Conservation Crowdsourced

Back in the 1940s the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) was called the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and as a young beginning farmer my dad was using that as an information source. For example, we’ve got a file folder with a five-year crop rotation plan that’s a stark contrast to the two-year corn and beans rotation that is the current convention. He also grew and harvested brome seed as a part of the SCS involvement. There’s a family story of Dad turning brome seed by hand as it dried on the cement floor of the Sheep Shed. But, ideas and information sources evolve through time.

The smooth brome did a good job of suppressing weeds in the Creek pasture and it provided excellent fodder for cattle. The pasture is still dominated by tall smooth brome with Kentucky bluegrass as the understory close to the ground. The left photo shows new growth in a paddock recovering from grazing and the right one shows mature, ripe brome in a paddock not grazed this year. The cattle prefer the tender new growth as they’re rotated from paddock to paddock. However, the stiff stalks of the ripe brome can jab them in the face and cause eye infections.

We do have paddocks seeded to warm season grasses, but we’d like to diversify some areas from dominant brome to include native cool season grasses and other native plants. This is the seed tag from a commercial mix that I tried to frost seed by hand earlier this year. It would provide diversity because it had dominantly wild rye in it’s four main grasses plus about forty other species, including half a dozen plants that are found on one of the native prairie remnants that we’ve identified in the pasture. Problem is, it’s hard to see that anything really grew in part because a lot of the species are not easy to identify….at least for me. Also, I just had to take what was available in the commercial mix that only had a few species overlapping with the native plants we knew grew in the pasture.

And, THAT’S where the crowdsourcing comes in! I posted a question in a Face Book Group asking for suggestions on cool season grasses to replace brome and I hit a bonanza of information! Nine different people responded with the names of eight specific plant species and half of them were on our list from the native prairie remnant. That’s an important consideration because it demonstrates that those are species included in the existing indigenous seed bank in the pasture. It’s like a test of whether to include a specific species. What’s more, three of the respondents suggested wild rye grass that was also the dominant component of the commercial seed mix. Although rye is not currently on the list of plants in the prairie remnant, it already does play a significant role in one of our renter’s operation.

Growing, harvesting, and marketing rye for cover crop seed is one of the new enterprises that our renter has started. The photo on the left is a seeder specifically designed to plant rye for a cover crop. As a good cover crop, rye keeps roots in the ground to reduce erosion and increase soil health. In addition, combined with radishes and turnips, rye is a second crop that can be planted after beans have been combined or corn has been chopped; that mix is good for cattle grazing. But, wait! There’s more! If it’s not grazed, the more mature rye can be chopped for silage and fed away from the field. The photo on the right shows silage piled, waiting to be hauled away. AND, it turns out that rye can be the main component of a mix of cool season grasses used to increase diversity in the brome-dominated pasture.

Here’s some final information about the Face Book Group that provided the crowdsourcing. Although it’s called the “Minnesota Prairie Landowner Network”, the information generally has application in the tall grass prairie in adjacent states. I think that it just got started this year, so it’s a relatively new outfit and maybe that’s why I got such timely and useful input. There are about 275 members from diverse backgrounds including landowners, agency experts, nonprofit staff, and people who seem mainly just interested in prairie environments. The posts tend to be a lot of wild flower pictures and discussions about prairie restoration. But, if the responses to my initial inquiry are any indication, there’s plenty of information shared that relates to regenerative agriculture in a working landscape and that can be a help for folks who are actually farming the land.

About Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek

Recovering academic, earth scientist in phased retirement, farm manager by default, son, husband, father, grandfather.
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