What are prairie strips and how are they beneficial for farmers?
July 31, 2020

What are prairie strips and how are they beneficial for farmers?

There’s a new soil and water quality strategy that’s steadily getting more and more attention recently: prairie strips.

Prairies are nothing new to Iowa, but planting prairie strips has been gaining traction thanks to work put in by researchers and farmers through the Scienced-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) program at Iowa State University.

The STRIPS program, according to its website, has worked with 318 farmers who have planted 1,761 acres of prairie strips in fields. Those prairie strips, the program states, have protected 16,957 acres of cropland. The program has been researching the use of prairie strips for more than 10 years, introducing them into corn fields and soybean fields.

But what are prairie strips and what, exactly, do they help farmers achieve? Continue reading to learn more.

What are prairie strips?

Prairie strips are a method of conservation that promote better soil and water quality. They also provide wildlife with habitat.

Through its work with farmers on introducing prairie strips into their farm fields, the STRIPS program found that the strips yielded more benefits for soil, water and biodiversity than other perennial vegetation. This is because of the diversity of the native plants species that are planted as part of the strips.

Not only do the strips produce more benefits, but they are also more affordable for farmers who want to focus on soil and water quality.

What plants are in prairie strips?

One of the reasons why prairies strips are so beneficial is that the plants that are included in them are native, perennial prairie species.

There can be any number of plants in the strips, including grasses, forbs, legumes and sedges. More specifically, as Iowa State University notes, there are stiff-stemmed warm season grasses, such as Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem and erect forbs, which can include aster, beebalm, blazing star, bush clover, cone flower, goldenrod and native sunflower.

There can also be plants that are helpful for pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. This means many prairie strips can include different types of milkweed and mixes of plants that bloom in early spring.

There’s one thing that’s for sure: Prairie strips can be a great way to show off a little bit of natural beauty and color thanks to the native wildflowers that can be planted in them.

Where are prairie strips planted?

Farmers working with Iowa State University’s STRIPS program placed strips around or through a farm field, often along waterways or in a terrace channel.

The size of the strips varied, but were up to 25% of a tract of land. The minimum width of the strips in the program was 30 feet, while the maximum width was 120 feet.

The benefits of planting prairie strips

Per research from Iowa State University, converting 10% of a field to a diverse, native perennial vegetation, farmers and landowners stand to gain a lot. Prairie strips properly positioned can decrease sediment movement off a farm field by 95%. In addition, total phosphorus lost due to runoff was reduced by 90% and nitrogen lost from the same cause was reduced by 85%.

Prairie strips provide opportunities to turn areas of fields that are low-yielding into areas that actually produce real benefits for the rest of the field.

There are other specific benefits, too, that come with planting prairie strips. According to the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the strips come with these specific advantages:

  • 44% reduction in water runoff
  • 95% reduction in soil loss
  • 90% reduction in phosphorus runoff
  • 84% reduction in nitrate-nitrogen runoff
  • No difference in corn and soybean yields per acre
  • No difference in the amount of weeds present
  • Fewer emissions of heat-trapping gases, specifically nitrous oxide

Prairie strips improve wildlife habitat and biodiversity

Prairie strips have been designed with many purposes, but improving biodiversity and creating wildlife habitat are two that environmentalists are beginning to promote with more frequency.

Results of one experiment showed that the presence of the strips increased the number of both pollinators and birds present in the area. This is thanks to the diversity of the plants that are found within the strips. That plant diversity allows for native plants to flourish, which then provide habitat for other plants, birds, pollinators and beneficial insects.

So, prairie strips could have much broader-reaching ecosystem impacts.

It doesn’t take a lot of land area to see the benefits

Perhaps one of the great things about prairie strips is that a little goes a long way. Only smaller percentages of a field are needed to plant the strips in order to see beneficial results for the entire field.

For example, simply by planting 10% of a field into a strip that’s 15 feet to 30 feet of prairie can reduce soil movement, reduce phosphorus loss and decrease the amount of nitrogen in surface water.

Midwest farmers are getting on board with prairie strips

While prairie strips may not qualify as popular, per say, they are effective – and farmers throughout the Midwest are beginning to use them and see the benefits.

According to Iowa State University, more than 60 farmers and landowners collaborating with farmers are farming with prairie strips as of 2019. Prairies strips are actively being used in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Iowa State University has also collected direct testimonials from farmers who have worked with the program if you would like to hear more about the real benefits they have seen since working with the STRIPS program.

Are prairie strips right for your farm?

After reading this, perhaps you are asking yourself whether prairies strips are a good conservation strategy for your farmland. Cotton Grave can help you determine whether these strips would go well with your conservation efforts.

In fact, our farm management services include many facets. Conservation is just one small part, although an important part, of the services we provide that can lead your farm operation toward success.

Contact Cotton Grave to begin a discussion about your goals and how we can help you achieve them.

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