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Published September 04, 2009, 12:00 AM

Program shows benefits of prairie grasses

WILDER — With the value of corn and soybean crops today, more farmers are turning away from conservation practices they implemented years ago and returning marginal land to production.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

WILDER — With the value of corn and soybean crops today, more farmers are turning away from conservation practices they implemented years ago and returning marginal land to production.

On Thursday afternoon, more than a dozen people gathered at the Timber Lake Wildlife Management Area southeast of Wilder to hear why they should keep their prairie grasses in place.

Jill Sackett, Extension Educator and Conservation Agronomist with the University of Minnesota and Rural Advantage, joined Randy Markl of the Windom Department of Natural Resources for the presentation about native prairie seed production and its benefits to the environment.

“Our native grasses and forbs have a lot of environmental benefit,” said Sackett.

One of the biggest benefits of prairie grasses is to water quality. The root system of prairie grasses can grow anywhere from six to eight feet long, compared to the nearly four-inch root structure for common lawn grasses. With the longer roots, the prairie grasses are capable of taking up farm nutrients before they get into waterways, streams and lakes.

“Used as a buffer strip (the prairie grasses) can really help,” Sackett said.

Farmers receive payments for putting their land into conservation practices and, while the money is perhaps just enough to pay taxes on the land, Thursday’s walk-n-talk gave producers additional options and reasons to keep the prairie grasses growing.

“We’re just telling people that renewable energy is out there, as well as seed production,” Sackett said. “It could be important as an agricultural crop if renewable energy moves toward biomass.”

Until that move comes, however, Sackett said the high nutritional value of prairie grass is great for livestock pasture grazing and hay production. Carbon sequestration and aesthetics also provide value to the cover crop.

Thursday’s event included a harvesting demonstration of prairie grasses and forbs. Randy Markl, the DNR’s Windom Area Wildlife Manager, explained the process of planting, harvesting and collecting seeds for storage. The best plantings, he said, are gained by using and growing local eco-type seeds — seeds from prairie grasses grown within 25 miles of the land where the grasses are to be planted.

While combines can be used to harvest prairie grass seeds, the DNR uses seed collection equipment that doesn’t damage the ground cover.

“We’re into wildlife habitat,” Markl said. “We’d just as soon the harvest isn’t as noticeable out there.”

The harvesters collect the grass and flower seeds, which are then dried and stored before being broadcast seeded on wildlife management areas primarily in the fall of the year.

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