Wallaces Farmer

Prairie Conservation Strips Help Stop Nutrient Runoff From Farms

New soil saving practice is important for future of agriculture in Iowa, say conservationists and farmers trying it.

March 12, 2014

4 Min Read

You'll be hearing a lot more about the need to use prairie conservation strips in row crop corn and soybean fields in Iowa. And, how effective this new practice is in helping prevent soil erosion, reduce nutrient runoff and protect water quality. A new publication from the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University highlights the big picture with prairie conservation strips.

Photographs, infographics and interviews paint a full-color, big picture view of prairie strips in this new publication from ISU's STRIPS team and the Leopold Center.


The publication, titled "Small Changes, Big Impacts: Prairie Conservation Strips," takes into account Iowa's historic land use changes to explain why the new conservation practice is important for the future of agriculture in the state, says Mary Harris. She is an Iowa State adjunct assistant professor and biodiversity specialist for STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips).

She explains, "Iowa's natural resources are crucial to an ag-based economy, and watershed pollution from topsoil erosion and nutrient runoff are both local and national concerns. Prairie strips enhance modern agriculture so that the land meets production and conservation needs at the same time."

Land can meet production and conservation needs at the same time
The STRIPS team's innovative research project shows that strategically converting just 10% of a crop field into perennial prairie can reduce offsite sediment export by 95%, phosphorus loss by 90% and nitrogen loss by almost 85%. Additionally, the prairie patches create vital habitat for native plants, pollinators and birds. The prairie is planted along the contour of a slope, at the drainage site for a field's watershed, or other areas where crop yield already is low.

The upshot is without affecting yield on the remaining 90% of a field, prairie strips improve the condition of waterways, cut back soil and nutrient loss, and revitalize Iowa's natural heritage by providing habitat for native species—including natural predators of crop pests. The publication stresses the importance of diversity in a landscape. An agricultural system with a variety of plants supports a variety of landscape uses, from crops to pasture to recreational habitat, notes Harris. It remains resilient in the face of climate change because the landowner or farmer is not dependent on the success of just one organism, but on the interdependent successes of an ecosystem.


More farmers working with STRIPS team to use this practice in 2014
Harris and other members of the research team have been meeting with farmers interested in the STRIPS practice. One collaborator, Seth Watkins, has been field-testing the prairie strips in Taylor County in southern Iowa since 2013. In 2014, 14 more collaborators have been identified with strong potential to adopt the practice in counties throughout Iowa and across the border in Missouri.

STRIPS ag specialist Tim Youngquist will work closely with landowners to help guide the implementation of STRIPS on their operations. He planted prairie strips on his own land—a century farm near Kiron that has been in his family since 1871. "I'm intensely proud of that and I want to see the land stay productive and healthy," he says of the family farm. "We've got a chance to make Iowa a better place, one field at a time."

Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the USDA's Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative and Iowa's Wildlife Action Plan all encourage farmers and landowners to adopt conservation practices that improve farmland, the ecosystem and environmental quality. The STRIPS team has calculated that planting prairie strips is one of the most cost-effective conservation practices available to farmers, about $24 to $35 per acre. Conservation Reserve Program or CRP contracts can reduce the cost to farmers by an additional 80%.

One of the most cost-effective conservation practices for farmers
The STRIPS team hopes the demonstration sites established this year, as well as the new publication, will continue to spread the word about prairie strips. The take-home message: "Agriculture in Iowa does not need to compromise between production and conservation."

In 2014, prairie strips may be implemented in Boone, Carroll, Cass, Cedar, Cherokee, Clayton, Dubuque, Ida, Lucas, Montgomery, Polk, Tama and Washington counties in Iowa, as well as Putnam County in Missouri. To find out more about the prairie strips implementation and demonstration sites, contact Mary Harris, [email protected], 515-294-2171; or Timothy Youngquist, [email protected], 712-269-0592

"Small Changes, Big Impacts: Prairie Conservation Strips" can be found at the STRIPs website and at the Leopold Center website, along with numerous other resources for landowners, farmers and the general public about prairie strips landscape benefits, establishment costs and easement options.

Prairie Conservation Strips Help Stop Nutrient Runoff From Farms

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