Pictured above is a small area of grassland located near Gundersen Health System’s Onalaska campus. In the Midwest grasslands are known as prairies but around the world they have different names. For example, in South America they are called Pampas. Grasslands grow in areas where there is not enough rain to support a forest, but not so little as to form a desert. Here in the Midwest our prairie grasslands are known as temperate grasslands because they average around 10-30 inches of rain per year and have two seasons: a growing season and a dormant season (grass does not grow during the dormant season because it is too cold). The other type is tropical grasslands that grow in areas where it is warm year around.
So what is so important about grasslands? Grasslands are important because the soil tends to be deep and fertile. This is ideal for growing crops and having pastures. Grasslands are also home to several varieties of insects and small animals. Native grasslands also help to preserve the fertility of the soil. One of the best ways to sustainably manage prairie grassland is through controlled burning every two to four years. Controlled burning is essential for many reasons because it kills off invasive grass species and weeds, exposes the soil to the sun allowing for a longer growing season, burns off excess leaf litter allowing for more plants to seed and grow, and provides nutrients to the soil through the ash.
Unfortunately, only about one quarter of the earth is covered in grasslands because a majority of them have been converted into croplands. Having more croplands is essential to supporting our growing population, however today many of the croplands are suffering from infertile soil because they have been repeatedly treated with chemicals and harmful farming practices (such as no crop rotation which is important for maintaining soil fertility and preventing insects and weeds from adapting to the environment). Because of this, there is a push to preserve the remaining grasslands and to convert current croplands back to grasslands, or into farmland that is sustainably managed. If the grasslands disappear, we will have less fertile soil around the world, which means less soil for plants to grow. If you are near grassland or know where one is, help preserve it by participating in the call to action of burning every two to four years.