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 Protecting and Managing Grasslands

 
 
 
 
Grasslands Including Prairies
Issues in Illinois
Help Grassland Wildlife
Management Considerations
Creating New Grassy Cover
Protecting and Managing
Additional Management Tips
Suggested Reading
Woodlands & Woody Cover
Issues in Illinois
Help Woodland Wildlife
Management Considerations
Creating New Woody Habitat
Protecting and Managing
Additional Management Tips
Suggested Reading
Wetlands & Other Aquatic Habitat
Issues in Illinois
Help Wetland Wildlife
Management Considerations
Creating New Wetland Habitat
Protecting and Managing
Additional Management Tips
Suggested Reading
Croplands & Other Agricultural Areas
Issues in Illinois
Help Cropland Wildlife
Management Considerations
Suggested Reading
Backyards & Other Small Tracts
Issues for Wildlife
How You Can Help
Management Considerations
Creating and Protecting
Suggested Reading
 

Three common methods-mowing, burning, and tilling-exist for maintaining and enhancing grasslands for wildlife. Sometimes grazing can also be used. Each method can be used independently, or they may be used in combination. In addition, your grassland needs to be protected from other disturbances, and the standards for plant-species diversity, successional stage, and structural components need to be met. All of these considerations together form a practice. By heeding the collective importance of all criteria in a practice when managing your grassland, you can be assured that you're providing suitable habitat for wildlife.

Remember, complete lack of disturbance is not a healthy alternative for our state's grasslands. At least one of these practices should be used for every existing grassland, depending on the type of grassland, the management objective, and the landowner's capabilities.

With all three practices, the most important factors affecting the disturbance's impact on wildlife are timing and amount. These are discussed in detail for each practice.

Grassland Protection with Delayed Mowing

Mowing at the appropriate times can control invasion of woody plants in Grasslands but mowing favors perennial grasses. Forbs, legumes, and annual broadleafs, which all produce abundant seeds for wildlife, will decrease. Grass litter also accumulates with mowing. Mowing can be useful, but if possible it is best done in combination with burning and light tillage.

Avoid mowing any stand of grass between April 1 and August 1, the prime nesting season for most grassland birds. With cool-season grasses, mowing should also not be done between September 15 and February 15 to assure that adequate winter cover remains. If mowing is used instead of burning for managing warm-season grasses, it should be done only in early spring, from February 15 to April.

The exception to these rules is when you are establishing grassy cover, when you may have to mow to control undesirable weeds. Then mow as needed with a rotary mower, although generally not after June in native warm-season grass plantings.

Don't mow more than a third of an established stand in any one year. This will provide some undisturbed habitat for wildlife and create a mosaic of different plant heights and densities. Divide the grassland stand into units, and rotate your mowing accordingly. For example, if you have thirty acres, you could divide it into three ten acre management units, mowing each unit once every three years.

Grassland Protection with Prescribed Burning

Fire can be useful for managing cool-season grasslands and is the preferred tool for managing warm-season grasses. However, defining the specific objective for burning and planning before the burn season are both essential to a successful and safe burn. A primary benefit of burning is preventing litter build-up (thatch) in grassy cover. With warm-season cover this helps warm up and dry out the soil faster in the spring and allows the prairie species a longer growing season. These factors are important when you are trying to eliminate competing cool-season invaders that don't thrive in warm, dry conditions. In all types of grassy cover, reducing the thatch level also reduces matting and keeps growing plants more erect. Thinned-out vegetation makes it easier for smaller wildlife species to travel within the cover.

Frequent early-spring burning (March 15 to April 15) can help control woody plants. Burning at the end of this period can also help control and eliminate cool-season problem plants in warm-season grass plantings. But it will also favor the grasses and cause forbs, legumes, and annuals to decrease. Late-winter burning (January 15 to March 15) will benefit diversity in the plant stand, favoring forbs, legumes, cool-season grasses, and annuals, but it will not be as effective in controlling woody plants, except cedar and pine. Hand removal or herbicide treatment may be needed to control woody plants where spring burns are not desired.

Fall burns may be conducted in prairie stands and may be desired on sites that are usually too wet to burn in the spring. Burns done in October or early November can help control or reduce invasion of woody plants and favor forbs. However, fall burning eliminates valuable winter wildlife cover. It is also not recommended on newly established plantings located on steep slopes. Until the grassland has had time to develop its extensive root system, the site could be prone to erosion if a fall burn is conducted.

As with mowing, never burn more than a third of the established grassland acreage in anyone year. This rule is especially important with burning because of the insects that overwinter in grassland plants.

See the "Suggested Reading" resources at the end of this chapter for information on safely conducting prescribed burns.

Grassland Protection with Tillage

Tillage can be used to thin a grassland that has become too thick or to establish or promote broadleaf plant diversity in a grass stand. Light tillage (less than 25% of the tilled plot) prevents litter build-up and increases legumes and annual plants. Light tillage may not prevent woody plant invasion. Hand removal, herbicide treatment, delayed mowing, or prescribed burning may be used when woody plants need control. Heavy tillage (more than 90% of the tilled plot) controls woody plant invasion, creates bare soil areas, and will convert most cool- and warm-season grassy covers to old field cover. Any amount of tillage may open prairie stands to invasion by weeds and is not a preferred disturbance practice in prairies that already have a high plant diversity. For seedings that are only grass, however, tillage may improve plant diversity. As with mowing and burning, never till more than a third of the established grassland acreage in anyone year, and do not initiate tillage in new areas during the nesting season, between April 1 and August 1. Fall tillage is often recommended.

Grassland Protection with Light Grazing

Light grazing may be a compatible disturbance with wildlife cover, but the qualifier "light" cannot be overemphasized. Bison and elk historically grazed on Illinois' prairie Grasslands but the grazing patterns were very random and infrequent at most locations. If you plan to graze a grassland, it should preferably be done outside of the nesting season (April 1 to August 1). However, very light grazing during the nesting season may be done without serious consequences to nesting wildlife. Plant heights of at least twelve inches should be maintained at all times on grazed grasslands. Chapter 6 has recommendations for grassland used primarily for hay and pasture.

Dennis Frey

It's hard to drive by Dennis Frey's Hamilton County farm near Belle Prairie City without taking note. The ninety acres of tall grass-big bluestem and Indian grass-surrounding the family's homesite provide an oasis in the agricultural landscape. Though Dennis is a grain farmer, an early job with the soil conservation service piqued his interest in stewardship. When the district conservationist wanted to establish a prairie in the county, Dennis was on the committee. Their discussions came to mind when it was time to put acreage of his own into the Conservation Reserve Program.

While it appears the grassland was always here, it happened only with a lot of hard work. According to Dennis, the most rewarding part was his first good stand of prairie grass, which didn't appear until three years after he started planting. Dennis began small, putting in only five acres in the first year, and he had to master a different kind of farming. He learned that the prairie grasses needed a fine seed bed, and that after the seed is planted, it should be rolled. Picking the proper date to plant was also important-planting the first or second week in June led to 80% success rate.

From that first five acres the grassland on the Frey farm has grown to over ninety acres. As Dennis continued to plant; he interspersed wildlife food plots into the area, and even integrated a wetland. The wet areas became a "field of dreams" for waterfowl, attracting geese, teal, and mallards.

Once established, the grasses have been fairly easy to maintain. Different parcels are burned every year, with the whole cycle completed every four years. "When it burns, what an awesome sight," says Dennis. "The flames are twenty to thirty feet high and it sounds like a train. I can't imagine a thousand acres burning with the wind blowing. What would you do?"

Asked if he would plant his grassland again, Dennis gives a resounding yes! " While I was always interested in wildlife as a kid," he says, "these plantings have given me a greater appreciation of nature. Six coveys of Bobwhite live on the property, and the grassland provides an escape for deer as they bound across the lane to disappear into the grass. Red fox can be seen on the hills, and I even have a beaver dam. Just seeing the wildlife and being able to watch the ducks and birds close-up gives me a great feeling. I also find myself spending more time providing for and watching wildlife than I do hunting."

If he could do it over again, Dennis would plant more prairie forbs and start earlier, but overall he is happy. This is the family property where his father was born and farmed. Now it is Dennis's turn to work their special ground. By his incorporation of a native landscape into a traditional grain farm, Dennis has created a treasured place.

Photo Copyright © Michael R. Jeffords