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Prairie Perks – the advantages of native prairie plants

By Austin Baron, AAg, Agri-Environmental Specialist, Swift Current

December 2019

Native Prairie Grasslands
In the recent years, ranchers have been faced with the challenge of feeding more livestock on less acres. This challenge is compounded by the fact that much of their grazing resources are native prairie, an invaluable resource that depends on the ranchers and cattle to maintain healthy range conditions. Native grasslands are one of the largest biomes, globally, and are very productive. Much of the land that is native prairie in Saskatchewan is considered to have very low agricultural capability, due to topography and soil texture. According to Gauthier et al., only 17 to 21 per cent of native prairie in Saskatchewan remains intact. The native prairie grasslands offer many cultural, social and ecological benefits, to both public and private interests. These grasslands are home to a very diverse community of plants. The plants that make up these grasslands boast a variety of grasses, forbs and shrubs, all of which are important habitat for wildlife.

Having such a mix of plants allows for staggered flowering times which provides food sources for pollinators throughout the growing season. These plants are well adapted to the local climate and moisture conditions, making them more resilient against disturbances. Many of the remaining grasslands reside in locations of low agricultural capability, where growing grain crops is unfeasible and would require significant inputs. The plants that grow in the native prairie, however, have specific adaptations that allow them to grow and thrive. These plants combat erosion by holding the soil in place and have the ability to use available moisture far more efficiently than non-native species. These acres also allow for greater cycling of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen through the ecosystem.

Native Prairie Grasslands
Historically, these ecosystems developed under the grazing pressure from large ruminants such as the bison that once roamed the Great Plains. Today, ranching, specifically grazing cattle, are a large part of the management and success of the native grasslands. By looking at multiple aspects of the landscape, rangeland managers are able to support and preserve the health of the native prairie. This includes managing the presence of invasive species, handling litter (carryover of dead vegetation) layer thickness, as well as the preserving the community of plants. The presence of invasive species can indicate overgrazing or an imbalance in the ecosystem. Rangeland management specialists can also assess health through the present of litter, which provides protection to the soil and helps regulate temperature and evaporative moisture loss. The absence of litter can indicate overgrazing, whereas excessive litter can indicate under grazing. Looking at what species and layers of vegetation are present provides a description of present and past health of the grasslands. A healthy ecosystem will have a variety of species with multiple layers, which provide various rooting depths. Producers use these range health indicators to determine management practices, such as choosing a stocking rate for the grazing season and the timing of grazing.

Proper grazing and livestock management is crucial to the health of our remaining native prairie. Ranchers have access to educational resource and funding through their local offices. For more information on how the Ministry of Agriculture is helping farmers and ranchers protect Saskatchewan's natural landscape, contact your local Rangeland Management Specialist for more information or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre general inquiry line at 1-866-457-2377.

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