Loss of biodiversity and degradation of farmland has had a significant environmental impact across the United States.
Excess amounts of nutrients have created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, legal battles have ensued over polluted drinking water, and unsustainable amounts of soil are eroding from row crop acres.
Farmers and landowners can blend conservation practices with production agriculture to be part of the solution. Prairie strips are a new conservation practice that protect the soil and water, while providing a habitat for wildlife.
Iowa State University has been conducting research on prairie strips for over 10 years. These prairie strips can be found in the form of contour buffer strips and edge-of-the-field filter strips. These strips are usually 10 percent or less of the crop field and can yield some of the same benefits of native prairie fields.
Prairie strips yield greater benefits than other perennial vegetation because of the diversity of native plant species, deep root systems, and stiff, upright stems that contribute to slowing surface runoff and holding the soil in place.
As farmers know, it wouldn’t be economical to put all the productive Kansas farm ground back into prairie. Instead, strategically weaving a little bit of prairie back into the agriculture landscape can increase water and soil quality, habitat for wildlife and pollinators, as well as opportunities for biomass production.
Low yielding acres provide a great opportunity to integrate perennial vegetation, while reducing the costs of inputs. Similarly in conservation, some areas of a field yield higher conservation benefits. If we target those areas that have a high conservation value and low economic return, farmers can gain greater economic and environmental returns.
Research from Iowa State shows that by converting 10 percent of a crop-field to diverse, native perennial vegetation, farmers can reduce sediment movement off their field by 95 percent.
These 15-foot to 30-foot strips of prairie along the contour allow farmers to reduce phosphorus loss by 90 percent and reduce nitrogen in surface water by 91 percent. They also substantially increase biodiversity in the row crop rotation.
The strips are usually composed of approximately 30 species. The native species mixes are comprised of mostly of wildflowers and three to five grass species. The prairie strip treatments have four times the amount of native plant species diversity, two times the native bird abundance and 3.5 times more native pollinators.
Are you a landowner interested in implementing prairie strips?
Prairie strips are compatible with existing federal and state cost-share programs, so farmers who implement prairie strips can recoup some of their costs. USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers annual, cost-share, and in some cases incentive, payments through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) 10- or 15-year contracts.
Under a 15-year CRP contract for a CP 15A contour buffer strip, a farmer could receive a cost reduction of at least 70 percent reducing the cost to about $9 per treated acre.
Prairie strips are eligible for CRP cost-share as a conservation practice in the 2018 Farm Bill. Details will be updated once available.
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) may assist with prairies to be harvested or grazed, depending on the county.