• Prairies are enormous stretches of flat grassland with moderate temperatures, moderate rainfall, and few trees.

    When people talk about the prairie, they are usually referring to the golden, wheat-covered land in the middle of North America. The Great Plains, in the United States and Canada, has some of the world's most valuable prairies, which grow some of the world’s most important crops. The U.S. states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan make up the Great Plains.

    The prairies in North America formed as the Rocky Mountains grew taller and taller. They grew taller and taller because of plate tectonics, the process where a small number of plates on the Earth’s crust interact with each other. Once the mountains got tall enough, they blocked significant amounts of rain from falling on the east side of the mountains, creating what is called a rain shadow. This rain shadow prevented trees from growing extensively east of the mountains, and the result was the prairie landscape.

    The North American prairie is ideal for agriculture. In fact, of the 2 million acres of North American prairie, less than one percent is not used for agricultural development. The weather is moderate, and there are no trees to move to create large, open fields. The very small hills on the prairie are called pimples, and they usually don’t rise taller than 1.5 meters (4 feet). The prairie grasses hold the soil firmly in place, so soil erosion is minimal. Prairie grass roots are very good at reaching water very far down under the surface, and they can live for a very long time. Grains are a type of grass, so the prairie grassland is perfect for growing grain like wheat, rye, and oats.

    North American prairie grass is usually split into three different groups: wet, mesic, and dry. Wet prairie soil is usually very moist, and it doesn't drain water very well. The Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has revived more than 300 native plant species. All the plants in the Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary, a project that was started in 2001, were grown without planting new seeds—native prairie plant seeds can lie dormant for more than 50 years, until the soil and climate conditions allow the plants to grow.

    Mesic prairies have good drainage and good moisture in the soil. This type of prairie is popular for farming and agriculture. The mesic prairie of Saskatchewan is known as the “Breadbasket of Canada.”

    Dry prairies are more arid than wet or mesic prairies. They have good drainage and are often found on hills, slopes, or higher elevations. Because dry prairies are not useful for agricultural or business development, they retain much of their natural landscape. Species native to the dry prairie include the timber rattlesnake and the greater prairie-chicken, which is nearly extinct in most other prairie ecosystems.

    Some animal species contribute to the prairie ecosystem’s agricultural value. The bison, a relative of cattle, is native to the North American prairie. Bison are the largest land mammals in North America, but they have small, pointed hooves. These hooves turn up the soil, just like a plow does. This aerates the soil and allows it to hold more water.

    By the middle of the twentieth century, nearly all of the North American prairie grasslands had been destroyed due to extensive farming. The result was miles and miles of soil with no strong prairie grass to hold it in place, and few trees to block the wind. When drought, a period of little rain, struck the prairie in the 1930s, high winds blew the dry soil into huge, frequent dust storms, devastating the Great Plains. The Great Plains were called the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression period.

    Large stretches of grasslands called pampas in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil are similar to the North American prairie. The pampas are among the chief agricultural areas of South America. In addition to cattle grazing and wheat farming, Argentina also has vineyards in the pampas.

    Prairies stretch throughout the Great Plains of North America.

    Buffalo Commons
    Many people in the United States and Canada support the idea of the "Buffalo Commons." The Buffalo Commons would return hundreds of thousands of acres of the Great Plains to native prairie grassland.

    Where the 'Buffalo' Roam
    American Bison, often mistakenly called "buffalo," used to roam the Great Plains. Bison moved in enormous herds, many times the size of the great wildebeest migration in Africa. Despite their huge size and numbers, bison almost became extinct in the 1800s because too many people hunted them.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aerate Verb

    to expose a substance to air.

    agricultural development Noun

    modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    bison Noun

    large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    crust Noun

    rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crust
    development Noun

    construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

    dormant Adjective

    state of minimal growth or activity.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    dry prairie Noun

    flat grassland with minimal precipitation, often found on hillsides.

    Dust Bowl Noun

    (1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.

    dust storm Noun

    weather pattern of wind blowing dust over large regions of land.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    erosion Noun

    act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: erosion
    extensive Adjective

    very large.

    extinct Adjective

    no longer existing.

    grain Noun

    harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: grain
    grass Noun

    type of plant with narrow leaves.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    Great Depression Noun

    (1929-1941) period of very low economic activity in the U.S. and throughout the world.

    greater prairie-chicken Noun

    bird native to North America.

    Great Plains Noun

    grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

    herb Noun

    type of seasonal plant often used as a medicine or seasoning.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    mammal Noun

    animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

    mesic prairie Noun

    flat grassland with good soil often used for agriculture.

    moderate Verb

    to preside and reduce conflict over a debate.

    oats Noun

    type of edible grass.

    Pampas Noun

    flat grasslands of South America.

    pimple Noun

    very low, wide prairie hills.

    plate tectonics Noun

    movement and interaction of the Earth's plates.

    plow noun, verb

    tool used for cutting, lifting, and turning the soil in preparation for planting.

    prairie Noun

    large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

    Encyclopedic Entry: prairie
    province Noun

    division of a country larger than a town or county.

    Encyclopedic Entry: province
    rain Noun

    liquid precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain
    rain shadow Noun

    dry land on the side of a mountain facing away from prevailing winds.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain shadow
    root Noun

    part of a plant that secures it in the soil, obtains water and nutrients, and often stores food made by leaves.

    rye Noun

    cereal grain grown for food.

    seed Noun

    part of a plant from which a new plant grows.

    shrub Noun

    type of plant, smaller than a tree but having woody branches.

    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    soil Noun

    top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

    state Noun

    political unit in a nation, such as the United States, Mexico, or Australia.

    temperature Noun

    degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

    Encyclopedic Entry: temperature
    timber rattlesnake Noun

    snake native to North America.

    vineyard Noun

    agricultural area with grapevines grown for wine.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather
    wet prairie Noun

    flat grassland with little drainage.

    wheat Noun

    most widely grown cereal in the world.