I keep records of how long it takes me to complete the various management activities performed at Blue Jay Barrens. Periodic mowing of some fields has been in the management plan for over a decade, so I had a good idea of how long I would spend running the walk-behind brush mower over this particular piece of ground. Estimating the time required would be easy if I was just out to cut down the grass, but my mowing has nothing to do with a desire to have short grass. I am in the field searching for plants, particularly woody trees and shrubs, which must be eliminated in order to achieve my goal of a tall grass habitat. Walking behind the mower allows me to closely view every part of the field and deal appropriately with any undesirable plant I come across.
The job took 31 hours during which the mower and operator traveled an estimated 42 miles. With mowing completed, the field looks like a plucked chicken. Blue flags still identify obstacles to be avoided and red flags identify woody plants needing a herbicide treatment.
A major threat to the grassland field is the Eastern Red Cedar. In as little as 15 or 20 years, an area of open grassland can transform into a solid stand of cedars capable of blocking all sunlight from the grass and other open field plants. My options are to eliminate the cedars or redefine my vision of Blue Jay Barrens. I’ve chosen to remove the cedars and the best time to do that is when they are small.
In order to kill the cedar, the stem must be cut off below the green growth. As I mow, I stop and cut each cedar at ground level. This is why I don’t use a tractor and bush hog or some other larger cutting device that I could ride. While I’m mowing, I’m watching for cedars and I try to cut them before they are mowed down. At the same time, I also watch for the green flash of a chewed up cedar jetting from the mower chute, scan the track of the previous round with the mower for small cedar stumps and listen for the distinctive sound of the mower blade cutting through something more substantial than soft grass and forb stalks. A small cedar stump is often hard to find, even when you know where it ought to be. It’s inevitable that some cedars will miss detection, but I’m trying hard to leave the field in a cedar free condition.
At times, the job of mowing is relaxing. Most often though, something makes the whole experience uncomfortable. Dry Indian Grass releases an amazing amount of dust and chaff when chewed up by the mower. If there is no wind, the cloud of debris exits the mower through the chute on the right hand side of the deck and avoids contact with the mower operator. Since the air is seldom still, the resulting dust cloud has the opportunity to move away from or towards the operator. The grass in this photo has a distinct lean to the left resulting from a strong wind from the right. This necessitates the use of a dust mask and goggles in order for the operator to breathe and see. Unfortunately, nothing keeps the tiny slivers of grass stalks from infiltrating your clothing and jabbing like needles every conceivable part of your body. Well, it’s all for a good cause and conditions are rarely that bad.
The best way to avoid the dust problem is to wet down the grass. Early morning, while the dew or frost is still present, is a comfortable time to mow. Your only problem then is remembering where you dropped your sweatshirts and jackets, shed as the temperature climbed. Ideal conditions are when bands of light rain showers keep moving through and rewetting the grass, but then you have the problem of maintaining a comfortable body temperature, since the temperature seems to drop during each bout of rain. Eventually you reach that awkward condition where sweat moving outward through your clothes meets rain soaking inward and the resulting loss of insulation causes you to rapidly freeze. Now I’m wondering what it is about this work that I enjoy so much.
In between rains, there’s sunshine. That’s enough to lift the spirits and keep you working.
This field was last mowed five years ago. Two years ago, I searched the field for cedars and cut all that I could find. An early storm that year had knocked down large patches of Indian Grass, making it difficult to find the cedars. Abundant early rainfall this year caused the Indian Grass to grow particularly well. The result was isolated patches of grass too thick to see into.
These thick patches of grass are the same areas that were laid down two years ago, so cedars that I couldn’t see then are even larger now. This three foot cedar is only visible because it is adjacent to the last cut by the mower.
This was the view as I came at the cedar on my next pass with the mower. There is less than a foot of grass between the mower and the cedar, but the cedar is still almost totally blocked from view. Without the mower, I would not have found this or any of the dozens of other cedars in similar situations. Mowing is temporarily disruptive to the field inhabitants, but I’ve never mowed more than 25 percent of the grassland in any one year. For me, this type of mowing is a valuable tool for maintaining high quality open areas.
After mowing the edges and corners, the bulk of the field was left in a roughly hourglass shape. Cutting though to the narrow center and breaking the field into two halves was proof that I was making progress. I thought the occasion called for a celebratory photo.
The setting sun highlights the shallow windrows of cut grass. The number of undesirable woody species was much reduced from earlier mowings. I’m hopeful that I can wait several more than five years before needing to mow this field again.