Prairie strips are an innovative soil, water and habitat conservation practice developed over the last decade by researchers at Iowa State University. Although very few landowners and farmers are using this practice, word about prairie strips is spreading across the state. According to the 2018 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, conducted by ISU, 56% of respondents said they had heard about the practice.
Since the mid-2000s, the STRIPS project at ISU has conducted research on how to incorporate strips of native prairie into fields of corn, soybeans and other annual crops. STRIPS stands for Science-based Trials of Row crops Integrated with Prairie Strips. Project research has shown that converting 10% or less of crop fields to diverse, native perennials can reduce soil loss from fields by 95% and reduce nitrogen loss through surface runoff by up to 85%.
Prairie strips also provide habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects. An increasing number of farmers and farmland owners are implementing the prairie strips practice and finding it to be a conservation practice that offers multiple production and conservation benefits.
Learning how to make it work
“An interdisciplinary group of Iowa State scientists started the prairie strips research in partnership with the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in the mid-2000s,” says Lisa Schulte Moore, ISU professor of natural resources and ecology management and a researcher on the project. “The results were so encouraging that we’re now working with over 60 farmers and landowners across Iowa and neighboring states to help them implement prairie strips.”
Project research and ISU Extension staff are now starting with just a few cooperators to observe the prairie strips’ effectiveness in real-world situations rather than controlled research plots. “It’s been so great working with the early adopters of the practice,” says Tim Youngquist, the STRIPS project farmer liaison. “We’re learning from each other how to make the practice work even better.”
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GROWING INTEREST: An annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life survey finds most farmers have heard about prairie strips as a soil and water conservation practice.
The most recent Iowa Farm & Rural Life Poll was published in May 2019. Known also as the “Farm Poll,” the survey has been conducted since 1982, and is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation. Questionnaires were mailed in February 2018 to 2,151 farmers, and the response rate was 50%, with an average age of 66.
Raising awareness about benefits
Although only a handful of farmers and landowners have tried the practice, its potential benefits for erosion control and nutrient loss reduction, as well as habitat for pollinators, birds and many other wildlife species, have led to prairie strips being covered frequently in the press. This likely has contributed to high levels of awareness.
“Given that the practice has been implemented on so few farms, we were surprised such a strong majority of farmers had heard about it,” says J. Arbuckle, ISU Extension sociologist, who is a STRIPS researcher and co-director of the farm poll. “More importantly, most farmers indicate they are open to learning more about prairie strips.”
The prairie strips team is poised to build on that potential. “The prairie strips practice was included in the most recent USDA farm bill, which stipulates what conservation practices can be promoted using federal funds and technical assistance,” says Omar de Kok-Mercado, STRIPS project coordinator. “That really opens up the possibilities for prairie strips to spread across Iowa and the Midwest.”
Other topics covered in the 2018 Farm Poll summary include perceptions of quality of life and farm financial well-being, awareness of and participation in watershed management activities, and use of precision ag practices. View the full 2018 Farm Poll and previous years’ polls online. Arbuckle can be reached at 515-294-1497 or email@example.com.