The STRIPS project began in 2003, when Iowa State University scientists began discussing the opportunity to test the effects of integrating restored prairie into cropfields with managers at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Together, the scientists and refuge managers established four different treatments on 12 small watersheds at Neal Smith in 2007. The treatments -- represented in the figure below -- included 1) 100% row-crop, 2) 90% row-crop with 10% prairie at the bottom of the watershed, 3) 90% row-crop with 10% prairie integrated along strips, and 4) 80% row-crop with 20% prairie integrated along strips. We're now calling this initial experiment "STRIPS1".
Scientists studied how each treatment affected soil movement, nutrient retention, and biodiversity within the watersheds. They found that by integrating a small percentage of prairie into row crops, they were able to disproportionately benefit soil and water quality and native plants, insects, and birds. As an added benefit, economic analysis shows that prairie conservation strips are one of the most affordable conservation practices available to farm landowners.
Many of the initial research results from this STRIPS1 experiment have been published in both the scientific literature as well as in our outreach materials (click here for pubs); we continue to collect data at this site. As of 2012, we have expanded our work to also include research on a growing number of commercial farm fields across the state of Iowa and into northern Missouri. We call this our "Phase 2" or "STRIPS2" implementation. In both STRIPS1 and STRIPS2, our work addresses the soil, water, plant, insect, bird, social, and economic impacts of prairie strips, as outlined below.
Soil and Water
As Iowa focuses financial and human resources on improving water quality and reducing erosion, farmers have greater opportunities to adopt practices that protect their soil, preserve nutrients on the field, and reduce runoff. Our research demonstrates that prairie filter strips are highly effective at reducing the amount of soil and nutrients leaving the field, thereby preserving fertility and water quality.
Plants, Insects, and Birds
Biodiversity is important in agricultural landscapes because it can contribute to enhanced water quality, the suppression of insect pest and weed populations, and recreational opportunities. For this reason, monitoring the response of plants, insects, and birds to watershed and field treatments is a key component of STRIPS research. We expect the gains in native species and the ecosystem services these species provide to be disproportionately greater than the extent of area converted to diverse, native perennials. We also track plant and insect populations to determine if prairie strips exacerbate weed and pest problems for farmers. Thus far, our research suggests increased beneficial native biodiversity with prairie strips and no increase in weed and pest problems.
Social and Economic Research
Farmers and landowners considering a new management practice often are concerned with the associated economic and social costs. Financial analysis demonstrates that the cost per treated acre of prairie strips is highly affordable compared to many other conservation practices. Depending on opportunity costs, the cost per treated acre ranges from $24 to $35. Landowners can help cover the costs of installing STRIPS by applying for cost-share support at their local USDA Service Center.
Because of research demonstrating the benefits of prairie conservation strips, Iowa farmers and farm landowners have become interested in experimenting with the practice. The first farmer collaborator installed prairie strips in 2012, and as of 2015 over 30 farmers had signed up as additional collaborators. Researchers are working with farmers to install prairie strips and continue monitoring practice benefits. Download this article to learn more about how prairie strips can have big impacts: Small Changes, Big Impacts_Prairie Conservation Strips.pdf (4.2 MB).