By Kevin Koch
Daryl guided the prairie burn like a sheepdog nudging the flock around the bend and tucking it into the valley. He dribbled out the first flames from his drop torch along an edge of winter-browned tallgrass, forcing a line of fire to crawl against the wind for 20 feet until it petered out. Then he circled back across the prairie and drop-torched bits of flame along another line. This flame roared to life and rode the wind with soaring abandon till it reached the previous burn line and sank away.
Dave Cushman, the owner of this private patch of prairie, had hired Daryl Parker of Tri-State Habitat Specialists, to conduct a safe burn on the 453-acre property. Dave had invited a few friends to help out, which mostly consisted of walking along the burn line and tamping down any flames that threatened to go rogue.
This was Dave’s second annual prairie burn on his Jackson county property. Along with restoring natural tallgrasses and wildflowers, he has constructed ponds for wildlife, built berms to minimize erosion, and revitalized the health of acreage’s forests. Managing a prairie woodland ecosystem in the absence of the full range of natural inputs is a bit like a sheepdog’s task: nudging here, tucking there.
Dave and his wife purchased the property in 2001. The previous owner had put much of the hilly, erodible land that that had been farmed continuously since the 1840s into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). But, having retired the land, the former owner was ready to retire himself.
Dave’s intentions for the property developed gradually. The CRP lands at the time of purchase were planted in bromegrass, a non-native shallow-rooted grass that holds the soil but can be easily reconverted to agriculture. Bromegrass does little to attract wildlife. But Dave was increasingly drawn to the land’s original survey from the 1840s that recorded elk, deer, and wild turkey in an oak savanna landscape.
Dave and I toured the property in late fall, bouncing along mowed paths in a pickup truck, winding among the prairie, ponds, and edgewoods. A rooster pheasant waddled out into the path in front of us, strutting down the lane, reluctant to fly off, though he finally did. “He must have someone interesting back in the grass,” chuckled Dave.
The 196 acres that have been restored to prairie are divided into three sections, one of which is scheduled for burning each spring. As we circled the prairie, the three sections were easily distinguishable. This year’s burned acres were vibrant with big bluestem, side oats grama, switchgrass, goldenrod, coneflowers, blackeyed susans, prairie dropseed, and other prairie grasses and wildflowers. Last year’s burn was healthy as well, just a bit more unkempt. The third parcel, never yet burned but scheduled for next spring, was in definite need of a haircut.
Dave hired local forester and grassland expert Kevin Oetken to help with the conversion to native prairie grasses and wildflowers. Dave doesn’t like using chemicals on the land, so the first step pained him, but was necessary. First, the bromegrass had to be mowed low and killed off with herbicide in the fall and following spring. Once the bromegrass had been removed, the next step was to plant a 39-seed variety mixture of native grasses and wildflowers in the late fall.
Around the same time, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approached Dave about building berms and ponds to reduce runoff from the steep-sloped property as part of a plan to reduce erosion throughout the region and limiting runoff. Over the last few years Dave has constructed four ponds and 10-12 berms and basins for erosion control.
The ponds, Dave says, “are wildlife magnets.” As we drove past we noted a ring of beaten-down grasses around each pond resulting from the wildlife drawn to the water.
Next, Dave turned his attention to improving the timber stands of oak, hickory, and walnut by removing scrub trees so that the hardwoods can flourish and replenish. He has recently planted some American chestnut trees.
Dave’s father was a forester, and he and his brothers grew up with a love of the outdoors. “I probably spent 30 weekends a year from the time I was 5 or 6 hunting, fishing, and hiking while growing up.”
Dave and his family—across three generations—enjoy hunting on the property, but also enjoy watching the re-established wildlife. “Before the restoration,” Dave says, “we really only saw red-winged blackbirds out here. Now we see orioles, wrens, red-tailed hawks, tanagers. There are deer, pheasants, lots of butterflies.”
One hundred fifty years of farming on the steep-sloped acres depleted much of the topsoil, but over time, the prairie will restore the soil. Deep native roots aerate the soil, providing places for organisms to grow, which feed insects, which in turn feed birds and butterflies and draws back a wider array of wildlife.
“I don’t think that this property should ever be put back into production,” Dave says, contemplating future plans to assure this.
Dave is proud of what has been accomplished on the farm, but insists the story of his prairie farm is not about himself, but about the land. In addition, he points out that his prairie is an isolated plot. “Corridors of native plants are needed,” he explains, in order to attract migrating and nesting birds, butterflies, and more.
A month before Dave and I bounced along the grassy lanes in his pickup, I had come out to the acreage on my own. It was the first I had seen the property since Daryl had managed the fire and the straggling band of helpers.
That April I had seen a scorched, black earth unfolding behind a sweeping orange and golden prairie fire. Now, in early fall, the golds and oranges were back—in brown-eyed susans and compass plants and golden rod, and in the monarch butterflies that flitted about like so many prairie plants with wings.
-- Kevin Koch