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rasslands are areas often referred to as prairies or meadows,
consisting primarily of grasses with associated wildflowers. These areas provide essential
habitat for many species of wildlife. Presently, Michigan
has only small remnant prairies scattered across the state.
Historically Grasslands have drastically declined because they have been
converted to agricultural fields or lost because of fire
Although we have lost much of our native prairies, we still has some
grassland areas. Non-native cool season grasses have been planted
along roadsides, as hayfields and pastures, and often establish
themselves in the fields retired from farming. These fields can
provide important wildlife food and cover.
Within grasslands, a variety of wildlife such as pheasants, wild turkeys, songbirds, foxes, hawks, raccoons, and
sandhill cranes eat abundant insects, seeds, and small rodents that
grasslands produce. Also, mice, voles, shrews, woodchucks, and many
kinds of ground-nesting birds raise their young there. The size of
the grassland plays a significant role in attracting certain species
of wildlife. Small grasslands one to five acres in size are activity
zones for deer and rabbits. Other wildlife species, such as
bobolinks and meadowlarks, may require 20 or more acres of grassland
There are two types of grasses to
consider planting: cool season and warm season. For more information
about warm season grasses, please refer to the chapter on Warm Season
Grasses . Cool season
grasses develop most rapidly during spring and early summer when
cool nights follow warm days. They begin to grow again in late
summer and early fall when these same conditions apply. Growing best
in temperatures of 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, cool season grasses
go dormant when temperatures reach 90 to 95. These grasses include
timothy, orchard grass, and brome grass--all introduced species--and
native Canada wildrye, redtop, and June grass, which is also called
blue grass. Legumes such as alfalfa and the
clovers--ladino, sweet, white, red, and others--are often included
in plantings of cool season grasses.
Most wildlife managers prefer that warm season
grasses and cool season grasses be incorporated into wildlife plans
that contain grasses because they provide excellent wildlife
habitat. However, for the novice, cool season grasses are easier and
less expensive to establish. Normally, cool season grasses are
established in one growing season, whereas warm season grasses take
three to five years. However, warm and cool season grasses planted
in separate side by side stands will provide more diversity and are extremely valuable for
Soil type will determine what kinds of
cool season grasses to plant. The Natural
Resource Conservation Service can supply, free of charge, a soil survey
of your property, which identifies the type of soils you have and
where they are located. For a small fee you can purchase a soil test
kit from your county Extension office. The test determines if
lime or fertilizers need to be applied to the soil for the
particular grass that you choose to plant.
Canada wildrye is a native tall erect bunch grass that
does not grow into dense stands. Found most often in sandy or marshy
shores, it may also grow within sand dunes, and in forests along.
Usually reaches a height of two to six feet. A palatable grain, it
also provides good nesting and roosting cover.
Redtop, also native, grows to four feet tall, has delicate
leaves and stems, and also provides good nesting and roosting cover,
even into winter if snowfalls are scarce.
June grass is a short, nearly prostrate variety that is
usually mixed with common white clover or alsike clover, and planted
in large meadows for browse. The mixture is tolerant of partial shade and will grow
well on the north edge of a woodland.
|Timothy and orchard grass are both about 30
inches high, ideal for nesting and brood-rearing cover. Timothy grass
grows well on sandy loam soils that are fairly well drained,
and orchard grass does better on mostly loam soils. Orchard
grass is a clump grass, which permits pheasant chicks to
easily walk through it. A large variety of protein-rich
insects eat its soft, succulent leaves, but it produces
poor-quality hay. The stiff, erect stems of timothy create
good fall roosts for pheasants as well as good nesting cover
for some songbirds. Mixed with ladino clover and red clover,
timothy produces an excellent hay crop in early July. When the
legumes die back after five or six years, timothy will form a
useful pure stand.
|Although hated by farmers and gardeners, quack
has high value to wildlife, mostly because its seed
head provides food. You may wish to avoid planting fescue and
brome grass for wildlife. These sod-forming grasses tend to
become too thick to allow easy movement by some wildlife and
provide little food value.
Clover, alfalfa, and the other legumes remove nitrogen from
the air and add it to the soil where it becomes available as
fertilizer for other plants. Grasslands do not need to be
fertilized as long as legumes are actively growing. Adding
legumes to cool season grasses improves the variety of the
stand by increasing the mix of structure and palatability of
plants to plant eaters from insects to deer.
brome - A sod-forming grass that tends to become too thick for
wildlife to move through.
|Common white clover is a short
creeping clover, very persistent and well suited to wet soils
with poor drainage. It also grows well in partial shade and is
often selected for woodland trails, forest openings, and
logging roads where ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, deer, and
rabbits eat it.
Medium red clover lives three to six years, reaches
a height of 12 to 16 inches, and grows on soils ranging from
poorly drained to dry, sandy types. It does best, though, on
well-drained sandy loams and clay loam soils. Mixed with
orchard grass or timothy, it helps provide cover and food,
|Alsike clover lives only two or three years but is
well suited to wet, poorly drained sites. An excellent
companion to birdsfoot trefoil, orchard grass, and redtop,
alsike provides browse and brood habitat in wet meadows.
Ladino clover lives six to ten years and thrives on
soils that are well drained or fairly well drained. Planted
with orchard grass and timothy, ladino attracts deer, turkeys,
grouse, and rabbits in spring and summer.
Both white and yellow blossom sweet
high-quality spring browse, excellent fall seed, and good
winter roosting cover for pheasants, quail, and rabbits. The
white blossom variety is taller (to six feet), better
tolerates droughty soils, and stands more erect during the
winter to provide better cover than yellow.
|Birdsfoot trefoil looks much like alfalfa but will
tolerate more soil types than does alfalfa. Although it grows
on a variety of soils from well-drained loams to wet clays and
mucks, birdsfoot trefoil is harder to establish than clovers.
In addition, birdsfoot trefoil is extremely aggressive after
it becomes established and is not always highly
Alfalfa tolerates only well-drained sites and
requires the highest pH soil of all the legumes. It will
last six or seven years when annually mowed.
The kind of habitat you wish to establish will also determine
what kind of cool season grasses and legumes you should plant and
how much of each. For example, if your goal is to provide one acre
of meadow for nesting pheasants, a commonly used mixture is 7 lbs.
of medium red clover, 2 lbs. of alfalfa, 3 lbs. of timothy grass,
and 3 lbs. of redtop grass.
Cool season grasses are popular with farmers because they
establish quickly and respond to heavy fertilization, which can be
reduced when mixed with legumes. They do better in high pH soils
(5.8-7.0), which are maintained through the use of agricultural
lime. The grasses typically outlive the legumes. Legumes should be
inoculated with the proper bacteria before planting to increase
germination. Seed three or more varieties of grass/legume mixtures
at the rate of 8 to 12 lbs. per acre. For best results and highest
benefit to wildlife, legumes should comprise 50 to 60 percent of the
mix. Sow with conventional tillage (plow/disc/drag/plant),
conservation (no-till) methods, or frost seed. More information is
available in the Grass Planting
Pheasants, bobolinks, and meadowlarks are among many wildlife
species that do best in habitats where the predominant landscape
type is grass. Township-sized areas containing 25 percent grassland
have the highest benefit to these species. Grasslands larger than 40
acres are usually more beneficial to wildlife than are smaller
fields because they make it more difficult for predators to find nesting birds and other
prey. One consideration, however, is that
if your plan calls for making a large field from several smaller
fields, the removal of fencerows may destroy travel corridors and food/shelter habitats for
other kinds of wildlife. Also, cool season fields larger than 80
acres begin to have less favorable impact on edge-loving species
such as deer.
The quality of cool season grasses usually peaks at two to four
years after establishment. Subsequently, they become filled with
matted grasses and dead vegetation, reducing their vigor and
offering less variety. In time, woody plants (shrubs, brush and
small trees) move in and dominate. The grassland then becomes a
brushland and habitat for other wildlife species.
To keep the stand in high-quality
grasses and legumes, management tools such as burning, mowing, disking, fertilizing, and grazing may be
needed. The controlled use of selective herbicides is another consideration. These
tools stimulate regrowth and reduce the competition from dogwood,
sumac, aspen, and other woody plants; increase stand vigor; and
provide quality grassland habitat.
A prescribed burn is a planned fire, burning with a
specific purpose. It is best done on a day with little or no wind,
in early spring or late fall when vegetation is dry. Discuss your
plans with local authorities, obtain the necessary burning permit,
and observe all restrictions and safety procedures. For more
information see the Prescribed Burning page in this section.
If you plan on a mechanical
treatment , you
could--depending on your goals--mow or disc about one-third of the
grassland each year. Mow in strips of 30 to 60 feet wide and leave
undisturbed areas from 60 to 100 feet wide between the mowed areas.
Mow between July 15 and August 31 to avoid destroying nest sites and
give the grassland enough time for regrowth before winter. Mowing
height should be four to six inches. Light discing has the added
advantage of bringing back annual weeds, legume seeds, and grasses,
whose seeds have been lying dormant. However, these annuals may not
be the preferred types. Like the mowing treatment, disc in strips 30
to 60 feet wide, but leave at least twice that width of undisturbed
cover between strips.
Grazing will also help to set back succession but must be done carefully
because overgrazed grass loses productivity. Do not graze during the
wildlife nesting season, and do not reduce plant height below eight
Chemical treatment is also an effective
means of controlling woody invaders. It
should be used only as a last resort!
However, correct application is
critical. Carefully follow label directions and take care not to
excessively damage non-targeted vegetation.
In summary, cool season grasses provide a variety of benefits to
wildlife. They are easy to establish and less costly than other
grass options. However, read the additional chapters within this
section to determine if cool season grasses are the right choice for