Restoring the Abbey Grasslands
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November 2012: Blue Cloud Abbey grasslands, part of the Tallgrass Prairie, before restoration
My restoration journey began September 24, 2012, when an article in the StarTribune caught my eye: “Plowing Away the Prairie at a Price.” The article showcased the gruff pragmatism and greed of modern agriculture.
The article mentioned a prairie conservationist who was working with landowners in the Dakotas to help save the remaining prairie remnant.
In search of a small piece of prairie to purchase, I phoned the man at what was a serendipitous moment for that very morning he was to meet with the Benedictine monks of Blue Cloud Abbey about their nearly 1000 acres of native prairie in NE South Dakota.
The land was in a state of overgrazed hardship from a former tenant who overstocked the land—startling barren stretches devoid of grass, but thick with buck brush and weeds.
Rock-hard manure discs, many no more than a yard apart, littered the land—more evidence of high stocking rates.
But on the distant horizon was a stark contrast--the beauty of Blue Cloud Abbey. Only four monks resided at the abbey at that time, and several months later we were introduced.
Why the Tallgrass Prairie? Lyle Lovett explains it best...
2013: The First Year--Restoration begins with Rest
In a leap of faith I leased all the native remnant (950 acres) from Blue Cloud Abbey and let the land rest at the monks' request. This pasqueflower made it's debut on May 1st, and was the first pasqueflower I'd ever seen.
Soon thereafter I found wild onions...
And wild strawberries...
Prairie Smoke, a spring perennial, bloomed on the hayfield.
Mature flumes can be harvested by hand for seed.
My neighbors, local seed harvesters, introduced me to various native grasses and forbs...and instructed me that sedges have edges.
Plant identification became part of my daily routine.
In anticipation of needing more pollinators, a local beekeeper placed bee boxes in two locations on the land.
Butterflies, another pollinator, were abundant, particularly melissa blue (mature shown), and regal fritillary.
Then, in June, an aerial crop-duster over-sprayed the neighbor's pasture and pesticide drift contaminated the hayfield, killing the forbs.
The South Dakota Department of Agriculture was notified. An analyst took multiple samples which confirmed Tordon. The crop-duster was fined $500; it was his second offense.
A biological pesticide was used--spurge beetles. A group gathered one afternoon and swept a field to collect flea beetles.
The beetles were deposited into containers and then divided amongst us to release on patches of leafy spurge in our pastures.
The beetles are released in the center of an infestation of leafy spurge (an invasive, non-native plant) and the insects burrow down to the roots, eventually killing the plant.
Lepidopterists from two states (Minnesota and South Dakota) sought to find dakota skippers and poweshiek skipperlings--species that would be listed as threatened by year-end.
Ten years earlier one species had been noted on the 40 acre hayfield, but unfortunately in 2013 none were found.
By mid-summer smooth brome, a non-native cool season grass, had taken over the pasture suppressing the growth of native warm season grasses and native forbs.
The outcome was undesirable, yet unpreventable, during this year of rest.
But in the valleys with less brome the natives flourished, evidence that a native seed base was there.
A mile to the north, virgin land had been broken by a Hutterite colony.
Beneath the sod the soil was laden with rock, and virtually un-farmable.
Soil was moved; all attempts to convert this land to cropland failed. Today it stands as a rock-filled weed patch.
Meanwhile, good things were happening at the camp stream--a teacher workshop training about riparian health.
Several invertebrates were found that indicated a healthy stream.
Even though the land's future was still unknown, a local rancher and I took grass clippings and sent them to SDSU to calculate dry weight, in order to accurately predict stocking rates for the next year.
Thanks, Mike McKernan, for assisting me with the process.
Similarly, though I couldn't know the land's future, I had the fields mowed/raked with a burn line in each hayfields (160 acres total), prepping them for a spring burn.
After taking up archery and practicing all summer, I took my first jake on the second day of the fall turkey hunting season--October 2nd.
My bird was the last Thanksgiving Day turkey served at Blue Cloud Abbey.
2014: Blue Cloud Abbey's grassland is sold and becomes "Abbey Grasslands of the Prairie Coteau." Restoration continues...after rest comes action!
Photograph taken in the November 2012 after the pasture had been over-stocked and heavily grazed.
Photograph taken in November 2013 following a year of rest. Though there's stands of brome there's plenty of habitat cover for wildlife.
Photograph taken in spring 2014 before rotational grazing begins.
Lots of fences to mend--Abbey of the Hills (the new pasture tenant) calls for volunteers.
In April the 70 acres of prepped hayfields are burned.
A green burn of 40 acres produces thick smoke, and a stellar result.
Green burn on 40 acres.
South Dakota Ornithological Union bird tour Memorial weekend--45 species sighted.
New green gate configuration added to make moving cattle more seamless.
Hiring a youth crew: It soon became clear there were more repairs needed than volunteers could manage. Two crews of college kids were employed for the summer.
3.5 miles of new perimeter fence was installed by mid-August.
But even more important was the addition of internal cross-fences, dividing the pasture into 40-50 acre grazing paddocks.
Using composite posts with single-strand high-tensile wire, the cross-fencing has the visual aesthetics of the open prairie.
A family of youngsters spent their weekends tearing out lines of old internal fencing.
In return, the kids received the scrap metal, plus the promise of a deer hunt (one took his first doe on the land later that fall).
As a result of more habitat cover, wildlife became more abundant.
Three turkey broods in one season.
The hayfields came alive with forbs and native grasses, the brome suppressed by spring burns.
Big bluestem and switchgrass.
Behind the scenes I hauled off trash...old cedar posts.
And cleaned out the sheds...
And picked up litter that the winds had blown across the fields...
State archeologist looking for cairns prior to fencing reconstruction.
Abbey of the Hills spreading organic manure on the 16 acres of tillable cropland that will be planted to cover crop, then reseeded to native in 2015.
Customized sprayer fitted for the Ranger--for pesticide spot-spraying of sage and thistle due to previous over-grazed areas.
The campground's spring-fed creek runs through the pasture; maintaining riparian health is of high concern.
Prior to adding this stream crossing.
After stream-crossing is installed.
Nine stream crossings are placed across 750 acres of grassland range, thanks to an NRCS cost-share EQIP grant.
Dugout clean out.
Due to a drought forecast, water issues are a concern. To protect stream health, the dugout is restored (part of my EQIP grant).
Engineers mapping and taking core samples for new dam (NRCS/EQIP).
Installation of 24,000 feet of rural water above-ground pipeline slated for 2015.
700 gallon Enduraplas stock tanks to connect to pipelines.
Moving cattle to another paddock.
The grazed paddock on left, fresh grass paddock on right.
Fall grazing before the cattle are brought back in to the yard.
Planted a radish/turnip cover crop mix in the 16 acres of tillable land.
Cover crop provides habitat cover and nourishment for wildlife during the winter months, while aerating the soil.
Big bluestem overtakes smooth brome from a timely two-week period of intensive grazing during the cool season.
Late fall 2014--big bluestem. With improved grass cover, the jackrabbits returned.
Though this photo depicts big bluestem, there's a new issue to contend with next year--cedars, a blight.
2015: Restoration continues into year three!
Before cedars are removed...
Before cedars are removed...
After the cedars are cleared...
After cedars are cleared...to date 1000 cedars have been removed from the grassland pasture in a water-preserving effort. (Thank you Br. Chris!)
Winter months are spent building bluebird houses...
Wood duck boxes...
And, a bat house.
Meanwhile, the restored grasslands caught more snow (which means more moisture in the soil)...
...than the neighbor's pasture across the road...
...or the other neighbor's tilled field across the road to the north.
And then...spring thaw! A special thanks to videographer and photographer Wade Kaiser who shot this footage, added the score, and graciously donated his art to my cause.
Bluebird houses installed and ready for occupancy...
Bat house raised and ready for guests.
And, wood duck box set.
April 17th: Burn started in the evening with light winds and mild temps.
The flames picked up as the evening wore on.
By the time the humidity rose we'd burned nearly forty acres on the 120 acre hayfield.
The burn was extinguished by laying a wet line.
April 19th: Prepared the bee boxes.
Approximately 8,000 bees arrived by mid-afternoon.
The queen's box is prepared by substituting a small marshmallow for the cork--which the worker bees will consume to free her.
Worker bees and drones are emptied into the boxes.
The queen's small cage with marshmallow cork is installed and then the boxes are closed.
On May 1st cattle, a primary tool in prairie restoration, returned to the pasture to begin grazing smooth brome.
Other pasture paddocks are burned to suppress smooth brome, and set back invasive weeds such as wormwood sage, and buckbrush.
After a controlled burn the rocky terrain is profoundly evident--this grassland is unsuitable for row crops. Yet conversion to commodity farms continues to occur at a rapid pace, decimating the native prairie.
Birds: At Home on the Range
SD Grassland Coalition Bird Tour 6/6/15
Field stations: Bird Watching, Nest Dragging, Bird Banding, Stream Ecology, and Plant Identification
Fifty-five folks enjoyed coffee and rolls at the Abbey Grasslands dining hall before venturing out on the range for the Fire and Grass Burn Tour on June 18, 2015.
SDSU Range specialist Pete Bauman measuring grass cover.
Why Save the Prairie?
Treat the land well as you do not inherit it from your ancestors, you borrow it from your children.
~Old Lakota Proverb
Summer project involved tearing out miles of old interior barbed wire fences.
This presented an opportunity to reconfigure the paddocks into a more effective rotation, and accomplish grazing objectives.
Instead single strand high tensile electric fence was installed, which awards an open range aesthetic.
Another summer project: installed 24,000 feet of above ground pipeline across the pasture to supply stock tanks with water.
Various pipeline components include elbows, drainage ports, valves, and intersections present the ability for a customized layout.
This hearty above ground pipeline eventually works down into the soil. Avoiding buried lines saves the soil from disruption, an invitation for invasive weed growth.
An example of a weed growth invitation--heavy traffic areas.
Accidents happen: fence line breech around the dam where cattle have entered the water to drink.
An ongoing summer project: eradication of invasive weeds--a large pile of wormwood sage, each plant hand-dug or clipped to discourage the spread of seeds.
Pipeline work continues: installed a designated curb stop for rural water to feed lines to stock tanks
Stock tank pads: 3 loads of gravel per pad. Each stock tank holds 700 gallons of water. Installed double tanks per watering station to meet storage demands.
Contractors leveled the tanks with surveying scope, then installed gravel pads.
Contractors compact the gravel which is laid over river rock.
Each pad is approximately 6' x 24' x 6" thick, and slopes to discourage cattle from loitering near the water source.
The watering stations have a low profile on the landscape. Each station is serviceable from multiple paddocks.
Tanks are anchored with posts, lumbar, and a green gate for pipeline adjustments.
Each watering station can accommodate 12-16 cows at the same time.
Lastly, customized animal escape ramps from galvanized steel are fashioned & installed.
Native forb growth on the burn unit is indicative of recovery; this hearty stand of lead plant is a nitrogen-fixation agent.
Gray-headed coneflowers amongst varieties of needle grass.
Purple coneflowers are but one native species found in the burn unit. The diversity that has emerged shows great recovery potential.
Apiary update: Added supers to each colony.
In the top super, the frames are not filled or capped yet but the bees are hard at work.
Adding another super to yellow bee box. Boxes are color coded to assist us in tracking each colony.
On our fall prescribed-fire tour we explored the results of spring burns on several units.
Blazing stars in bloom.
Good stand of Indian grass.
Fall grass--big bluestem on the burn unit.
Winter work involves rigorous red cedar removal.
Moving cedar debris into large brush piles to burn.
To date more than 2,000 red cedars have been removed.
This is a single red cedar tree root system. Tree was of moderate size (7-8 feet).
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