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Grassland Management Do’s and Don’ts

This is the first in a series of iGrow articles that will be dedicated to the issues and questions we receive related to establishing, re-establishing, and maintaining grass-based plantings for grazing, hay, wildlife, and recreation. This series will attempt to address the issues related to grasslands in a systematic process that helps the reader to understand key concepts of grassland management, and thus better prepare the reader to set specific goals and objectives to achieve desired results.

What do I want my grassland to provide?
Of primary importance is to ask a few key questions: “what is it that I want my grassland to provide?”, “what am I willing to invest?”, and similarly, “what is the time frame that I expect results?”.

For starters, we will consider the first question, “What do I want my grassland to provide?”. There are major differences in what can be achieved in grassland projects based on the history of the land and its management. Native (unbroken) sod in the form of grazing pastures or prairie areas has certain characteristics and potentials that planted or tame grasslands do not. However, there is great variability within the native sod category regarding historical use and management, which may include various grazing, haying, chemical, fire, or other management techniques.

Past Management Considerations
Past management often drives the direction of the plant community itself, impacting plant health and variety depending on the action.

Native Sod
What native sod can provide in relation to desired goals, such as annual production or plant diversity, can sometimes be achieved, sometimes not, and is often dependent on whether the plant community has been ‘simplified’ through invasion of exotic species, past management, or both. In general, native sod that is not performing to its potential should be regarded as something to be healed through well-timed actions that focus on the plant community rather than something to be ‘fixed’ through mechanical soil manipulations.

Non-Native Sod
If the grassland is not native sod and is currently tame species or ‘go-back’ grass that has revegetated on its own, one still must consider past management. The potential of what the grassland can provide will be based largely on the species (native and non-native) that are now established. In these areas, there is often more opportunity to actively change the plant community through various manipulations than on native sod, though one must be realistic in expectations and timelines.

Croplands
If the area of concern is currently managed for row crops, cover crops, hay, CRP or some other cover, the opportunity to quickly establish or re-establish a desirable community is possible. However, past management in relation to soil conditions and residual chemicals can have a dramatic impact on establishment of new vegetation.

The Bottom Line
How much one should invest to change a grassland plant community can be a challenging question. Input costs for soil preparation, seeding, and maintenance can be highly variable. One must first consider a strategy to ensure the soil is ready to receive the new plants. Profit potential can also be highly variable and is directly related to initial and ongoing input expenses.

This article just scratches the surface of considerations related to maintaining and establishing grasslands. We will continue to explore the vast variety of questions posed by landowners seeking to improve their grassland resources.

Source: Pete Bauman, iGrow

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