AMES, Iowa – Prairie strips are the newest tool in the toolbox to keep farm inputs on the field and out of Iowa’s waterways. They’re a strip of ground seeded to a mix of native prairie grasses and wildflowers that curb runoff with deep root systems below ground and provide robust wildlife habitats above ground.
Research started back in 2003 at a single site on the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. This year 18 farmers across Iowa are working with Iowa State University to learn more about how prairie strips work on farmland. ISU Professor Matt Helmers says the results so far are promising.
”If we put ten percent of those small catchments or watersheds into prairie, we see about a 95 percent reduction in how much sediment is leaving that field,” he says. That’s a significant reduction in overall runoff, and includes a 90 percent reduction in total phosphorus and in sediment-bound nitrogen.
It’s a new practice, but depending on where it’s placed in a field, a prairie strip can look a lot like more common contour buffer strips or even filter strips, if it’s placed near the foot of a hill. Helmers says prairie strips are much more focused on native prairie mixes with an emphasis on wildlife habitat, which isn’t always the case with contour strips.
That’s an important distinction, because other similar practices meet federal criteria to qualify as conservation practices under the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and under the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality incentives Program (EQIP). Helmers says one goal of the project to get see acceptance of prairie strips in such program.
“We have some money, some funding for some of the research [on] bees, birds and water quality from FSA to evaluate these prairie strip sites,” says Helmers, “maybe in comparison to a more traditional contour buffer strip site.”
Given the results, there’s been no shortage of support for research on prairie strips, including a recent $500,000 USDA grant awarded to the team. That’s a lot of money, and Helmers says there’s a lot of questions that kind of funding can answer.
”We’ll look at plant diversity,” he says. “We’ll look at some of the soil quality inside and outside of the strips… How much does it cost a farmer to put these in, as we think about their management. You know, what are some of the management challenges of that?”
One management challenge is mowing the strip for the first few years to prevent weeds from establishing a stand. Helmers says producers willing to manage the strips are usually serious about their roles as environmental stewards.
”There are farmers that are interested in doing all they can to reduce sediment and nutrients that are leaving their field,” he says. “I think some of them are interested in what kind of biodiversity benefits, habitat benefits, they might get with these prairie strips.”
To hear more about prairie strips and how they fit on farms across Iowa, click the audio player above this story.