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.
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.
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.
cows and oxen.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate crop Noun
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.
state of minimal growth or activity.
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.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem enormous Adjective
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
Encyclopedic Entry: erosion extensive Adjective
no longer existing.
harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.
Encyclopedic Entry: grain grass Noun
type of plant with narrow leaves.
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.
type of seasonal plant often used as a medicine or seasoning.
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.
to preside and reduce conflict over a debate.
type of edible grass.
flat grasslands of South America.
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.
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
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.
cereal grain grown for food.
part of a plant from which a new plant grows.
type of plant, smaller than a tree but having woody branches.
important or impressive.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
political unit in a nation, such as the United States, Mexico, or Australia.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
Encyclopedic Entry: temperature timber rattlesnake Noun
snake native to North America.
agricultural area with grapevines grown for wine.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
Encyclopedic Entry: weather wet prairie Noun
flat grassland with little drainage.
most widely grown cereal in the world.