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.