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Moo-ve Over Forest! It’s Time to Make Roam for the Grasslands

Friday, June 30, 2017, by Alina Smithe
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[Small pond in grasslands. If only we could jump in on hot days! Photo by Alina Smithe]Imagine a sea of green grass swaying in the wind, sprawling mountains in the distance, cows browsing at their leisure. This is probably not the view that comes to mind when you picture Harvard Forest. But here at the Harvard Farm, an abandoned golf course on the outskirts of the forest that is now maintained as agricultural grassland, ecological research extends beyond the trees.

Though forests gather the attention of most conservation efforts in New England, grasslands also offer vital but fleeting ecosystems. Most grasslands originated from the clearing of forest for agricultural purposes, but they have since become home to many plant and animal species that are unique to the habitats they provide. In the 1800s, when farmers abandoned their land for industrial jobs and nonlocal food rose to ubiquity, their dreams of an agriculturally sustainable New England weren’t the only things left forgotten. Without regular maintenance from grazing or mowing, which prevent trees from growing and allow grasses to persist, pastures in the Northeast have a natural tendency to revert to forest.

[Alina determining abundance of sheep's sorrel in an observational plot. Photo by Jill Fusco]My research this summer under the mentorship of Martha Hoopes aims to further explore cattle grazing as a conservation and agricultural strategy to preserve grassland ecosystems. The farm is broken up into three regions: a high-intensity grazing area that cows always occupy, a rotational grazing area further divided into smaller sections that cows visit for only 2 days at a time, and a hay production area without cows that is mowed once a year. Divided amongst these regions are 27 10m x 10m plots, where my research partner, Jerilyn, and I spend much of our time. Every morning, with my notebook in one hand and my field guide in the other, I wade through the sometimes thigh-high grass to find the right plot. The next step- the hardest one- is to identify all of the plants and determine how much space in the plot they occupy. Before this summer, grass was just grass to me, and flowers just flowers. Now, I have a newfound perspective when I look down at the ground at my feet, noticing so much more nuance than I ever realized existed. Though there was a steep learning curve at first in familiarizing myself with the vast diversity of life in the farm, successfully using a field guide to uncover the identity of a new grass or wildflower brings with it a satisfying feeling reminiscent of solving a puzzle.[A curious cow called Juncus(also named after the grass) greeting Alina, Jerilyn Calaor and Mentor, Martha Hoopes. Photo by Jenny Hobson]

Once we finish collecting all of the data, we will analyze it to elucidate the effects of grazing on the plant communities throughout the years. Of particular interest are invasive plants, which are not native to New England and have a tendency to grow unchecked, taking away space and resources from all of the other native plants on the farm. While mowing affects all of the plants equally, cows have specific food preferences. Plants that they like to eat, such as grass and small woody shrubs, are disproportionately cut back, but plants that they avoid, including thorny and poisonous plants, are able to grow even more. Many of the latter plants are invasive, so this leg up on their native competitors may enhance the toll that they already take on the ecosystem.

Jerilyn and I have also designed a project to investigate in greater depth the effects of a particular invasive species at the farm called sheep’s sorrel. We hope to shed light on what makes sheep’s sorrel such a good competitor by observing the plant communities surrounding the sheep’s sorrel at the farm as well as grow it in a greenhouse. Particularly, we are interested in its potential chemical warfare tactics in which it releases toxins into the surrounding soil to prevent nearby plants from growing in the same space. We will also analyze its relationship with several types of clover, which is thought to facilitate sheep’s sorrel’s invasion. With so much to cover, we will have our muddy hands full to say the least. Our final, and perhaps most paramount goal for the summer is to name (and be able to distinguish) all of the cows on the farm.

[Jerilyn and I observing growth of sheep's sorrel in greenhouse. Photo by Jill Fusco] So far, the knowledge and skills I have gained this summer encompass more than just the ecology of the farm. For one, I have discovered that cows don’t like it when you are studying the plants in the direct place they are trying to eat. But more importantly, I am learning about experimental design, data analysis, and collaboration with my peers and superiors. If the second half of this summer is anything like the first, I’ll be having an udder-ly good time until the cows come home!


Alina Smithe currently attends Mount Holyoke College and is studying Biochemistry.