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Grassland Management | Cool Season Grasses | Warm Season Grasses
Prairie Restoration | Old Fields | Grass Planting | Prescribed Burning
Meadows | Grassland Birds | Upland Grasslands
Butterflies | Wildflowers | Grain Plots

Upland Grasslands

Native grasslands and prairies are great alternatives to lawns. These habitats also are among the most threatened ecosystems in North America, and, consequently, populations of many grassland wildlife have declined dramatically. Despite similar appearances, grasslands can provide quite different ecological resources depending on the types of grasses within them. Cool season grasses, such as orchard grass, timothy, tall fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass, grow best in cool weather and are commonly found in lawns and pastures. These grasses require relatively high levels of maintenance and offer poor wildlife resources. In contrast, warm season grasses, such as Indian grass, big and little bluestem, and switchgrass, grow best in warm weather. Native grasslands and unplowed prairie remnants are dominated by native warm season grasses. These grasses provide numerous environmental benefits to land managers, including reduced maintenance, drought tolerance, soil improvement, and wildlife habitat.

General Tips on Managing Grasslands

Avoid planting exotics or invasive species. The following are aggressive, exotic species that can take over your meadow: bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvensa), crown vetch (Coronilla varia), Dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis), nodding thistle (Caduus nutans), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), and Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota).

Consider planting warm season grasses that are native to your area. Not only are they attractive, but warm season grasses will generally outperform cool season grasses under drought conditions and in poor soils. This means that maintenance is lower for these native species. Native grasses also provide dependable forage production for livestock and wildlife. Their extensive root systems provide excellent soil-holding capabilities and, thereby, reduce erosion.

Upland Grasslands

Purple coneflowers are a beautiful way to incorporate native plants in a landscape.

If establishing a prairie, closely follow recommendations for preparing the site and seeding, watering, and fertilizing grasses. Several organizations, including seed companies (e.g., Sharp Bros. Seed Company, Ernst Conservation Seeds), the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and state natural resource/wildlife agencies, provide detailed information on how to establish native warm season grasses in a given area. Be careful not to overseed a grassland.

Avoid haying or mowing from April to August. Haying often coincides with peak nesting of grassland songbirds such as bobolink, Eastern meadowlark, and grasshopper sparrow. Many bird nests, young birds, and deer fawn are lost each spring due to mowing hay or brush-hogging fields. If possible, avoid mowing or clearing thick, brushy areas from April to August. In addition, place the cutting blade to a height of 6 inches to prevent further loss of wildlife.

Limit invasion by woody vegetation. If you want to maintain the grassland, woody plants must be controlled through mowing, burning, grazing, or cutting. For best results, woody plants should represent less than 5 percent of the grassland.

Maintain the largest grassland area as possible. Few people realize that many grassland birds are area sensitive (i.e., they require large areas of habitat to live and reproduce). In fact, hundreds of acres of native grassland may be necessary to attract species like grasshopper sparrow, bobolink, and Henslow's sparrow. Some experts recommend a minimum prairie size of 100 to 250 acres to attract and sustain grassland bird populations. In addition to managing a large grassland, keeping adjacent habitats open (e.g., agricultural fields, pasture) may attract area sensitive species.


Without regular disturbance, woody plants can invade grassland habitats.

Carefully locate hedgerows and lone trees. Recent evidence suggests that hedgerows may reduce the nesting success of grassland-nesting birds because predators may be attracted to the taller woody vegetation. Unlike the benefits that hedgerows provide in shrubby, upland habitats, certain grassland species may avoid prairies that are fragmented by hedgerows, as they can divide the grassland into smaller habitat patches. In light of this, avoid establishing hedgerows and other woody vegetation through the center of grasslands. Instead, try to locate woody plants near edges.

Avoid prairie monocultures. Focus on structural and species diversity of grasses and forbs. A prairie dominated by one grass, even if a native species, will provide fewer structural and food resources to wildlife than a prairie with a mix of native forbs and grasses.

When possible, remove tiles to restore natural moisture gradients. Each plant species thrives within a particular microenvironment (e.g., soil type and moisture level). Restoring the natural moisture gradient to the area will allow for the coexistence of wet and upland prairie species.

Burn, but avoid burning too frequently. There can be too much of a good thing. Although native prairies usually require active management and/or prescribed burning, burning at too-frequent intervals (less than 3 to 5 years apart) can create prairies dominated by dense grasses. Grass density increases by 20 to 40 percent every time you burn. At high grass densities, forbs cannot compete, and the structural complexity of the grassland decreases-and with that the value to wildlife decreases.

Consider strip-disking to increase structural and compositional diversity. A variety of annual grasses and forbs will grow in areas recently disked. When disking for wildlife, the goal is not to uproot and turn under all existing plant matter. Instead, vary the disking intensity to expose bare soil in certain areas and stimulate stem growth in others.

All else being equal, mow or burn in the spring rather than fall to retain winter cover. Many birds will use grasslands during the winter months. If you can retain vegetation on the site, you will be more likely to provide habitat for birds like Fox Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow.

Be patient. Native prairies and grasslands undergo succession. For example, some species, like Purple Coneflower, may not become established until the third year. Some undesirable exotic species, such as Queen Anne's Lace, naturally disappear after the first or second year of grassland management. Notice how grassland species will change with the changing structure of the prairie as well. For example, some species prefer short, sparse vegetation, whereas others like taller, dense prairies.

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The Registry of Nature Habitats
PO Box 321
Meridale, NY 13806
Copyright 1999 - All Rights Reserved

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