If you drive by some Forest Preserves in the late summer or fall, it's possible you will see a pastoral scene complete with rolled hay bales dotting the landscape.
These hay bales represent just one of the many ways the Forest Preserve District manages its almost 22,000 acres. Former farm fields allowed to go fallow that are now owned by the District are perfect candidates for the wild hay program.
The program began in 2012 when the Will County Farm Bureau asked for help during a drought. Dry conditions were hurting farm crops and the Forest Preserve volunteered to allow wild hay harvesting on forest preserve acreage to produce animal fodder. The program worked well that year, and it has continued ever since.
"It's a great way to manage former grasslands and row crop fields now owned by the District," said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve's chief operating officer. "These areas were being invaded by invasive herbaceous species, invasive shrubs and weedy trees."
Depending on the location, there are several goals for managing wild hay areas. The program keeps out invasive woody plants and maintains a grassland habitat essential to certain bird species. In fact, it promotes biodiversity for many plants and animals, including birds and insects. And it can help establish a field of native species to act as a buffer for adjacent natural areas. The program also maintains desirable vistas and reduces restoration and maintenance costs.
The Forest Preserve has two categories of hay operations: traditional grass hay and wild hay. Traditional grass hay areas are existing hay fields that were purchased as part of larger acquisition projects. These areas have been maintained in grass hay and are of higher quality.
Wild hay fields are those areas that are transitional in nature, containing more forbs, or flowering plants, and invasive species and may have sporadic woody vegetation. The goal for the District's wild hay program is to keep or transition these areas to mainly grass and forbs.
"Wild hay production is typically more visible to visitors since many of these areas are located in preserve access areas or along trails," Schultz said. "Not all wild hay areas are harvested every year but traditional hay is. And not all wild hay areas are baled, some are simply cut in a given year to reduce invasive species and woody invasion."
Cutting times may be restricted in wild hay areas if nesting grassland birds are present. This usually restricts the first cutting to mid-July or later.
Dave Robson, the Forest Preserve's natural resource management supervisor, said in the early years of converting agricultural fields back to native grassland, invasive weedy species and woody plants have the advantage over introduced native prairie vegetation. If the field is simply seeded and left to itself, the prairie will not establish, he said. Rather, it will become nothing but weeds and overgrown brush in the course of just a few years.
Allowing the land to be mowed in the haying program prevents weedy vegetation from taking root and setting seeds in the soil, Robson explained. This keeps the woody vegetation down to a minimum and gives the native grasses and forbs a chance to grow and dominate the area.
"The long-term goal for the area is the creation of native grasslands," Robson added.
The District currently has approximately 830 acres in wild hay and 110 acres in traditional grass hay. This accounts for about 4.3 percent of Forest Preserve holdings. The Forest Preserve collected $14,000 in revenue from both wild and traditional hay farmers in 2016. Of the District's 82 preserves, wild hay is taken from 15 preserves and traditional hay from another seven.
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