North American prairie is a special natural resource. The location of prairie on the planet makes it a mega food producer. Our prairies get the right amount of precipitation, warm temperatures, and cold temperatures to create a unique ecosystem that can only occur in the central part of America and Canada. And once discovered by settlers, prairie has, and is, providing food and fuel to the world.
Rangelands are different from pasture lands in that rangelands grow primarily native vegetation, rather than plants established by humans. Rangelands are also managed principally with extensive practices such as managed livestock grazing and prescribed fire rather than more intensive agricultural practices of seeding, irrigation, and the use of fertilizers.
Vast grasslands remain and function as rangelands, a type of agriculture. Rangelands provide a balance between maintaining natural ecosystems while providing meat products for human consumption. Cattle thrive on the short, warm-season grasses such as buffalo grass and blue grama of short grass prairie, which are rich in protein.
European settlers brought agriculture and domestic livestock to the mixed grass and short grass prairie. Due to a more rugged topography and less precipitation, this mixed grass and short grass prairie did not undergo the conversion to agriculture that occurred in tall grass prairie regions. Thus great deal of the land remains in native grass, which is used as rangeland for cattle.
The principle crops of the mixed grass and short grass prairies are corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Alfalfa is most often harvested as hay since has the highest feeding value of all common hay crops. Grain sorghum is also grown in these regions and is used as fodder for poultry and cattle. Hard winter wheat, used to make flour, dry beans, and sunflowers are also products of the mixed grass and short grass prairies.
The deep, organic-rich soil built up by tall grass prairie is made for agriculture. Prairie grasses sink their roots deep underground. The natural decomposition of these prairie plants, in particular their root systems, added layers of organic matter to the soils and helped create the rich, black soils in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The corn-belt from Kansas to Oklahoma is probably the best agricultural land in the world.
Bioethanol is a form of renewable energy that can be produced from agricultural feedstocks. It can be made from very common crops such as soybean and corn. These feedstocks are processed into ethanol.
Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants. Unlike corn and soybeans, which are major food crops, prairie grasses are not used for human consumption. Prairie grasses can be grown in infertile soil, eliminating the cost of adding nutrients to the soil. Switchgrass and Miscanthus, native prairie grasses, are two materials scientists are using to create cellulosic ethanol, due to their high productivity per acre. Switchgrass yields twice as much ethanol per acre as corn; however, corn is currently easier and less expensive to process into ethanol.
To paraphrase a famous quote, “With great prairie, comes great responsibility”, we have the responsibility to manage this amazing resource so our prairies can continue to feed people and the wildlife that depend on this natural resource. We are all interconnected and the health of our prairies reflects the health of our country.