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Native Prairie: Establishment & Management of Native Prairie

Where to plant a prairie

Selecting the proper site can be critical in establishing native prairie reconstructions. Key considerations for selecting a prairie site are:

  • good weed control
  • no noxious weeds
  • existing weed competition
  • herbicide carryover
  • soil type
Native Prairie

Weed control prior to planting is critical. Cropped sites that have good weed control often work best.

Controlling existing cool season perennial vegetation is essential to successful native prairie reconstructions.

In the fall prior to planting: chemically kill the existing vegetation or till the vegetation to destroy the existing cover.

Selecting the seeding mixture

Prairie reconstruction should be customized to meet landowner objectives. A minimum of five species of native grasses and 10 species of native forbs or legumes should be used. Mixtures may be developed using NRCS"s conservation cover standard. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Develop all mixtures based on pure live seed.
  • Seed must be cleaned and weed free.
  • Exclude or keep aggressive grasses like switchgrass or other aggressive cultivars to a minimum.
  • Consider soil types when selecting mixture.
  • If the site is within one mile of an existing native prairie —not a restored prairie — local ecotypes are recommended.
  • Select species that meet the moisture regime of the site (D-Dry, DM-Dry Mesic, M-Mesic, MW-Mesic Wet, W-Wet).
  • Select species that meet the habitat preference for the site (P-Prairie, S-Savanna, W-Woodland).
  • Select a variety of species that offer some flowering throughout the growing season to provide insects for wildlife food source.

Establishment of prairie plants

Seedbed preparation

Prepare a firm seedbed for all planting methods. If the seedbed is to be tilled:

  • Prepare a fine firm seedbed at least 3 inches deep.
  • Cultipack before and after seeding. This is critical for seeding establishment.
  • Do not use heavy drills to seed on conventionally tilled seedbeds. Heavy drills tend to sink into the soil and it's very hard to control seed depth.
  • Plant seed no more than one-quarter inch deep; some seed may be seen on the surface after seeding.

Tillage makes sites prone to erosion and should only be used on flatter slopes or in conjunction with erosion protection measures such as cover crops or mulching.

  • No-till drilling reduces the exposure of the newly seeded site to erosion and offers good seed-to-soil contact. No-till planting:
  • Works best on areas that were previously in row crop and have a firm seedbed.
  • Select a drill that can handle low seeding rates and a wide variety of seed (fluffy, smooth, large, small).
  • Plant seed no more than one-quarter inch deep; some seed may be seen on the surface after seeding.
  • Control existing vegetation and weeds with herbicide, such as glyposate.

If you decide to no-till into existing sod, take extra precautions to assure a good seedbed. Land in grass for many years usually has a thick residue layer on the soil surface. This residue should be removed, if possible for best seedbed preparation. Remove residue by grazing, burning, mowing and removing the residue, or using conventional fall tillage and preparing a firm seedbed.

Preparation for no-till

It is best to mow the vegetation in late summer. Two to four weeks after mowing, a burn-down herbicide should be applied to emergent growth. This prepares the seedbed for no-tilling the following spring. Another herbicide treatment may be needed in the spring, depending on plant growth. A controlled or prescribed burn may be a good way to remove accumulated plant litter prior to seeding. NRCS staff can help you develop a prescribed burn plan.

Cover crops are not generally recommended for warm season grass seedings. However, when seedbed preparation is conducted during the year previous to seeding, Sudangrass or oats may be seeded as a temporary cover. Both crops will winter kill and the prairie seeds can be drilled directly into this crop residue. Seed sudangrass at 25 pounds per acre or oats at 1 bushel per acre.

Establishment of prairie plants

Native Prairie

Seeding

Spring is the traditional time to seed plants and seeding can be quite successful at that time.

Here is a general guide for seeding dates:

Type of Seeding Native Species
Spring April 1 - July 1
Dormant Nov. 15 - freeze-up
Frost Feb. 1 - March 15
Seeding dates may be extended up to two weeks when moisture conditions are favorable. Check with local district conservationists if you are considering seeding at another time.
  • Spring seedings will favor warm season grasses over forbs, unless forb seed has already been stratified. Place seeds in moist sand at a temperatures between 32 and 41 degrees for two to four months to stratify.
  • Late dormant seedings offer an excellent opportunity to establish a diverse stand. Dormant seedings tend to favor forbs and there is less competition with other planting activities. Dormant seeding exposes seed to predation by wildlife. Seed late enough that the seed will not germinate in the fall.

Small, smooth seeds readily frost-seed into the soil and stratification is assured.

Mowing for weed control

To manage weed competition and keep the amount of material from laying on new seedlings and smothering them, mow when weeds are a few inches above the seedling height. Mowing height should be just above the new native seedling or no closer than 8 inches. Mow early before the weeds have a chance to smother out the natives and about every two weeks throughout the first growing season to keep competitors from shading young plants.

Chemical weed control

Three herbicides, Atrazine, Pursuit*, and Plateau* are labeled for limited use on native seedings. Atrazine and Pursuit generally work with certain grasses only. Plateau is labeled for grasses, some forbs and legumes. Refer to product label for specific application information.

*NRCS does not endorse the use of any product. At the time of printing, these products were the only products staff were aware of. There may be other products available. Check labels for specific uses.

Maintaining fertility

Fertilizing is not recommended for establishing native prairie plantings. However, if the stand appears inadequate after two years consider soil testing to determine if fertility is lacking.

Controlling weeds

Post-planting weed control requires prompt attention on all sites during the establishment year.

  • Inspect the planting every two to four weeks for weed pressure.
  • Light infestations of foxtail or broad-leaved weeds during the establishment year are generally not considered to be a problem.
  • Severe infestations of noxious or highly competitive weeds may require spot spraying. A broadcast herbicide, like Pursuit, is available to control weeds in some prairie reconstruction planting. Mowing, spot spraying and burning are the other feasible alternatives.  

Establishment period 

 

  • Controlling competition is important when establishing native prairies. Weeds should be controlled chemically or by mowing. It is important to mow early and often to assure adequate control and to not smother young seedlings.

After establishment:

  • Evaluate the stand to determine if mowing for weed control is necessary. If it is, mow just above new seedling height or about 8 inches.
  • If there is enough material for a spring burn, burning may be used for weed control. Spring burns will tend to encourage warm season species and work well to control cool season plants. Burn in the spring when the cool season plants are growing and the warm season plants are barely starting to grow. Usually late April or early May works best.

Evaluating the prairie stand

It may be hard to determine if the prairie reconstruction is successful, particularly during the seeding year. If, during the seeding year, a prairie seeding has more than 0.25 seeded plants per square foot, it should be considered a success. It may take 2-5 years for a planting to be fully adequate. Be patient.

Managing the established prairie

Established prairies may need management treatments for a variety of reasons. Most important is the removal of accumulated plant litter which can impede light and moisture penetration. Exposing growth points to sunlight and recycling nutrients tied up in old growth, as in a prescribed burn, generally stimulates vigorous new growth.

Controlling woody plants or invasive weed species, which can overrun a planting, is critical. Properly timed management, especially a properly timed burn, can stimulate tillering in new plantings, accelerating the establishment of newly seeded native grasses.

A burn in the spring of the second or third year after planting is strongly recommended. Fire management reduces the risk of large and potentially damaging wildfires by removing accumulations of old growth. Burn timing and frequency will impact the species that are present on the site. For longevity of the site, burning should be conducted periodically, every two to five years.

NRCS will help you develop a burn plan. A minimum 30 foot strip of cool season grass around a prairie site is recommended as a fire break and part of a burn plan.