Growing Biomass & Wildlife Habitat

Why?

There are many species of wildlife in decline due to a loss of young forest habitat and open grassy habitat. Among them are the New England cottontail, bobcat, woodcock , bumblebees, bobolink, songbirds, and many other animals. An economic problem occurring in Southeast New Hampshire is the loss of farmland and local farm businesses. Innovative land uses, alternative fuel, and value-added products can all help local farms stay profitable, and these are all things provided by the very same habitats needed by many wildlife species. Biomass plantings are an innovative way to meet two goals. Warm season grasses and young forest trees and shrubs can be planted on not-so-productive farmland to create both much needed wildlife habitat, and a biomass product that can be used for fuel, forage, compost, bedding, and more.

Warm Season Grasses

New Hampshire hayfields, pastures, and lawns are dominated by cool season grasses. Warm season grasses (WSG) are not commonly seen but can grow well, especially on sandy, droughty fields. They grow mostly during the hottest time of the year, when cool season grasses are dormant. They grow fast, tall, and densely once established. They are desirable for nesting birds, pollinators, and many other wildlife species. They are also good at improving soils, because they have extensive, perennial root systems that stabilize soil and introduce organic matter. The time to harvest WSG is later in the season, when nesting birds and pollinators are done using them, and they can be used for forage, bedding, fuel, or compost.

Indiangrass
Indiangrass

Young Forest Trees and Shrubs

Due to land use changes and forest management, New Hamsphire has a lack of young forest habitats, and an abundance of more mature forests. Young forests have dense understories that provide shelter and forage for wildlife, and they are composed of species like gray birch, aspen, dogwood, and willow. These fast-growing woody plants can be grown on marginal farmland or in poor-quality forests after clearing. Young forests will require management every 5-15 years in order to maintain a dense understory, and at the time of management, the wood can be harvested to use as fuel, compost amendment, mulch, or other uses.

Sparrow in a shrub

How do I start growing biomass?

Warm season grasses usually need help getting established in a field that is already dominated by cool season grasses and annual weeds. It may take a few years after planting to see warm season grasses succeed. They do best on well-drained, sandy soils. The site should be prepared by reducing plant competition and creating a good seedbed. A typical recommendation is to till the soil in May or June, and drill a warm season grass mix. Other seeding strategies can be successful, it all depends on the site, equipment available, weather, and management goals. Recommended WSG species for New Hampshire are Big Blue Stem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass.

Young forest trees and shrubs are a diverse group of plants, so there are many options for any soil type. E.g., willows and dogwoods will thrive on wet sites that may be too wet for hay and row crops. Aspen and birch will grow on drier sites. Fast-growing species are best for biomass production, and those with lots of branches, flowers, or berries are great for wildlife. Options include: Aspen, Cherry, Dogwoods, Gray birch, Willows, Vibernums, Alder. Tree and seedlings are available at low prices from sources like the New Hampshire State Tree Nursery. They can be planted quickly using a planting bar. Trees and shrubs can be planted in the spring or fall, but the seedlings are usually only available to purchase in the spring.

These practices are being demonstrated at multiple sites in Strafford County. We would love to share information about planting, harvesting and utilizing biomass as we trial different methods.

Planting bars
Planting bars are available to borrow from Nature Groupie.

The Strafford County Conservation District demonstrated these practices on multiple site with our partners the Nature Conservancy, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Rockingham County Conservation District, with funds from the NH State Conservation Committee Moose Plate Conservation Grant Program. Support the Moose Plate!