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April 2012: Picturesque Prairie, Nebraska

From the Photographer...

Chris Helzer   

I took this photo on a late August morning. It’s a prairie that I manage for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska and I drive past it most days on the way to work. On this particular morning, the light was beautiful and the shadows from the hay bales added to the patterns in the short-cropped grass. I pulled off the road and spent some time looking for interesting compositions.

The Central Platte River is known for the annual spring staging of 500,000 or more sandhill cranes during March. Hayed prairies like this one are regularly used by those cranes as feeding and loafing areas, and the cranes can feed on invertebrates such as earthworms, beetle larvae, and snails. Later in the spring, grassland-breeding birds arrive, and this particular prairie often hosts bobolinks, upland sandpipers, western meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and other species. 

In the central portion of the United States, most remaining grasslands have survived because they can help pay their own way. Haying and grazing of grasslands can help provide the income needed for farmers and ranchers to run their business and hold on to their land. In addition, those agricultural practices can be very compatible with maintaining the ecological integrity of the prairie. Chronic overgrazing and some haying practices can certainly degrade grassland communities over time, but there are also many ways to achieve both agricultural and ecological sustainability. Finding that balance is one of the Conservancy’s most important strategies in rural agricultural landscapes.

While most hayed prairies are cut annually, we try to vary the management of ours to avoid managing against any plant or animal species on a regular basis. By haying a prairie in some years, grazing it at various times and intensities in others, and mixing in some years of rest and prescribed fires, we can best provide suitable habitat and growing conditions for a wide diversity of plants and animals. 

Photo taken with a Nikon D300s. Tokina 12-24mm lens at 12mm. Aperture 13, Shutter speed 250.

Chris Helzer is program director for the Conservancy's Eastern Nebraska Project Office and the author of the book The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States. His images of Nebraska prairies and their wildlife are among the most spectacular in the Conservancy's archives. See more of Chris’ photos on his blog, The Prairie Conservationist.


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