An Early Error, and a Lesson Learned

So, I am finally preparing to reseed two of our pastures on the south side of the farm to native prairie plants - a plan that has been in the works for years. You'd think that natives would be easy to repatriate onto their home soil...but as it turns out, no such luck.



An open pasture with trees in the distance.
One of the two fields being reseeded to prairie, pre-plowing.

First, the current introduced European and Asian annuals taking up the space where I would prefer native prairie are tough customers who have been very successful in outcompeting the locals for a couple of generations. They aren't about to pick up and leave if asked politely, which means removing them forcibly, and I do mean forcibly.


Second, I am doing the seeding as part of a US Department of Agriculture NRCS EQIP program (I will spare you the long names) that I signed up for in my first year of farming. I was excited (probably a little too much so) that we could get paid to reintroduce prairie onto the farm and so applied for funding for this project among several others, all of which were supposed to be completed within 2 years. Well, we are going on year 3 now, well past the due date. But because of COVID, a steady rotation of NRCS representatives and a general lack of a clear plan and guidance, we have been granted an extension through spring of 2022 to get the job done. So here we are at the wire.


The thing that is throwing me off is the guidance I am now being given on how to reintroduce the prairie. The first recommendation - and the one that most people use because it is quick and simple - is to go out and spray everything with glyphosate until it all just gives up and dies.


Now, if you know me at all, and many of you do, you will know that this is not an option. There is nothing that I can think of that I consider more disastrous and honestly just disgusting, than putting toxic chemicals into the environment on this level, especially if what I am trying to do is improve the environment. It is an evil short cut and it simply makes no sense to me, a counter-intuitive act to kill everything to make something grow.

The other option offered by the NRCS is to heavily till, a practice my dad (a man who has used tillage most of his life) was flabbergasted about. "Who's telling you to do this?" he asked. When I told him it was the NRCS, he just shook his head.


A recently plowed field, with soil roughly turned over.
The second field after plowing, just the first stage in the tillage process.

You see, the plan that is put forward as the alternative to spraying is plowing, followed by disking, followed by use of a field cultivator. Plowing on its own is, these days, pretty much anathema in our part of Iowa. It deeply disturbs the soil, turning about 8 inches of dirt completely over, making our already erodible soil extremely vulnerable to heavy rains and strong winds. Disks and field cultivators are less invasive, but still only used in rare circumstances due to the possibility of erosion. So really, the NRCS is recommending the trifecta of things that groups like the NRCS usually say never to do. But, per the government, this is the only other way of removing the introduced European and Asian cool season grasses that have taken over most of our farm.


Reed Canary Grass

Given these two short-sighted options and given the government's long track record of "efficiency" and supposed thorough research on the matter, one would think that there probably were no other choices out there. Funnily enough, I have found another tack that our neighbor and often mentor, Mike, showed me. His method involves yearly burns of the introduced cool season grasses in late April, followed directly by hand seeding native grasses into the burned area. The cool season grasses struggle after the burns, while the native grasses thrive on the experience. Done over about 5 years, Mike has managed to transform an area once covered with Reed Canary grass (one of the most invasive and toughest grasses), into a healthy prairie. There are still patches of the Canary grass, but the now established prairie has the capacity to out compete the foreign invader.


The key in Mike's way of thinking is to imitate the prairie plants natural cycle (annual burns on the prairie) which stuns and eventually kills most of the imported grasses. Instead of scorching the earth with chemicals or tillage, you scorch earth with with, well, scorched earth. In this process, the land isn't poisoned, it isn't decimated and then rebuilt from scratch. It is a gradual shift to the types of grasses and forbes that we want, always leaving some plants in place and nourishing the soil. It is truly incredible to me what observation of nature's processes and a willingness to plan long range and work over time can accomplish.

But because I signed up for the accompanying payments, I am consigned to finish the job according to government regs, despite my misgivings and belief in a better way. Otherwise, I will have to pay the government a fee for taking up their time and money to no good purpose.


It's a Catch 22, and I need to learn from this mistake. Next time I won't take the well-intended but misdirected monies, and will allow Mother Nature to guide me.

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