At the end of the winter, planning is underway for the lands that are managed by the Huron Wetland Management District (WMD). As we get closer to spring it is very common to get asked, "Why do you burn?", "Why don't you hay/graze more?", "Why are you farming a Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA)?" We will try to answer these questions.Every spring, the managers and biologists at Huron WMD discuss which WPAs we are going to burn, graze, farm or hay. Our management activities attempt to mimic what happened on the prairie for hundreds of years before European settlement. These historic activities included huge prairie wildfires, and grazing by millions of bison.
In order to choose the best management treatment, we look at what has happened on that WPA in the past 5-10 years. Other factors that drive our management practices are, how serious is the weed infestation on that WPA, what kind of grass is found on the WPA, and what are our management goals for that WPA. After evaluating all these factors, the decision is made to graze, burn, farm, hay, or rest the WPA for that year.
"Why do we burn WPAs?" We conduct prescribed burns is to decrease tame non-native grasses on native prairie. The most aggressive tame grasses are smooth brome, crested wheat grass, and Kentucky blue grass. Prescribed burning with good timing, suppresses the tame grasses and gives the native grasses a jump start. Prescribed burning is also used to control noxious weeds. Prescribed burning cleans off all the excess vegetation and allows for more accurate application of chemicals. We also try to burn, hay, or graze an area prior to farming it to allow the cooperating farmer greater ease in the breaking of the sod .
"Why do we farm WPAs?" Typically the Huron WMD farms a particular WPA for two years prior to reseeding the area back to native grasses. We only farm ground that has previously been farmed, and contains stands of tame grasses. We start out by farming the first year with RoundUp Ready corn, followed by RoundUp Ready soybeans. Round Up Ready crops leave a clean, relatively weed free seed bed. Soybean fields create a very firm seedbed and have very little crop residue. This allows the area to be ready to plant into the following spring. Typically the FWS doesn't plant food plots. However, when we are farming an area, part of the cooperator's rent is to leave us a food plot. After an area has been replanted to grass, in about 3 years some type of management is needed to remove excess dead vegetation and stimulate growth of planted natives. Grazing or burning are the of preferred management tools.
"Why do we graze WPAs?" The other management activity we most often use is grazing. Grazing is done alone or in conjunction with burning. Like burning or farming, we graze an area to help improve or stimulate the native grasses. We'll also graze an area that is primarily tame grasses to help open the grass canopy and allow native species to compete for water and sunlight. A Cooperator will put their cows on the WPA early in the spring or after a prescribed burn, just as the area starts to green up again so that the grasses the cows focus on are the tame grasses. These are usually the first to green up. Again the strategy behind this is that the tame grasses get stressed and this gives the native grasses a better chance to out compete them. Management units are grazed for a short period of time usually one month or less. A few WPAs are being grazed during the entire grazing season in conjuction with a perscribed burn as part of a "patch, burn, graze" adaptive management study. We are conducting this study with the hopes of reducing the amount of non-native introduced grasses on the WPA.
"Why do we hay?" Huron WMD has moved away from using haying as a regular management activity, because it doesn't match up well to what happened on the prairie prior to European settlement. Haying is usually done late in the summer. It removes all vegetation including seeds from the site. Cattle on the other hand "fertilize" and "reseed" the area that they are grazing. Hoof action by the animals compacts the soil and can cause better contact of dormant seeds causing more seedlings to appear after grazing. We will use haying if we can't get an area burned or grazed prior to farming, or if the WPA is dominated by tame grasses and we can't find a Cooperator to graze the unit. Haying is also done in late summer and fall in order to remove vegetation prior to farming.
Finally, you might be wondering who our Cooperators are and how we find them. Cooperators are area farmers and ranchers. Once a WPA is sold to the FWS, the prior landowner or prior farming cooperator is given the option to lease the land in accordance to the AUM rate set annually by the FWS for South Dakota. In addition to grazing, the cooperator must agree to repair existing boundary fence and in some instances install temporary fence. Anyone that is interested in farming, grazing or haying an area needs to contact one of the District managers so they may be added to a list of potential cooperators.