Last updated on 2014.08.27
Mike from Iowa asked for a close-up of bluestem grass. Can do, Mike!
Carter Johnson showed me this native grass and a whole lot more on his EcoSun Prairie Farm on a hot summer morning last week. I've written about Johnson's prairie farm and its philosophy before. The SDSU ecology professor gave a stirring speech on his vision for a working prairie at TedX Brookings last winter. But I wanted to see the Prairie Farm for myself.
In the basic prairie education department, Professor Johnson introduced me to his three main crops: bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass.
Very little of these three native, warm-season grasses grew on this farm before 2008. For seven summers, Johnson and his partners have been turning about 400 acres of former crop land to a rich mix of these native grasses. Another 100 acres, the wettest and roughest portions of the section, are untilled pasture. The owner leases another 100 acres for regular tillage, currently in corn.
The new grassland can't accurately be called "restored": Johnson explains that we don't have data on the exact mixture of grass species on the pre-homesteader prairie. So as we wade through the various mixes of grasses planted hither and yon in an effort to find what grows best in which parts of the field, we can't say for sure that we're seeing exactly what the pioneers saw when they first crossed the Big Sioux.
And don't call this grassland a preserve. Johnson isn't growing grass just for us to look at... although living prairie is a pleasure to behold. We're looking at a business, a farm enterprise making money on seed, hay, and grazing.
But the Prairie Farm business model turns traditional farming practices upside down. Consider that crop: grass. Go to a traditional farm, and you'll find grass relegated to the worst soil, the marginal places where it's too wet or rocky or sandy or otherwise unsuitable for corn or soybeans. Here Johnson plants grass in the best soil, and gets better grass than we're used to seeing in marginal crop land.
These native grasses are more suited to this land than any of the commodity crops we plant. Bluestem, for instance, sends roots down ten feet. Johnson says that during the 2012 drought, the grass here was tall and green. The native grasses are also perennials. Once the grasses take hold, the intense labor and worry of spring planting eases immensely. The grass farmer doesn't spend every spring tearing up the land, injecting it with chemicals, and hoping the snow is done and the rains are all gentle. Without much more human effort than a controlled burn, the grass just comes back. Instead of engineering the land to fit our preferred crops, the Prairie Farm picks a crop, native grasses, that fits the land.
Also different is the approach to water. Traditional crop farmers use tile and ditches to move water off their land as quickly as possible. They leave fields bare and black in the winter so snow blows across and away, leaving little to melt and muddy the fields in spring.
The Prairie Farm is speckled with wetlands. When it was cropped, these wetlands were drained by a network of ditches that carried water to a central pond and then off the property. That drainage was imperfect; wetlands still get wet, and crops planted on them often get soaked, stunted, and washed out before drainage can clear the "excess" moisture.
Instead of forcing usually wetland to support crops, the Prairie Farm philosophy says, why fight it? Johnson bermed those ditches so the water stays in those wetlands. Instead of wasting bluestem and switchgrass seed in those wet spots, Johnson lets the Indian cord grass, sedge, and Canada vetch grow as it naturally would. The bluestem and other prairie grasses come as close as they dare, competing with the wetland grasses in a "combat zone" that shifts with precipitation.
These wetlands serve the farm well, preserving useful moisture. But they also serve the public. Wetlands reduce reduce downstream flooding. They provide more waterfowl nesting habitat, which means more hunters can bag their limit in the fall. They act as snow breaks in the winter, keeping snow from blowing straight out to the county roads and highways.
Not different from traditional farming is the Prairie Farm's ultimate business goal: to make money. Johnson says switchgrass can yield $1,600 in gross income per acre on sales of seed and hay. Johnson says his switchgrass was competitive with corn at its recent peak of $7 to $8 per bushel; the business case is even better with corn now dropping below $4. Switchgrass gets no subsidies, but it also requires few of the costly inputs of planting, fertilizing, and killing bugs and weeds. Johnson and his partners spot-spray thistles, but thick sod supporting a couple dozen different species of grass and forbs does a pretty good job on its own of crowding out weeds.
The highest income can come from the wetlands. In those once-drained spots that produced the spottiest corn and beans, Johnson can now harvest wetlands seed that can sell for $75 per pound. That seed sells for wetlands restoration and construction mitigation.
The market for seed from wetlands and prairie grasses is shallow (though more farmers adopting Johnson's prairie farming model would deepen that market). The hay and grazing markets are plenty deep. The Prairie Farm is in its fourth year of grazing cattle, and Johnson says this is the best year yet. The farm currently hosts 74 Hereford-Angus cross heifers from the conservation-minded Mortenson ranch out by the Cheyenne River in Stanley County. Neighbors didn't think they could finish cattle on this grass, but Johnson says the herd finishes well here, coming out 95% lean.
Prairie Farm takes a portion of the herd to slaughter and market locally. Johnson says all of their beef sells, and they've never gotten complaints. His wife Janet (who accompanied us on the tour, and who happened to be my Russian prof back in the day) said the beef is delicious. Carter says the flavor, which he likens to sage, comes from the bluestem.
I ask ecology professor Johnson if the flavor assessment is based on rigorous scientific testing. Johnson says his operation is one of the few finishing cattle on native, warm-season grasses, which have a very different chemistry and photosynthesize differently from the cool-season grass on which most cattle finish. But then he says his explanation for that extra deliciousness is a "farmer's hunch."
The Prairie Farm could get a third big revenue stream from ethanol, if cellulosic ethanol took off. But a fair amount of cellulosic ethanol research focuses on engineering microbes to break down specific plant materials. That research leaves out mixed prairie grasses. Johnson says thermal processes for producing ethanol would be better for his business model. Johnson notes that all the fossil fuels we are using now come from the source he's growing now. Making fuel from harvested switchgrass and other prairie biomass would simply cut out the multi-million-year wait.
As with the wetlands, the entire prairie farm provides benefits that go beyond money in the farmer's pocket. Wildflowers abound in the prairie grass, providing great pollinator habitat. Insects like flowers and forbs, and pheasant chicks like flowers. So again, if you like shooting birds in the fall, you like prairie grass.
The working prairie offers multiple uses that monoculture cropland cannot. A cornfield has one use, industrial-scale production of corn. A cornfield has no public use. You can't picnic in it. You can't walk in it. You hear no birds in it. In the winter, the cornfield is bare. You find no habitat. You can't even ski there, as the snow blows away.
Eureka farmer and rancher Charlie Hoffman told me, "If you see a pasture with just one kind of grass, that pasture's dead." Carter Johnson might say the same thing about a farm where you see just one kind of crop, or a prairie with just one kind of farm. Johnson doesn't advocate turning the prairie entirely over to grass any more than he likes seeing South Dakota planted ditch to ditch with corn.
But Johnson's EcoSun Prairie Farm helps us see that a farm based on native grasses offers ecological health, public uses, and beauty that large-scale corn and bean farms cannot. Johnson's project shows that prairie farmers can provide all those benefits for their neighbors and still make a living off a prairie put to work.
Dang you are good,Cory. You managed to photograph the only bluestem in the whole ecosystem with a left hand attached. There are some restored prairies around here. Have to go see if there is any bluestem. Thank you,Sir.
This is one great, VERY researched and informative post!!!!!
Good story on the farm. I've toured it myself and thought your work reporting was quite thorough. Dr. Carter's work is certainly something to be looked at and applauded and hopefully can continue. One correction though, I don't think it's fair to call switchgrass seed unsubsidized when almost everyone who is buying the seed is doing it to establish a grass stand for a CRP contract. No CRP, no switchgrass seed buyers. Alas, that's probably the story of most agriculture so I'm not going to let it bother me too much.
I don't doubt most of Moody County is heavy tillage and massive drainage for corn and soybeans, but would caution you to lump all c/sb production as necessarily being that way. C/SB can in fact be raised in extended rotations using no-till and cover crops reducing the need for chemical and drainage inputs which while still having a larger foot print than Prairie Sun can also build the land and benefit the people around it. Since you're into touring research farms run by SDSU faculty, I would encourage you to visit sometime Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre run by Dwayne Beck who is known around the world for his pioneering research in these areas. Everyone going all grass or even half or third isn't going to happen anytime soon but a with a visit to Dakota Lakes and a drive through central SD one can see near unanimous adoption by local farmers of the soil building practices (no-till, rotation, cover crops, etc.) Dr. Beck researches.
I second aaron's suggestion of a tour of Dakota Lakes Research Farm. The no-till practices studied and advocated there have transformed agriculture here in Central SD. No-till has greatly reduced wind and water erosion while increasing yields. As a 100% no-till farmer my goal is that every drop of water stays on the ground where it fell.
Good point on CRP, Aaron! I hadn't considered that aspect of the government-supported market.
My neighbor Charlie Johnson (no relation to Carter) would agree that we can grow corn, soybeans, and other crops in much more sustainable ways. Carter himself noted during our visit that the typical sweet corn patch looks different from the typical industrial cornfield: less regular rows, more biodiversity. Carter doesn't want everyone to go to grass, but he recognizes that there's plenty of room to let the prairie get back to doing what it does best.
Dakota Lakes Research Farm? Heck yeah, I'll put that on the agenda for a future blog tour. Maybe I'll dedicate one tour to Hughes and Stanley County: the research farm, the Mortenson ranch, the Oahe Dam, and interviews at the Capitol.
Keep every drop—Nick, I've heard that from Charlie H., Carter, the Dakota Lakes farm, and you. Do you have any sense of how many farmers in South Dakota are adopting that philosophy? Is there any farmer in South Dakota for whom keeping every drop of water simply wouldn't work?
In the same manner as you refer to Dr. Johnson as Carter Johnson, many of us refer to this particular plant species as Big Bluestem, to differentiate it from other bluestems, i.e. Little Bluestem and Sand Bluestem, among others Some of these differentiations are important.
Many more species, and many more forb species, are found in real native prairie.
Native prairie is much more often home to sharptail grouse and prairie chicekns than to pheasants.
Boy a blog tour by Madville of Hughes and Stanley Counties with the listed stops sounds like an awesome idea!
My all time favorite name for a grass is "Side Oats Grama."
Great report, Cory!
Cory, did you come across any ditch weed, aka Hemp?
And by keeping the water on the farm I mean keeping it on the EXACT spot where it fell. The less runoff there is on my farm the more water there is for my crops. When the snow blows off the neighbors land and catches in tall wheat stubble on my land I smile because I know my crops will be getting his water.
Farmers here in Central SD have, by and large, adopted the "save every drop" philosophy, farmers in Eastern SD, with it's more reliable rains haven't.
Why would anyone want the public running around on their ground? That isnt a use, that would be a give away.
80 percent of our ranch was prairie grass that had never seen a plow. The other twenty percent was alfalfa and a mix of those grasses.
There is no such thing as a dead no till cornfield. There is always life there under the ground. What I noticed, after being shown, was when you kicked dirt over in a notill field you always found worms. If you went to a field right next to that one that wasn't no till, you didnt see those life giving worms. You always see animals on no till at all times of the year, its just the sign of a healthy piece of ground.
You can keep your grass fed beef. I dont like the tast any more then the taste of grassy milk, yuck. Other then that it was a great article Cory.
Tara the hemp is everywhere? The bluffs at Yankton, The Little and Big Cutmeat over by White River, almost every feeder draw, and down on the Keya Paha River south of Winner there are places of more then ten acres of hemp in one place.
I used to go to a lot od motocross races at Yankton and at times the smell of hemp and bean oil was overpowering. Now they have the technology to just use hemp instead of bean oil, instead of petroleum gas, and race on hemp tires.
Gee Bill, you really know your stuff. Did you see the documentary on Alex White Plume? I think it's awful how the Feds came in and destroyed his hemp crops. If the Reservations want to grow Hemp, let them. I hope Alex tries it again. Maybe the Hemptsers can protest for the Reservations.
This is a great sentence Cory!
"Making fuel from harvested switchgrass and other prairie biomass would simply cut out the multi-million-year wait."
Such a good article. I see much more no till too. I wonder about what is living in those fields. I read Blindman's comment, but my wondering is because of all the chemicals poured onto that land. How does that influence the biology of the flora and fauna? Also, what would be there that isn't, what is there that wouldn't be, due to the changes in soil chemistry?
Deb, Blindman is quite accurate and I'll make two additional points to address your comments. Regarding what’s living in farm fields it has been said that a teaspoon of soil contains more micro-organisms than there are people on the planet. Most of the species types in that sample are yet to be classified. Of course the mix will vary from field to field depending on inherent properties and how the field is managed but every soil with plants growing on it has a diverse array of micro-organisms there or there simply would not be any plants growing there. All plants are totally dependent on these organisms for nutrient uptake and other vital functions, including breaking down applied chemicals. A truly dead soil is just that, dead, no life of any kind.
I often hear the phrase “pour on chemical” and feel it stirs up a connotation which fails to put things into proper perspective. For example, an average cornfield whether no-till or conventional will likely receive two applications of herbicide which will often be 2-3 pints of product per acre each time. The top six inches in an acre of soil weigh on average two million pounds. So essentially we’re spreading an ice cream pail of material to forty semi-loads of substrate. We can still debate about whether or not that is a good idea, but I think we could all agree “pour on the chemical” may not be the best description of what is actually going on. Furthermore, the only other present viable option if one is going to grow the annual grain crops we all depend on is tillage which literally does fully disrupt all of those two million pounds of substrate, unarguably having a negative effect on the life living there.
It has been said that cockleburr seeds can lie dormant up to, 75 years before conditions are right to sprout. You apply chemicals to take care of that years weeds and they don't all sprout in the spring. They sprout all spring and into fall. Even late short growing weeds can produce seeds and many new seeds are deposited from other fields by animals,birds,wind rain,etc.
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