Native prairie restoration becomes a family dream brought to life

Tilston-area farmers partner with watershed district to boost habitat and productivity

Elgar Sterling always wondered what a portion of his farm, along the Jackson Creek, must have looked like before it met the plow.

The late Tilston-area farmer often wondered aloud about that prospect, son Brian Sterling recollects.

“My dad would often say, “I wonder what this land looked like when it was raw prairie?” said Sterling, who now farms with his son Andy and their families.

“Like Dad, I was always interested to see if that piece of land could re-establish into what it may have been like years ago and we were determined to give it a try. My dad isn’t with us anymore, but maybe we will get an answer to what he was asking.”

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The 100-acre piece of ground they’re working on had been cultivated years ago, and the rocky soil was sown with annual crops like corn and oats and regularly grazed.

It periodically endured overland flooding, but despite that it was an efficient and productive part of the operation. But it wasn’t exactly what the Sterling family envisioned as the best use for their operation and the community.

Brian Sterling took the grassland restoration concept forward in 2017 and connected with Dean Brooker, then manager of the West Souris River Conservation District out of Reston, to share his thoughts. Brooker jumped on side immediately and proposed the project for funding. It successfully received $30,000 from the Growing Assurance program for providing ecological goods and services. The three-year project established the perennial native cover crop on the parcel.

“It is pretty good land, a bit rocky. I knew it would be hard to seed down into native grasses as seed is hard to get a hold of,” said Sterling.

“My dad would often say, ‘I wonder what this land looked like when it was raw prairie?’ ” – Brian Sterling.
photo: Duncan Morrison

Brooker took care of that part though and through the funding, arranged the purchase of an eight-foot Truax broadcast seeder for the project. The seeder has specialized seed boxes specifically for native grass seed and Brooker brought in the expertise of Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) Native Plant Solutions for the grass restoration and seed mix.

Sterling always felt that once established the native grasses would help to preserve the fertility of soil while filtering sediment and pollutants from the nearby Jackson Creek. The additional native prairie cover would provide valuable habitat for wildlife, pollinators and beneficial insect species. Even after two years, both Sterling and Brooker have already noticed a definite uptick in wildlife and pollinator abundance.

“The opportunity that Brian brought forward in 2017 to seed 115 cultivated acres back to native grasses for grazing and haying use while providing all the ecosystem benefits such as improved soil health, biodiversity and water quality that come with deeper-setting roots and more vegetation was a great project for us,” says Brooker, now the regional manager of the newly minted Souris River Watershed District.

But even with the land, seeder and seed, it certainly wasn’t just sowing, growing and going forward. As anyone working restoration projects on Manitoba’s agricultural landscape will tell you, things always take time and always take a lot of work.

“It isn’t a quick experiment,” Sterling said. “It wasn’t much to look at for a while. But now that we are entering year three of the project, it has come along pretty well. It looks good, there’s a good stand of native prairie that is taking hold there. Some plants are as high as three feet, which is good to see. The grass has not been disturbed since it emerged and so hopefully there will be some reseeding this year. Things take time to develop and payback is slow; be prepared for little to no return for the first couple of years. But everything seems on course for good things now that’s for sure.”

Native plants now cover the landscape on the restored parcel after just two years.
photo: Duncan Morrison

All along, as things fell into place, Brooker felt the project could and would work. He believes the Sterling project offers a template for others to consider.

“This is a great partnership project that we are very proud of helping make happen,” says Brooker. “The Souris River Watershed District would like to thank the Sterling family for participating in this project and the Growing Assurance- Ecological Goods and Services program for providing the funding.”

Brooker welcomes any and all similar discussions around grassland restoration. He invites producers and landowners who are interested in establishing native prairie to contact the Souris River Watershed District regional offices in Reston (204-877-3020) or Deloraine (204-747-2530) for more information.

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