A Fertile Ecosystem

Farming in the Platte River Valley

Related Education Resources

Grassland biomes (An area classified by the community of plants and animals living within it (forest, grassland, tundra, marine, freshwater) and is made up of many ecosystems.) are some of the most productive ecosystems (Community and interactions of living and non-living things in an area.) in the world. The deep root systems of prairie grasses grow and die back every year, decaying into organic matter (matter that contains a large amount of carbon-based compounds or dead matter) and creating a dark, fertile, nutrient-rich soil in which many other plants can thrive. These roots have a high water-holding capacity and can withstand long periods of drought, making grasses ideally suited for this semi-arid region. The prairie’s maze of root systems also provides habitat (The natural home or environment of a plant, animal, or other living organism) and food for a diverse community of animal species from bacteria that live in the topsoil to gophers and prairie dogs that build their underground burrows among the roots. Above ground, predators such as badgers, coyotes, skunks, wolves, hawks, and owls are at the top of the food chain (one path of food consumption that follows plants, animals, and microorganisms, showing one narrow way food is obtained in an ecosystem). More than 600 species of vertebrates (an animal of a large group distinguished by the possession of a backbone or spinal column, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) inhabit this region, making it one of the most diverse biomes on the planet.

Roll-over or click on the animal and plant species in the activity below:

When Euro-American settlers arrived on the Great Plains in the nineteenth century they found a vast prairie grassland. There are more than 2,900 species of vascular plants on the Great Plains, including native grasses, sedges (A type of grasslike plant that usually grows in tufts in wet ground.), and forbs (An herbaceous flowering plant that is not a grass, usually grows in a field or prairie.). In the eastern part of the region where there is more surface water and higher rainfall, the remaining prairie is covered by tallgrass species such as big bluestem (A tall grass plant, native to the Great Plains; also known as turkeyfoot.), switchgrass (A bunchgrass native to America that has a variety of uses, including as livestock feed, erosion control, and as a renewable biofuel resource.), and Indiangrass (A tall grass plant, native to the North American prairie. It needs lots of sun and blooms late spring.). In the west, drought-tolerant shortgrass species such as blue grama (A tufted grass plant with dense, shallow roots that make it a great sod grass.) and buffalo grass (A turfgrass native to the Great Plains, tolerant to drought and extreme temperatures, and a more environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional lawn grasses.) are common. Between the shortgrass and tallgrass prairies is a transition zone known as the mixed-grass prairie dominated by little bluestem (A warm season grass of the prairie habitat that is commonly used in both landscaping and restoration projects.), western wheatgrass (A cool-season, sod-forming, perennial grass that is an excellent erosion control plant because of its spreading rhizomes. ), and sideoats grama (A short prairie grass native throughout the Americas, great for livestock, highly nutritious even well into winter.). A few hundred species of flowers grow among the grasses, including asters (A plant of the daisy family that has bright rayed flowers, typically of purple or pink.), coneflowers (A North American plant that has flowers with conelike disks that appear to consist of soft spines.), goldenrods (A plant of the daisy family, which bears tall spikes of small bright yellow flowers, Nebraska's State flower), clovers ( A small plant with three round leaves on each stem.), and wild indigos (A blue flowering plant native to much of central and eastern North America.). Cottonwood, oak, and willow trees can be found on the boundaries of the Great Plains along rivers and streams.

For all its diversity, the Great Plains is a difficult place for humans to live. The Native American tribes that inhabited the region were largely nomadic (roaming about from place to place aimlessly, frequently, or without a fixed pattern of movement), following bison herds and raising a few seasonal crops along the Platte River floodplain.

When Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, European American settlers rushed onto the Great Plains to convert the grassland into productive farmland. U.S. citizens could file an application to receive 160 acres of surveyed federal land in exchange for building a home and planting crops.

A view of the sky from inside a cornfield.
A view of the sky from inside a cornfield.

After five years of hard work, the homesteader would receive the deed of title to the land after the required improvements were certified by the local government land agent. But before they could begin farming with domesticated crops (Crops that have been selectively grown or genetically modified over many years to make the plant more useful to humans.), they had to first “break” the prairie sod or grasses with horse-drawn plows, and they had to find a source of water to sustain their crops.

As late as the 1970s, 70 percent of the Great Plains, roughly 265 million acres, was left unplowed and was used only for grazing cattle or hay production. Latitude, climate, slope, and soil determined which land was suitable for crops and which was left for grazing herd animals, mainly cattle. Then center pivot irrigation systems made it possible to drill wells to groundwater (Water held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock.), pump it to the surface, and apply it to farm fields that had previously been too dry to grow crops. Today, only 10 percent of tallgrass prairies remain, and nearly 60 percent of the entire central grasslands has been converted to row crops (A crop (as corn or cotton) that is usually planted in rows.), particularly corn and soybeans, grown for livestock feed, alternative fuels, and human consumption. In the last 150 years, the landscape of the Great Plains has been reshaped more quickly and radically than any environment in human history.

--What does the future hold?

Find out more by watching the video short "Restoring the Native Prairie Habitat" below:

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