Why is the Grass on the Tallgrass Prairie not Actually Tall?

It turns out that “tall” is relative. Think of the grass in your yard at home–then think of the grass on the prairie (which clearly you visit daily). The neighborhood association would never let the grass grow this tall, ankle-high all the way up to thigh-high.

Aside from that aesthetic, there are natural reasons why the grass may not be “tall” at any given moment. The source for this info: a sign at a “scenic view” pullout on the Flint Hills byway.

  • Cattle eat it
  • Some grasses don’t grow tall
  • It hasn’t rained in a long time
  • The topsoil is too thin to provide nourishment
  • Wind stunts growth
  • Cut short for hay

How Do You Make Your Prairie Grow?

You set it on fire first.

In April, for one-to-two weeks, the Kansas prairies are intentionally on fire. The grasses build up, changing species composition–which impacts not just cattle diet (this is their feeding ground, stay tuned), but bugs, birds, and other critters. Burning the grass actually makes it grow 10% more–and quickly. It doesn’t need to be reseeded; there’s something innate about its survival skills that it will regenerate all on its own. By mid-May, it’s emerald green–the land of Oz, perhaps?

Fire is also the reason there are few trees on the prairie.

Smoke from the burning is clearly an issue. Signs larger than ones on inner-city freeways warn you not to drive into the smoke. These are permanent signs…for an event that happens two weeks out of the year. Although, it seems that natural fires seem to happen, too, as I learned from my weather alert. Read an article about the EPA concerns related to the fire smoke, and the rebuttal for the need to burn.

The Art and Science of Prairie Fires

Fascinated by this practice, I turned to YouTube to learn more. I couldn’t narrow down the videos to just one. Sorry, and you’re welcome.

Cattle and Teen Boys: They Eat at Nearly the Same Rate

When my brother was a teen (and Mom still cooked), she made two chickens for dinner: one for him, and one for the rest of us.

When cattle are fattening up for slaughter, they eat more than even my brother did when he had his first NYC deli sandwich. Nearly two pounds a day. Let’s go over that again. They gain nearly two. pounds. a. day.

They are intentionally kept stationary; because as we all know, exercise leads to losing weight. And no one wants a skinny cow. Just ask Joseph and the Pharaoh.

Cattle come from as far away as Texas to eat the fine Kansas grasses. Driven up by truck, they summer here from May through July. Where does the slaughter happen? Not something this girl wants to know. But I think quite a bit in Oklahoma City, as we’ll find out in an upcoming post.

How (Many) Now, Brown Cow?

The Tallgrass Preserve, which is run by both the National Parks Service and the Nature Conservancy, hosts 2,000 head of cattle on 10,000 acres of land. To be clear, a “head” of cattle is actually just one head; it’s not a unit itself (I asked).

And then there’s the private lands–I can’t even fathom how many cattle they hold. And BTW, it’s all steers–which are castrated males. We don’t eat the females, they give us milk.

Driving along the Flint Hills in fall was beautiful, but odd. It was vast space, yet unoccupied by crops, people, or mountains. It’s because the grasslands were waiting for it to be grazing season.

Everything is Alive and Moving

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is full of life–even though the absence of animals was palpable. Between the wind and the grasses, I couldn’t decide which was more vibrant.

Tallgrass Preserve Kansas

grasses on the tallgrass preserve

This is the kind of place where Shane would ride off into the sunset. Where young lovers would run through the field towards each other, arms open wide. Where Maria would twirl,and sing that the hills are alive with the sound of music.

This is one of the most magical, spectacular, moving places I’ve ever been to. The wind has strong personality. The grasses are colorful and soft. The scale feels disproportionate to reality–how can there be so much land? How can I see that far?

Early in the day I realized that a person has to choose: you can either hike or take photos; you can’t do both and enjoy either to their full capacity. On this day, I opted for photos. That means that a two-hour hike took me four; and it was delicious.  Reaching the summit of the “Scenic Trail” was like reaching the peak of Everest–but for me it was a feat of beauty, not of accomplishment.

Panoramic View

Sure, you can turn around 360 degrees while standing on the sidewalk in downtown Chicago and your view will change. But, how often do we do that? And, how different is each vantage, really?

At the plateau of this trail, I could look into what I’ll call valleys all the way around. And they changed: cascading hills to flat land; trees to plains; monochromatic to fall’s delectable colors.

I took 50 pictures turning around in that circle. They’re culled down to 12 for you. You’re welcome, and I’m sorry.


I couldn’t help but think about the era of people who walked across the prairie to a new life. I had sunglasses and tennis shoes, carrying only water and a camera. Yet I turned around when I got conflicting reports about where to find the bison herd and how far away it was. I’ve seen bison before, I reasoned.

Would I have made it across the prairies? Would you?

3 Responses


Your Comments
Thank you, Paula! That was interesting and visually stunning!
Happy Trails….

I just finished a book today about the dust bowl and learned more than I ever thought about prairie grasses. I definitely recommend it: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. So glad you’re enjoying the heartland!

Deena – ooh thanks! I love good books; and ones where I learn; and ones that I can relate to!

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