Prairie enhancement of cool-season grass stands
Can roadsides dominated by cool-season grasses be enhanced by direct seeding and frequent first year mowing? This simplified management technique would reduce costs associated with weed control and site preparation, increase simplicity in equipment and skill requirements, add flexibility in planting options, and improve pollinator/monarch habitat and water quality in roadsides at comparatively low cost.
We established three research sites testing native plant establishment with and without mowing in three different Iowa counties (Benton, Linn, Fayette) consisting of experiment plots paired with demonstration plantings. We used a diverse prairie seed mix with 71 species and standardized seeding rates for milkweed species. We conducted site-preparation by mowing and removing the duff layer in April 2017, then seeded using a no-till drill in late April. We conducted establishment mowing every three weeks from June 1- August 30.
Based on our first year of data:
- Most prairie species established poorly when seeded (no-till drilled) into established stands of non-native grasses
- Milkweed seedlings emerged at sufficient densities to create monarch habitat (> 0.6 plants/m2) with minimal site preparation (duff removal only) and no follow-up management, but it is still unknown whether that translates to adult milkweed establishment
- First year mowing does not reduce competition enough for sufficient native seedling establishment- initial herbicide is likely necessary
Building Multifunctional, Cost-effective Prairies
Many conservation programs are highly specified in their restoration objectives, and program design (enhance pollinators or halt surface erosion for example) may focus entirely on optimizing one ecological metric at the expense of others. Can multifunctional seed mixes be designed to meet many objectives at once, or is continuing single objective optimization the most effective conservation strategy? What is the most cost-effective way to do it?
We established a randomized complete block experiment testing seed mix designs typical in CRP plantings (grass to forb seeding rate ratios, site customization) with and without mowing in northeastern Iowa. We assessed an economy grass mix ($130/ac, 21 spp., 3:1 grass-to-forb seeding ratio), a diversity mix ($291/ac, 71 spp., 1:1 grass-to-forb), and the pollinator mix ($368/ac, 38 spp., 1:3 grass-to-forb). We conducted site-preparation by disking and cultivating the site and seeded using a no-till drill in late April 2015. We conducted establishment mowing three times during the first year, but did no other management afterwards.
Based on four years of data:
- Expensive, forb-dominated seed mixes produce high pollinator forage, but also have excessive bare ground and perennial weed cover
- Inexpensive, grass-dominated seed mixes produce high native cover and stem density, but little pollinator forage
- Diverse, moderately priced grass/forb balanced seed mixes produce floral resources comparable to forb-dominated mixes, and native cover and stem density comparable to grass dominated mixes with high cost-effectiveness
- Frequent first year mowing accelerated establishment, leading to more ecosystem functioning over a typical 10 year contract.
Reconstructing Cost-effective, Multifunctional Prairies on Dry Marginal Lands
Paired with incentive-based conservation programs, converting farmland on marginal soils to native perennial vegetation may represent a viable conservation land-use choice for many farm owners, but there is a need to better understand how site soils influence establishment outcomes and how seed mixes can be designed to be adaptive to those influences. How does seed mix design, specifically the effect of species habitat matching to soils, affect plant establishment, ecosystem function, and cost-effectiveness in dry marginal lands?
We established a small completely randomized experiment testing seed mix design (soil moisture customization) on dry (sandy) marginal lands. We assessed two mixes- a mix using species adapted to dry soils, and a mix using species adapted to medium soils (developed using the Tallgrass Prairie Seed Calculator, tallgrassprairieseedcalculator.com). We did minimal soil preparation, and seeded the experiment using a no-till drill in late November 2017.
Based on one year of data:
- Key prairie species establish well even in dry conditions. Native warm and cool season grasses establish well in marginal dry soil, along with important summer and fall flowering forbs.
- Seed mixes customized for dry soils result in more ecological functionality at similar price. Dry adapted forb species established better than their medium to wet soil counterparts, resulting in more functional groups present. The entire spring forb functional group was missing from the non-customized mix.
- Cost-effectiveness of native perennial vegetation comparable in productive vs marginal soils. Number of plants produced from one dollar of seed is similar for many native grass and forb species in medium and dry soils.