Prairie strips transition from research to reality

Good stewardship is a way of life for Seth Watkins. Like many of his neighbors, he grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf operation on hilly pastureland. He’s always on the lookout for ways to improve the environmental health and economic vitality of Taylor County, Iowa, which his family has called home since his great-grandparents homesteaded there in 1846.

Now he is putting research from Iowa State University and the Leopold Center to work on his farmland by planting prairie strips, a system explored by the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies (STRIPs) team.

Growing strips of native prairie, a new conservation practice pioneered at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, reduce soil loss, slow runoff and create vital patches of native habitat on row-cropped farms. Watkins, in consultation with the STRIPs research team, seeded a 50-acre field with about eight acres of prairie in late June, becoming one of the first Iowa farmers to adopt this practice.   

“This is the part we’ve been investing in and waiting for,” said Jeri Neal, leader of the Leopold Center Ecology Initiative that provided initial funding for the STRIPs project in 2002. “We have some practices that make an enormous difference. How can we get them on the ground?” 

Doug Davenport, the Natural Resource Conservation Service district conservationist who arranged the collaboration, said that the soil in Taylor County is wearing out, especially on hill slopes. While terraces can slow erosion and runoff, Davenport noted that this conservation practice is expensive, limits the farmer’s access to the field and isn’t always appropriate for every type of farmland. At Watkins’ request, Davenport began making cold calls to ISU researchers to look for other options.

Meanwhile, the STRIPs team was looking for landowners willing to collaborate on “Phase II” of the project. They plan to establish additional research and demonstration sites on Iowa farms, which will help them learn more about designing prairie strips to meet the needs of landowners.

“Everybody’s in the right place at the right time,” Davenport said.

Watkins is no stranger to diversifying farmland. The 2,800 acres of land in southwest Iowa that he owns, rents or manages include crop fields, pasture and natural habitat. He rotates 600 head of cattle through 2,300 acres of pasture to keep the land healthy and produce high-quality beef. He plants a diverse array of cover crops in his corn-soybean fields and has about 30 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. 

Watkins also preserves habitat for hunters, who keep the deer herds at a manageable level and provide an additional source of revenue for the farm—more than he could make by putting the same land in crops.

Watkins invited members of the STRIPs Research Team to visit last summer to hear their advice about how to plant prairie strips on his land. The team toured two potential sites for implementing prairie strips, both on hill slopes where Watkins hopes to control sediment movement.

Watkins expects it will take roughly three years for the newly seeded prairie to take root. The STRIPs team will monitor the effects on soil, water and wildlife. “My gut tells me that it’s a good practice,” he said. “If other people are going to buy in, they’re going to need some hard data.”  

Research at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge showed that planting 10 to 20 percent of a watershed in native prairie reduces the amount of soil leaving the watershed by more than 90 percent. Nitrate and phosphorous movement also decreases. The deep roots and stiff, upright stems of native prairie plants slow surface runoff and hold soil in place more effectively than cool-season plantings such as brome, and also create better wildlife habitat.

Matt Liebman, ISU agronomy professor, called demonstration projects like the one planned for Watkins’ farm “lighthouses” that show, rather than tell, options for land conservation. Even small patches of prairie have the potential to greatly improve a farm’s resilience to extreme climatic events, such as heavy rainfall and flooding.

Researchers calculated that prairie strips cost roughly $32 to $50 per acre annually. Landowners can contact the Iowa NRCS for technical and financial help by asking for the “contour buffer strip standard” for hillsides and the “filter strip standard” for foot slope positions. Potentially, a farmer could graze or harvest hay from a prairie strip to provide additional revenue. Researchers hope to learn more about these options with the demonstration project on Watkins’ farm.   

“This is the kind of agriculture I love, to talk about the soil, about sustainability, about production,” Watkins said. “Will I be able to say that I left the land better than I found it? That’s what matters to me.”