Habitat & Conservation  |  01/14/2020

Perennial Habitat: Wheatgrass as a Salty Soil Solution



By Aaron Kuehl, Pheasants Forever Director of Seed Operations

Many of us are aware that too much salt in our diet is bad for our blood pressure and ultimately heart health. But did you know that salt is also a growing problem in soil health? 

White-crusted soils void of crops and speckled with weeds are characteristic of the most impacted soils. But reduced yields and outright crop failures due to salinity levels impact tens of millions of acres of farmland annually, and that number is only growing.  Nearly 14 million acres have salinity issues in the Dakotas alone; that’s 5 times the number of CRP acres enrolled in those states. 

A combination of water and evaporation drives the salinity problem. Roughly one-third of irrigated acres in the western United State are affected by salinity because salts are left behind in the topsoil as irrigation water evaporates. In the northern Great Plains, rising water tables and higher average rainfalls contribute to salts rising to the surface.  

Fortunately, the right perennial habitat can provide a solution for landowners while also providing nesting and brood-rearing cover for pheasants. Here are 4 cool-season grasses that should be included at the core of any saline project.

1 Tall Wheatgrass

An introduced grass, and one of the most saline tolerant grasses available, tall wheatgrass is moderately quick to establish. It provides good nesting cover for upland birds.

2 Slender Wheatgrass

This native grass is quick to establish but relatively short-lived (2-3 years) and does not tolerate excessive soil moisture. It is also less tolerant to drought than other wheatgrasses. But its quick establishment aids in weed suppression and allows other desirable species to establish. As a bonus, it is palatable to wildlife.

3 Western Wheatgrass

This long-lived, native grass establishes slowly with only fair germination, but it spreads into more mature stands through strong rhizome activity. Western wheatgrass can grow in a wide variety of soils, and it tolerates poor drainage and moderate drought. It is moderately palatable to wildlife.

4 Green Wheatgrass (Saltlander)

This hybrid plant performs exceptionally well on saline soils, and is drought tolerant and highly palatable to wildlife. Green wheatgrass establishes rapidly, lives long and is tolerant of grazing.

All 4 of these deep-rooted perennials soak up excess water and cycle salts back into the subsoil, to reduce salinity. After 3-4 years of growth, they can lower the saline levels significantly and effectively halt the growing “creep” of salinity to surrounding agricultural acres; this protects these acres from falling yields.

As a side benefit that’s also important to many of our readers, these 4 perennial grasses also provide good nesting cover for pheasants. On some projects, moderately saline-tolerant forbs and legumes can be added to increase wildlife value.  

IN BOTH NORTH AND SOUTH DAKOTA, Pheasants Forever is partnering with farmers, agencies, organizations and companies to provide technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners facing saline soil challenges. To learn more about these initiatives and saline soil habitat, visit us at www.pfhabitatstore.com/resources.