Sand Hills Prairie Grass Project is Thriving

Sand Hills Prairie Grass Project is Thriving

By Kamie Stephen / World-Herald News Service | Posted: Sunday, August 2, 2015 1:00 am

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — South of North Platte is about 15,500 acres of land that is slowly returning to its roots, thanks to the efforts of the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement project and a $700,000 grant that the Nebraska Environmental Trust awarded last year.

The acres are part of Lincoln Farms, the largest continuous farm in Nebraska at the time it was sold. Four of Nebraska’s natural resources districts purchased the land so its many irrigated acres could be retired to increase stream flows in the Republican and Platte Rivers.

The four NRDs formed the cooperative, which has been working since 2012 to complete what may be the largest seeding project in Sand Hills history.

“We can’t find any record of a larger project ever undertaken,” said Kyle Shepherd, the cooperative’s general manager. “We retired about 15,500 acres of crop ground and we’re in the process of converting that back to native prairie grass.”

The goal of the project is to reduce the amount of water used on the land. Shepherd said that it would be irresponsible to pump water into the rivers to meet the compact’s needs while the land was still being irrigated.

“We want the project to use less water than it was when it was a farm,” Shepherd said.

The crops were harvested one last time and the irrigation pivots were turned off and put up for sale. Then, because the land was so fragile, the organization planted cover crops to hold the sand. After that, native seeds were drilled into the land.

The cooperative worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop a seed mix that would grow well on the property. The seed mix includes seven native warm-season grasses and one cool-season grass as well as about five varieties of forbs, or herbs other than grass.

“This is a diverse mix specially designed for the Sand Hills,” Shepherd said.

Bill Sellers, range manager for the cooperative, said that although similar projects have succeeded in other areas of the state, the Sand Hills make things more difficult. Sellers said a lot of credit goes to the NRCS for developing a seed mixture that would thrive in the area.

Shepherd said that it’s taken three years to complete seeding because recent droughts led to seed supply shortages.

By the end of May, however, the entire property was back to its native prairie — though the project isn’t over.

“Not only is it a large project, it’s a lengthy project,” Shepherd said. “We can’t just put the seeds in the ground and walk away. It’s something that’s continuously monitored, maintained and repaired.”

After seven years the NRCS will determine whether the project is successful. Because the fields are continuously monitored, the cooperative plans to intervene if sections begin to fail before the seven-year mark.