Sandhills: Land Of The Yellow

Nebraska Notebook

Last year's drought, this year's moisture spur a sunflower blanket.

Published on: September 1, 2013

A jaunt through the Nebraska Sandhills is always a highlight of my travels in Nebraska. As most Nebraskans know, this mixed grass prairie covering nearly one-fourth of the state presents a unique landscape of undulating grass-covered dunes, consistently flowing streams and some of the best grazing in the world. Windmills and cattle dot the ridges, dunes and meadows.

I've heard numerous times of people, particularly in spring and early summer, who say they've never seen the Sandhills so green.

This year, those same people would say they've never seen the Sandhills so yellow--yellow as in sunflowers. In many places, it's a yellow blanket as the sunflowers stretch from the roadside to the slopes and tops of the dunes.

Last years drought, this years moisture spur a sunflower blanket
Last year's drought, this year's moisture spur a sunflower blanket

I've never seen anything like it before. In mid-August, I left North Platte early in the morning and headed north and west through Tryon and then on to Mullen, along Highway 2. After a coffee break in Mullen, I continued on to the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory ranch for its annual open house. The sunflower encroachment, rather than diminish as I drove north, became even more prevalent.

Jerry Volesky has gotten numerous calls about the yellow hue and what it means for the grass. In fact, Volesky, who is a UNL range and forage specialist in North Platte, spoke on this very subject at the open house in a presentation called "Drought and Rangelands."

I expected he'd discuss the adverse impacts of the sunflowers and offer up some control measures, if one could begin to somehow treat sunflowers over this vast expanse of land.

To the contrary, Volesky told the crowd not to push the panic button. "Don't worry so much about them," he said.

Referring to sunflowers and several other weeds that are more prominent this year, he said the good can outweigh the bad. They produce some ground litter and cover and provide benefits to birds, wildlife and insects, including plants for pollination.

On the bad side, they compete with grass for moisture, and while non-native folks would call them "pretty," ranchers aren't overly enthralled with the new aesthetics.

"It's part of nature, what we see after a drought," Volesky says.

The yellow blanket of sunflowers and the emergence of other weeds are due in part to the severe 2012 drought that set back and even killed some native grasses. The weeds simply took advantage of the situation.

Then rainfall in July and August this year not only improved grasses but also spurred weed growth, particularly the resilient sunflowers. David Lott, a UNL ho horticulturalist in North Platte, says they have a taproot that can go deeper than many plants, and with the moisture this year they flourished.

As sunflowers come back next spring, cattle will most likely graze them when they're short, Volesky says. Also, he adds, in much of the Sandhills grass is recovering to some extent and should be better able to compete with these weeds next spring.

Referring to questions on treatment, Volesky says it would be impractical, physically and economically, to apply herbicides in the terrain of the Sandhills. It also would harm beneficial plants, he adds.

There apparently is an "old wives' tale" about snow being as high as that year's sunflowers. If true, we could have a bunch of snow this winter in the Sandhills. But that would also mean added moisture and a protective covering for the grass.