Darwin Pierce is the Farm Manager at Whiterock Conservancy, 5,500 acre non-profit land trust near Coon Rapids, Iowa. Whiterock's mission is to balance sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection, and public recreation. Mr. Pierce was interviewed by Rob Davis, Whiterock's Conservation Land Manager, in March, 2018 about why he pursued prairie strips as a practice for one of the row-crop fields at the Conservancy.
Rob: How were you first introduced to prairie strips?
Darwin: I first heard about STRIPS first through Practical Farmers of Iowa. I then joined the STRIPS working group to learn more about the practice. Improving water quality was influential in leading me to get further involved in the STRIPS project.
Rob: What were your goals in establishing prairie strips?
Darwin: My goals in using the prairie strips were to primarily improve water quality while also reducing soil erosion. My other goal was to demonstrate how to integrate prairie back onto a farm field. While these were my on-farm goals, I also wanted to help document and ground truth the practice with Iowa State University. Due to a recent partnership between Whiterock and the Iowa Soybean Association, ISU and ISA were able to partner on water quality monitoring at our site. As the farm manager for Whiterock Conservancy, I am always looking out for conservation practices that have promise at the broader scale.
Rob: How did you go about establishing prairie strips on your farm?
Darwin: Whiterock staff worked with Tim Youngquist at ISU to layout the contours and then worked with the Farm Service Agency to enroll those acres into a Conservation Reserve Program contract. Once the contract was in place we worked with Diversity Farms for local ecotype seed, two different seed mixes due to different hydrology on the field, and then did a frost seeding in the spring of 2016. Since the seeding we’ve done our own maintenance mowing and will burn the strips as soon as there is enough fuel to carry a fire. More importantly, we work with our custom operators to plan and harvest the row crop while we do our own spraying. This reduces the likelihood that we’ll have a spraying error that dings the prairie planting.
Rob: Do you think other landowners would be interested in implementing prairie strips on their land?
Darwin: Yes, I think that more landowners will be interested if we can figure out the revenue benefits of prairie strips. On the farm where we put the strips project we increased our overall productiveness of the rest of the farm, and the CRP contract for the STRIPS pays better than farming the poor areas. The prairie strips also reduces wet spots further downhill in the crop ground which makes the entire field easier to farm. The benefits of strips may appear as a yield increase or as a reduction in the amount of money lost on otherwise unprofitable acres.
Rob: What recommendations do you have for other landowners interested in prairie strips?
Darwin: Contact the STRIPS team and just figure out how to do it. Be aware of unintended consequences though. For example, for our herbicide program we are unable to use some herbicides, like 2,4-D, on beans due to restrictions of application on the label...the soybeans are just too close to the prairie. Also, understand the management required to establish a diverse prairie seeding. The strips will need to be maintenance mowed for the first couple of years after the planting to establish the prairie community and then burned or baled to maintain the planting. My best recommendation is to attend a field day and to talk to people currently using strips to learn more.
Visit this website to learn more about Whiterock Conservancy or to contact Darwin or Rob. Better yet, go visit and meet them in person!