Planting the Deer Camp Prairie

This is the 3rd planting we’ve done at Driftless Prairie.

When we acquired this 12 acres that we named the Deer Camp Prairie, it was an alfalfa field.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Winter of 2012 before being planted to corn.

Because of the land’s topography, we decided a corn crop would be the best way to prep it for the planting. For each of our plantings, we have gone with an ag crop prior to planting. It reduces weeds and herbicide usage. We chose corn as the last crop instead of soybeans because the corn stubble would break up quickly yet hold the soil and prevent erosion when the snow melted with the warmer spring temperatures.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
The corn field, November 2014

What we didn’t plan for was a problem harvesting the corn. In early November, when most of the corn crops were already harvested, we started to get concerned. We were really getting stressed out when it was still standing the middle of November. Several phone calls later and we still had an unharvested corn field and weather predictions of 3-5” of snow. Eventually and with some firm coaxing, Jim was able to get the farmer to harvest and the corn was out a few days after Thanksgiving. Although our agreement was for the farmer to harvest, then mow and bale the husks, he refused to bale it. You can see from the photo that there is too much debris remaining to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. There is also too much snow for us to burn the residual husks and stubble. We were feeling helpless and depressed.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
A view of the debris left from the corn harvest.

We caught our first break and it warmed enough to melt the snow. Now we wait until it becomes dry enough to burn. We checked the weather forecast daily, sometimes several times in a day. A cold spell returns with high pressure and lower humidity and the ground freezes. The forecast is for above 32 for the upcoming weekend. We debated about what to do; we were worried the warmer temps would not dry it enough to burn. While I was working on another project inside, Jim stole off and did a test burn. Viola!! It worked. He came back inside and we scrambled into burn clothes and scurried off.

We burned half the first day; we only had a couple hours before the sun went down and the humidity rose.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Half of the field is burned

The next day, I mowing each stubble row of the burned half. It was a dusty job and took nearly 10 hours to complete.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Mowing the stubble after the burn.

Mowing row by row

While I mowed, Jim burned the other half. These photos show clearly why it would have been futile to try to plant without baling or burning.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Burning the stubble from the edge inward

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Burning the stubble

We were feeling quite lucky the ground stayed frozen and the humidity remained low so we could get this mowed and burned.

Unfortunately, there were areas that didn’t burn well. We donned our rakes and created small burn piles. These areas were patchy and over the 12 acres, we probably hand raked about a quarter of an acre. Never let it be said that we aren’t committed to returning our ecosystems to a sustainable state!

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie
Raking up what didn’t burn

The Day of the Planting

Before the volunteers arrived, Jim took the buckets and seedbags to the center of each respective section. We learned that by taking it to the center, rather than using an edge, the volunteer then had to look around and ascertain their area before they began planting. It also keep the additional seed in a central area for replenishing the bucket.

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie
Jim hauling the seedbags and buckets to the sections.

The seeding began! Jim and I ensured everyone was oriented to their posts and understood any oddities in their section layout.

The day was foggy and the field was a bit muddy, but folks were prepared!

Afterwards, we washed off boots in the propagation garden, making sure any seed was in a good place to grow!! Then we headed inside for lunch.