Management Overview

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Background

Prairie strips are a farmland conservation practice that deliver enormous soil, water and nutrient benefits while increasing wildlife habitat. Prairie strips:

  • Were developed as a result of scientific experiments,
  • Help conserve farmland by strategically incorporating native prairie plants into crop fields; and
  • Are compatible with existing federal and state cost-share programs so farmers who implement them can recoup some of their costs, estimated at between $28 and $39 per protected acre per year.

Results from more than eight years of trials showed that by converting 10 percent of a crop field to prairie strips could result in reduction of 95 percent of the sediment, 90 percent of the phosphorus and 84 percent of the nitrogen from overland flow of surface water. The experimental sites were not tile drained and all systems used no-till.

Not Your Typical Contour Buffer Strip

Contour buffers are typically planted with fixed widths. In contrast, we vary the width of the prairie strips based on the amount of water they intercept, with the goal of treating all of the runoff leaving the crop field. Where more water is flowing down-slope, prairie strips should be wider, and where less water is flowing down-slope, the strips can be narrower. Also, the types of plants used for conservation buffers and filter strips can affect how they function. Cool season exotic grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass are widely used to provide ground cover in agricultural areas of the U.S. Corn Belt, but are relatively weak-stemmed and prone to laying flat under heavy rain. They are useful for grassed waterways that are intended to convey water while preventing erosion. In contrast, native tall-grass prairie communities are typically dominated by stiff-stemmed warm season grasses such as Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and a wide range of erect forb (i.e., wildflowers) species that are less prone to collapse under heavy rain. These native plants are more effective in providing resistance to water flow and sediment movement.

How Are Prairie Strips Implemented?

Prairie can be planted several times throughout the year. It is preferable to seed in either the fall after harvest, or the spring, before or after planting (but before June 30 in Iowa). Midsummer is generally not a good time to plant. Prairies include two basic types of plants, forbs (i.e. wildflowers) and grasses. Forbs benefit from the cold wet stratification an Iowa winter provides, and like a fall seeding. Prairie grasses should be seeded in greater volume for a fall seeding as their germination rates suffer from predation and exposure. Dormant, or winter seedings also can be successful. There are numerous native seed dealers and technical service providers throughout Iowa and the Midwest. The Plant Iowa Native website has a comprehensive list and contact information for seed sales and technical service providers. This Iowa State University decision support tool can help with estimating costs.

You should be aware that multiple years will be required, three at minimum, for your prairie strips to start really looking like a prairie. 

  • During the first year, mowing is required. The strips will look like a short, vegetated buffer. It will not look like a prairie. Native species put most of their first-year energy in their roots and will not produce significant above-ground biomass.
  • During the second year, early species (i.e., Canada wild rye, partridge pea, and black-eyed Susan) will be recognizable and may bloom. Unless there is considerable weed pressure, mowing is not necessary. Spot spraying can be used in year two if there are weedy areas.
  • By the third year, most prairie restorations will begin to resemble a diverse native tallgrass plant community.
  • Thereafter, maintenance will consist of spot application of herbicide as needed and baling or prescribed burning of the strips if desired. If prairie strips become dominated by weeds or invasive species, maintenance mowing and application of herbicide can be used to control them. Weeds and invasive species can be held in check by planting a diverse mix of native species in the initial planting and mowing the strips in the first year.

Interested in learning more?  

Check out our FAQ page. You can also find webinars by the STRIPS team and farmer collaborators by searching this website (find search box just below the banner on this page). You can listen to testimonials from farmer collaborators in this movie. Contact the STRIPS team at prairiestrips@iastate.edu with questions and technical assistance with field layout.  

 

Audience: 

A Targeted Conservation Approach for Improving Environmental Quality

Download a ISU Extension report on how targeting key portions of row-crop fields to perennial vegetation can lead to dramatic improvements in environmental benefits on farmland:

A Targeted Conservation Approach for Improving Environmental Quality.pdf (2.1 MB)

Land Stewardship Project produces podcast about STRIPS

(August, 2013) The Land Stewardship Project interviewed Matt Helmers, Pauline Drobney, and farmer Gary Van Rys Wyk in a podcast about STRIPS. You can listen to the podcast here.

STRIPS Videos

Ohio State Weed Guide

Management Overview

Background

Prairie strips are a farmland conservation practice that deliver enormous soil, water and nutrient benefits while increasing wildlife habitat. Prairie strips:

The Stewardship Network webinar featuring STRIPS

(November, 2014) Listen to webinar by Lisa Schulte Moore on the science and practice of prairie strips! The webinar was hosted by The Stewardship Network and was originally delivered on November 12th. 

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar Featuring Pollinators and Prairie Strips

(November, 2014) Listen and watch Dr. Mary Harris describe her research on pollinators and prairie strips in this Iowa Learning Farms webinar. This webinar was first delivered on November 19th. 

Tim Youngquist Presents Iowa Learning Farms Webinar

STRIPS Farmer Liaison presents on "Spreading Prairie to Iowa Farms" in this recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar. Tim is the best person on the team to ask questions of when it comes to on-farm implementation of prairie strips.

Weed Control Guide

It's About Teamwork

Tim Youngquist -- Farmer Liaison

Plant Iowa Native

STRIPS Farmer Cooperator to Present Webinar

STRIPS Farmer Cooperator Tim Smith will present on July 22 as a part of an ISU Extension webinar series on drainage water management.

Prairie strips? Frequently asked questions

Have questions about prairie strips? Visit our new Frequently Asked Questions webpage.

Have questions about the potential for prairie strips on your land? Check out our frequently asked questions (FAQs) brochure: 2015-05-prairie-strips-my-land-frequently-asked-questions.pdf. (1.2 MB)

Frequently Asked Questions

Prairie strips at NSNWR by Meghann JarchowPrairie strips is a farmland conservation practice that uses strategically placed native prairie plantings in crop fields. The practice has been tested by the STRIPS team since 2007 on experimental plots at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and increasingly on commercial farms across Iowa. Here we present our responses to the Frequently Asked Questions we receive on prairie strips at conferences and field days, and through email. The information was prepared by team members, and will be updated over time as needed, as we continue to learn. The answers below are general in nature, and may not apply in specific situations. Resources are provided with each answer.

FAQ: Why would I plant prairie strips on my farm?

Why would I plant prairie strips on my farm?

Prairie strips are a new conservation practice that deliver enormous soil, water and nutrient benefits while increasing wildlife habitat. Prairie strips:

FAQ: Why did you start your experiment at a National Wildlife Refuge?

Why did you start your experiment at a National Wildlife Refuge?

FAQ: Will prairie strips help increase my crop yield?

Will prairie strips help increase my crop yield?

To date, we’ve seen no effects of prairie strips on yields in adjacent cropped areas. Of course, converting cropland to prairie strips will reduce the amount of land that is cropped. Payments for prairie strips from federal conservation programs and other sources can help offset this cost.

FAQ: Will prairie strips help pollinators?

Will prairie strips help pollinators?

Prairie strips provide both abundant and diverse flowering plants to agricultural landscapes, which are essential for supporting honey bees and conserving wild bees and butterflies. Flowers provide critical food resources for these insects: nectar for adult bees and butterflies, and pollen for the young bees. Furthermore, a growing body of scientific literature indicates that bee health is improved when they are provided a diverse diet of plants.

FAQ: Will prairie strips eliminate erosion completely?

Will prairie strips eliminate erosion completely? Do I still need grass waterways once I plant prairie strips?

Prairie strips will not completely eliminate erosion, and you may still need grass waterways. Data from our initial work at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has shown that prairie strips can dramatically reduce sediment loss from the field, but there are still signs of in-field erosion, especially along the fall line of the watershed where a grass waterway could be quite effective.

FAQ: What are prairie strips?

What are prairie strips?

Prairie strips are a conservation practice that uses strategically placed native prairie plantings in crop fields.

The practice was developed and tested by the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) team at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.

FAQ: How are prairie strips different from contour buffers and grass strips?

How are prairie strips different from contour buffers and grass strips?

Contour buffers are typically planted with fixed widths. In contrast, we vary the width of the prairie strips based on the amount of water they intercept, with the goal of treating all of the runoff leaving the crop field. Where more water is flowing down-slope, prairie strips should be wider, and where less water is flowing down-slope, the strips can be narrower.

The types of plants used for conservation buffers and filter strips can affect how they function. For example,

FAQ: Are prairie strips only for organic operations?

Are prairie strips only for organic operations?

Prairie strips are a conservation tool that can be used in both conventional and organic farming operations. In conventional farming operations, precision herbicide management is useful. Native forbs (i.e., wildflowers) in the prairie strips are broadleaf plants and can be damaged or even killed by direct contact with herbicide. Once established, native grasses and forbs have deep root systems that help create a durable, resilient plant community.

FAQ: Do I have to plant prairie plants?

Do I have to plant prairie plants? Can I just use brome?

FAQ: What kind of plants are actually in the prairie strips?

What kind of plants are actually in the prairie strips? Are milkweeds included?

Butterfly Milkeweed

FAQ: Where can I see prairie strips?

Where can I see prairie strips?

FAQ: How long does it take to get mature prairie strips?

How long does it take to get mature prairie strips?

Prairie strips require multiple years, three at minimum, to start looking like a prairie.

FAQ: When is the best time of year to plant prairie strips?

When is the best time of year to plant prairie strips?

FAQ: How do I find seed for prairie strips?

How do I find seed for prairie strips?

FAQ: Can I plant a less diverse mix?

Can I plant a less diverse mix? Can I plant only grasses?

The number of types of prairie plants sown (“species richness”) and the amount of each type that is present in seed mixes is a management decision. How the plants will function and the seed mix costs are two primary considerations.

FAQ: What do prairie strips cost?

What do prairie strips cost? Is there cost-share available? 

FAQ: How do I find someone to seed prairie strips for me?

How do I find someone to seed prairie strips for me?

The Plant Iowa Native website has contact information for seed sales and technical service providers.

Back to FAQ page

FAQ: How does the placement of prairie strips affect water quality gains?

How does the placement of prairie strips affect water quality gains?

While this is still an active area of research, there are a few guiding principles we can draw upon to try to maximize water quality gains.

FAQ: How long will the prairie strips work?

How long will the prairie strips work? Won't dirt pile up quickly above the prairie strip?

As water moves downslope in a field and encounters the prairie strips, there will be greater resistance to flow and the surface runoff water will slow down. When this water slows, some of the material it is carrying will be deposited. This generally occurs a few feet into the leading edge of the strip or immediately upslope of the strip.

FAQ: Will prairie strips plug tile lines?

Will prairie strips plug tile lines?

Research on this subject is still needed. Some wet-loving species, if seeded near shallow, perforated tile may enter tile lines. There are numerous products available to protect tile lines from root penetration.

Back to FAQ page

FAQ: How do I take care of my prairie strips?

How do I take care of my prairie strips? Do I have to burn the strips? How do I control weeds and invasive species within the strips?

FAQ: Will the prairie strips make my crops more weedy?

Will the prairie strips make my crops more weedy?

Most prairie plants will not become weeds in crop fields where annual crops are grown and subjected to conventional weed management practices.

Prairie plants can be competitive once they become established, but most take multiple years to become established. On land that is regularly tilled or where herbicide is applied at least annually, it is unlikely that the prairie plants will become established. Prairie plants have the potential, however, to become established in no-till fields if herbicides are not used.

FAQ: Does it matter what herbicides I use on my crops before planting prairie strips?

Does it matter what herbicides I use on my crops before planting prairie strips?

Yes, the herbicides you use on your crops matter, especially when you are trying to establish prairie strips. Many alternatives to glyphosate will last in the soil for more than one season. There are planting restriction guidelines provided by manufacturers and you can refer to these to find out how long a herbicide will last and what crops are sensitive to it. (Prairie seedlings aren't listed separately, but would respond much like small grains, alfalfa, and clovers.)

FAQ: Will crop spray drift kill the plants in the prairie strips?

Will crop spray drift kill the plants in the prairie strips?

Spray drift definitely can harm the prairie strips in the first several years as the young plants are establishing, but mature prairie plants are more resilient. Mature perennial plants have deep root systems with substantial stored energy reserves, which tend to allow them to bounce back from incidental drift.

FAQ: Will driving on the strips kill the prairie plants?

Will driving on the strips kill the prairie plants?

Driving on prairie strips will create disturbance and could disrupt the native plant community. Many invasive weeds are more tolerant to disturbance than prairie plants, and driving on the strips could create an environment where weeds can out-compete the prairie plants. Disturbed areas also may reduce the prairie diversity to only a few native species.

Back to FAQ page

FAQ: Can I bale my prairie strips?

Can I bale my prairie strips?

Prairie strips could serve as a source of hay if harvested later in the summer, but the plant species composition may shift. Managers may find it difficult to maintain a diversity of grass and forb species.

FAQ: Can I graze cattle on my prairie strips?

Can I graze cattle on my prairie strips?

This is an open question for the STRIPS team, which we hope to answer soon. At least two of our farmer cooperators are planning to graze their prairie strips: one is developing a method to rotationally graze the prairie strips and another releases cattle onto his whole field after fall corn harvest. Stay tuned for research results; in the meantime, you might try it, being careful not to allow livestock to congregate in any area long enough to create bare ground.

FAQ: How do we choose native species for our grass waterway?

How do we choose native species for our grass waterway?

This is a question we’ve discussed in the STRIPS team but we don’t have data to answer. A prairie specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pauline Drobney, suggests that the following list of species might perform well in grass waterways. These species protect soils but do not impede water. We recommend planting at least two or more species to ensure against unforeseen circumstances (e.g., drought, disease). We hope we can test these species for performance.

FAQ: How can I get prairie strips on my farm?

How can I get prairie strips on my farm?

If you want to try prairie strips, we suggest you start with one of these two brochures:

FAQ: How do I find more information about prairie strips?

How do I find more information about prairie strips?

There are many ways to get more information about prairie strips. This website, www.prairiestrips.org, is a good place to start for these items:

Prairie Strips at Summer 2016 Field Days

Information on prairie strips will be presented at several field days and extension events in 2016. The next of these will be on September 8th at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Linn County, Iowa. Click the header above for the full list.

Estimating the Cost of Prairie Strips on Your Farm

Got your harvest in the bin? Fall, winter, and early spring are great times for learning about, laying out, and seeding prairie strips. See our Practice Establishment & Management page and FAQ list for more information.

Become a Prairie Strips Consultant!

The STRIPS team was recently awarded grants from the McKnight Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to train Technical Service Providers (TSPs) and Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) for certification in prairie strips design, establishment and monitoring. More certified technicians will allow more Iowa farmers to use this conservation tool. Click here for more information.

Summer 2017 Field Days

Information on prairie strips will be presented at several field days and extension events in 2017. Click the header above for the full list.

Informational Brochures