The eight-point whitetail deer stands alert with his ears and eyes locked directly on me. I can tell immediately from the buck’s aggressive behavior that he has no intention of giving up his ground and risk losing his hard-fought breeding rights that comes with age, body mass and intimidating large antlers. The buck knows he has the superior tactical advantage as I approach his hilltop position from the valley below. I press on, climbing up the hillside toward the buck at a steady 4 mph gait. With the distance closing, I figure the old boy will eventually retreat into the nearby dark woods. I move closer – 40 yards, 30 yards, 20 yards, 10 yards, 5 yards … This is going to get interesting, I think!
Now, so close I can see the wet mucus in his nostrils and the rough-beaded surface texture at the base of his mahogany-colored antlers, the testosterone-crazed buck finally moves two steps away just inside the woods and lets me motor by. I chuckle to myself. The scene reminding me, decades ago, of stalking caribou on Alaska’s open tundra and trying to disguise myself as a bull caribou by positioning my hunting bow to resemble antlers. And today, inadvertently emulating a challenging whitetail deer buck with the tractor’s U-shaped inverted roll bars resembling wide-sweeping antlers. Maybe it was the loud diesel engine, or the orange-colored tractor, that finally tipped off the old buck that I was not another buck. Still, he challenged me two more times before finally deciding I wasn’t a threat.
I’m out on this cold November evening “making prairie.” Or, to put it in more accurate terms, reconstructing prairie. In this case, we are planting native prairie grass and forb (flower) seed into an old farm field with eroded and exhausted soil. Years from now, after many seasons of attentive weed control, we hope to have a thriving prairie ecosystem that will provide habitat for many plant and animal species. While this reconstructed prairie will likely never have the biodiversity found in a remnant (original) prairie, it will be instrumental in helping many at-risk species such as the rusty-patched bumble bee, migrating monarch butterfly and several species of grassland birds, hold on a little longer, and optimistically expand in numbers, during this era of habitat loss.
Beyond the wildlife benefits of the reconstructed prairie, the deep-rooted prairie plants will stop soil erosion, filter and replenish ground water, rebuild the exhausted soil, remove carbon from the air and store it in the soil, and provide a gateway for people to reconnect with nature. Often, these reconstructed prairies become the focal point of a property. A place for people to enjoy natural beauty in flowers, butterflies, birds and more. A place for people to trust and enjoy their senses of touch, sight, sound, and smell while temporarily unencumbered from the drama of living in a “human-made” world.
One of the keys to successful prairie reconstruction is the placement of native seed into the soil. Seed sown on top of the soil is subject to predation (hungry critters) and dispersal loss from the wind. Native prairie seed is expensive and often in short supply. Native seed also comes in many sizes, masses and shapes, greatly complicating a “one-size-fits-all” method of dispersing the seed into the soil. To ensure that a small amount of expensive prairie seed of all shapes and sizes is uniformly dispersed at the correct depth in the soil throughout a large planting area, we practitioners turn to a device called a grass drill.
This is not the grain drill sitting in your Grandpa’s machine shed, but a complex mechanical device of pulleys, gears, disks, compactors, chains, seed boxes, hydraulic hoses and cylinders, clutches, soil scrapers, seed dispersing meters, sprockets, drive shafts, springs and more. Typically, there are three unique seed boxes with specialized seed metering systems to handle variations in seed shapes such as fluffy, tiny, flat and round. Calibration of the seed flow through these metering systems is critical to ensure planters don’t run out of seed too early or have seed left over. Very simply, calibration is accomplished by adjusting and measuring the average weight of seed dispersal over a small area and mathematically scaling this number both in planting size (acreage) and planting rate units (typically pounds/acre).
The grass drill is pulled behind a tractor. The drill has a leading row of disks that cuts slits in the ground. Behind the leading disks is a row of double disks uniquely shaped to expand the soil slit and deposit a seed at the desired depth in the soil. As the drill moves forward, the drive shaft engages a series of gears, which triggers the seed box metering system, and disperses seed down a chute connected to the double disks. Following the double disks is a row of compacting wheels that closes the soil slit back up.
With the sun too low now for me to continue on with the planting, I stop the tractor and prepare to lubricate the drill’s moving parts while they are still warm. A deer snorts, and I turn to find four of its kind watching my every move. I turn back to the drill, taking a moment to admire the elegant engineering beauty and innovation of its design.
How ironic, I think. Here I am using the latest of humanity’s innovations to “make a prairie,” while just a short 194 years ago, another of humanity’s innovations - the steel plow - was used to destroy it almost entirely.
To further the irony, this technologically complicated device can only put back the prairie to a mere shadow of its former glory while a simple piece of curved steel nearly erased the prairie from memory. A lesson all too familiar for us restoration practitioners - nature can be easily destroyed by humanity, but never truly replaced by the same.