Tallgrass and Shortgrass

Tallgrass and Shortgrass

If you are familiar with Kansas regions, you have probably noticed that much of the natural vegetation of the state is either tallgrass or shortgrass prairie, with a transition zone of mixed prairie in between.

What is the difference between tallgrass and shortgrass prairie? The names indicate that height is the distinguishing characteristic, but there is a little more to it than that.

Tallgrass Prairie

  • Adapted to areas with an annual precipitation of 30 to 40 inches.
  • Native ecosystem of the eastern Great Plains.
  • Plants may grow over 6 feet tall.
  • Dominated by bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass.
  • Forbs (pasture plants other than grasses) include a diverse array of wildflowers.
  • Grows lush and thick in response to rain.
  • Very high grazing value in spring and summer, but low value in winter.

Shortgrass Prairie

  • Adapted to areas with an annual precipitation of 15 to 25 inches.
  • Native ecosystem of the western Great Plains.
  • Plants may grow up to 10 inches tall.
  • Dominated by grama and buffalo grass.
  • Forbs include cactus and yucca.
  • Sparse, but drought-hardy.
  • Relatively stable grazing value year-round.

Practical Application

Tallgrass and Shortgrass
Shortgrass prairie—complete with buffalo wallow

Historically, Indians grew crops along the fertile valleys of the tallgrass regions, while moving further west to hunt. The buffalo which they depended on for meat frequented both the tallgrass and shortgrass areas, but were mostly restricted to the shortgrass prairie in winter, when the grass went dormant.

This pattern is still reflected in the Kansas cattle industry today. The Flint Hills (a prime example of tallgrass prairie) are considered “stocker country,” a place for keeping fast-growing steers during the spring and summer. Cow/calf operations, which depend on year-round forages, are more common in the shortgrass parts of the state.

Helpful Resources
Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas

Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas
Learn about the plants unique to each type of prairie. Read our full review.

30-Year Normals
See for yourself the climate contrast that necessitated the difference between tallgrass and shortgrass prairie.

By hsotr

Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience, Michelle Lindsey started Homestead on the Range to help Kansans and others around flyover country achieve an abundant country lifestyle. Michelle is the author of four country living books. She is also a serious student of history, specializing in Kansas, agriculture, and the American West. When not gardening or pursuing hobbies ranging from music to cooking to birdwatching, she can usually be found researching or writing about her many interests.