Prairie is no longer the climax community in the central Midwest. Left unmanaged, prairie eventually turns into woodland. This transformation is usually accelerated in fragmented landscapes in which tracts of land surrounding prairies act as reservoirs for seeds and fruits of woody plants. This is the situation at GHF's Snyder Prairie near Mayetta, Kansas, with its 85 acres of unplowed and restored native prairie. There, GHF is faced with forever fighting woody invasion.
As with woody encroachment, weedy exotic plants such as musk thistle and sericea lespedeza can be very challenging to control. This is especially true for sericea lespedeza, which is a very persistent, invasive legume that, if not controlled immediately, can quickly spread and compromise the ecological integrity of natural communities. GHF volunteers have observed firsthand how it has spread at Snyder Prairie.
Woody encroachment and weedy invasion cannot be effectively controlled with one method, especially in larger prairie tracts, so a suite of management activities are used to keep tallgrass prairie intact including prescribed burning, spot herbiciding, and mowing, haying, and tree removal. These types of management activities are described below.
Where to get Help
If you do not have the time or resources to restore or manage your prairie, contact your County Conservation District office for local vendors that can perform these management services. GHF may also be able to direct you to local personnel that have experience with prairie management.
Learn by Volunteering
Volunteering with the Groundhogs, GHF's prairie maintenance crew, is a great way to learn more about prairie management and ensure the quality of Snyder Prairie. Contact GHF to join in!
Application of herbicide is used to control weedy growth and woody colonizers during the first few years of establishment. Targeted species include Osage orange, honey locust, rough-leaved dogwood, smooth sumac, sericea lespedeza, little ragweed, nodding foxtail, velvet leaf, smooth brome, tall fescue, annual brome grasses, red and white clover, yellow and white sweet clovers, Johnson grass, musk thistle, crown vetch, and prickly lettuce. Herbicide application should follow instructions on the label, be performed by certified herbicide appliers, and not be used on desirable native vegetation. Approved herbicides should be used in uplands (Roundup or equivalent), in wetlands (Garlon or equivalent) for woody vegetation (Tordon or equivalent), or other herbicides applicable for specific plant groups (such as Transline for legumes and Pasture Guard for broad leaf vegetation).
Mowing is another important tool in the management of native grassland, especially where patches of woody brush or annual weeds are present. Mowing controls annual weeds and woody growth when combined with herbicide application and prescribed burns. Problem areas should be mowed to a height of 8-12 inches after vegetation in such areas has reached a height of 30 inches. Mowing can be done with a rotary brush hog style mower to ensure that clippings are dispersed rather than deposited in dense mats, which smother vegetation. In areas that are too wet or too difficult to mow with a brush hog and tractor, weed whackers or brush saws can be used. For thickets of shrubs or stands of young saplings, a larger mower is required to remove the stems at or near ground level. An application of Tordon or equivalent on the remaining stems will improve the effectiveness of eradication efforts. In larger thickets or woody infestations, careful herbicide application to the leaves of the shrubs is performed, followed by subsequent applications after leaf-out. Once two or three foliar applications of herbicide are completed, the dead trunks are mowed down and piled up for burning in the spring. The herbicide to use for foliar applications may vary, but could include Crossbow, Remedy, or their equivalents. See your local county noxious weed department for more information on herbicides and their application.
One of the first activities performed during the initial stages of prairie restoration in neglected native prairies is tree removal. Often that involves the removal of eastern red cedar trees. Luckily red cedars do not re-sprout so they can be cut at ground level, with no follow up herbicide application to the stumps, unlike other tree species found in native prairies. Not all the red cedars have to be cut especially when the trees are larger. Cut trees can be piled up against live trees and set on fire during a spring burn and the dead trees will ignite the living ones. Be careful as the fire will be very hot, pass embers downwind, and possibly sterilize the soil. Keep your burn piles small to avoid these problems.
Planned burning or prescribed burning is an indispensable tool to maintain and restore native grasslands. Fire controls woody growth, whether new seedlings or existing vegetation, while stimulating the growth of grasses and forbs, or wildflowers, in native grasslands or wetlands. Prior to a burn, a burn plan should be prepared that outlines a plan of action, identifies contingencies, and lists the names and phone numbers of emergency agencies. Proper notice of intent to burn should be given to local fire departments, and all required permits should be obtained prior to the commencement of prescribed burning. Sometimes all the permit involves is contacting the local fire department or sheriff's office prior to and after the burn. Prescribed burns are typically conducted in the early spring, such as late March to late April, every three to five years or as needed.
Haying of native and restored prairie fields can be used as an effective management approach once the site has been prepared for haying by applying the methods of mowing, burning, tree removal, and herbicide application. In most cases, haying will keep woody encroachment and weedy growth under control. GHF is in the process of preparing several fields for haying at Snyder Prairie. Some of the most diverse native prairies in northeastern Kansas are hay meadows that have been hayed by local farmers or ranchers for generations. The timing of haying is very important as it will affect the yield, protein content, and re-growth. The best time to harvest in southern Kansas is early July and in mid-July in northern Kansas. Cutting height should be at 3 to 4 inches in a normal year and five to seven inches in a dry year. Resting a portion (up to 30%) of a hay meadow is recommended to provide a refuge for wildlife. It also allows for native seed production and possible re-establishment in adjacent areas.