Restoring grasslands for wildlife requires a vision, plan, patience and hard work.
By Ben Beaman
Recently, in Michigan Out-Of-Doors, I’ve written about how grasslands can benefit wildlife on the property you manage and the need for periodic disturbance to keep grasslands from succeeding into brush and woodlands. This time, I’d like to take a step back and discuss restoring a grassland on your property because unless you’re lucky enough to have existing remnant or restored grasslands, you’ll have to start from scratch and make one.
But before we get into the restoration process, a quick primer on grasses is in order.
The basis of a grassland is, unsurprisingly, grass. But not all grass is created equal. Grasses are generally divided into two categories: cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses. Cool-season grasses do the bulk of their growing in the spring and fall but experience a bit of a lull in high summer. Warm-season grasses proliferate in the hottest parts of summer, but not so much the rest of the growing season. If your lawn is anything like mine, you likely need to mow at least weekly, if not more, in the spring and fall. But you might be able to stretch it to every other week in the summer. This is because your lawn consists of cool-season grasses. Both cool- and warm-season grasses benefit wildlife, but in different, complementary ways. Cool-season grasses provide better nesting cover because they form dense, fast-growing stands during the primary nesting season of most ground-nesting birds.
However, they tend to grow very thick, which makes it tough for newborn chicks to get around after hatching.
Additionally, snow knocks them down completely flat, providing almost no cover from the onset of winter until the following spring. Warm-season grasses grow in patches, or bunches, with space between each other for chicks and other small critters to get around. They also have thicker stems, which help them stand up to snow better than the cool season grasses.
But grasses aren’t the only thing in a healthy grassland.
Forbs, or broadleaved species, are also an important part of the ecosystem. Which kind of forbs you choose depends on which kinds of grasses you intend to plant. In general, warm-season mixes pair three or four species of grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and Sideoats grama) with several wildflower species like black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, gray-headed coneflower, bergamot, Lanceleaf coreopsis, oxeye sunflower, etc. Cool-season mixes generally contain two to three species of grass (timothy, redtop, and orchardgrass) with multiple legumes like clover, alfalfa, or birdsfoot trefoil.
Diverse mixes of plant species maximize the benefits of a stand for an array of wildlife species over time. Monocultures, or stands consisting of only one plant species, are generally avoided. There is, however, one exception to this rule: switchgrass. Switchgrass is an especially thick-stemmed warm-season grass often planted in a pure stand to provide dense, snow-resistant cover for pheasants, deer, and other resident wildlife needing a place to hide in the winter. It’s a great piece of the grassland habitat puzzle, but it should be a small percentage of your grassland acreage.
Moving on to restoring a grassland, the first thing you’ll need to do is select a site. The more open, the better. Woodlands are a poor candidate for grassland restoration because of how much work is required to remove large trees. Recently farmed fields are the best candidates, but fallow, weedy fields can be good options, too.
Either way, the first step is to control any unwanted vegetation currently at the site. If your site was farmed the year prior, a single application of glyphosate herbicide at a rate of 2 quarts per acre as soon as things start greening up in the spring is all the site prep you’ll need. But if you’re starting from a fallow field, it’s best to begin your efforts in the fall before you intend to plant, ideally in September or October.
If there is any brush on the site, you’ll want to address that first. Cut it down as low to the ground as possible and immediately coat the stump with glyphosate or triclopyr. After removing the brush, mow the entire site as low to the ground as possible. Two weeks after mowing, spray the entire site with two quarts per acre of glyphosate. At this point, your work is done until the spring. Once things begin greening up in April or May, respray the entire site with two quarts per acre of glyphosate. The herbicide is a necessary step that knocks unwanted, often aggressive plant species back long enough for your new grassland seedlings to germinate and establish.
After one herbicide treatment on farm fields, or two on fallow fields, your site is ready to plant. A no-till drill designed explicitly for planting grasses and wildflowers is the best option for planting. These are expensive implements, and in most cases, it doesn’t make financial sense for landowners to go out and buy one. Fortunately, many County Conservation Districts house, maintain and rent out these drills to landowners for a nominal fee. Call your conservation district to see if they have one.
And if they don’t, try your neighboring counties. Most will allow their drill to be used outside of their county for an additional, but still small, fee. And if none of your surrounding conservation districts have a drill, check with your local Pheasants Forever Chapter. Whoever you get the drill from can help you calibrate it to plant your desired seed mixes successfully. Planting should take place between early May and mid-July. If site conditions or weather prevent you from planting in this window, November/December plantings are a good option, too. Just ensure you treat with another glyphosate round in September to keep the weeds in check.
Cool-season grasses germinate and establish quite quickly.
Warm-season grass and wildflower mixes generally take three full growing seasons before they reach their potential, so don’t be alarmed if it seems like things aren’t growing in the first two years.
They usually are; it’s just mostly below-ground root growth. For this reason, it’s a good idea to mow warm-season sites a couple of times after planting that first growing season to keep the weeds from going to seed. Don’t worry, this won’t harm your seedlings.
Both warm-season and cool-season mixes are essential to grassland species, and it’s a good idea to incorporate areas of both into a grassland restoration plan if you have the acreage. If you have 40 acres to restore, I recommend you devote 25 acres to a diverse warm-season mix, 5 acres to pure switchgrass, and 10 acres to cool-season grasses. This habitat mosaic will have everything pheasants and other grassland species need to thrive year-round on your property.