Effects of hay management and native species sowing on grassland community structure, biomass, and restoration.
Prairie hay meadows are important reservoirs of grassland biodiversity in the tallgrass prairie regions of the central United States and are the object of increasing attention for conservation and restoration. In addition, there is growing interest in the potential use of such low-input, high-diversity (LIHD) native grasslands for biofuel production. The uplands of eastern Kansas, USA, which prior to European settlement were dominated by tallgrass prairie, are currently utilized for intensive agriculture or exist in a state of abandonment from agriculture. The dominant grasslands in the region are currently high-input, low-diversity (HILD) hay fields seeded to introduced C3 hay grasses. We present results from a long-term experiment conducted in a recently abandoned HILD hay field in eastern Kansas to evaluate effects of fertilization, haying, and native species sowing on community dynamics, biomass, and potential for restoration to native LIHD hay meadow. Fertilized plots maintained dominance by introduced grasses, maintained low diversity, and were largely resistant to colonization throughout the study. Non-fertilized plots exhibited rapid successional turnover, increased diversity, and increased abundance of C4 grasses over time. Haying led to modest changes in species composition and lessened the negative impact of fertilization on diversity. In non-fertilized plots, sowing increased representation by native species and increased diversity, successional turnover, and biomass production. Our results support the shifting limitations hypothesis of community organization and highlight the importance of species pools and seed limitations in constraining successional turnover, community structure, and ecosystem productivity under conditions of low fertility. Our findings also indicate that several biological and functional aspects of LIHD hay meadows can be restored from abandoned HILD hay fields by ceasing fertilization and reintroducing native species through sowing. Declines in primary production and hay yield that result from the cessation of fertilization may be at least partially compensated for by restoration.