Native prairie grass is making a comeback in Colorado.
By: Kayla Young, The Tribune
When Don Hijar describes a seed of native prairie grass as amazing, he means it in the true sense of the word. Inside the tiny capsule are the wonder and the livelihood of the plains.
A naturally self-sustaining system, the native seed that Hijar and his company Pawnee Buttes Seed of Greeley, Colo., use to reclaim and repurpose land connects Weld County to its pioneer past and its industrious future.
Whether a project entails oil and gas development or construction of a new reservoir, to do it right, seed will likely play a vital role.
On a plot of native grasses east of Kersey, Hijar explained why progress in Weld County has not meant total devastation of grass and farm lands as it did for his home in southern Colorado. Here, before "revegetation" had entered the vernacular of land developers, massive agricultural buy-and-dry left the terrain in Crowley County that Hijar once farmed with his family lifeless.
As a silver lining to hard lessons from the past, Hijar demonstrated why this dryland plot outside of Kersey did not suffer a similar fate. Eight years ago, Hijar evaluated this land for revegetation — in other words, the reintroduction of the plant life that lived here before farming.
The water used to irrigate the land had been purchased to help fill nearby Latham Reservoir. Rather than leave plots of bare ground, prone to wind and soil erosion, developers created a long-term plan, requiring minimal maintenance.
Hijar seeded the ground with a native, dryland grass mix including Western wheatgrass, blue grama, sideoats grama and green needlegrass. The seeds, selected for drought tolerance and adaptability, offer a mix of cool and dry season vegetation that bounce back to full form at distinct points of the spring and summer months. The variety means more life and more color on the plains for longer periods of time.
"If this is not overused, it will be here for a thousand years," Hijar said. "It's incredible."
Beyond protecting the soil from destructive heat and wind, these plants also offer a diversity of nutrients and color.
Evaluating a bunch of sideoats grama, Hijar identifies tones more commonly used to describe a sunset than a grass field. Under a careful eye, the plant reveals a subtle mix of red and purple hues. The diversity of color only begins to hint at the range of life teeming below the soil. The plant mix has created a root system that reaches distinct depths, equating to diverse interactions and exchanges with the living soil system.
Above ground, the grasses welcome insects, which will then attract birds, followed by small mammals, and so on.
"We're encouraging nature to be whole," Hijar said.
To return former farmland to a more natural form, Hijar evaluates it for soil type, elevation, annual precipitation and whether it has been irrigated. These factors determine the appropriate fit for the land.
Once farmed acreage has been slotted for revegetation, it cannot simply be left to return to its original state, explained Clark Harshbarger, a Greeley-based soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
An irrigated farm plot may have experienced accelerated mineral weathering, leaching, or a change in soil structure. In other words, this is not the prairie of Nathan Meeker and other homesteaders.
In an effort to help land managers mimic the past, he encourages them to think about how the past system sustained itself.
Like the natural plains, a revegetated system depends on diversity. Harshbarger recommends including at least a dozen different seed sources that will keep soil as well covered as possible. These plants also will create a year-round root system that encourages micro-organisms to thrive.
Livestock grazing can also play the role that bison once filled on the plains. Cattle can contribute to soil nutrients with their manure and help work the ground with their hooves.
Responsible grazing works a bit like pruning bushes. It gives strong plants room to grow and continue growing.
Hijar shared several examples, including properties from Latham Reservoir and others owned by the city of Thornton, where revegetated terrain has successfully incorporated cattle for grazing, or benefited livestock with hay cuttings for feed.
Weld County's 35,000-acre Wells Ranch serves as a prime example. As a bustling center of oil and gas activity, the ranch has managed to quickly reclaim land and maintain pasture suitable for cattle and pronghorn.
Accompanied by Hijar, Bruce Sandau demonstrated how oil and gas waste has been brought to life as a nutrient-rich soil amendment to revive the sandy ground.
Sandau and Mike Sever of Milliken's Green Earth Environmental have developed a mix of waste from oil wells, bacteria and fungi called HydroLoc. When compared with compost as a soil amendment, Sandau said the product has helped new grasses take root more quickly.
He pointed to a recently planted plot where small, green sprouts have already broken through the soil.
While they may not look like much, they represent progress. Although oil and gas may contribute extra income to the operation, theses grasses are the past and future of the ranch.
"That's what they want to do here (is raise cattle)," Sandau said.
A native grass mix fit for sandy soils will make that future possible. As Hijar pointed out, when it comes to progress, it is best to look back at how things once were.
"Mother Nature is going to play her game, no matter how good you think you are."