Incorporating native grasses for conservation into pastures of the Upper Midwest: Assessing farmer attitudes

Final Report for GNC04-026

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $9,570.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Randall Jackson
University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Project Information


There are potential agronomic and ecological benefits to restoring native prairie grass species to agricultural lands, but little is known about graziers’ attitudes towards doing this. We assessed this by mailing a written questionnaire to 800 Wisconsin graziers. Our results showed that 35% of respondents were interested in native grasses for pasture use. However, the large majority of graziers reported that they were unfamiliar with the identification, establishment, and management of native grasses. The most important predictor of grazier interest in native grasses was their belief in how native grasses affect the environment.


More tallgrass prairie has been lost than any other terrestrial ecosystem (Samson and Knopf 1994) and relict tallgrass prairie in the Midwestern United States remains a threatened plant community. Restoring native prairie grasses to agricultural lands could exponentially increase the amount of land available for conservation efforts and connect plant communities across the landscape, aiding in the recovery and preservation of tallgrass prairie species. In addition, there are potential agronomic and environmental benefits that could be realized by reintroducing native warm-season grasses to the landscape, including increased carbon sequestration (Tufekcioglu et al. 1998, improved habitat for birds (George and Obermann 1989, Ribic and Sample 2001, Giuliano and Daves 2002), and greater forage production, especially during hot, dry summer months when cool-season grass pastures “slump” in production (Belesky and Fedders 1995, Paine et al. 1999).

If conservation projects are to improve the environmental quality of rural life these techniques must be implemented, but little is known about graziers’ attitudes towards native grasses, or the extent to which some are using native species in their farming systems.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this research were to assess:
1) the current status of native grass use on Wisconsin grazing farms, and
2) Wisconsin graziers’ attitudes towards native grass use in farming systems and conservation projects in general.


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  • Randall Jackson


Materials and methods:

We designed a written questionnaire to address the research objectives listed above. The written questionnaire was constructed after holding two focus groups with small groups of graziers to clarify meanings and terminology relating to grazing systems, native grasses, and conservation projects. The questionnaire also gathered socio-economic and demographic information, including income bracket, farm size, education level, etc. The questionnaire was reviewed by experts in the fields of applied social research, survey methodology, and farming systems and pilot-tested with five graziers.

The University of Wisconsin Survey Center (UWSC) administered the survey to 800 Wisconsin graziers. The survey sample was obtained from the Grass Works Inc. mailing list. Respondents were initially recruited to fill out the questionnaire by a letter that was included with the eight page survey and business reply envelope and mailed late February 2006. The outgoing envelopes were generic UWSC envelopes using labels for the respondent’s address and graziers were identified by a number on the questionnaire to protect confidentiality. A postcard reminder followed the initial mailing five business days later. A second full mailing was sent out to respondents who had not yet returned a mail questionnaire approximately three weeks after the initial mailing.

Descriptive statistics and classification trees were used to assess responses using the predictive analytics software, SPSS (SPSS, Inc.) and S-Plus 8.0 (Insightful Corporation).

Research results and discussion:

The survey response rate was 56.16%. We found that a small percentage (16.7%) of Wisconsin graziers have native grasses on their farm, with an average acreage of 24.71 (SE +/- 4.516) and median acreage of 20.0, but fewer acres is more common. 52.9% of the farmers established the native grasses themselves for a variety of reasons, and less than half received financial or technical aid for the establishment.

Overall, graziers say they are unfamiliar with native grasses. 16.3% find it easy to identify native prairie grass species, and most are unaware of aid and seed sources for establishment. Only 13.3% know someone who uses native grasses in their grazed pastures. Lack of knowledge can be a major limiting factor for adoption of conservation or restoration projects (Luzar and Diagne 1999, Pejchar and Press 2006).

35% of graziers are interested in using native prairie grasses in their grazing systems and 48% would use them for forage. Given the fact that most graziers report themselves largely unfamiliar with native grasses, this is a surprisingly large number who show interest. Smaller percentages of graziers are not interested in native grasses in their grazing system (23%) and would not use them as forage (15%).

Classification tree results showed that the first, and most important, predictor of responses to the statement I am interested in using native grasses in my grazing system was grazier opinion of how native grasses affect the environment. If graziers believed that native grasses are good for the environment they were most likely to be interested in using native grasses. If they had a low belief, another predictor—belief in how native grasses affect farm production—separated those graziers into those who are not interested or were unsure about using native grasses. If graziers had a more negative belief in how native grasses affect farm production they were not interested in using native grasses; with a positive belief they were in the undecided group. These results indicate that economics were not the main factor driving farmer attitudes towards native grass use—interest in the environment was.

We asked a series of questions to measure attitude towards how native grasses could affect various aspects of farming life, including effects on the environment, farm production and management. Many graziers think it likely that there are environmental benefits to native grasses, including improved soil conditions (41.3%), environmental conditions (45.8%), and wildlife habitat (62.6%). However, many of these graziers think that native grasses could lower forage production (44.7%) and quality (45.6%). That could explain why only 40% of graziers who established native grasses did so for use as forage.

Longer establishment time and financial risk are considered to be likely results of having native grasses by 40.2% and 64.0% of graziers, respectively. Indeed, establishment of native warm-season grasses can be difficult (Jackson 1999, Waldron et al. 2005) and more research is needed on effective establishment techniques. Much could be learned from the graziers who have established native grasses successfully into their farming systems in the Upper Midwest.

Many factors were ranked as important to graziers when considering the implantation of conservation projects. Both financial and environmental considerations were ranked highly important to graziers. Among the highest factors were the potential of projects to protect the environment and conserve/improve resources. Most landowners who establish conservation practices do so because they value nature (Pejchar and Press 2006), and our results complement the classification tree results which showed greater importance of environmental than farm production considerations when considering native grasses. Economics were ranked highly important as well, and conservation programming should continue to look at conservation projects that will produce profits for land owners in the short-term (Napier et al. 2000).


Belesky, D. P., and J. M. Fedders. 1995. Comparative growth analysis of cool-season and warm-season grasses in a cool-temperate environment. Agronomy Journal 87:974-980.

George, J. R., and D. Obermann. 1989. Spring defoliation to improve summer supply and quality of switchgrass. Agronomy Journal 81:47-52.

Giuliano, W. M., and S. E. Daves. 2002. Avian response to warm-season grass use in pasture and hayfield management. Biological Conservation 106:1-9.

Jackson, L. L. 1999. Establishing tallgrass prairie on grazed permanent pasture in the Upper Midwest. Restoration Ecology 7:127-138.

Luzar, E. J., and A. Diagne. 1999. Participation in the next generation of agriculture conservation programs: the role of environmental attitudes. Journal of Socio-Economics 28:271-276.

Napier, T. L., M. Tucker, and S. McCarter. 2000. Adoption of conservation production systems in three Midwest watersheds. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 55:123-134.

Paine, L. K., D. Undersander, and M. D. Casler. 1999. Pasture growth, production, and quality under rotational and continuous grazing management. Journal of Production Agriculture 12:569-577.

Pejchar, L., and D. M. Press. 2006. Achieving conservation objectives through production forestry: The case of Acacia koa on Hawaii Island. Environmental Science & Policy 9:439-447.

Ribic, C. A., and D. W. Sample. 2001. Associations of grassland birds with landscape factors in southern Wisconsin. The American Midland Naturalist 146:105.

Samson, F., and F. Knopf. 1994. Prairie conservation in North America. Bioscience 44:418-421.

Tufekcioglu, A., J. W. Raich, T. M. Isenhart, and R. C. Schultz. 1998. Fine root dynamics, coarse root biomass, root distribution, and soil respiration in a multispecies riparian buffer in Central Iowa, USA. Agroforestry Systems 44:163-174.

Waldron, B. L., T. A. Monaco, K. B. Jensen, R. D. Harrison, A. J. Palazzo, and J. D. Kulbeth. 2005. Coexistence of native and introduced perennial grasses following simultaneous seeding. Agronomy Journal 97:990-996.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Products of this project will be a PhD dissertation chapter and a peer-reviewed publication in an agricultural journal.

We have already presented this research at the national SARE conference (2006) and the Ecological Society of America conference (2007).

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This information should directly benefit those planning conservation projects and implementing policy by helping them focus their efforts on farmers willing to apply conservation techniques. It will also help policy makers fashion incentives for those less willing to implement such management.

Researchers will gain insight into the perceptions and needs of farmers, which will help them formulate relevant scientific questions.
This information should also help researchers and policy makers develop conservation-production oriented projects that are needed and realistic. This work has already fostered dialogue and working relationships among the scientific and producer community and led to renewed commitment from the grassland ecology lab at the UW-Madison to research native grasses.

Our results have shed light on the following areas that the scientific and extension community should respond to:
1) Learn from graziers already using native grasses in their farming systems.
2) Improve our understanding of native grass effects on both the environment and agronomic production.
3) Augment research on establishment into and management of native grasses on grazing systems in the Upper Midwest.
4) Enhance education and extension efforts to graziers about native grass identification, establishment techniques, and management issues.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable.

Farmer Adoption

This research was executed to assess current farmer adoption of the use of native grasses. Future surveys would be useful to see how these trends are changing over time.


Areas needing additional study

It would be very useful to have follow-up surveys to monitor both farmer adoption of native grasses and conservation projects and trends in research relating to native grasses. As mentioned above, increased research on native grass establishment and management is needed.

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.