Is it economically feasible for East River farmers to restore prairie grasslands and derive a significant income from a forage-based production system?
South Dakota State University researchers expect to soon analyze farm data collected over a period of five years at EcoSun Prairie Farms that should help answer that question.
This former corn and soybean crop farm near Brookings, S.D., was converted to all grass. Last year, the farm sold approximately 350 tons of prairie hay, 13,000 pounds of native grass seed and 1,500 pounds of grass finished beef.
Potential future income sources include sale of hay as cellulosic feedstock for biofuel, carbon credits as a form of climate protection, ecotourism and fee hunting.
Many positive changes in the environment and wildlife population are already evident.
"When we grassed down this land, it virtually eliminated erosion. In the second year of our project, we had a five-inch rain at planting time," says Carter Johnson, SDSU ecology professor and EcoSun Prairie Farm chairman. "We saw a lot of gullies forming in surrounding cultivated fields after that rain. On our grassland, the only thing that moved was some litter on the surface. That's just one benefit of re-establishing prairie grass."
The increase in the number of grassland birds is "phenomenal," Johnson says. "Hundreds of Bobolinks were produced here in 2011. A Le Conte's sparrow, a tiny and rare bird in South Dakota that spends most of its time on the ground under tall grasses, was discovered this summer."
Sorensen is a Yankton, S.D., freelance writer.