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Farm and Forest Riparian Restoration

Best Management Practices Series

Cattle Farmer Protects a Creekbank by Fencing, Restoring Native Plants

Multi-use River Cane Is Attractive, Slows Erosion

A clear brook wanders through John Cash's 80 acre farm near Moody, Missouri. The stream is a tributary of Bennett's Bayou, a creek that flows into Norfork Lake. [map] Edged by thick brush and shaded by big trees, the little creek is hidden, private, and pleasantly cool on hot summer days. Further away from the creek, just beyond this wooded buffer, lies moist bottomland soil that supports lush grass.

Rolling pasture makes up most of Mr. Cash's farm, so this moist, partly-forested creekbottom is a little different than the surrounding landscape. The different conditions there allow different plants to grow. Mr. Cash has counted over 70 species of native plants in the creekbottom, and the land is home to otter, beaver, deer and turkey.

A desire to protect this lovely creek, to keep it healthy and able to support unusual plants led Mr. Cash to take action.

FENCING OUT TROUBLE

Mr. Cash keeps a herd of cows and raises calves. His cattle think the shady bottomlands are a great hangout. But unfortunately cattle can tear up the creek banks, leave manure in the water, and eat the plants, leaving the soil underneath vulnerable to erosion. So Mr. Cash decided to fence an area along the creek so that the cattle couldn't pollute the water or destroy the bank vegetation. Now the cattle have to stay about 150 feet away from the creek.

ENCOURAGING GROWTH OF SLOUGH GRASS

A few years ago Mr. Cash discovered a certain type of grass growing naturally in the creekbottom that is rare in his area. It's called prairie cord grass, and it is a warm-season grass that only grows in moist areas. The plant is also known as "slough grass." A slough is a low-lying place that stays wet or swampy. Slough grass is common on prairies in southern Canada and northern U.S., but not in the Ozarks.

slough grassSlough grass gets very tall. When the picture at left was taken in November 2004, the grass was waist-high on Mr. Cash, even though frosts had withered the grass and turned it brown.

This grass provides nesting areas and seed food for small birds. It is not highly desired by livestock, but can be used for hay if cut early in the season.

Mr. Cash's fence has protected the slough grass from being mowed down by the cattle. "The patch of grass has gotten bigger since I fenced it off," Mr. Cash reports. He is going to use this patch as a "nursery," so he can later transplant plugs of grass to other wet areas up and down the creek.

ESTABLISHING RIVER CANE

Also being transplanted into Mr. Cash's creekbottom is river cane, a versatile plant that once thrived throughout the southern U.S. It was cleared to make crop fields, and it is now relatively rare.

At maturity, stands of river cane look like a bamboo forest; they grow up to 20 feet high and the stands are too thick to walk through. It stays green in the winter after other plants have turned brown.

Several species of birds nest and raise their young in cane breaks, including the endangered Swainson's warbler. Another species, the Bachman's warbler, relied on cane breaks for food and shelter. That bird is believed to be extinct, probably due to severe reduction of its habitat.

Harvested canes are useful; they can be made into fishing poles, privacy screens, or any number of craft projects. Native Americans used the canes for spears, arrows, and blow-gun darts, plus they wove them into baskets, mats, and roofing materials.

river cane plantsRiver cane grows in rich, moist soil. Native stands are often found in a narrow strip between the the edge of a cultivated bottomland field and the bank of a creek. These dense thickets have an extensive root system which helps hold soil in place even when creekbanks are buffeted by powerful currents during a flood.

Two years ago, Mr. Cash transplanted over 400 river cane plants, in groups of six or seven, planted every fifty feet up and down both sides of his creek. He's checking on the growth of one such cane cluster in the photo at right.

The transplanted cane will "just sit there" for about three or four years, Mr. Cash said, but during that time its roots are developing. After the roots are established, he expects it to take off, growing tall and spreading rapidly through root shoots.  He hopes that someday his creekside will be lined with thickets of tall cane that will attract wildlife and help protect against erosion.

A mature cane thicket located on Bryant Creek can be seen in the photos below. This stand of cane extends for over a quarter-mile along the creekbank, and in places reaches up to 100 feet into the bottomland.

Bryant Creek river cane  Bryant Creek river cane

More information on the history of river cane can be found in the article Canebrakes: Missouri's Bamboo Forests, Missouri Conservationist, October 2002.

Published February 2005.
Photos of Bryant Creek river cane by Peter Callaway. Text and remaining photos by Denise Henderson Vaughn.

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