This spring, the calls of bobwhite quail and dozens of other bird species will be heard across the 2,885-acre Woodson Wildlife Area in southeast Kansas. Old-timers say they haven’t seen such quail numbers in at least 30 years.
A myriad of vibrant wildflowers — some unseen even by old-timers — will speckle the lush prairie, where cattle grow fat. It’s some of the healthiest tallgrass prairie in the world, a rare place where wildlife and livestock both thrive. Last year, cattle grazing the area averaged weight gains of 2¾ pounds per day.
IMITATION GRAZING: Land managers are finding that livestock, like cattle, can be used to mimic the grazing patterns of bison.
The great success of providing a place where wildlife and livestock can coexist lies in the way those cattle are placed on the landscape. It’s a step back in time at least 160 years.
Return to prairie management
“We’re using cattle to mimic what bison did so well for all those centuries,” according to John Johnson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks manager of the area. “History tells us we can’t have healthy prairie without some kind of grazing ungulate. These plants out here evolved through thousands of years of intense grazing. It’s what they need to thrive.”
As Johnson walks the Woodson prairies, the heads of assorted grasses bob in the wind. Closer to the ground, at least a dozen species of wildlife flowers were in different stages of maturity. The biologist says more than 200 species of native prairie plant now thrive on the grasslands he manages. Many haven’t been seen in more than a decade, if ever. As lush as was the native vegetation, open areas and little wildlife trails could be seen at ground level.
PLANT DIVERSITY: Woodson Wildlife Area manager John Johnson checks some forbs, like these wildflowers, that grow lush when grazing has applied the water the way Mother Nature intended.
“Grazing does a multitude of things to help the prairie,” Johnson says. “One of the main things is to keep things from getting too [thick.] Their [cattle’s or bison’s] ground disturbance also helps the soil. They also help with seed dispersal.”
Putting cattle to graze on prairies isn’t a new concept. Making them do it as bison did 150 years ago, is.
Johnson points out bison didn’t stay weeks or months on a segment of prairie. They grubbed a place down, then moved on to find enough new growth to support the big herds. A major advantage of intense grazing is that it forces ungulates to eat every leaf and blade of greenery in the pastures.
“One of the greatest myths out there is that cattle will only eat grass and do well on grass,” he explains. “That’s not true. If forbs are what they have to eat, they’ll eat them and do great.” That helps add plant diversity, which in turn attracts such ground nesting species as bobwhites, meadowlarks, dickcissels and more.
A common challenge for nesting bobwhite quail and prairie chickens has been when the groundcover gets too thick for chicks to maneuver. It’s also imperative they have plenty of insects nearby, on which they feed almost exclusively the first several weeks of their lives. Forbs attract far more insects than grasses. They also produce important seeds on which quail can feed throughout the year.
As bison didn’t stay long in one area, neither should cattle if the goal is a healthy prairie.
Johnson says cattle are usually only allowed on the wildlife area up to 90 days per spring and summer. Some smaller pastures may only have cattle 11 or 12 days. On a tour through a 218-acre pasture, he said the 295 steers would be on it about 33 days.
Ideal prairie, he adds, has several stages of growing vegetation if wildlife is the best benefit. The needs of a prairie chicken or quail aren’t the same for spring nesting as they are for surviving a cold winter.
Fire — not just springtime tool
According to Johnson, a common way to lose prairie health and plant diversity is to do the same management, over and over. The past 30 years, that’s been early-spring burning across most of the Midwest prairies.
BRING BACK WILDLIFE: Bobwhite quail, on the decline across most of eastern America for decades, are responding well to new intensive grazing programs that use cattle to graze like bison did historically.
“You end up with monocultures for an ecosystem,” Johnson says. “That’s not healthy for the prairie, and it’s not healthy for wildlife.”
Like more and more conservation-minded prairie managers, Johnson is burning the Woodson pastures in the summer and early fall, when fires are better at taking out brushy cover, like cedars and sericea lespedeza. Such fires work far better than spraying. Research has also showed that’s when fires were most common, pre-civilization.
“That’s one of my biggest goals, is to manage all of this without chemicals,” Johnson says. “After those later burns, we’re getting some phenomenal success with forbs and grasses returning. It’s really been impressive.”
Again, he notes it’s nothing more than reverting to the ways Mother Nature designed these prairies to be thousands of years ago.
Pearce writes from Lawrence, Kan.