Boyle couple restoring land to native grasses

August 05, 2003|LIZ MAPLES

More than 200 years ago, buffalo and elk, drawn by lush savannah grasslands, grazed the land on Michael and Elizabeth Burns' farm on U.S. 127 in Boyle County.

The couple have worked to return some of that land to the native grasses and savannah that first attracted animals and Native Americans. It is a historical restoration that has earned them the title of Boyle County cooperators of the year from the Boyle County Conservation District.

The couple are trained historians and believe that the concept of preservation also means they should be stewards of the environment. They have planted native grasses, building animal habitat, and fenced off a stream on their land to keep cows out, which improved water quality.

Weeds now dominate the native grass pasture, but tufts of grasses have begun to shoot up in between. In two years, those tufts will begin to choke out the weeds, and when drought strikes, instead of hay, the Burnses will be able to feed their cows in that field.


The pasture also provides a home for wildlife such as deer, turkey, mice and rabbits, and for a plethora of native bird species, quail, bobolink, larks, sparrows and finches.

The Burnses got the idea when they and farm manager Steve Campbell attended cow college at the University of Kentucky.

"It sounds like something city slickers would go to, but it's definitely not," Michael Burns said. The program teaches the latest innovations in cattle production.

When they returned, they were full of knowledge but needed help with implementation. Enter Natural Resources Conservation Service's Mary Ann Sharp. An engineer, she devised a plan to make the cows eat smarter.

Water sources on the 480-acre farm were moved and used to section off smaller pastures. Now the cows are fed in smaller areas and moved often, so they won't overgraze. Overgrazing destroys native birds' habitat, and cows that are allowed to eat aimlessly can smash eggs and trample grass, wasting food.

The restored savannah will look much like it did when Native Americans lived here. Tribes kept the woodlands thin by burning the area. Certain trees, like the blue ash, and grasses thrive under those conditions. The Burnses plan to thin it with flash grazing, allowing cows to eat for short periods of time, instead of using fire.

The changes at the farm not only preserve, but are also economical.

When cool season grasses, like fescue and bluegrass, slump under summer heat, native grasses thrive. Many farmers plant all of their acres with cool season grasses. When drought hits, they have to buy hay to tide over their herd.

Native grasses aren't cheap to plant, but Sharp explains that when grazed properly the grasses replenish themselves.

"Obviously we can't do the whole farm that way, but we are trying to preserve the parts of the land we can," Michael Burns said.

To improve water quality, Sharp kept the cows from defecating in a small stream that leads to Spear's Creek by fencing it off. Grass has grown up now along the spring providing more habitat for animals that live there, like frogs and fish.

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