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Going Native: Prairie Grass Research

By Randy Weckman

When the first permanent settlers came to Kentucky, millions of acres of the state’s landscape were dominated by wide open prairie vistas, dotted only occasionally by a clump of trees. Prairie grasses, native to Kentucky and other temperate-climate states, grew densely and tall, sometimes so thick that pioneer children would become lost forever in the undulating sea of grass that in good years topped a horse’s withers.

But settlers to the area soon tamed the wild, dense native prairies of Kentucky—as they did elsewhere—and replaced them with commercially important crops such as corn, wheat, barley, and tobacco, among others. And they planted grasses such as bluegrass on which to graze cattle and fine horses. Two factors helped settlers conquer the ancient prairie: overgrazing by cattle and the invention of a scour plow in the 1830s, a device that made blacksmith John Deere a household term. His plow took at least some of the drudgery out of breaking the prairie.

But when the prairie’s deep roots that held soil tightly in place were severed from the land, the ecosystem that had stabilized the land for millennia was disengaged, leading to gullied tracts of land and roiled creeks, streams, and rivers. In addition, wildlife such as bison and prairie chicken that had lived in harmony with the prairie all but vanished as native stands disappeared.

Now, long after most of Kentucky’s native prairie land was put to commercial crops and exotic pasture grasses, there is a renaissance of interest in the ancient grasses as a conservation tool, as a native habitat, and as a grazing crop to feed cattle and horses.

Tom Barnes, University of Kentucky Extension wildlife specialist, and Monroe Rasnake, UK agronomist, are re-establishing small tracts of experimental prairies in Logan County and elsewhere to investigate their advantages for wildlife habitat and water and soil conservation and their potential for grazing animals.

Thanks to a gift to the University of Kentucky of 105 acres by the Monroe Hall family of Indianapolis, Barnes, with the help of local volunteers, constructed a small patch of prairie. (Volunteers have helped immeasurably by hand-planting plugs of more than 50 prairie species, including many rare plants such as the Great Plains ladies’ tresses orchid, blue false indigo, and rough blazing star.)

For Barnes, the new prairie will help support species of flora and fauna that have become rare due to the loss of prairie. He anticipates that even the small patch of prairie established along a 100-yard-wide swath of the small creek that runs through the Hall’s farm will attract species such as meadowlark and Henslow’s sparrow. Another benefit will come from the restoration of a system that has become rare and provide habitat for a wide variety of plant species that are much less common than they were 150 years ago.

But it’s more than a good wildlife habitat that the UK scientists are interested in. They believe that native grasses will help improve water quality by slowing down runoff and erosion of soil and by filtering pollutants. They also believe that the native species may have some real potential for grazing cattle.

“These species adapted to Kentucky’s climate over thousands of years and persist even when the climate is at its natural extremes—dry or wet,” Barnes said.
Rasnake, headquartered at the Research and Education Center in Princeton, planted about five acres of tall grass prairie on the back side of the research farm four years ago. This year, the grass is taller than Rasnake, who is a bit over 6 feet.

“Our research shows that native grass mixtures yield about twice that of fescue,” Rasnake said. “Tall grass prairie can yield between 5 and 7.5 tons per acre per year, while fescue yields about 4 tons per year,” he said.

The potential for grazing native species is good, according to Jimmy Henning, former Extension grazing specialist and current assistant director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service for agriculture and natural resources. Producers need to realize, however, that native prairie is somewhat costly to establish and that once established, it can’t withstand the punishment of overgrazing nearly as well as some cool-season species such as fescue and bluegrass.

However, Barnes and his graduate students Brian Washburn and Marvin Ruffner have found that using herbicides when establishing prairie grass can result in a grazing stand by the end of the second year. In addition, the cost of the grass has continued to decrease as more and more demand is generated for it. Their research has provided the protocol for re-establishing native prairie throughout the eastern United States.

Barnes said that the real expense in re-establishing authentic prairie is planting wildflowers, which he and volunteers planted by hand from species collected within a 250-mile radius of the site.

Native grasses have tremendous potential for grazing cattle, especially when used in tandem with cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue and bluegrass, Barnes said.

“Native Americans knew well that Kentucky’s prairie supported great herds of American Bison,” he said. “It stands to reason that domestic bovine—first cousins, you might say, to bison—also would do well on the prairie.”

John Johns, Extension animal scientist, said “native grasses perform well on two measures of grazing: palatability and nutritional quality, provided they are grazed during their peak, which is in mid-summer. Toward fall and throughout the winter, native grasses drop on both measures.”

With promising results from the early research conducted, plans are to plant a significant acreage on UK’s Animal Research Center in Woodford County to native species and conduct more precise research on their ability to help prevent erosion and their potential for grazing cattle.



“Our research shows that native grass mixtures yield about twice that of fescue.”
—Monroe Rasnake

Bluegrass is Really a European Invader

SHHHH! Don’t tell tourists that Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, might more fittingly be called the sideoats grama state. Somehow, that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

But sideoats grama, a Kentucky native, otherwise known as Bouteloua curtipendula, is in some ways a more fitting moniker than bluegrass.

You see, for millions of years, sideoats grama thrived in Kentucky’s meadows—or prairie as the French called it, a term we adopted quickly. But bluegrass, the cool-season grass with an image that is largely linked to Kentucky, came late, with the first Europeans to the United States.

It is most likely that the pilgrims (or those who came from Europe soon thereafter) brought with them, besides all manner of livestock, seed for the lush common meadows with which they were familiar—bluegrass. Because the climate was
rather similar to some European climes and because Kentucky bluegrass (Poa praetensis) is quite adaptable, the interloper became pervasive and became identified with Kentucky. And it continues to serve the Thoroughbred horse industry—
and Kentucky’s tourism industry—very well.

But the original prairie of Kentucky, more like meadows really, was comprised of a number of different native grasses, including big bluestem, little bluestem, and cane (a species something like bamboo that once grew in thick stands) as well as indiangrass, switchgrass, and a multitude of wildflowers such as purple coneflower, prairie clovers, and royal catchfly. And although bluegrass is a European invader,
changing Kentucky’s reputation as the Bluegrass State probably isn’t in the offing anytime soon.


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