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Lisa Schulte Moore, Iowa State University

Feb 10, 2015

Lisa1One of your ongoing projects is called ‘Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips’ or STRIPS. Please tell us about this project, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

STRIPS has been an amazing journey. In 2003, when the STRIPS team conceived the experiment of integrating small strips of prairie into row-crop fields, most people thought it was a far-fetched idea. Now it’s gaining mainstream traction here in Iowa and beyond. The project is currently moving beyond our initial 60-acre experiment on row-crop fields at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge to include various applications on private and public farms in Iowa and northern Missouri. By the end of spring 2015, we should have prairie strips installed on at least 23 row-crop fields, with 17 of them being private farms; two of these are organic farms.

Stay tuned, because we have a lot of questions about optimal design and the impacts of prairie strips at this scale—such as what it means for farming operations, beneficial insects and wildlife, agronomic pests, and pesticide transmission from non-organic farms. We expect the soil and water quality benefits will be fairly consistent with what we’ve found in our experimental fields at the Refuge. Those impacts alone are turning heads and prompting people to seriously consider prairie strips.

Here in Iowa, about 65 percent of the state is in row-crop production, and soil erosion and water impairments are on the minds of many. Soil and water are our two key natural resources, sustaining livelihoods and fueling the state’s economy. We need to protect them.

gary guthrie quoteWhat are some of the benefits of integrating a strip of prairie plants in farming systems?

The STRIPS team has recorded a 95 percent reduction in soil loss, 90 percent reduction in phosphorus loss, 84 percent reduction in nitrogen loss, and 44 percent less runoff in small watersheds (1-8 ac) with 10 percent of their area in prairie strips as compared to similar watersheds that are entirely in row crops. The slopes in these watersheds range from 6-10 percent, and crops are managed with no-till practices. While soil, phosphorus, and nitrogen are important assets in crop fields, they become major pollutants once they enter our waterways. We know that much of the nitrogen fertilizer being captured by the prairie strips is being bound up in the soil or is undergoing complete conversion to an inert gas form—the form that makes up the majority of the Earth’s atmosphere. Nitrogen fertilizer can be converted to nitrous oxide, a potent heat-trapping gas, by microbes in the environment, but this doesn’t appear to be a problem with prairie strips. We’re glad to know we’re not trading a water quality problem for an air quality problem.

We’ve also recorded increases in native bird and insect diversity associated with establishing the native plants in our experiment. These responses of animal communities really need to be confirmed now that we are moving onto commercial farms; we aren’t sure if our initial results are being skewed by working within a wildlife refuge. Again, stay tuned.

What are the specific benefits of using prairie strips for farmers?IMG_0651

While each farmer or farmland owner has his/her own reasons for adding prairie strips to his/her farm, most are impressed with the multiple benefits that prairie strips offer. For the organic farmers we work with, reducing soil erosion is a big reason. They also are interested in creating more wildness on their farms and the potential positive impacts of providing habitat for beneficial insects closer to their crops. One of the non-organic farmers we work with wants the water leaving his farm to be cleaner than the rain that fell on it. Another farmer is concerned about the precipitous decline in Monarch butterflies over the last decade. It’s impossible to spray all the weeds but milkweed, so he sees prairie strips as a practical way to establish the milkweed and other floral resources that Monarchs need while also addressing soil erosion, water quality and wildlife habitat concerns. We have a very popular video, “Restoring the Balance: Prairie Conservation STRIPS” (www.leopold.iastate.edu/stripsthemovie), that captures the diverse attractions to prairie strips and the “conservation plus agricultural production” angle of the overall STRIPS effort.

Lisa Smith Farm3Why do you focus on using native prairie plants as opposed to other types of plants?

We see prairie strips as a way to harness the benefits of Iowa’s historically dominant ecosystem—the tall grass prairie—to improve its currently dominant ecosystem—row-crop agriculture. Prairie plants are adapted to the Midwest’s climate and soils, and our native animal communities are adapted to them. Prairie plants have deep roots that hold soil in place and support a vibrant soil community. They also have stiff, upright stems that slow the overland movement of water to reduce its erosive power and give it more time to infiltrate into the soil. In this part of the world where agricultural land values are high and it’s financially difficult for farmers to give an inch to anything but crops, prairie has the best chance of providing a large conservation bang for the buck.

IMG_0655How can farmers learn about utilizing this technique on their own farms?

Farmers can visit the STRIPS website (www.prairiestrips.org) and follow us on Twitter (@prairiestrips) to learn more. The STRIPS team has developed a variety of brochures to help with on-farm implementation, and links to webinars also are available. We plan to host an “implementation workshop” this summer; forthcoming information will be posted on the website or through Twitter. Tim Youngquist is our farmer liaison. He has a farm background and substantial experience with design and establishing prairie. He joined the team a year ago, and is already pretty maxed out helping people implement prairie strips. We consider this a good problem to have, but, as a result, we are back to writing grants to fund a second farmer liaison position.

Where do the seeds for planting native prairie plants come from?

Here in the Midwest, we’re lucky to have many native prairie seed dealers with local ecotypes. A list of those in Iowa is maintained by the Iowa Prairie Network (http://www.iowaprairienetwork.org/mgmt/seeddealers.shtml). State departments of natural resources or non-profits keep similar lists in other states. We’re hoping we can help give these people a lot more business.

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