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The power of prairie
Prairie is an ecosystem powerhouse.
It boasts a rich biodiversity. Its native plants have an extensive root system that improves the soil’s ability to infiltrate water and withstand harsh winds and pounding rains. It responds to fire by returning nutrients to the soil.
It’s no wonder, then, that a team of scientists, educators, farmers, and researchers is harnessing this ecological community to reduce erosion and keep nutrients in fields for the benefit of the environment as well as crop production.
The Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project out of Iowa State University first developed this conservation initiative
in 2007. A prairie strip is just as it sounds: a narrow, long strip of land seeded with native prairie plants and placed strategically as a contour buffer strip or a filter strip.
The STRIPS team has since conducted research on its effectiveness and continues to work with farmers to implement strips in-field or on the edges of the land.
Omar de Kok-Mercado, project coordinator for STRIPS, says, “We currently have over 60 farms that have prairie strips, including farms in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota. The number of acres in prairie strips is about 600, protecting roughly 5,000 acres of cropland. Rather than having a specific acreage goal in mind, we are striving for widespread adoption of the prairie strips conservation practice.”
Prairie Strips on the Farm
One of those farms belongs to Seth Watkins in southwest Iowa. Watkins first implemented prairie strips in 2011 and has witnessed their effect on the land.
“Prairie strips are beneficial for erosion control when you get them started properly. I am seeing some cool things happen with biodiversity as far as wildlife species, from insects to plants to birds. We have seen in one area a little shallow pond that every year has less and less algae on it. So it’s telling me that the strips are really doing their job sequestering nitrogen and phosphorous,” Watkins says.
Watkins raises cattle on his farm and strategically rotates ground from strips to hay to grains. For this reason, the amount of prairie strips varies; he is currently at around 12 acres. His approach is to integrate prairie strips as one of many practices that help build a resilient ecosystem.
“I don’t want anyone to think there’s only one practice to solve soil and water problems. Strips are a good start, especially if you use strips where you shouldn’t be farming anyway, because then you can get a financial benefit. You need cover crops with them, however, and you need contour farming, and you need the livestock. To make it the best, you need a lot of practices, and you need to know your farm.”
Studying Soil Health Changes Over Time
Even though prairie strips have been tested for over 10 years, the STRIPS team continues to research the long and short-term impact. Last April, the team was awarded a three-year grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture to study soil health changes after prairie strips are implemented and even terminated.
Richard Cruse, STRIPS soil health research lead, says, “We know that the prairie strips increase soil health, and we know that soil health increases with time.”
What is not known is the long-term effect of that prairie strip on the soil.
“One of the goals of this project is to address that. If a farmer has created a favorable soil health condition, terminated the strip, and put in row crops, how long can the farmer continue to see that soil health response?”
Cruse and the team expect subsequent grants and other funding resources will be available to continue the research after the grant’s three-year period comes to a close.
Support for Prairie Strips
In a tough economic climate, conservation practices may seem like a luxury, but investing in prairie strips is incredibly effective at improving soil and water quality long term.
“We know that prairies have much greater biomass and root system than typical row crops, so they have a very favorable effect on increasing soil organic matter content and increasing
infiltration of water,” Cruse says. “Prairie strips
themselves reduce soil erosion. Soil improvement is mainly a biological response, so the soils that contain the strips represent the predominant area where soil health is improving.”
Prairie strips are low maintenance and cost between $280 and $390 per acre, depending on the mix. However, implementing prairie strips as a 10% solution (meaning that 1 acre of prairie strip protects 9 acres of cropland) costs about $28 to 39 per acre per year.
There is cost-share support through the 2018 Farm Bill CRP, and growers can work with the USDA through the National Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for additional financial support.