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Managing Native Prairie

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

May 2021

Native pasture in Saskatchewan
Healthy native pastures of southern

Successfully managing native prairie can be a challenge, but it’s one that results in long-term social and economic returns.

Native prairie is an invaluable asset that depends on ranchers and cattle to maintain a healthy range condition. Native grasslands are one of the largest biomes and are very productive. Much of the native prairie in Saskatchewan is considered to have very low agricultural capability, due to topography and soil texture, but they are an important part of our prairie ecosystem. Around 19 per cent of native prairie in Saskatchewan remains intact.

Native prairie grasslands offer many cultural, social and ecological benefits. These grasslands are home to a very diverse community, with a variety of grasses, forbs and shrubs, all of which are important habitat for wildlife. Having a mix of plants allows for staggered flowering times, which provide food sources for pollinators throughout the growing season. These plants are well adapted to the local climate and moisture conditions, making them more resilient to disturbance. The plants that grow in the native prairie have specific adaptations that allow them to thrive. These plants combat erosion by holding soil in place and use available moisture far more efficiently than non-native species. These areas also allow for greater cycling of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen through the system.

Historically, these ecosystems developed under grazing pressure from large ruminants, specifically the vast herds of bison that once roamed the Great Plains. Today, ranching, more specifically grazing cattle, is a large part of the management and success of native grasslands. By looking at multiple aspects of the landscape, land managers are able to support and preserve the health of the native prairie, including the presence of invasive species, litter layer thickness, as well as the community of plants present. The presence of invasive species can indicate overgrazing or an imbalance in the system.  

Rangeland managers can also assess health through the presence of litter, which is the carryover of dead vegetation. Litter provides protection to the soil and helps regulate temperature and evaporative moisture loss. If there is no litter present, this can also 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. A healthy system 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 resources and funding through their local Ministry of Agriculture regional office. To connect with your regional specialist, please call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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