Oak Savanna Restoration: Diversity in a Rotational Grazing System

Final Report for FNC99-261

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $3,564.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
FS Funds: $1,937.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Full Circle Farm covers 300 acres, one half in timber, ravine, and permanent pasture on the upland of the Des Moines River Valley. The farm is adjacent to the Ledges State Park in Boone County, Iowa. Forage fed beef from an Angus cow/calf herd and custom forages are the primary products. We use a rotational grazing system. The farm also raises organic vegetables for CSA and institutional sales, and forage fed lamb and free range eggs for direct marketing. Firewood sales are part of our agro forestry business. We also manage a community food waste composting project at the farm.

Prior to this grant we were carrying out such sustainable practices as rotational grazing, managing forages without chemical, and composting livestock manure. We started these practices in 1995.

We maintain a focus on stewardship and natural resources conservation while sustaining agricultural production. Since we originally conceived of our oak savanna restoration for rotational grazing in the winter of 98/99, there have been many changes on the farm.

- 300% increase in direct marketing of our forage fed beef thanks to no small part to our participation in the SARE sponsored course “Take Your Small Farm to Market”
- Doubled production in open pollinated corn, thereby assuring our beef customers of secure on farm cattle feed and engaging us with (SARE sponsored) Michael Fields Agricultural Institute/Iowa State University research
- Cessation of conventional corn and soy production, transferring these acres to more forage for rotational grazing.
- Decision to proceed toward Demeter certification
- NRCS approval for 2 wetlands, to be planted with local ecotype in upland perimeter, thus increasing the farm’s biodiversity
- An ever increasing number of visitors who come for an educational experience, from 30 in 1999 to 300 in 2001.

These changes increase our sustainability as well as our satisfaction. We trust it looks the same from your viewpoint.

Despite a terrific amount of change on the farm and a one year delay in this project, we have done exactly what we set out to do. To repeat, here are our original goals:

“My purpose in this project is to restore a section of what is now permanent pasture to oak savanna for rotational grazing. I see savanna restoration as the ecologically appropriate choice for this section of the farm, which is on the upper edge of water drainage…

Currently and for the past five decades, the site is dominated by Kentucky bluegrass with white clover, dandelions, and a smattering of weeds, primarily ragweed. There is limited diversity. The forage is low quality. I am also concerned about soil erosion and water pollution if the site is left to continual grazing in a shallow root system.

Savanna restoration is a promising choice for increasing forage quality, stabilizing soil and protecting water while encouraging biodiversity in the area. While a fair bit of work has been carried out in central Iowa on grass prairie restoration, savanna restoration has not been emphasized. This project is an excellent opportunity for adapting a sustainable agricultural practice to ecological restoration.”

We encountered many detours enroute to completing the project. The primary variations were in timing and personnel. We also wandered down a few sidetracks over seed choice and site preparation. But by constantly keeping our original goals in view, or looking back to them, we always got back on track. Being clear about WHY you are going something is key in making the complicated decisions.

Our original plan called for investigation over the winter of 99/00 and seeding in the spring of 2000. That spring was extraordinarily dry and we were nervous about the risk of drilling expensive seed into the ground we had no prospects of irrigating. We initiated conversations with Jerry DeWitt at Iowa State University and with Kent Schneider at Lincoln. Kent visited the unseeded site in the summer of 2000. We formally applied for an extension that December.

Extension in hand, we intended to plant in spring 2001. It rained the entire month of May. Then from June 15 to the first of September this farm got one inch and seven tenths of rain. Planting looked every bit as foolish as it did a year earlier. But we were already committed to our September field day and we had established a promising relationship with ISU forestry and botany researchers, so we pressed on. Following some welcome October rains, we seeded our savanna on Thanksgiving Day, 2001. This kind of fall planting after November 15 can work well for warm season grasses since the soil is cold enough to delay germination till spring. In fact, it is the preferred seeding schedule for prairie plantings at the State Park adjacent to our farm.

While planting may have been delayed, our investigation was not. As we visited restored prairies, attended conferences, read several books, and even joined a native plant list serve for a while, we found that there were no sure things. We began to second guess some of the procedures we had so confidently written into our grant. We had a lot to learn.

Some of the personnel we had contacted in the course of writing our proposal maintained their high interest and support. Dr. Laura Jackson from the University of Northern Iowa and her on farm researcher, Mike Natvig, were particularly helpful. Folks from Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Central Iowa Prairie Network were steadfast and encouraging. Nancy Kurrle, environmental educator at the Ames School District and personnel at the Ledges State Park (Mark Peters and Mark Plymale) were also on our original list of supporters and have stuck with us.

Remarkable to us, once word of the project spread, all kinds of native grass enthusiasts we’d never heard of presented themselves – by email, phone, and in person. They were all eager, well read on the topic, and just about everyone had a different suggestion for improving our plan, often in contradiction to whomever we had spoken with most recently. For a while it was comical, but after a few months it was downright confusing.

The main points of debate:

Ecotype Seed and Who Cares? From the project’s conception we budgeted for local ecotype seed for our oak savanna restoration. We contacted the Iowa Ecotype Project and visited the Neal Smith (formerly Walnut Creek) Prairie Reserve, part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate our hunch that this was the way to go. The local ecotype seed is far more expensive than cultivar grass/forbes seed produced for prairie plantings, but the ecological preservation benefits out weighed the cost.

In particular, our proximity to a restored prairie corridor in the adjacent State Park drove our commitment to local ecotype. In the spring of 2001 the State disked the ground that previously had been planted with prairie cultivars, and put the piece into hay for two years, thereafter to be planted with local ecotype. Ultimately the state plans to harvest seed from that prairie to plant on other state owned ground. Our savanna site is certainly within the drift zone (a quarter mile) of the State’s land (and vice versa), so it is important to keep the two projects harmonious.

Again, from our original proposal, “…due to the site’s proximity to a State Park…it is reasonable to view this oak savanna as part of a more complex environmental education and protection project – one that reflects the broader native ecosystems that originally marked the Midwest.”

Having settled on local ecotype, we entered the next phase of debate – how local is local? One can easily elicit confident answers that range from one mile or less to over 100 miles. We did find sources for locally harvested seed within 50 miles of our farm but there was no viability quotient at it was not pure live seed and the available quantities were too small for our needs. We bought our seed from Ion Exchange in Decorah, IA on the advice of the Central Iowa Prairie Network.

Site Preparation:
Mob graze? Roundup? How would we make sure our savanna planting out competed the established bluegrass? Till it? Disk it? Nuke it? We found a book or person to voice support for any and all of the above. One by one we discarded them. Mob grazing (with sheep) was intriguing, but not a viable option; the drought left no grass to graze. Broad spectrum herbicide application was the most common recommendation, but it seemed ironic and somehow not right that this slice of the farm that had not had chemical on it in 50 years would be the exceptional piece as the rest of the acres moved to certified organic. Disking was too frightening because we feared the weeds we might unearth could be worse than the scattered ones we already had.

At the peak of our frustration, we were reviewing our many options with yet another consultant. Lloyd Crimm, botanist, beef customer and prairie enthusiast, stood with us on the site where not a single seed had been planted and declared the project done. “Look” said Lloyd, “It will all work eventually as long as you have good seed. Here’s what won’t work. Having good seed in sacks in your tractor shed.” Lloyd made us smile and listen to our hearts and get the job done.

When and How to Plant:
Our research showed no clear advantage to fall or spring planting, so we waited for the optimal conditions. In our case, the decision was the hands of the weatherman. We already knew we had good seed and made a final decision to simply drill into the pasture without Truax.

We have owned our Truax drill for several years and (Don has) custom seeded acres and acres of warm season grasses into CRP ground for other landowners in our region. We have complete confidence in our equipment and technique. The advantages of the Truax are: separate seed boxes for grass and forbes with separate seeding rate controls; a no till coulters; and a press wheel directly behind the seed drop mechanism. A pick wheel in each seed box combined with auger movement across it, gently but consistently pulls fluffy seed through the tubes.

As we warned in our grant proposal, “One must necessarily take the long view in an ecological restoration project. The benefits may be impossible to quantify in the lifetime of the grant…other evaluations may exceed the SARE chronology but stand up to eventual measure…forage quality, soil stabilization, water quality…for the farm, incorporating restored oak savanna into a rotational grazing system is a step in maximizing utilization of beef production resources while maintaining eco-stewardship.”

Two professors from Iowa State University, Dr. Heidi Asbjornsen, Forestry, and Dr. Don Farrar, Botany, have become our most engaged partners. They conducted a species survey of the project site and took soil samples across the topography in May 2001. the many native woodland edge species they identified, helped us modify our seed mix to match what was already there, at least in remnants, and therefore likely to flourish.

Then the ISU researchers set up three plots/transects to monitor species from shade to sun in the under story. They will track seed emergence and establishment of plant populations. They purchased an additional $300 worth of seed to germinate in the ISU greenhouse and transplant in the plots. The irony of the ISU connection is that they came looking for us, and if we had been on our original timeline, it would have been too late to set up their research. We look forward to a long relationship with Heidi, Don, and their graduate students.

What We Learned:
- Advantages and importance of local eco-type for prairie/savanna restoration
- As in all aspects of farming, the weather dictates and when you’re spending $1000 per acre for seed, you pay attention.
- The people who write endorsements for grants aren’t necessarily the long term players

- You will move in unexpected directions and learn unexpected lessons. You can plan all you want, but worthwhile project take on lives of their own. The people you subsequently meet are wonderful.

Effect on Farm or Ranch Operation:
- Increased knowledge of grassland forbes species for ecological niche (oak savanna)
- Farm has alternative forage source
- Increased biodiversity
- Spurred other projects like establishing native grasses in wetland perimeter
- Brought more visitors to the farm, which enlarged our network for education on many topics in sustainable agriculture (e.g. people who come initially to see the savanna also see pasture poultry, food waste composting, etc.)

Advantages and Disadvantages for Implementation:
Biodiversity and ecological preservation that can simultaneously enhance agricultural productivity are the advantages. The disadvantage are that results are not immediate so economic outcomes are years away, while the up front seed costs are high.

We are happy to elaborate on any particulars for another producer. Anyone going into such a project needs to be ready to spend a substantial amount of time investigating the possibilities specific to his/her site and be available to network with a variety of people.

Our primary method for telling folks about our project was by hosting an open to the public Community Day in September. Our open house was one of five in a pilot season of similar events supported by Practical Farmers of Iowa in 2001. We personally invited fifty people including all of our beef, lamb, egg, and vegetable customers. The food we served was prepared by our family and the chef nearby Camp Hantesa; everything we served was raised on this farm.

We also received support from Iowa Forage and Grasslands Council. Other organizations with tabletop displays and spokespersons on hand: Iowa Arboretum, Camp Hantesa, Ledges State Park, Central Iowa Prairie Network, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and SARE. The Lincoln office sent us the SARE publications to distribute; we designed the display for SARE; and Diane Mayerfield, of Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Extension was available as the SARE spokesperson.

Over eighty people attended this equinox event. We mailed a simple evaluation form to attendees and got a 43% rate with quite helpful suggestions and very positive comments.

Going forward, we plan to highlight the oak savanna site as part of what all our farm visitors experience. We will post a roadside sign to identify the site and encourage the interested public to arrange for a visit. Central Iowa Prairie Network has already expressed interest in follow up visits as part of its regional meetings. We envision follow up articles available to the media; we will host another field day in September 2002. Our ongoing work with the Iowa State research team will further promote the project. We hope for a bird count this summer and comparison counts several summers thereafter. We know the prairie seed as a cash crop is a popular topic and interested growers will be contacting us through the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.