Over thousands of years the roots of prairie plants have built world-renowned soils for agriculture. Our original prairies have long since been plowed up, but it’s possible to rebuild what’s been lost.
Lisa Schulte Moore is a natural resources and ecology management professor at Iowa State University. She says for soil to thrive, it needs continuous living cover, which means abundant, deep roots in the ground. It’s all about the roots because they leak carbohydrates and turn nitrogen and other nutrients over in the soil. Above ground, prairie plants have many benefits, one being that the stems are stiff and will stay standing in a pounding rain minimizing erosion.
"And I make this point just to differentiate it from some of the cool seasons, say a brome grass or a tall fescue. They’ll bend over in a pounding rain and so it doesn’t slow that water down in a field setting," she says. "It’s diverse, hundreds of plant species as well as animal species associated with them, and the underground life is probably unquantifiable."
This doesn’t mean converting every field back to prairie. Think about the areas where you’re not making money, and what are the options.
"If we’re strategic and we’re smart about it and we put those perennials just where they matter most, we could get a huge amount of soil health benefit," she says. "And, the benefits also could expand into the socio-economic realm, so beneficial in terms of farmer’s pocketbooks, in terms of helping to support future generations of farmers, helping to clean up our water, those kinds of benefits."