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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

by Rex Gogerty of Hubbard, IA

A once-endangered species, my private prairie, may hold the key to a new agricultural era.

Corn is no longer king in Iowa. It’s still our high-value crop; but even more traditional plants are now attracting attention among Corn Belt farmers. The new interest in old crops has been generated largely by the economy and the environment. A burdensome corn surplus, coupled with growing concern over groundwater pollution, has focused farmers’ attention on legumes and grass.

Alfalfa and oats, for example, have come back to the farm after being crowded out by corn-soybean Florida cropping rotations. This year 70 million acres nationwide are seeded to grass and legumes for periods of up to 10 years. Farmer compliance with these programs has given wildlife and soil conservation a much-needed boost. The forage revolution also has revived the use of many native prairie grasses. Switchgrass and bluestem are now plugging mid-summer pasture gaps for many profit-conscious beef producers. They are finding warm-season grasses provide lush pasture when brome and bluegrass wither under the July sun.

This comeback for grass farming has been like a prophecy fulfilled. Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” The prairie patch seemed to take up the best corn ground during the high-roller crop years. Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

The 4-acre field tucked away in the corner of the farm is a retreat and recreation area for the Gogertys as well as local prairie buffs of all ages. School groups find the mat of grama grass and coneflowers a surprising switch from the well-clipped turfs of parks and playgrounds. For them, it’s dramatic, intriguing and a bit scary. Indiangrass that is head-high on a seven year old has a rustle of history that makes it easy to paint word pictures of life on the land a century ago. Children have a good imagination anyway, and a few reminders of buffalo grazing from here to Montana and Texas generates images kids can’t get on television.

The prairie also is a popular stop for college students and other young people who are beginning to grasp the value of natural food production. Like a growing number of soil scientists, they are finding the self-enriching grassland is a showcase for low-input agriculture. Neighboring farmers now regard the virgin prairie as more than a marginal hay field. One reason is their concern about ground-water pollution from widespread use of agricultural chemicals. As one neighbor put it when he sank a probe into the pliable four feet of topsoil, “They’re just not making soil like that anymore; maybe we’d better take another look at how we’re handling the land.”

Prairie soil owes some of its productivity to abundant organic matter, a network of plant roots, and an army of earthworms. The soil is naturally aerated, fertile, and devoid of man-made pollutants. For farmers who are following a groundswell of natural agriculture, virgin prairie provides a technology touchstone, a chance to see the unblemished and unsurpassed food source.

Scientists say these prairie soils reveal microbial mysteries and suggest guidelines for non-chemical agriculture. Agronomists have discovered the sod mat serves as an excellent filter and dust catcher. The vigorous growth eliminates erosion and builds up organic matter. A 4-inch deep sod mat, for instance, may contain more than a ton of nitrogen per acre. Plant breeders are finding a surprising amount of disease and insect resistance as well as palatability and nutrition in some native grass species.

By far the biggest return from the prairie patch has been to the Gogerty family. Nephew Jack, who grows corn and soybeans up to the edge of the prairie plot, has become its informal overseer. He burns the heavy residue cover in early spring to discourage tree sprouts, and also to measure the rejuvenating effect of prairie fires that swept through the same fields when my great grandfather homesteaded here in the 1850s. Some scientists contend fire cleansed the mat and returned nitrogen and phosphorus in the form of ashes.

Jack also evaluates and identifies flowers and grasses as well as wildlife in the agricultural oasis. Last year he noted the constant presence of a doe and her twin fawn during the entire season. The mini-preserve also harbors a variety of smaller animals ranging from muskrats in two old buffalo wallows to increasing populations of pheasants, partridges, and other upland game birds. Rabbits, gophers, field mice, and other small species abound, while meadow lark and killdeer find a weatherproof nest in the luxuriant prairie mat. Finches and blackbirds find an equally sturdy shelter in willowy sunflowers.

The prairie is not only a refuge for wildlife and a laboratory for research, but a backyard retreat for my family. July and August are prime time for walking through the pristine world that is just a few steps from pampered rows of corn and soybeans. In comparison, the prairie appears unkempt, with a tangle of bluestem and Black-eyed Susans. But to a child, it is a head-high source of wonder and beauty. The switchgrass has a coarse texture, while thickspike gayfeather and prairie clover petals have a smell and feel unlike any found in gardens or parks.

Kids are less interested in the prairie’s botany than in its beauty and atmosphere. It requires some coaching, but a child soon learns the uniqueness of pitcher sage or prairie phlox. Almost every time one of my grandchildren and I walk to the prairie, we find a new flower or plant among the 200 or more species that thrive here. They range from the dramatic blazing star to the delicate dropseed. Discovering a new butterfly or songbird adds excitement to our hike, and catching sight of a fawn or young jackrabbit tops off any trip.

The prairie also is an ideal setting to recount stories of sod houses and prairie fires that were told to me by my grandfather. Prairie chickens and whooping cranes were here then. But many times the prairie needs no narration. In the still of a July evening, a child — or grownup with an active imagination — can hear the creak of Conestoga wagons or see the outline of grazing buffalo. A meager collection of arrowheads assures us that Indians once camped here and enjoyed the beauty and fragrance of purple cone flower.

There’s always a sense of nostalgia, of course. The prairie that once extended from horizon to horizon has been replaced by orderly fields and farmsteads. A productive environment that required 10,000 years to make has been turned under except for a few preserves. The good news is the revival of prairie culture. Bluestem switchgrass and other native species are being used to establish millions of acres of grazing land. Prairie enthusiasts can buy up to 200 different grass and flower species to seed their own native prairie.

A growing number of farmers and researchers are using the prairie as a pattern for farming with fewer chemicals. And most important of all, we are learning the value of this crop that once covered one-third of the country. And as for the Gogerty prairie patch… It will remain the exotic crop among newcomers such as corn, soybeans, and oats. I’m convinced the prairie laboratory is just beginning to reveal many invaluable secrets to lead us to natural and self-sustaining farming practices.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Spotlight On: Equipment & Facilities

Barbed Wire History and Varieties

Book Excerpt: The invention of barb wire was the most important event in the solution of the fence problem. The question of providing fencing material had become serious, even in the timbered portions of the country, while the great prairie region was almost wholly without resource, save the slow and expensive process of hedging. At this juncture came barb wire, which was at once seen to make a cheap, effective, and durable fence, rapidly built and easily moved.

A Step Back in Time with the Barron Tree Planter

A Step Back in Time with the Barron Tree Planter

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The 18th century saw a tremendous interest in landscaping private parkland on a grand scale with the movement of entire hills and mature trees, all by man and horse power, to fulfill the designs of celebrated gardeners such as Capability Brown. In the mid 1800s the movement of mature trees was revolutionised by the introduction of the Barron tree transplanter. The first planter was designed and built by Barron for the transplantation of maturing trees at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire.

Barn Raising

Barn Raising

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Here it was like a beehive with too many fuzzy cheeked teen-agers who couldn’t possibly be experienced enough to be of much help. But work was being accomplished; bents, end walls and partitions were being assembled like magic and raised into place with well-coordinated, effortless ease and precision. No tempers were flaring, no egomaniacs were trying to steal the show, and there was not the usual ten percent doing ninety percent of the work.

Farm Drum 26 John Deere Grain Binders

Farm Drum #26: John Deere Grain Binders

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Friend and Auctioneer Dennis Turmon told us about a couple of John Deere Grain Binders he has in an upcoming auction, and we couldn’t wait to take a look. On a blustery Central Oregon day (sorry about the wind noise), Lynn takes us on a guided tour of the PTO and Ground-Drive versions of this important implement.

Pferdestarke

German Version of Horse Progress Days: Pferdestark

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There is a rather neat phrase in German – ‘wenn schon, denn schon’ – which literally translates as ‘enough already, then already;’ but what it actually means is ‘if a something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That would be a fitting description of Pferdestark, the German version of Horse Progress Days. For sheer variety of different breeds of draught horses, regional and national harness styles, or for that matter, languages or hats, it would be hard to beat Pferdestark.

LittleField Notes Mower Notes

LittleField Notes: Mower Notes

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The horse drawn mowing machine is a marvel of engineering. Imagine a pair of horses turning the energy of their walking into a reciprocal cutting motion able to drop acres of forage at a time without ever burning a drop of fossil fuel. And then consider that the forage being cut will fuel the horses that will in turn cut next year’s crop. What a beautiful concept! Since I’ve been mowing some everyday I’ve had lots of time to think about the workings of these marvelous machines.

The Use and Construction of Home Made Implements

The Use and Construction of Home Made Implements

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It is now possible to purchase a make of machine to suit almost any condition if the money is available. There is no doubt that eventually they will be quite generally used. However, the dry farmers are at present hard pressed financially and in many instances the purchase of very much machinery is out of the question. For the man of small means or limited acreage, a homemade implement may be utilized at least temporarily.

Eggs & Their Care

Eggs & Their Care

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Egg quality is the combined elements of an egg which increase the market value to the producer, the keeping qualities to the distributors, and the nutritive and eye-appeal value to the consumer.

New Horsedrawn Minimum Till Seed Drill

New Horsedrawn Minimum Till Seed Drill

The physico-chemical degradation of the soils world-wide by so-called “conventional” farming methods is considered as one of the major problems for the world’s food supply in the coming decades. Organic farming systems, refraining from the use of genetic engineering and chemically-synthesized sprays and fertilizers, can help resolve this situation. However, a better protection of the soil is also closely linked to agricultural engineering. By that, minimum tillage or no-till seeding is gaining popularity among tractor farmers around the world.

Champion No.4 Mower Reaper

The Champion No. 4 Combined Mower and Self-Raking Reaper

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The project for the winter of 2010 was a Champion No. 4 mower made sometime around 1878 by the Champion Machine Works of Springfield, Ohio. The machine was designed primarily as a mower yet for an additional charge a reaping attachment could be added. The mower was in remarkably good condition for its age. After cleaning dirt from gears and oiling, we put the machine on blocks and found that none of the parts were frozen and everything moved.

McD Lime Spreader

Parts lists and illustrations are included in this comprehensive overview

John Deere Model A Tractor

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Your John Deere Tractor has a range of speeds. These various speeds not only give you the flexibility and adaptability you want, but also they enable you to balance the load and the speed for maximum economy. However, if you are handling a light load and want to travel at slow speed, it is far better to put your tractor into the gear which gives you the speed you want than to use a higher gear and throttle down.

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden Part 2

Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden Part 2

Within the context of the market garden, the principal aim for utilizing the moldboard is to initiate the process of creating a friable zone for the root systems of direct-seeded or transplanted cash crops to establish themselves in, where they will have sufficient access to all the plant nutrients, air, and moisture they require to bear successful fruits. To this end, it is critical for good plant growth to render the soil into a fine-textured crumbly condition and to ensure there is no compaction within the root zone.

Portable Poultry

Portable Poultry

An important feature of the range shelter described in this circular is that it is portable. Two men by inserting 2x4s through the holes located just below the roost supports and next to the center uprights can easily pick up and move it from one location to another. Frequent moving of the shelter prevents excessive accumulation of droppings in its vicinity which are a menace to the health of the birds. Better use will be made by the birds of the natural green feed produced on the range if the houses are moved often.

New Idea Manure Spreaders

New Idea Manure Spreaders

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There is no fixed method of loading. The best results are usually obtained by starting to load at the front end, especially in long straw manure. To get good results do not pile any manure into the cylinders. The height of the load depends upon the condition of the manure, the condition and nature of the field. Do not put on extra side boards. Be satisfied with the capacity of the machine and do not abuse it. Overloading will be the cause of loss of time sooner or later.

Disc Harrow Requirements

Disc Harrow Requirements

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One of the most important requirements is disc blade concavity, that is, correct concavity. Further along we set forth the purposes of disc concavity. We feel it is important enough to devote the extra time and words in a discussion of the subject, because seldom is disc concavity talked about, and very few know that there is difference enough to cause good and bad work.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

Ask A Teamster: Tongue Length

My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.

Cultivating Questions The Cost of Working Horses

Cultivating Questions: The Cost of Working Horses

Thanks to the many resources available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT