AMES, Iowa – Photographs, infographics and interviews paint a full-color, big picture view of prairie strips in a new publication from Iowa State University’s STRIPS team and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
“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, 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 agriculture-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.”
The STRIPS team’s innovative research project shows that strategically converting just 10 percent of a crop field into perennial prairie can reduce offsite sediment export by 95 percent, phosphorus loss by 90 percent and nitrogen loss by almost 85 percent. 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 that without affecting yield on the remaining 90 percent 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. 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.
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, 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 agricultural specialist Timothy 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, 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 (CRP) contracts can reduce the cost to farmers by an additional 80 percent.
The STRIPS team hopes that 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.
“Small Changes, Big Impacts: Prairie Conservation Strips” can be found at www.prairiestrips.org and at www.leopold.iastate.edu/strips-research-team, along with numerous other resources for landowners, farmers and the general public about prairie strips landscape benefits, establishment costs and easement options.