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Historically tall grass prairie covered 70-80% of Iowa’s landscape with such species as big bluestem, butterfly milkweed, prairie cord grass, and pale purple coneflower. In order to restore a portion of Iowa’s landscape to prairie, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources dedicated 3 full-time employees to producing prairie grass and wildflower seed for use on Iowa’s public lands. Today, the Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center provides over 65 species of Iowa-origin prairie grasses and wildflowers to public land managers across the state.
The need for diverse prairie seed is easily identified within the Iowa DNR. Every year the Wildlife Bureau of the DNR purchases land for public use. The amount of public land purchased varies from 5000-7000 acres per year during the peak of the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV) purchases to 2000-3000 acres per year in more recent years. Obviously, much of this land needs to be restored to quality wildlife habitat and seed from the Prairie Resource Center allows this to occur. Because time or budgets did not allow multi-species plantings in the past, many acres of public land now needs diversification or rejuvenation with our diverse prairie seed.
How is the prairie seed produced?
A plan was devised to divide the state into 3 zones, the northern 3 tiers of counties, the central 3 tiers of counties and the southern 3 tiers of counties. (This plan is in synchronization with the Iowa Ecotype Project/University of Northern Iowa which works with private seed producers.) For instance, pale purple coneflower is harvested from several prairie remnants in the north zone. Seed is cleaned, grown into 4-6 inch plants in a greenhouse, and planted into a single-species, cultivated row with other plants from northern Iowa. Seed is collected by hand or by use of a small combine and returned to public land in northern Iowa. Native grass seed is collected, planted in larger field situations and harvested with a combine equipped with a unique rice-head stripper. This allows seed to be harvested yet the valuable residue remains as winter cover for a variety of wildlife species.
Why is prairie important to Iowa?
Iowa is in the heart of the tall grass prairie region with 70-80% of the state once covered by prairie. Many Iowa citizens have never seen an example of the prairie ecosystem that historically dominated the landscape of our state. Because prairie is a native ecosystem, the plants that make up the flora are well adapted to Iowa’s climate and soils. Native wildlife species are also adapted to the tall grass prairie ecosystem. Many of these prairie species have declined due to the loss of prairie.
Prairie wildflowers bloom from April until September attracting insects from spring to fall. A diverse prairie is home to many insect and small mammal species. Species at the bottom of the food chain are very important to wildlife. For example, during their first months of life pheasant and quail chicks’ primary food is insects. In addition, these dense diverse stands of prairie provide winter cover for a variety of wildlife species. Many of the early prairie seeding done on public wildlife areas was native grass which stands upright even with heavy winter snow and wind.
Prairie also benefits Iowa’s water quality. When heavy rains fall into a prairie, stems of the native grasses and forbs slow the runoff allowing the water to infiltrate through the soil instead of flowing across the surface, carrying soil and nutrients to our marshes, lakes and streams.
Impacts to Iowa’s grassland habitat are being made yearly as we regain thousands of acres of Iowa’s prairie habitat. The Prairie Resource Center is committed to providing diverse Iowa-origin prairie grass and forb seed to public lands of Iowa.
Current newsletter: Seeds of Diversity, Fall 2013
Interested in volunteering? Help is needed in all phases of prairie seed production; planting wildflowers, weeding, seed collection, and seed cleaning. This is a great way to become more familiar with prairie the many species of prairie plants. Make a difference to the landscape of Iowa; volunteer (individually or as a group) for a day with the Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center.
Bill Johnson, IDNR - Prairie Resource Center
2820 Brushy Creek Rd., Lehigh, IA 50557
Phone: 515-543-8319, William.Johnson@dnr.iowa.gov