Prairie From Ashes

Originally published in Farm Journal in 1993.

On a sun-soaked morning late in March a six foot wall of flame speeds across Charlie Erickson's Flying E Ranch in Missouri's Ozarks foothills, consuming much of the fuel in the prescribed burn's path and leaving behind a blackened waste.

From these ashes new life springs. Like the phoenix, thought dead, here the native prairie -- beaten back, tilled under, crowded out and generally abused -- is staging, with the guidance of human hands, a comeback.

This is more than an ecological victory. It's good business. The resurgent big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass is a low cost, low maintenance addition to Erickson's warm season grazing scheme that provides cattle pleasing, drought resistant pasture along with improved production.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to resuscitate the prairie is that it was there for the taking. The 70 acre portion of the Flying E's 1,200 acre spread (of which 800 acres are in active production) had been long neglected and was overgrown with scrub oak, sumac and blackberry briars. But underneath the canopy of this unproductive waste lay dormant the makings of green gold.

"The key is that people don't know what they have," said Steve Robbins, district agent for the Oregon County Soil Conservation Service. It was Robbins who, after a morning in the deer woods, saw the untapped potential Erickson's overlooked plot held and encouraged Erickson to undertake the long range experiment in prairie revival.

"The only rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb," Erickson said of the learning process this project has become. Restoration incentive programs exist in western counties of the state where the prairie was once more widespread and revitalization often requires nothing more than rest from active grazing and haying.

The Ozarks, by contrast, were in pre-settlement days a transitional zone between eastern forest and western grassland. Fewer conservation efforts, both public and private, have been undertaken in the Ozarks, making precedents for Erickson's work more scarce.

After three years of prescribed burning Erickson now has a viable stand -- constituted by two plants per square foot -- of native grasses. Only the residue debris of dead and dying junk growth keeps him from running any of his 450 head cow/calf Angus operation on the plot now. Next year's burn will eliminate much of this remaining litter and move the project into its final stages.

The annual springtime burning reduces competition from undesirable plants and has a liming effect on the soil. Further, the blackened ashes more effectively hold the sun's warmth in the ground, promoting early growth of prairie grasses.

To bulldoze the 20 plus years of scrub and sow native grass seed would have been at the cost of about $400 and 3 1/2 tons of soil erosion per acre, according to Robbins.

Erickson's patient approach is preferred.

"When rhizomes and roots are all there, it's easier and cheaper to revitalize than it is to reintroduce," said Steve Clubine, grasslands biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Revitalization "ends up taking about the same amount of time and the plants are stronger."

During summer months "when the cool season grasses begin to fade is when these native grasses really begin to shine," Clubine said. "They're very palatable to cattle and they increase production."

Erickson has Caucasian bluestem pasture and will use his native grasses in a rotation to reduce grazing stress on the warm season import. And though Caucasian produces up to seven tons per acre to the native grasses' three tons, the disparity is mitigated by factors of maintenance, productivity, cattle preference and drought resistance.

The Caucasian cost Erickson about $100 per acre to establish and requires periodic fertilization to maintain yields. The native grasses are already in place and require only the time and effort of carrying out the prescribed burns. The lower native yields Robbins predicts are based on no fertilization, which little bluestem does not respond to.

Conservation Department grazing trials for southern Missouri show average daily weight gain of 1.7 pounds for cattle on big bluestem as opposed to 1.3 pounds grazing Caucasian.  Erickson reports higher production off both.  Clubine also predicts higher conception rates for cows feeding on the natives versus cool‑season grasses.

In addition to greater productivity, the prairie plants are what cattle like.

"By preference, cattle will definitely seek (native grasses) out," Clubine said.

And it's not just the grasses.  Part and parcel to prairie restoration are the plants indigenous to that ecosystem.  Leadplant, Illinois bundleflower, slender lespedeza and roundhead lespedeza are among the prairie forbs and legumes that Clubine describes as "ice cream plants to cattle."

In periods of drought the natives fare better.  Robbins says the big and little bluestem require only half as much water as cool‑season grasses to produce the same dry‑matter tonnage.  Native grasses adapt to dry prairie conditions by sending root systems deep into the soil, up to 10 feet down for big bluestem.

Once the prairie fully reasserts itself Erickson will have to follow the different management required of the native  grasses.  Big and little bluestem can only be grazed to eight inches before they become stressed, as opposed to the three inches Caucasian will tolerate.  Prescribed burning will be required only every three years or so.

It seems small accommodation to a productive environment that waited patiently for so many years for just the opportunity to reclaim its rightful range.