Virgin Prairie: A Disappearing But Important Resource

Contributed by Chris Rohrbaugh

 

Virgin prairie was plentiful in the US until the mid-1930s. At that time it was plowed up to plant wheat, as many farmers thought that the prairie had died in the extended drought. In fact the prairie was dormant and waiting for the next rain.

Today many grain producing states contain less than 5% grassland. Only about 1% of that is Virgin native. Much of Nebraska’s Virgin native prairie is located in Pawnee, Johnson, and Gage counties. These are currently the areas of some of the best grassfed beef production in the world. Virgin Native prairie is important as an eco system as well as a basis for production of high quality, nutrient dense beef. It, in effect, is the eco system chosen by nature as the optimal long term balance.

As an eco system, prairie supports several species of unique and rare birds, snakes, and plants. The masasaga rattle snake is almost exclusively found in Pawnee County, Nebraska. The pre-historic looking prairie chicken is also a good example of important species supported by prairie. Bison, whitetail deer, cougars, bob cats, and prairie dogs are found in a variety of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie.

Most important of all is the grass itself. More than 150 species of plants can be found on a healthy virgin native prairie. These each have unique blends of micro- nutrients brought up from the soil and made available to animals and people by the wide range of root depths and soil layers. The grasses and forbs hold the soil from rain and build the soil for further generations.