Nebraska native grasses grow strong after 50 years of conservation program

By: 
Associated Press

WINNETOON, Neb. (AP) — James Wagner has lived on the family farm in rural Winnetoon for most of his life.

He was born here and went to grade school right across the road. He’s seen things change, but he’s also seen much that has stayed the same.

One constant for the past 50 years is a pasture that Wagner planted in 1967 as part of a government program. To commemorate Nebraska’s 100th anniversary that year, Wagner said he could participate in a centennial seeding program. The program required planting a mix of native grasses.

Wagner originally participated in the program mainly because of the conservation benefits.

“The ground was washing,” Wagner said.

Grasses that once covered Nebraska have now spent another 50 years growing and flourishing in Wagner’s pasture, the Norfolk Daily News reported . But it wasn’t easy to get them started.

“The first year, I got so disgusted. The ground was just like now: dry, dry, dry. Of course, grass, when it comes out, it’s just a little string. You can barely see it,” he said.

Even planting the grass was challenging.

“It was very hard to get big blue to seed through the seeder. It’s so hairy, feathery,” he said.

With patience, Wagner said, the grass eventually began to grow and would produce its own seeds to help the pasture expand and thicken.

“Eventually then when they drop their own seed, it seems like they spread out,” Wagner said.

Despite the program ending, he kept the native grasses and managed them through grazing. He has never had to reseed it, and he doesn’t mow it.

“I just leave it alone,” he said.

The native grasses include a mixture of warm- and cool-season grasses.

“Big blue and little blue, that’s bluestem. Indiangrass. Now it doesn’t seem like there’s any of the grama grasses. I’ve never seen any there. Generally, you get them, too. And then wheatgrass, probably western wheat. It’s a cool-season grass. Presumably, that’s for early grazing. ... Warm-season are just starting to come on real good now,” Wagner said of what he sees growing in the mixture now.

At 88 years old, Wagner still grazes cattle on the native grasses and rotates them through his other pastures as well. This year the cows grazed the centennial grass from about May to July before being moved to another pasture.

The grass is allowed to recover and grow before Wagner will bring the cows back to graze it one more time.

“Generally, you get enough moisture that it really comes back good in the fall,” he said.

“So they’ll be in the next pasture about three months and then they’ll come back over here toward fall, and then I’ll sell the calves and the cows go out to the cornstalks.”

Raising livestock is something that Wagners have done at their farmstead since James’ grandfather farmed here.

“My grandfather bought it in, well, it’d be about 110 years ago. . My dad got it, and then I got it. He almost settled west of Creighton in 1871. But he bought a piece of ground and got out in this country here,” he said.

The farm has seen cows and calves, horses, fattened cattle that were marketed in Sioux City, and even crops like corn and oats. Wagner stopped crop farming 10 years ago, and the horses and feedyard are long gone. He even has reduced his cow herd. “I’m gonna have to quit. I can’t outrun the cows!” he said.

But with all that has changed in agriculture, in Nebraska and in the world over the years, Wagner still has his resilient native grasses from the centennial seeding.

“I’m starting to feel proud of it now,” Wagner said of his native grass.

 

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