Seth Watkins is a cow-calf livestock farmer from Clarinda, Iowa. He also farms 800 ac of corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa. He chatted with Lisa Schulte Moore from the STRIPS team on June 16, 2017 about why he sees prairie strips as a good option for his farm. He also shared some of his experiences as a farmer in establishing and farming around prairie strips.
Lisa: What were your goals in establishing prairie strips?
Seth: Reducing soil erosion off lands, like the goals of many conservation practices. But prairie strips have a lot of added benefits. It opens people’s minds up to prairie…you start thinking about wildlife, birds, and soil health. The strips are more useful than terraces, and contour farming, in their ability to help stop the runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Terraces might actually accentuate the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus by funneling it towards the tiles. As farmers, we need to figure out how we don’t waste half of the fertilizer we use for our own economic reasons, but also to make sure we are socially responsible in using those products.
Lisa: How did you go about establishing prairie strips on your farm?
Seth: I was the first farmer that you all worked with to get strips on the ground. It was a little rocky because it was the first one, but I think we all learned a lot…the only way we’re ever going to learn is to try.
We met down here in southwest Iowa twice. The first time was to talk concept. The second time, in December 2012, we met on one of my row crop farms, along with the local district conservationist from the [USDA] NRCS. We flagged out three prairie strips on the contour.
The next spring I worked with the NRCS to get the strips seeded. Well, we hoped to get it seeded in the spring, but it was so wet and cold down here that it didn't happen until late June. This was not my lucky year because we got hit with a 7-inch rain just days after the seeding. This is not your typical rain event…not something we could plan for, but it was a real bummer: I got some bad washouts and I lost my prairie seed. I hauled out some hay bales and put them in the washouts to slow the erosion, and that worked well. I reseeded the prairie strips the next spring and those are now established.
Lisa: Do you think other farmers would be interested in implementing prairie strips on their land?
Seth: I’m concerned that we farmers have lost our ability to appreciate the beauty and dynamics of natural resources. I have peers that see native prairie and wildlflowers as weed but those “weeds” are exactly what gave us the resource that made us so wealthy and successful in Iowa: our soil. A high point for me now is having the chance to talk about my prairie strips and promote them to my peers. Prairie is a hard sell but when you know it's the right thing then it makes it much easier to talk about.
I need a strong, healthy ecosystem to support my cows to thrive, which in turn supports the wildlife. Our wild species are indicators of how healthy those ecosystems are. We don’t truly understand the impact each organisms have on each other, so if one disappears, what is going to happen to the others? At a certain point you have to understand that nature has been doing this for millions of years and it's not right for us to disrupt her activities because she really does know best.
Lisa: What recommendations do you have for other farmers interested in prairie strips?
Seth: I think one of the things you’re now recommending is including oats at a light seeding rate in the mix on steep ground like mine. Because the oats establish a lot faster than the prairie plants, they could really help with erosion and weed control in that first year. But it still wouldn't help with a 7-inch rain just days after seeding.