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The Multiple Uses of Prairie as a Crop on Marginal Land

The Wilds, a conservation center on nearly 10,000 acres of previously surface mined land, received a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for a project demonstrating the multiple uses of prairie for farmers and landowners on marginal land.

They demonstrated four uses, including: 

  1. use as drought tolerant forage for livestock,
  2. habitat for wildlife including grassland birds, pollinators and small mammals,
  3. production of biomass for hay or biofuels and
  4. soil improvement while sequestering carbon. 
Prairie Agriculture Demonstration site on 60 acres at The Wilds

Figure 1. Prairie Agriculture Demonstration site on 60 acres at the Wilds in July 2013

The well-established prairie, planted in June 2011, includes 19 species from the original seed mix as well as several volunteer species. In order to demonstrate the use of prairie as warm season forage, they introduced bison to graze on the demonstration site early in the summer of 2013.  Several summer interns monitored the bison’s grazing behavior and weight changes, as well as forage nutrition.  The three years of monitoring data collected on the vegetation, wildlife and soil will help people better understand how to use prairie on marginal land.

Bison introduced into the Prairie Agriculture Demonstration site at the Wilds
Figure 2. Five bison heifers were introduced into the Prairie Agriculture Demonstration site at the Wilds in June 2013 to assess the potential of prairie species as forage.


The benefits of prairie that apply to remnant and restored habitats also apply to prairie established on highly disturbed and degraded land.  They established the prairie on land with only a few inches of topsoil and a non-native seed bank. This prairie survived the seven week drought last year (2012) while still demonstrating the uses mentioned above.

Results from monitoring showed the prairie provided habitat for several species of small mammal including the least weasel, as well as endangered bird species including the bobolink. Additionally, they observed an average of 22 families of arthropods in their 10x10m monitoring plots.  When the diversity of prairie plant species increases we noticed a parallel increase in butterfly species. 

The Wilds staff are in the process of conducting a life cycle analysis to help determine the most sustainable ways to establish and manage prairie for greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Later this year (2013) they plan to harvest the 60 acre site and determine biomass yield for production of biofuels.

On Saturday September 7th the Wilds hosted a third workshop on use of prairie.  Staff from the Wilds, NRCS conservationists, and collaborating researchers discussed the progress of the Prairie Agriculture Demonstration project to date, covering the benefits of grazing on warm season grasses, the potential of prairie for use as biofuels, and wildlife benefits.  Demonstrations included no-till drill use, mob grazing using temporary fencing, calculating forage production and stocking rates, native warm season grasses and forbs ID, and the making of fuel briquettes from grasses. Workshop participants visited a 9 year-old prairie, the 60 acre demonstration site, and a bison pasture at the Wilds

Since it takes three years to establish a prairie, they consider much of what they’ve learned this far to be preliminary findings. Their goal is to build on their accomplishments to date by continuing long-term monitoring and demonstrations, while taking a closer look at the potential of prairie to provide feedstock for biofuels, a means for carbon sequestration, and comparing the effects of different grazing management plans on wildlife.

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