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Perennials with purpose

Implement climate-smart practices.

If put in front of a jury of his peers, Frank Oberle believes he would win the case for planting prairie on farms.

Oberle, who owns 300 acres of tallgrass prairie and 100 acres of row crop ground near Novinger, Missouri, has had 1.5 miles of prairie strips growing for over 15 years.

The strips are over 1 mile long and replaced existing terraces. Oberle did this to better prevent erosion on the hills and to promote biodiversity.

“Terraces alone don’t guarantee you won’t lose that delicious topsoil in a heavy rain, especially when you farm highly-erodible glacial soils,” Oberle says. “Since planting prairie on my terraces, I haven’t had a problem with erosion and now, there is wildlife galore. When I take people on a tour of the strips, I have to slow down so I don’t knock over a bunch of monarchs.”

Research by the Iowa State University Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team shows that converting 10% of a crop field to diverse, native perennial vegetation, can reduce sediment movement by 95% and total phosphorous and nitrogen lost through runoff by 77% and 70%, respectively.

Prairie strips are sections of land between 30 and 120 feet wide placed around or through a field, along waterways, or in a terrace channel and are seeded with native grasses and flowers.

Lisa Schulte Moore, cofounder of the STRIPS team, says this conservation practice truly works in concert with profitable production ag.

Her team has completed research showing that soybean yield could potentially be increased by up to 20% through pollinator management, like integrating habitat, which is what a prairie strip would provide. And if you keep bees or have a neighbor who does, the strips are a great environment in which to set up hives, kickstarting the pollinator presence, and create additional revenue with honey production.

“Integrating prairie strips can really help support the economic environment of farming in terms of keeping soil in place, building soil health, and providing material that could be harvested for biomass,” she says.

Livestock producers could utilize strips for forage or bedding material. Strips could also be used in anaerobic digestors to produce renewable heat and electricity. Schulte Moore says the work they’re doing to identify opportunities is meant to expand the toolbox available to farmers.

In addition to these benefits, both covers and prairie provide ample forage for livestock to graze. With this resource, hay expenses are reduced and the manure helps enhance soil health. The Midwest Grazing Exchange, an online platform, connects livestock owners and landowners who have one or the other, allowing to take advantage of grazing and capitalize on the opportunity in the fields.

“With a confluence of technologies and operations, we can provide incentives for continuous living cover on the landscape that better protect our soil, improve water quality and habitat, and create new revenue streams for rural economies,” she says.

Capturing Carbon

Interest in carbon capture continues to grow and here too prairie strips serve a purpose.

“Plants play a unique role in addressing climate change because, through photosynthesis, they pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In terms of the options we have to do so, harnessing plant photosynthesis is the “greenest” one,” Schulte Moore says. “In agriculture, we know how to manage crops at scale and we need more farmers to also manage for carbon removal.”

Planting cover crops is an effective strategy that keeps living roots in the soil during the timeframe when the dominant cropping systems leave the soil bare. Prairie as a perennial crop boosts soil health, pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, filters water and slows it down across the landscape to prevent erosion, and the list goes on.

“By planting some of your highly erodible land to prairie strips, yes, it’s taking land out of production, but you are gaining so much more soil health,” Oberle says. “In prairie, all of the microorganisms are present year-round and ready for business.”

Prairie strips are considered a climate-smart practice in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program and are eligible for carbon sequestration incentives.

For Oberle, prairie strips are like yeast needed to bake bread: a little can go a long way. He says, “The life sustained in the prairie strips like the bacteria, fungi, nematodes all add to the soil web. If you’re not reckless with your farming practices, they will thrive and give you so much more.”

Connecting Silicon Valley to the Midwest

The Bia-Echo Foundation of Palo Alto, California, has committed $1,104,788 over three years to support a faster-paced adoption of prairie strips. California Congressman Ro Khanna helped facilitate the funding support from Bia-Echo after meeting with Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore about how a partnership between the leading research institutions in the Midwest and Silicon Valley could better address climate change initiatives. Khanna’s goal is for the partnership to be a model to others in Silicon Valley. “It begins first with a sense of respect and empowerment for rural communities to be part of the solution in imaging their own future,” he says. “Success depends upon listening to farmers, respecting their love and stewardship of the land, and adopting models that are economically feasible.”

Frank Oberle

By the Numbers

Prairie Strips became a new continuous practice under the Conservation Reserve Program Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers Initiative in 2020. As of August 2021, there are 10,179 acres of CP-43 prairie strips in 11 states: 

  • Illinois 4,830
  • Indiana 326
  • Iowa 3,535
  • Kansas 180
  • Michigan 6
  • Minnesota 720
  • Nebraska 258
  • North Dakota 3
  • Ohio 55
  • South Dakota 178
  • Wisconsin 89
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