The first project to convert active cropland into prairie was the 21-acre Luckey Prairie, created with the support of USDA and USFWS funding. The northern two thirds of this site is part of an ancient sand dune system that formed during the post-glacial warming period. The southern third was originally a portion of the bottom of a glacial kettle lake of over 800 acres that was partially lowered in the late 1880’s to drain its shallower areas for farming.
Three different seed mixes were planted into soybean stubble using no-till methods in May 2004. The mixes were matched to the dry, mesic and wet-mesic soil conditions developed by the aforementioned historic soil-forming factors. All mixes included a “nurse crop” of oats that grows for one season and serves to fill in open spaces that otherwise would be colonized by weeds. For two or three years, the native seeds are germinating and slowly growing to fill that space. The existing weed competition (mostly winter annuals) was broadcast sprayed with herbicide just prior to planting. The site was high-mowed in August 2004 to control newly established weed growth, interrupt the seeding cycle, and provide sunlight to newly emerging native seedlings.
Native Grasses and Fire Breaks
Three units were planted with native grasses and forbs of regional ecotypes that were known to have been present in Noble County in the past. Surrounding each unit, a 16ft – 33ft wide strip of orchard grass, perennial ryegrass, timothy and ladino clover was planted. These introduced species are cool-season plants used for agricultural forage. They green up early in the spring, set seed, and then go dormant by mid-summer (unless mowed prior to dormancy). These strips serve as firebreaks between each unit. When prescribed burning occurs in early spring, the dry, dormant native prairie vegetation easily ignites, but the green, growing and moist firebreak vegetation resists burning.
Maintaining the Prairie
All of the firebreaks are mowed in August (after bird nesting season) to encourage lush growth and suppress the invasion of woody species. The firebreaks surrounding one of the three units scheduled to be burned the following spring are mowed again in the late fall to reduce the fuel load and to encourage early spring green-up. All of the units were first burned in April 2006 and then separately on a three-year rotating basis. This rotation period: a) stimulates prairie species growth and vigor, along with beneficial soil bacteria; b) suppresses the invasion of woody species and c) provides a refuge area in the adjacent unburned units for beneficial insects to maintain the over-wintering stage of their reproductive cycles.
Goshen College Biological Sciences faculty member Dr. Ryan Sensenig and his students have established a deer grazing impact study in this area using two permanent deer exclosures.