM blog, so others might be able to benefit from the information as well. Here's Bill's scenario:

[Bill B. email]

"I have about 4-5 acres I am having bulldozed to remove invasive honey locust, honeysuckle and autumn olive. I am planting soybeans there this year and then would like to plant native grasses. Do you do grass plantings and if so what is the technique you use? I may plant soybeans for another year if necessary to prepare for the grasses. Thanks!"

[DLM response]

When it comes to breaking new ground and prepping to establish NWSGs, I think you're definitely taking a good route by planting the site to soybeans for a year, or two, first. That makes good use of the site in the interim, from a wildlife standpoint, or perhaps income if it's connected to larger tillable fields and you intend to harvest it. The seeds in the seed bed from those shrubby invasives (and any residual root systems close to the surface that remain viable) will be persistent for the first couple of years, germinating and suckering up more nuisance woody stemmed plants. You're right to think you'll likely have much less trouble with the planting if you keep the site clean with a RR crop for a season or two, before establishing grasses. A lot of people get in a rush about putting NWSGs in the ground, and by-pass this important site prep process, which often leads to a lot more work later on.

As for what to do next... When it comes to NWSG seedings, there's more than one way to skin the cat. The two I use most regularly are frost seeding and no-till drilling or slit seeding. I'll explain each in a little more detail.

Frost seeding entails broadcasting the seed right on top of bare (or mostly bare) soil, or minimal snow cover, in the late winter season, about the time the last thin layer of snow is ready to melt off completely. There should be good moisture, at that point, and plenty of freeze thaw cycles left to adequately stratify the native seeds and suck the tiny seeds down against the bare soil to make good seed-soil contact. You'll want to bump up your seeding rate a little bit higher (maybe 15-20%) than if you were drilling it in, but you should have excellent germination rates using this method, if conditions are favorable. This method is better used with monoculture Switchgrass (SG) plantings, or mixed NWSG stands that do not have much in the way of forb seed in the mix. The tiny forb seeds are difficult to meeter through a broad seeder, when mixed with the fluffy NWSG seeds. You can spread straight SG seed, which is also very small, pretty effectively, but again, not so much if it's mixed with larger NWSG seeds.

When drilling seed, often a 6' or 9' no-till drill is used, like a Great Plains/Land Pride, Kasco, or Truax. The Firminator by Ranew's Equipment, which is an amazingly versatile implement that Dogwood Land Management regularly uses, is also very capable of establishing a good stand of NWSG, as well. It has discs on the front end, which can be straightened to a run inline with the tractor and allow it to function very similarly to a slit seeder, with almost no tillage occuring. That's important, because you've taken your time and gone to a lot of trouble to clear the seed bed of weeds prior to seeding and you don't want to stir up a new crop of unwelcome volunteers to contaminate the site you've got prepped! Regarding planting dates on NWSG, when using a seeder like the Firminator (or a drill), I generally will wait for any remaining weed/undesirable seed to germinate in the spring, and start by cleaning up the site one more time with an application of glyphosate, and then planting the seed. That's usually around April 1st through April 15th for the gly application and April 15 through May 15 for planting.

If you're planting a soybean food plot for the fall and winter before your spring NWSG seeding, you can either use the frost seeding method and spread the seed directly over the standing soybean stalks in late winter. Or, you may need to clear the field (either by harvesting or mowing) to prepare to pull the seeder through without getting a clogged up mess under it. Another benefit to mowing/harvesting is that you'll have more dead residual bean stalks and material on the ground which could act as a mulch layer to help retain soil moisture the first year and speed up your first year growth of the planting. However, if you end up with too much residual litter, you could potentially smother out your tiny seedlings, after germination, without them seeing the light of day. That's not very probable with only 1 or maybe 2 years of bean plotting on a freshly cleared site, though. If the thatch layer seems too thick after mowing down plot remnants, and it seems dry enough to burn, you can always clear the ground for planting with a controlled fire. Not comfortable with fire, yet? Better start warming up to the idea, because your prairie grasses won't be able to thrive without periodic burning! Once you plant, you'll have some time to work on installing proper fire breaks, and that's a topic for another blog, entirely.

I highly recommend a pre-emergent application of Plateau (or Panoramic) herbicide in the first year for mixes that are tollerant of this chemical (most native grasses and forbs are, except for SG, but check information put out by the seed supplier you select). Plateau will provide excellent weed control for the first full growing season, which will help a great deal in getting your slower growing natives a foot hold. And, if you're going with a monoculture of SG, you can use Atrazine to keep the stand clean, by spraying after the second leaf phase of growth on your new seedlings.

Thanks, Bill, for allowing me to share your scenario and answer your habitat questions. If you need assitance with the establishment of your NWSGs, when you get closer to planting, get in touch with us again, and we'll discuss our services in more detail. Glad to be able to help!

Anyone else having questions they'd like answered, please email us through the contact page, email directly to, or pm us on facebook, and we'll do our best to respond!

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