happy cows on the prairie

In the sleepy town of Meaux, Louisiana is a farm that has been in the family for generations: eight generations, to be exact. The Blanchet’s ( pronounced Blonshet) have toiled the soil here for a long time, so long that the oldest house on property was constructed by hand and with walls insulated with a technique using Spanish moss and mud (called bousillage). That’s old, folks!

The farm is in the heart of Acadiana, just north from Abbeville, a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico, where Tall grass prairie once reigned over miles and miles of treeless land. This area of the state was referred to as the Great Southeastern Prairie of Louisiana. Nice name, huh?

The Blanchet’s run a cattle farm on the land today. Its a farm worked by the family using an environmentally friendly approach. After all, they have to live up to their company motto, “It’s Only Natural”.

They’ve been in the process of going chemical-free and that’s why they called me. They know that native prairie is the answer to high maintenance exotic forage grasses and the chemical fertilizers and insecticides they require to grow.

They wanted a specific request. They wanted diverse native prairie but wanted it to be a planting heavy on the four biggest prairie grasses: switch, gamma, big bluestem and indian.

So we got busy.

Coordinating with the partners in the project, a plan was devised and the production of grass plants started. The idea was to plant nursery-grown plants of these species and then sow a diverse mix of Coastal Prairie seed that will grow to help build resilience into the planting from pressure from grazing. It is a good model, the blending of prairie and grazing livestock. The Bison once used the vast grasslands for grazing and studies show that the combination of fire and patch grazing on diverse prairie can actually benefit biodiversity within the stand.

At this point were are closing in on completing fifteen acres, with 35 more to do.

We started by collecting divisions of the plants from as many Cajun Prairie eco-types as possible. Eco-types are mature plants that are individual, unique seedlings that have matured. These grasses grow in large masses and sections were painstakingly dug and then delivered to the nursery to be divided and potted into one gallon nursery containers. As much soil on the roots of the grasses as possible was kept to attempt to keep beneficial fungi and seedlings of other prairie plants alive in the interim period, in the nursery. At the same time seed was being sown of indian grass, again for the purpose of achieving a high level of seedling / genetic diversity.

These plants were planted in the field over two successive springs (2012 and 2013).  Along with that, an area was designated to sow seed to establish a few acres of mono-culture stands of switch and gamma grass in the field using a conventional seed drill with seed bought from the LaCassinne Company, a land mitigation bank that processes and sells pure live seed of switch, gamma and brownseed paspalum (Hayes, Louisiana).

Steps were taken to prepare the field prior to planting and then in November of 2011, the drilling was done. In April of 2012 and 2013 the nursery grown plants were planted in and all of the plantings have done marvelously, thank you, rain!

We will use a controlled burn as a preparatory step to plant and then seed will be there to grow and move around on its own accord, as it does naturally. Annual burns will be done for several years to establish the field and then they’ll probably lengthen the cycle to two or three years to experiment with what works best for them. We’ll begin work on another section perhaps, sometime after we’re done with this section but even if we don’t do anything, the prairie will spread to the other sections, in a matter of time.

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this aerial shows the entire 50 acre field, a rectangle to the left of the “coullee”, the drainage ditch represented by the green arc of trees). if you click on the photo you can see that the center of the rectangle has another rectangle within it. This is the planted field. you can make out the wetter areas which are in green. the linear, line-like objects are shallow cuts for drainage in what is flat ground and heavy soil. The field is fenced with electric fencing to keep livestock from grazing it.

 

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The Blanchets raise goats and use them to help manage exotic trees like Tallow (Sapium sibiferum) instead of using herbicides. Goats eat anything where as cows are sometimes picky eaters.

 

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The Blanchet Family: Ben, Cat, Anne and Bob and their tennants

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one of a few loads of plants grown by Rick Webb, of Louisiana Growers

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switchgrass ready for the planting hole. Good job Rick!!! Dr. Susan Mopper, director at The Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette helped us with some of the growing of nursery grown grass plugs from seed, too. Go Team Prairie!!!!!!

 

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Andy Dolan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Private Lands Coordinator, a friend and colleague, consulted with me this past week at the site and was pleased with the progress he saw and advised on our strategy for seed planting. Here’s Andy with an Indian grass plant just starting to bloom.

 

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This is what we all hope will transpire in a short time. These are Big Bluestem grass plants, three years old planted at Dr. Malcolm Vidrine’s Cajun Prairie Gardens, Eunice, Louisiana. Dr. Vidrine has an extensive collection of Big Bluestem eco-types of various colors and forms in the gardens. You can imaging the difference in biomass between this plant and say Bermuda grass. And the nutritional and palatability value of Big Bluestem is off the charts and it is peaking in growth in late summer and fall when exotics are declining and worn out. photo by Malcolm Vidrine

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The diverse seed mix will partially come from this field, the Cajun Prairie restoration site in Eunice. Between the Big Bluestem and the Blazing Stars it should make for some happy and fat and sassy cows. Dr. Charles Allen, photo by Tom Hillman

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above: Stuart Gardener examines emerging Gamma grass. The Blanchets sponsored a discovery trip for Stuart and I to go visit Gary Fine in Thibodaux, Louisiana to see what he was doing with native grasses and to see how his work was useful to our project. I was like a kid in a candy store seeing Gary’s cool fields. This was in March 2012. Stuart assisted us with his valuable knowledge of establishing native grasses in Blanchet’s pastures. He is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Area Range Conservationist for Louisiana. Dr. Fine is a retired prairie master, I believe, a plant breeder, and is continuing his work in retirement at the Nichols Farm.

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Dr Gary Fine and his oh-so-fine fields

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for a really helpful and well done booklet by University of Tennessee, Knoxville on planting warm season grasses for forage see this link or get a hard copy. I use it as a reference often.

http://fwf.ag.utk.edu/personnel/charper/pdfs/PB1752.pdf

for more on the Blanchets and their prized beef sales see their website

http://www.brookshirefarm.com/

 

and go plant some grasses!

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4 thoughts on “happy cows on the prairie

  1. Thanks for the story. Nice to know there are so many people with expertise in native grasses- and people willing to go to the trouble to grow them…

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