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Establishment of Seeded Grasslands for Wildlife Habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region


Types of Seeded Grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region


Seeded grasslands are relatively easy to establish compared with other habitat types, such as forests or wetlands, and prairie wildlife species begin using them rapidly. Thus, seeded grasslands can provide valuable wildlife habitat on public and private lands in the prairie pothole region. Several different kinds of seeded grasslands can be established and some of the major types are as follows.

Introduced Cool-season Grasses and Legumes

Good habitat for duck nesting and use by other prairie wildlife can be established by planting mixtures of introduced cool-season grasses and legumes on good quality cultivated soils throughout the area of applicability. Tall wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass, alfalfa, and sweetclover are well-suited for such habitats.

Intermediate wheatgrass is a vigorous, rhizomatous species that is native to central Europe, the Balkans, and Asia Minor (Rogler 1973). It is well adapted to planting on many soil phases and sites in the northern Great Plains where annual precipitation ranges from 8 to 20 inches. On farms and ranches it is used in mixtures with legumes for pasture and hayland. Several cultivars have been developed by agricultural researchers (Hanson 1972). The cultivar "Oahe" developed in South Dakota is an excellent one for use in the prairie pothole region. Recommended varieties for the Canadian pothole region are "Chief" and "Greenleaf" (Anonymous 1979). Intermediate wheatgrass grows to a height of 4 to 5 feet on fertile soils with adequate precipitation. It is easy to establish and grows vigorously during the first 4 or 5 years but stands tend to deteriorate in height, density, and vigor after they have been established for 8 to 10 years.

Tall wheatgrass is a tall, coarse bunchgrass that is native to saline meadows and seashores of southeastern Europe and Asia Minor (Rogler 1973). Tall wheatgrass is especially recommended for planting on poorly drained and very poorly drained soils. It also produces excellent stands on well- drained upland soils in areas with annual precipitation as low as 8 inches. "Alkar" and "Platte" are two cultivars that are well adapted to the prairie pothole region. The cultivar "Orbit" is recommended for southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (Anonymous 1979).

Varieties of alfalfa that have desirable vegetative characteristics include "Ranger," "Ladak," and "Grimm." Good stands of cover composed of intermediate wheatgrass, tall wheatgrass, and alfalfa have been established under a remarkably wide variety of soil, moisture, and climatic conditions in the prairie pothole region. For example, stands have been established at different sites in an area bounded by Fergus Falls, Minnesota; Great Falls, Montana; southern South Dakota, and northern North Dakota.

The grass-legume mixture used as seeded cover also has excellent soil-building properties when organic matter and plant nutrients are added (Derschied et al.1971). When used in rotational cover management systems with periodic tillage, the soil is improved with each treatment. Many soils on wildlife management areas have been degraded through previous abuse and would be benefited by proper care including grass-legume cover.

Tall, Warm-season Native Grasses

Whitman (1963) recognized three potential grassland types within North Dakota. Generally, the descriptions are applicable for the three types within the prairie pothole region. The True Prairie with big bluestem, little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius), indiangrass, porcupine grass (Stipa spartea), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) as the dominant species composition occupies virtually all of the Red River Valley. A transitional type of grassland dominates the central part of the State on the Drift Plain. The potential vegetation is needle and thread (Stipa comata), green needlegrass (S. viridula), western wheatgrass (Agropyron smithii), slender wheatgrass (A. trachycaulum), little bluestem, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), prairie junegrass (Koeleria cristata), and bluegrass (Poa pratensis).

A comparatively xeric mixed prairie is found on the Missouri Plateau with needleandthread, blue grama, thread leaved sedge (Carex filifolia), and western wheatgrass as the major species, whereas plains muhly (Muhlenbergia cuspidata), and little bluestem are locally abundant on eroded slopes. Prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia) is important on sandy and sand range sites throughout North Dakota.

Adapted varieties of tall warm-season native grasses can be used to establish seeded grasslands on cultivated soils in eastern parts of the prairie pothole region. Seeded as a mixture, big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass produce a stand of vegetation with a tall, dense form. Big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass are characteristic of mesic sites in the tallgrass prairie region. These species are composed of many ecotypes and have ranges of adaptation to soils and climate. They occur on subirrigated lowlands, on nearly level to gently undulating glacial till plains, overflow sites, level swales and depressions, residual and glacial uplands, and bottomlands along rivers and streams. These tall native grasses also occur on nearly level to rolling glacial till plains, lake plains, and on high stream terraces in the southeastern portions of the prairie pothole region.

Big bluestem is a tall warm-season perennial native grass with long root systems and short underground rhizomes. It sometimes reaches a height of more than 6 feet at maturity. "Pawnee" is a tall, leafy, late-maturing big bluestem, and has potential for use as wildlife habitat in the tallgrass prairie of southeastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, west-central Minnesota, and eastern Nebraska and Iowa. Pawnee may sustain some winter injury during the year of establishment in northern latitudes, unless covered with snow. "Champ" was developed from an interbreeding population of big bluestem and sand bluestem, and it is not recommended for use in the northern part of the prairie pothole region. Three additional experimental strains of big bluestem are currently being field tested for use in the northern Great Plains: PM-SD-27 developed by the USDA-SCS, Plant Materials Center (PMC), Bismarck, North Dakota; NDG-4 developed by USDA Science and Education Administration-Agricultural Research (SEA-AR), Mandan, North Dakota; and SD-43 developed by South Dakota State University, Agricultural Experiment Station, Brookings. Three cultivars have been released for use in the southern and central Great Plains: "Kaw," developed by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, has a range of adaptation that extends into the southern prairie pothole region. Pawnee and Champ were released by SEA-AR (formerly the Agricultural Research Service) in cooperation with the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station.

Indiangrass is a tall warm-season grass with short rhizomes adapted to the tallgrass prairie region of Iowa, Minnesota, and the eastern Dakotas and to subirrigated and overflow range sites in the mixed-grass prairie zones of North Dakota. Several varieties have been released, two of which were developed by the University of Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station and SEA-AR. "Holt" was developed by mass selection from field collections in the Elkhorn Valley of Holt County in northeastern Nebraska. It was released as a moderately early-maturing variety with fine leaves and stems. "Oto" was developed from collections from natural grasslands of Nebraska and Kansas. It is a late-maturing, robust, erect variety. PM-ND-444 is a composite from three field collections in south central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota. Although this variety has not been of officially released, seed is available *from the SCS Bismarck PMC for testing in field plantings. "Nebraska 54" is a tall, leafy, late-maturing selection adapted to eastern and southern Nebraska and adjacent States. The origin of Nebraska 54 was certified by the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association.

Switchgrass is a tall native perennial, warm-season , strongly rhizomatous grass adapted to moist, deep, fertile soils. Good seed characteristics and strong seedling vigor make this an excellent species for use in establishing seeded grasslands in areas of adaptation. Tolerance to pre-emergence herbicides such as atrazine and simazine, and seed characteristics, contribute to relative ease of establishment of switchgrass compared with other warm-season native grasses. "Nebraska 28" is characterized by fine stems and bluish-green leaves, and is well adapted to a wide range of soils throughout the prairie pothole region. "Cave-in-Rock" is a tall, coarse, lowland type that originated from a seed collection near Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, and was released by the SCS Plant Materials Center, Elsberry, Missouri. It is adapted to Iowa and possibly southern Minnesota. "Pathfinder" is a vigorous, leafy, late-maturing, disease-resistant variety released by the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station in cooperation with SEA-AR. Pathfinder is adapted to eastern Nebraska, Iowa, central Minnesota, and eastern South Dakota. "Summer" originated from a native collection near Nebraska City, Otoe County, Nebraska. It is a tall, upright, leafy type, released by the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. Summer is adapted to eastern South Dakota, southeastern North Dakota, and west-central Minnesota. PM-SD-149 is a field collection from an upland site near Forestburg, South Dakota. It was selected by the USDA-SCS on the basis of superior forage and seed production. PM-SD-149 has not been officially released, but seed is available for field testing. NDG-965-98 is a northern, early-maturing, upland type collected by SEA-AR near Mandan, North Dakota. It performs well in North Dakota, but it is not adapted to the higher temperatures, humidity, and shorter day length of the south-central portion of the prairie pothole region. Some seed is commercially available.

In general, tall, warm-season native grasses are more difficult to establish than introduced species. However, after becoming established the native grasses remain in a vigorous condition longer than introduced species and can be periodically rejuvenated by prescribed burning.

The type of seedbed preparation is very important to the successful establishment of native grasses. Coarse-textured (sandy) soils should be planted to an annual grain crop for 1 year and the tall, warm-season grasses seeded directly into clean standing stubble the following spring without further tillage or seedbed preparation. The prepared seedbed method may be used for spring seedings on fine (clay-silt) to moderately textured (loam) soils.

Several wetland managers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in western Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, and eastern Nebraska have established excellent stands of high-quality warm-season native grasses by using primarily big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass. In studies conducted in the Waubay Wetland Management District (WMD) of South Dakota during 1970-72 and the Devils Lake WMD of North Dakota, plantings of mixed cool-season and warm-season native grasses provided satisfactory nesting cover for dabbling ducks (Klett et al., unpublished data). George et al. (1979) reported that seeded stands of tall, warm-season native grasses provided suitable nest cover for ring-necked pheasants in Iowa. High densities of dabbling duck nests, primarily blue-winged teal (Anas discors), have been recorded in planted native grasses at Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge at Lake Andes, South Dakota (Gary Zahm, personal communication).

Mixed-grass Prairie Native Grasses

The purpose of this section is to present guidelines for selecting certain species and varieties which should be used in converting cropland to seeded tallgrass and mixed-prairie grasslands in the transitional area (Major Land Resource Areas 53A, 53B, 55A, and 55B) where climate and soils impose increasingly greater limitations to grass establishment from east to west. Native forbs are an important part of natural grassland plant communities but they are not discussed because of the scarcity of commercial seed sources and high prices. Using high-quality prairie hay as a mulch or harvest and planting seed of adapted local native plants may add diversity to the stand. However, if the hay-mulch method is used, extreme caution should be used to prevent introduction of undesirable seeds.

Selected species of native grass found in the mixed-grass prairie region and varieties suitable for use in establishing seeded grasslands are described below.

Western wheatgrass is a perennial, sod-forming, native cool-season grass with drought resistance, winter hardiness, and adaptability to a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. "Rosanna" is the direct increase of a field collection from a native meadow northwest of Forsyth, Montana. Selected on the basis of seedling vigor, strong rhizomes, forage, and seed production, it was released by SCS. "Mandan 456" originated from a field collection made near Mandan, North Dakota. It was selected by SEA-AR, Mandan, North Dakota, for density, leafiness, and rust resistance but was not officially released. "Barton" originated from a native grassland near Heizer, Kansas. It is a strongly rhizomatous, leafy ecotype with superior forage production and disease resistance that was released cooperatively by Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the SCS, and SEA-AR.

Slender wheatgrass is a native, perennial, cool-season bunchgrass with good seedling vigor and tolerance to saline and alkaline soil conditions. It is relatively short-lived and less drought-resistant than western wheatgrass. "Primer" is an early-maturing, leafy, disease-resistant cultivar.

Thickspike wheatgrass (Agropyron dasystachyum) is a strongly rhizomatous, cool-season perennial native grass widely distributed throughout the northern Great Plains. "Critana," the direct increase of a field collection near Havre,Montana, was released by the SCS and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station.

Green needlegrass is a cool-season, drought-tolerant, native perennial bunchgrass adapted to a wide range of soil textures in the northern Great Plains. It provides good cover for dabbling duck nesting and is relatively easy to establish. Seed is available from commercially harvested native grasslands and "Lodorm" is a released variety. Lodorm was developed by recurrent selection for low seed dormancy from a collection made in a native grassland north of Bismarck, North Dakota. It was released cooperatively by Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Stations and SEA-AR.

Needle and thread is a cool-season native bunchgrass with long-barbed awns. It is widely distributed on silty, sandy, or gravelly sites. No suitable varieties are available for planting in the prairie pothole region.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is a weakly rhizomatous, native, warm-season perennial grass. It is a component in many upland grassland communities where it is most commonly found on poorly developed shallow soils, steep slopes, ridgetops, and sandhill areas. Seed of several released varieties is commercially available: "Pierre" is a composite of seed collected west of Pierre, South Dakota. Selected for vigor and leafiness, it was tested and informally released by SCS. "Killdeer' is an increase of seed collected from native grasslands in Bowman and Dunn counties, North Dakota, and was informally released by the USDA-SCS. Seed is commercially available. "Butte" was developed from native seed collection in Holt and Platte counties, Nebraska. It was released by Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station, SCS, and SEA-AR.

Blue grama is a winter hardy, low-growing, native, perennial warm-season grass with a basal type of growth that forms a densely tufted sod. Plant height at maturity ranges from 6 to 12 inches. It is adapted to a wide range of soil phases, but is most abundant on fine-textured rolling uplands. Because blue grama resists drought, it occupies drier sites throughout its range of adaptation. "Lovington," released by the New Mexico Agricultural Experiment Station and the SCS, is not adapted to the northern prairie pothole region. A wide range of ecotypes occur from north to south in the Great Plains. There are no varieties of blue grama recommended for use in the prairie pothole region. Seed harvested from natural grassland in the central and northern plains should be used.

Little bluestem is a native, perennial, warm-season bunchgrass with excellent drought tolerance and is widely distributed throughout the prairie pothole region. Plant height ranges from 24 to 48 inches. "Aldous" is a late-maturing variety from the Flint Hills area of Kansas that was released by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the SCS. It is moderately adapted to the southern portion of the prairie pothole region. "Blaze," developed from domestic collections from native prairie in Nebraska and Kansas, was selected for late maturity, leafiness, and seed production. Blaze was released by Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station and SEA-AR. The primary area of adaptation is central and eastern Nebraska. "Camper" was released by Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station and SEA-AR. The parent lines trace to domestic collections from native prairie sources in Nebraska and Kansas.

Prairie sandreed is a native, perennial, warm-season, strongly rhizomatous, drought-tolerant grass that is adapted to sandy soils. "Goshen" is the direct increase of a field collection made near Torrington, Wyoming. Released cooperatively by the SCS Plant Materials Center in Bridger, Montana, and the Montana and Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Stations.

Other Grasses

Reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) is a tall, coarse, sod-forming, cool-season perennial grass with strong rhizomes. It is adapted to fertile low and wet areas, and to muck and peak lands. It is relatively drought tolerant when grown on upland soils. However, unless heavily fertilized it becomes relatively unproductive of vegetation within a few years. Two varieties are suitable for use in the prairie pothole region: "Frontier," released by the Canada Department of Agriculture Research Station, Ottawa, and "Ioreed," released cooperatively by Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station and SCS from selected plant introduction and a domestic collection.


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