Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
EUNICE – This 30-acre field might look like a weed patch to some, but to Vernon Fuselier, it’s a work in progress to recreate a habitat that once covered southwest Louisiana.
“This is native Louisiana plants,” he said. “Nothing has been brought in from outside Louisiana.”
Fuselier, a third-generation farmer, said he just assumed that the land in southern Louisiana had once been forest that was cleared for growing crops.
He credits a neighbor, retired LSU-E botany Professor Malcolm Vidrine, with introducing him to the native plants.
Vidrine said Fuselier took off with the concept. “He’s our best ambassador at this moment.”
Vidrine recalls first that Fuselier was passing by his residence one day, and Fuselier stopped and asked about the tall plant growth in Vidrine’s yard. Vidrine explained he was growing native prairie plants, and Fuselier asked if the vegetation would make good quail habitat.
At the time, Fuselier had a hunting preserve that he was trying to keep in a natural state for his upland bird hunting operation for pheasant and quail.
Fuselier said he obtained seed from Vidrine and he planted it on a small patch of ground.
“The more I planted, the more interested I became in it.”
That was 15 years ago. Eventually, Fuselier closed his hunting operation. Because finding a dependable, close source for birds became more difficult. “I enjoyed it. I still get calls almost every day for hunts.”
But after he closed the hunting business, Fuselier maintained the 30 acres of wild vegetation. Vidrine is pleased with what his neighbor has done. “It’s really shaped up well. It’s beautiful.”
Fuselier said he enjoys having a small area with vintage growth. But he said he has benefitted from the project. “It’s led to a lot of different things on my farm. It really has been a blessing. The prairie led to reading about soil health and rotational grazing. It led to a lot of the changes we’ve done on the farm.”
For one thing, he allows his cattle herd to graze on the native plants for a few days. “We do rotational grazing.”
He said last year, his herd of commercial cattle grazed on the wild vegetation twice for no more than 3 days, and he’ll probably let them eat the grass up to 3 times this year. “We’ll block off area of an acre to an acre-and-a-half for a day. It depends on how much grass you have.”
He said it takes a while for the cattle to start eating some of the vegetation. “These cows have never seen these plants.”
The cattle won’t touch some plants. But even those plants have an indirect benefit by providing minerals to the soil. “They all serve a purpose. I think that diversity is important. You need that diversity. You need that mix. The more variety, the better off you are.”
He has used the Natural Resource Conservation Service pollinator and grazing programs to help maintain his prairie. And the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has recognized his efforts last year by placing his preserve on the Louisiana Natural Areas Registry.
Vidrine said the coastal prairie, dominated by tall grasses and 500-600 species of wildflowers, covered roughly 2.5 million acres of Louisiana. “It extended from Ville Platte to the freshwater marsh to the south, to the east to Breaux Bridge, then west to the Sabine River.”
Prairies help build topsoil, Vidrine said, and the black soil found in the northern states is an indicator of the prairie’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
Vidrine is the secretary for the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society. Its website is http://www.cajunprairie.org.
Agriculture, urbanization, and the petroleum industry all played a role in decreasing the expanse of prairie, he said. Now, just a few fragments of the original natural grasslands can be found, mostly along railroads. “It’s probably less than 50 acres,” Vidrine estimated.
Some areas, like Fuselier’s preserve, have been reconstructed back to prairie. Vidrine said he helped reconstruct a 10-acre prairie in Eunice 31 years ago. Currently, the Duralde Prairie is being reconstructed north of Eunice. And Vidrine has a 1.5-acre reconstructed prairie at his home near Eunice.
Vidrine has a website that
The list of different native plants on Fuselier’s property is long. It includes, big bluestem, mountain mint, swamp flower, rattlesnake master, partridge pea, switchgrass, baptisia, blazing star, hibiscus, black-eyed Susan, beebalm and Eastern gamagrass. He also has a stand of Louisiana irises growing in a boggy area. He hasn’t replanted any of the plants since the first seeding 15 years ago.
“Most of these plants are perennials,” he said.
He tried wild seed of different plants grown in Oklahoma. “It did OK for 3 or 4 years, and then fizzled out.”
Fuselier harvests some of the seed by hand, and he also hires a seed harvester from Gonzales. The tedious process of cleaning the chaff and stems from the seeds is done by hand, and Fuselier has invented a cleaner from an old Stir-all auger.
Many of the seeds are as small as a pinhead, and he will sell them. But he can’t separate the seeds to sell just one species. All the seeds are mixed. He said people who call for seed usually want seed from just one plant.
He said the best planting is done by scratching the soil with a disc, then he broadcasts the seed in December or January. He has used a homemade packer made from a series of old tires to cover the seed.
Don’t expect the plants to flourish right away, he said. “The first year you don’t think it’s going to grow. It’s very slow to get established.”
He said Professor Vidrine told him, “The first year it sleeps. The second year, it creeps and the third year, it leaps.”
Fuselier burns the vegetation in late winter to encourage vigorous spring regrowth, and to control invasive species. “It may not kill it, but it sets it back."
Vidrine said fire was a natural occurrence on the prairie. “Everything east of the Rocky Mountains was a natural fire ecosystem.”
Vidrine said he burns his yard annually for the beneficial effects.
Fuselier also spot sprays to control the invasive Chinese tallow trees but he uses no fertilizer or pesticides. “It’s just like a native prairie.”
By September or October, he said, the plants reach 8-9 feet high.
Fuselier has 64 head of cattle. Most are South Poll cattle, developed from Angus, Hereford, Senepol, and Barzona breeds. He said the small-framed South Poll don’t need as much to eat. He also has a few head of a Corriente-Longhorn cross, but he hasn’t been pleased with the results. He also tried Piney woods cattle but he was disappointed.
“If you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t try anything new.”
Fuselier uses a low-input approach on his cattle to minimize costs.
“We feed little or no hay,” he said. “We use no antibiotics and we use selective deworming.”
He said he will give his cattle cottonseed to help them digest grass in the winter.
He said his cows had a low conception rate, and he had to rebreed them to his South Poll bull. Many of the births weren’t until February when the grass is at its thinnest, and his herd is looking a bit lean.
On the rest of his 140 acres of pastures, cattle graze on bahia and carpet grass.
He also leases land to a local farmer to grow rice.
Several groups have toured Fuselier’s farm. This year, his farm is on a statewide Louisiana Farms Bus Tour organized by the Louisiana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative set for May 9-11. Others on the tour include the Cliff Vining ranch in Pioneer, the Delta Dairy in Baskin, Hunt Hill Cattle Co. in Woodville, Mississippi; Richland Hill Plantation in Norwood, Four Oak Farms in Morganza and Bunch’s Creek Longleaf Tract in Ragley.
Registration for the tour can be made on the LGLC website, www.Louisianaglci.org.