South Dakota grass seeding project a success

Ducks Unlimited creates grazing land by restoring grassland to Buffalo County marginal cropland

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The South Dakota grass restoration project involved seeding a mix of native grasses and forbs.

By Randy Meidinger

It was mid-May in eastern South Dakota. In any direction you looked, you could see towering columns of dust in the distance from farmers driving tractors in fields to seed wheat into the parched soil, with high hopes of soon getting some much needed rain. Similarly, a smaller cloud of dust hanging behind the grass drill being towed across the field of soybean stubble was an indication of just how dry top soil conditions were across much of eastern South Dakota this early spring. I too had my fingers crossed for timely rains, not only to help the area farmers’ wheat crop get off to a good start, but also to ensure the native grasses and forbs that were being seeded in this field received adequate moisture to germinate quickly enough to get a competitive edge on any weeds that would soon be emerging.

The parcel of land to which I am referring (called the Gricus Property by DU) is a 480-acre tract of land in northeastern Buffalo County Ducks Unlimited purchased from a private landowner as part of the DU’s Revolving Habitat Program. The property has 305 cropland acres, with the balance being seasonal to semi-permanent wetlands and a small remnant piece of native prairie grassland. The land was very recently converted from virgin native prairie sod to cropland.

DU’s conservation plan for this property was to seed these marginally productive cropland acres back to a diverse stand of native grasses and forbs so the land could provide secure nesting and brooding habitat for ducks, grouse, prairie chickens, pheasants, and a host of songbirds and other prairie wildlife. The plan also included provisions for grazing so the land once again could provide area ranchers productive grasslands on which their livestock could graze. This DU property is located in a landscape dominated by large blocks of contiguous grasslands and lies immediately adjacent to the 720-acre Mills Waterfowl Production Area.

The restoration plan included working with the local NRCS field office to develop a comprehensive restoration plan that would include water development and cross fencing to facilitate a rotational grazing system. We also formulated a diverse native grass and forb seed mix that would benefit wildlife, livestock, and many of the declining pollinator species in the region. The seeding mix included ten native grasses and more than a dozen different forb species that normally flower at different overlapping times throughout the year to ensure flowers are available to different pollinator species at any given time during the growing season. The Brule-Buffalo Conservation District planted the grass early this spring, and the development of livestock water and installation of cross fences is planned to be completed by next summer. The land has been perpetually protected from being cropped again. Once the restoration plan is finished, DU will sell this property, likely back into private ownership.

Upon revisiting the seeded field in late July I discovered that the clouds of dust had indeed settled due to timely spring and summer rains, which resulted in a high germination rate of the grasses and forbs that were seeded just a few short months ago. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how many of the different forbs had already flowered and were benefiting the pollinator species in the area. In fact, during my 30-minute walk through the newly seeded field I counted over a dozen different butterfly species, saw nearly a half-dozen different kinds of dragonflies and saw both bumble bees and honey bees energetically flying from flower to flower. The additional songbirds, pheasants and grouse I saw and heard during my short visit gave me peace of mind, knowing this former piece of cropland was well on its way to being a healthy functioning grassland community once again.