Warm Season Grasses for Wildlife
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There are 4 areas of consideration when dealing with solutions: acreages, Farm Ponds, Shelter Belts and Yards.
Wildlife habitat in basic terms means a home for wildlife. Like ourselves, wildlife has specific needs which must be met for them to survive. Each different species of upland game, for example, requires its own specific type of food; medium dense cover for nesting, roosting, loafing, and brood rearing; and heavy cover for severe weather protection. To effectively provide habitat
for wildlife, we must provide each of these requirements in close proximity to each other in order to satisfy a particular species needs.
This article will focus on one individual habitat type - the native warm season grasses. Basic information will be provided on how certain wildlife species utilize the warm-season grasses, as well as how you can go about getting your own native warm-season grassland established.
In simple terms, the native warm-season grasses can be defined as the prairie grasses of the plains states that make all or most of their growth in the late spring and summer of the year. Representative species in this group would include big bluestem, Indiangrass, sideoats grama, and buffalograss.
The wildlife benefits of a native warm-season grassland for pheasants and quail are impressive. Along with the obvious benefits of nesting, roosting, and loafing cover, the warm-season grasses provide a degree of winter cover when little or no snow cover exists. Few if any other grasses have such a wide range of benefits, but the benefits do not stop there. From the landowner's viewpoint, the nearly maintenance and disease free characteristics of the native grasses are highly desirable by themselves, but when you add the drought resistance and aesthetic qualities that they possess, it's quite clear that a native warm-season grassland is hard to beat.
When determining where and how large an area should be seeded to warm-season grasses, you must first look at the specific area that you wish to improve for wildlife. Keeping in mind the need for food and winter cover, along with the nesting cover, lay out the area in an integrated pattern of warm and cool season grasses, tree rows, and row crop, if feasible, for optimum wildlife benefits. If row crop is not feasible in your particular case, work with just the grass seedings and tree plantings. Many species of wildlife are capable of traveling long distances for food daily if all other habitat needs are met.
The actual seeding process can be broken down into the following four workable steps: seed selection, ground preparation, seeding and weed control.
A seed mixture of one pound big bluestem, one pound little bluestem, one pound Indiangrass, one pound sideoats grama, and one half pound of switchgrass per acre has been seeded extensively on state wildlife areas in the southeast part of the state with excellent success. Your local county extension agent can provide you with information on specific varieties and local seed sources in your immediate area of the state. The addition of two pounds of alfalfa and two pounds of red clover per acre would
greatly improve the nesting capability of your grassland. For those of you that want to keep your native prairie truly "native," substitute native wildflowers for the legume mix. Seed for some of the wildflowers can be purchased commercially, while others must be collected by hand from virgin prairie tracts.
It is essential to adequately control all competing vegetation before attempting to establish the grassland. Adequate weed control before and after seeding will in most cases dictate the success or failure of the seeding. This can be accomplished in two ways:
- By spring plowing followed by at least two diskings at 3 to 4-week Ihtervals to eliminate germinating weed seed, or
- planting the field to an annual grain crop of milo or soybeans the year prior to grass seeding and then disking in the spring as in 1. Both methods are effective at reducing viable weed seed prior to seeding. When seeding in the spring, after
final disking, the soil should be packed firmly with a spike-tooth harrow or corrugated roller to firm the seedbed. A general rule of thumb is that the desired firmness is achieved when a man's footprint compacts the soil to a maximum depth of one half inch. In all but the most extreme cases, fertilizer is not necessary before or after establishment of the grassland. This is because the native warm-season grasses grow during the warm months when soil organisms are releasing nutrients.
The four most important factors to remember when seeding the warm-season grasses are:
- time the seeding between May 15 and June 15 to take advantage of optimum moisture and temperature conditions for germination,
- place the seed 'h inch deep
- distribute seed uniformly at the proper rate per.acre, and
- firm the soil around the seed.
A late spring seeding is preferred. However, native warm-season grasses can be dormant seeded directly into milo stubble in late fall. This method eliminates all ground preparation, but allows weeds to become established in the spring prior to grass seed germination. This dormant seeding method is somewhat less desirable than the spring seeding due to the increased weed competition problems, but will produce a satisfactory stand of grass if weed control procedures are followed.
Special warm-season grass drills such as the Nesbit or the newer Truax, Miller, or Tye drills all permit easy seeding of all warm-season grasses. These drills can usually be rented in most areas of the state.
The seeding of small areas or the seeding of native wildflowers can be sown most efficiently by hand. To ensure an even distribution, it is recommended that a cup of seed be mixed with a gallon of moist sand prior to sowing. Then rake or harrow the seed in to the lh inch depth, and pack under foot or with a roller.
Native grasses grow down, not up during the establishment year. First year growth usually only amounts to a narrow straight leaf blade that can be easily overlooked. For this reason, patience must be a big part of the planter's fiber.
Because the native grasses need direct sunlight, weeds must be controlled the first year after seeding. This can be done effectively by mowing the grassland regularly to a height of 4 to 6 inches with a rotary mower.
If care is taken to ensure that the steps described above are followed closely, you will be rewarded with a native warm-season grassland of value not only to yourself, but to many species of wildlife as well.