This article is intended to address the variety of questions we receive related to establishing, re-establishing and maintaining grass-based plantings for grazing, hay, wildlife and recreation.
Of primary importance is to ask a few key questions: “What is it that I want my grassland to provide?”, “What am I willing to invest?” and, similarly, “What is the timeframe that I expect results?”
For starters, we will consider the first question. There are major differences in what can be achieved in grassland projects based on the history of the land and its management.
Native (unbroken) sod in the form of grazing pastures or prairie areas has certain characteristics and potentials that planted or tame grasslands do not. However, there is great variability within the native sod category regarding historical use and management, which may include various grazing, haying, chemical, fire or other management techniques.
Past management often drives the direction of the plant community itself, impacting plant health and variety depending on the action. Therefore, what native sod can provide in relation to desired goals, such as annual production or plant diversity, can sometimes be achieved, sometimes not, and it is often dependent on whether the plant community has been “simplified” through invasion of exotic species, past management, or both.
In general, native sod that is not performing to its potential should be regarded as something to be healed through well-timed actions that focus on the plant community, rather than something to be “fixed” through mechanical soil manipulations.
If the grassland is not native sod and is currently tame species or “go-back” grass that has revegetated on its own, one still must consider past management.
The potential of what the grassland can provide will be based largely on the species (native and non-native) that are now established. In these areas, there is often more opportunity to actively change the plant community through various manipulations than on native sod.
If the area of concern is currently managed for row crops, cover crops, hay, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or some other cover, the opportunity to quickly establish or re-establish a desirable community is possible. However, past management in relation to soil conditions and residual chemicals can have a dramatic impact on establishment of new vegetation.
How much one should invest to change a grassland plant community can be a challenging question. Input costs for soil preparation, seeding and maintenance can be highly variable.
One must first consider a strategy to ensure the soil is ready to receive the new plants. Profit potential can also be highly variable and is directly related to initial and ongoing input expenses. We suggest seeking out a successful mentor before investing in grassland renovation or re-establishment projects.