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: 

STRIPS Turns 10!

FAQ: Should I be concerned about Palmer amaranth?

Should I be concerned about Palmer amaranth in my prairie strips? 

Yes. Palmer amaranth is a noxious and aggressive weed that is now widely distributed in Iowa. It is difficult to control and can strongly affect crop production. It was unintentionally brought into the state on agricultural equipment and within seed mixes for native plantings as well as in cotton seed and gin trash used in dairy rations.  Additionally, some seeds of this species could have come in via hay and/or livestock bedding.

STRIPS Team Assesses Tile Systems Under Prairies

This news release and video summarizes the team's evaluation of corn and prairie root penetration into tile lines.

Prairie Strips Consultants

The Become a Prairie Strips Consultant program for Technical Service Providers (TSPs), Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs), and other farm advisors offers education for supporting installation and maintenance of prairie strips. See our list of participants who completed the program at the Bluestem, Coneflower, and Prairie Clover levels as of November 28, 2017 below.

Why Prairie Strips? Farm Landowner Eric Hoien Shares His Thoughts and Experiences

Eric Hoien is from Spirit Lake, Iowa and owns four farms in the region. He chatted with STRIPS team members in a phone conversation on November 6, 2017. The purpose of the interview was to better understand why he sees prairie strips as a good option for his farms and to gather some of his experiences as a landowner in establishing prairie strips.

STRIPS: How were you first introduced to prairie strips?

Training Module: Using Native Prairie Strips to Improve Soil and Water Quality

Welcome to the Prairie Strips training module. This self-guided resource is intended for consulting professionals, technical or extension staff, and those interested in learning more about the prairie strips practice. The seven chapters listed below include descriptions, visuals,a nd videos that will educate participants about some of the major challenges that Midwestern farmers and landowners face when it comes to maintaining ecosystem services and how prairie strips can be used as a multi-benefit tool to mitigate these challenges.

Chapter 1: Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Explain challenges facing Midwestern farmers.
  2. Define and explain the prairie STRIPS project.
  3. Explain the agronomic benefits of prairie strips.
  4. Recommend key features of prairie strip designs.
  5. Identify characteristics of prairie plant species which makes them useful conservation devices.
  6. Describe appropriate prairie strip installation and establishment procedures.

Chapter 2: Introduction

Introduction

Access to a variety of inexpensive, high quality, and nutritious foods can be credited to the productivity and efficiency of grain crop production techniques used today. However, some of the agronomic techniques used to manage large numbers of grain acres have caused several negative effects such as soil erosion, reduced water quality, and poor biodiversity in the Midwestern USA.

Chapter 3: Soil Erosion, Water Quality, and Biodiversity Are Three Challenges Midwest Farmers Face

Soil Erosion, Water Quality, and Biodiversity Are Three Challenges Midwest Farmers Face

Chapter 4: Prairie Strips - One Possible Solution

Prairie Strips - One Possible Solution

The integration of prairie strips into row crops is one possible solution to address the challenges facing Midwest farmers.

What is the STRIPS Project?

What is the STRIPS Project?

 

STRIPS logo

 

Chapter 5: Economics

The Cost of Prairie Strips

Chapter 6: Take Home Points

Take Home Points

  • Incorporation of prairie strips into row crop land is one possible solution to the challenges facing Midwest farmers.

  • Converting just 10% of row crop land into prairie provides disproportionate benefits.

  • Prairie strips slow water runoff and encourage water infiltration, reducing soil erosion and nutrient export, thereby improving water quality.

  • Prairie strips increase overall biodiversity.

Chapter 7: References

Al-Kaisi, M. 2000. Soil erosion: An agricultural production challenge. Iowa State University. https://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/2000/7-24-2000/erosion.html (accessed 27 Aug. 2017).

 

Brady, N.C., and R.R. Weil. 2008. The nature and properties of soils. 14th ed. Prentice Hall, Ohio. Crop Data Management Systems (CDMS). 2017. Label database. Crop Data Management Systems. http://www.cdms.net/Label-Database (accessed 27 Aug. 2017).

Challenge #1: Soil Erosion from Agricultural Fields

Challenge #1: Soil Erosion from Agricultural Fields

Land degradation due to soil erosion

Soil erosion adversely impacts agronomic productivity. Additionally, soil erosion negatively impacts the environment, food security, and quality of life. The effects of soil erosion have both on-site and off-site impacts. For example, on-site impacts may include reduced crop yield and increased nutrient loss, while off-site impacts may include water contamination and increased food prices.

 Three reasons why soil erosion is an important issue:

Challenge #2: Reduced Water Quality

Challenge #2: Reduced Water Quality

Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and suspended soil sediments have greatly diminished water quality (USEPA, 2017a). Polluted water with unusually high concentrations of dissolved or suspended materials, or small amounts of highly toxic materials can be detrimental and sometimes even deadly to living things. Civilization has many uses for and is dependent on high-quality water (Troeh et al., 2004).

Major agricultural contributions to reduced water quality include:

What are Prairie Strips?

What are Prairie Strips?

 

Priaire Strips Photo by Tim Youngquist

Challenge #3: Poor Biodiversity and Wildlife Habitat

Challenge #3: Poor Biodiversity and Wildlife Habitat

A decline in biodiversity, is the third challenge identified by scientist Lisa Schulte Moore.

“While our current agricultural system achieves record productivity in crops and livestock, it is also associated with serious environmental shortcomings, including declines in water quality and biodiversity, increased flooding and greenhouse gas emissions, and even degradation of the foundation of agricultural productivity: the soil” (Schulte Moore, 2014).

Video: A Difference You Can See with Lisa Schulte Moore

A Difference You Can See with Lisa Schulte Moore

 

Click the image to watch the video:

Cybox Link

 

 

How Prairie Strips Address Midwestern Farmer Challenges

Challenge #1 How can Prairie Strips reduce Soil Erosion?

The flumes pictured below are used to measure runoff from the STRIPS watersheds. Note the difference in the amount of sediment displaced between pictures 1, 2 and 3. Picture 1 represents a 100% no-till crop field with corn and soybean rotation compared to just 10% prairie treatment in picture 2 and 100% prairie in picture 3.

Prairie Strip Design and Placement

Prairie Strip Design Considerations

Each prairie strip design is different because no two farms are exactly alike. Working with the STRIPS team, a Prairie STRIPS Consultant, and your local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office will help you create a design which is best for you and your needs. The following are some general guidelines to consider when strategically incorporating prairie on the land.

Considerations for Prairie Plant Species Selection

Considerations for Prairie Plant Species Selection

Dominant Prairie Plant Species

Dominant Prairie Plant Species

Click the link to access the Iowa Prairie Plants guide . The guide enables you to search or browse by classification, scientific name, and common name.

Prairie Strip Installation and Establishment

Installation and Establishment

Prairie strips are most easily established in fields which have previously been used for tilled annual row crop production (Jarchow and Liebman, 2011). Seeding following soybeans is especially favored for prairie strip establishment because the tilled field will have a reduced seed bank of annual weed seed and the soybean stubble will decompose readily (Jarchow and Liebman, 2011).

Nonetheless, if the correct procedures are followed prairie can be easily established following any crop or land cover.

Maintenance - Ongoing Management

Maintenance - Ongoing Management

 

Maintenance Year 1:

During the first year of establishment prairie plant species will use their energy mainly for root growth. It is important to allow sunlight to reach the soil surface and the prairie plants (STRIPS, 2017b). Annual weed pressure will be the greatest during the first year and will decrease in subsequent years.

Social Engagement

Social Engagement

To spread the word and adoption of this Best Management Practice (BMP), the Prairie Strips Team relies on the influence of multiple entities to educate Midwestern communities; these include partner organizations, cooperating landowners, scientists, educators, and extension specialists to visually display signage, conduct research, host educational field days and provide extension workshops.

A Nutrient Reduction Strategy with Matt Helmers

Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. It is designed to direct efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner” (ISU, 2017b).

Meet the Author

Willard Mott, Professor of Agriculture at Illinois Valley Community College.

WillardsFamily

Willard and his wife Stacy and their son Warren reside in Bureau County, Neponset, IL

Why Prairie Strips? Farmer Tim Smith Shares His Thoughts and Experiences

Tim Smith shows off his prairie strips, August 2016Tim Smith is from Eagle Grove, Iowa and farms 800 ac of corn and soybeans. He chatted with Lisa Schulte Moore from the STRIPS team on June 1, 2017 about why he sees prairie strips as a good option for his farm.

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