Recently I purchased an additional 60 acres of my grandmother’s old farm. I had to restore the land to its former glory and turn the neglected field into a productive pasture and wildlife habitat. Here’s my story.
My grandparents were cattle farmers. When my mother was a young girl, she and my grandpa ran a farm where they raised and milked dairy cattle. Back then, the farm was well taken care of.
The bottomland was planted annually, and the grain harvest was stored in the silo. The pastures were rotationally grazed and fertilized by manure spreaders recycling the by-products the cows left behind. It was a genuine “organic” farm.
When they got too old to manage their livestock operation, they leased the pasture out to neighbors to graze. Now, I have nothing against folks who lease the ground to graze, but when it’s not yours, you just don’t take care of it the same as if it were your own.
The fencerows were overgrown; locust and cedars popped up. After my grandma passed away, the farm was split up and sold off to different individuals. My mother kept the 60-acre piece, but it was not pastured anymore, and in no time, it was a jungle.
I hunted there and put in a little food plot. Not knowing exactly what would become of it, I neglected the piece as well except for hunting until my mother offered to sell it to me. One day, as I drove in on my small Kubota tractor to the back fence, the growth was so thick I thought I was going to have to walk out and get a chain saw to cut my way out. I knew then something had to be done quickly.
Years ago, Mother Nature was the caretaker of the land. Buffalo and large populations of cervids occupied the country. It was well grazed, and natural fires started by lightning strikes were not contained.
When I was a kid, I remember folks burned annually to control the invasive trees, such as locusts, red cedar (actually a juniper, Juniperus virginiana), and weeds. They burned farmland as well as timberland. Without fire to rid the forest floor of leaf litter and dead limbs, pests like ticks can dominate. Our tick population and tick-borne diseases are rampant as of late.
Today burning is a no-no in most parts of the country. Neighbors may be afraid their place will burn, and landowners are afraid of being sued. Fear that many homes and outbuildings could be in jeopardy is a legitimate concern.
Regulations in most areas require that certified, licensed, and bonded companies specializing in controlled burns do the job. These companies are expensive and far and few between. Conditions must be just right, and some areas such as my new farm might even require an expensive bulldozer to create a firebreak.
Due to the expensive nature of hiring a certified company or other contractors, I started to do the job myself. The invasive species that have been introduced into this country are a big problem for me. They are not native and are of no benefit to wildlife or livestock. Some are widespread on my farm.
Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata, aka Chinese bush clover) was introduced by our state agency for road right-away erosion control. Russian Olive and Callery “Bradford” pear are also present, not to mention the black locust and red cedar.
Initially, the sericea lespedeza had invaded my other farm, and I had started to control it, yet chemicals are so expensive their cost exceeded what I made on my pasture rent. Treating smaller sections, I was able to control it one year to a degree, yet its seed bank can lay dormant for over 50 years, so that will continue to be an uphill battle.
I couldn’t afford nor did I want to have a dozer come in, so I started dropping cedars and locusts with my chain saw, then cutting the trunks into a manageable size so I could load them in a trailer. It looked great, but the going was slow and hard work. The locusts of any size I had to leave standing.
A much needed helping hand
I was making progress but slowly. This piece of ground had been neglected too long, and the invasive species grew incredibly fast. My saving grace came in the form of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Private Land Management program.
I contacted the private land manager in my county, and he and his supervisor paid me a visit. It was great to have professionals come look and evaluate my land and give me suggestions about what steps needed to be taken.
The MDC is concerned about the nature of the landscape and will help private landowners reclaim and rejuvenate their property. The staff are very interested in eradicating cedars and invasive species, restoring warm-season grasses back into the landscape, and improving wildlife habitat.
Through a Cost Share contract, they devise a plan and pay a certain percentage of the cost, depending on the work to be done. They have helped me by recommending chemicals to control the sericea lespedeza, with controlled burning and removal of non-essential trees.
I have also recently enrolled in a National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps you build on your conservation efforts while strengthening your operation.
It can show you how to improve grazing conditions, increase crop resiliency and develop wildlife habitat. As the staff at MDC, the NRCS personnel are concerned about erosion and can suggest plants and shrubs that can be planted to prevent it. The NRCS also has plans to create areas of wildflowers to help the dwindling pollinators, such as monarch butterflies and honey bees.
Making a plan
I originally cleared a small field up by the road and wanted to burn it. My private land manager, offered to come help one day, and he had access to equipment. I contacted the neighbors and got permission to access their property.
In case the fire got out of control or to walk their side of the fence to keep the fire in check, a couple of friends showed up to give me a hand.
To my surprise, the private land manager arrived with a team of forestry guys who were in the office that morning with nothing else planned for the day. It was awesome; they had vehicles equipped with water sprayers, backpack leaf blowers, protective gear, and fire drippers.
They had printed out an aerial map and devised a burn plan! We were able to burn the whole 51 acres. That burn kicked off my plan by killing so many of the cedars that had grown thick. Now the sun could penetrate to the ground, and new growth appeared.
It was amazing after cutting an area of cedars just how bare the ground was. I always thought the cedar thickets were good deer cover, but they explained that whitetails preferred the cover of native warm-season grasses such as Big Blue Stem and other tall grasses.
The grasses provided not only as good a cover but also food. They made the land more navigable and are more beneficial to ground-nesting birds such as turkey and quail, which I wanted to encourage.
With wildlife habitat in mind, I then decided the beneficial trees would stay, and the rest would go and be replaced by the native warm-season grasses and food plots I intended to establish.
Removing unwanted trees
After the initial clearing by hand, they also suggested I do a cost-share program with the MDC, hiring a contractor to come in and remove my unwanted tree species with a mulcher, a big Bobcat-type machine with a huge wheel on the front that grinds the tree off at ground level.
Certain species like black locust and the Russian olive then need the stumps treated to keep them from growing back. A good burn every year or two will kill any sprouts that come up before they can mature. I went in and flagged all the trees that I did not want ground up—all the red buds, wild plums, oak, ash, and walnut.
Again, this was traditionally cattle pasture, but my new wildlife habitat plan allowed the volunteer oaks and walnuts to stay since they are nut-bearing trees of benefit to wildlife. I got lucky, and the contractor I was introduced to was a retired forester who owns and manages property of his own.
He bought into my plan to save the beneficial trees and pretty much eliminated all the others. Since there is only so much cost-share money allocated in each county every year, this is a work in progress. But with agencies like the MDC that exist in every state, landowners can get help reclaiming and restoring land for both livestock and wildlife.
Maintaining what has been improved thus far is a job. I try to do more each year until the property is completely restored. By creating and maintaining firebreaks, I am able to burn some areas myself. I am on the list for next year’s burn workshop offered by the MDC so I can get paid for my efforts and further improve my place.
My property has several little creeks and ditches, as well as the main creek running through the middle of the property. Together with intersecting farm trails, they break the property up into several small sections surrounded by natural firebreaks.
I also bush hog a couple of rows away from the neighboring fence as well as along a quarter-mile stretch of large cedars. Since nothing grows under the cedars, they also create a firebreak. I mow the tall warm-season grasses close to the red cedars as these conifers are quite flammable if the lower boughs get ignited.
These barriers, along with my firebreaks, make burning by myself safe. Spraying the sericea lespedeza every other summer keeps it maintained and, in the fall, when the warm-season grass goes dormant, a treatment of Roundup helps control the fescue farmers introduced years ago. Of course, there are the occasional cedar, locust, or persimmon that survive the burn and need removing. It is a constant battle.
It’s hard work, but it brings rewards
The benefits and rewards are many. Turkeys have started nesting in the warm season grasses, quail numbers are up, rabbits are plenty, and the wildflowers and milkweed are coming back.
The new habitat, along with the additional food plots, has deer living on the land instead of just passing through. I can get around on more of my property as I reclaim more ground. Just the sight of head-high Blue Stem is a sight to behold.
Land reclamation is a project you can realize with help from agency programs and neighbors with the same goal as yours. I have two neighbors who are now controlling the sericea lespedeza on the east and west sides of me as well as others who have started burning. We get together and help each other out.
This article was submitted by Neil Brown.