David Gossman owns 670 acres in Jackson County, Iowa, 220 of which he share crops with his farmer. They farm corn and soybeans using conventional methods. He is a prairie reconstruction pioneer, establishing many patches of prairie on his farm starting in 1996. He met with Tim Youngquist from the STRIPS team on September 29, 2018 to discuss his motivations and methods for establishing prairie strips.
Tim: How were you first introduced to prairie strips?
David: Over 20 years ago, we established some native grasses and forb varieties on land I enrolled in CRP, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program. We put a lot of our field edge buffers into that program. About 6 or 7 years ago, I found some articles about the STRIPS Project at Iowa State University, which drove me to experiment with a set of native grass/pollinator strips.
Tim: How did you go about establishing your first prairie areas?
David: My crop ground had been through a regular crop series for a few years before prairie establishment. I recommend planting on top of soybean ground. Early on, we didn't have access to a prairie drill, so we used a crop drill. Our first varieties consisted of Indian grass, big bluestem, and some forbs. We used somewhere between 15-20 species in the first mixes. We did solid switchgrass stands, but they ended up being more weeds than grass. We tried using some wildlife mixes in these areas as well, but they were unsuccessful. We used oats as a nurse crop and mowed it off at about a foot high, which worked well in some areas and not so well in others.
Tim: What goals were you looking to accomplish with the establishment of prairie on your farm?
David: My overall objective for my farm is to grow annual crops on my best ground and convert most of the rest to timber. I have a timber business, so I have been planting and harvesting hardwoods here since 1996. The farmer that I share crop with saw an opportunity to put in some CRP on field edges and recommended it. As I looked through seed mix recommendations, I found a native mix. This mix seemed like a natural fit on my farm considering it would be a chance to restore some natural habitat. We had some steep field edges that made sense to me to convert into prairie simply because this would increase the habitat value compared to a non-native like brome or fescue.
Tim: Do you think other land owners would be interested in planting prairie strips?
David: I think there are a number of reasons to plant strips. Strips are a good habitat for species such as pheasants and quail. One aspect that many people do not consider is the concept of the strips being a refuge for weeds. Weeds growing in these strips will maintain some variation in their genetics and help prevent the development of resistant weeds within the fields. I also believe that prairie is very healthy for the soils. Some prairie species have a large root system that helps keep soil in place. This will help to reduce erosion. There is an appeal with the forb species as well, which are needed to support our pollinators. Providing a habitat for pollinators all of the growing season should help the crops.
Tim: Do you have any recommendations for someone considering putting prairie on their land?
David: If the area is currently being cropped, plant right after a soybean harvest. If planting into brome or another grass, it is important to completely kill off the grass. In my opinion, brome grass is the most challenging hurdle when establishing natives. I suggest burning these areas if you can. If you can’t burn it, mow it. Mow or burn it in the fall or early spring and spray it with a heavy dose of glyphosate when it greens up in the spring. As soon as it starts greening up again, spray it again. Allow it to green up a third time and spray it again. After your third spraying, you can seed your prairie species. It may be late May/early June. I include some annual rye in my seed mix. Annual rye seems to lock the soil and green up quickly. There are a lot of different opinions on mowing, but we have found that mowing isn't the best practice. We will spot mow in August if we see areas with high weed pressure, but we stay away from mowing because many of our varieties are annuals. We don’t want to kill off these species before they have a chance to seed. If you have to mow leave narrow unmowed strips of annuals to bloom and reproduce. Annual rye seems to lock down the soil and still allows sunlight to reach the small natives beginning to grow. These may not be the typical recommendations, but we have found this strategy to work the best.
Tim: What techniques have led you to have so much success establishing your prairie?
David: I buy all my seeds by species. I make my own mixes so I can create certain mixes for certain areas. This helps me to establish certain species in areas where I have found that they grow well. For example, I make a wet mix, a dry mix, and a broad mix. I use my personal experience and the USDA database to decide what species to put in my wet and dry mixes. I mix my seeds in a five gallon bucket. I will add a couple scoops of wet sand in the bottom of the bucket. I will then take a handful each of annual rye, each grass species, and the forb species mix and throw them in the bucket. Add two more scoops of wet sand and then I use a trowel to mix everything. I do this again and again until the bucket is full. It isn’t feasible to carry a five gallon bucket full of wet sand through the field, so I pour my mix into half filled buckets that I hand broadcast from. For thirty foot buffer strips, I simply walk down the middle and hand broadcast to both sides. You can cover a buffer well in one pass. In larger areas, I set up line of site markers to make sure I am covering all the areas that I want to cover.
Tim: How do you go about building your seed varieties?
David: I have three good seed distributors that I purchase native Iowa seeds from. I use the online maps from the USDA PLANTS database to confirm what species are native for my area. I shop around between these distributors for the best prices for each of my species. Some species, such as my grasses, are relatively cheap, so I can buy them by the tens of pounds. Some species are very expensive, so for these I will only purchase a small packet of seeds, usually between 1 and 2 ounces. My mixes are usually somewhere between 50 and 100 species. Some species will be available one year and not the next. I keep an eye out for native species in my area in the catalogs. I usually spend somewhere around $2,000 on seeds per year. This allows me to seed around 5-8 new acres each year. There are great programs such as the NRCS EQIP program and Trees Forever that may provide some financial support.
Tim: What challenges or obstacles have you had to overcome with your prairie?
David: Brome is the biggest challenge. We have had strips where we thought we had taken care of the brome but after 5 or 6 years we find it starting to creep back in. We burn and spray these areas as soon as the brome greens up in the spring to knock it back, preferably after having burned the area as early in the spring as possible. Since there is a lot of timber on my farm, we have seedlings entering the prairie as well. We usually kill them back with burns but if that is not feasible in an area then we cut them as close to the ground as we can. Burning was a skill that we had to develop over the years. We have about half our crops in corn and the other half in soybeans, so we usually burn adjacent to soybeans. I use safe burning practices such as having enough help on hand and keeping an eye out for changes in wind direction. Plenty of back pack sprayers of water as well as a 50 gallon sprayer on the tractor are a huge help.
Tim: What changes have you observed after your establishment of prairie on your farm?
David: I have seen a lot of wildlife in my prairies. We now have a strong population of pheasant on the farm. I see a lot of goldfinches – Iowa’s State Bird – using the prairies, which is a cool sight. I saw some hummingbirds on my farm for the first time this summer!