Farmers in Iowa are planting prairie strips to foster the production of healthy food and sustainable fuel, and to moderate the impacts of climate change.
Prairie strips are strips of diverse herbaceous vegetation – a mixture of native grasses, wildflowers, and other stiff-stemmed plants – running through a farm’s crop fields. They are a conservation practice that protects soil and water while providing habitat for wildlife.
Research conducted by Iowa State University’s Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team found that converting just 10% of a row-cropped field to prairie strips reduces soil loss by 95%; reduces overland water flow by 37%; and reduces the loss of two key nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from the soil by nearly 70% and 77%, respectively.
It also leads to greater abundance and diversity of beneficial insects, pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies, and birds. Going from zero to 10% prairie provided far more than a 10% increase in the measured benefits.
The research also found that the kinds of perennial species that thrive in prairie strips can moderate the impacts of climate change.
Lisa Schulte Moore of Iowa State University told Science Daily: “Research shows that areas of native prairie planted in the right places in a farm field can provide benefits that far outweigh losses from converting a small portion of a crop field to prairie. For example, when we work with farmers to site prairie strips on areas that were not profitable to farm, we can lower their financial costs while creating a wide variety of benefits.”
Researchers from the STRIPS programme are working with farmers in the US Midwest to install prairie strips and to continue monitoring practice benefits. They have installed prairie strips on farms where corn, soy, and vegetables are grown.
The conservation practice has been tested by the STRIPS team since 2007 on experimental plots at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and increasingly on commercial farms across Iowa. The first farmer collaborator installed prairie strips in 2012, and to date more than 60 farmers have signed up as additional collaborators.
While science-based research aims to test the viability of conservation practices such as prairie strips or wildflower corridors, they are are no new feature to agriculture. This sustainable practice has been used throughout centuries worldwide, bringing some of the most fertile and nutrient-dense soils to lands and attracting an abundance of biodiversity.
STRIPS has partnered with the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to raise awareness among farmers of prairie strips and the benefits of implementing them on their farms, through a series of field visits and educational opportunities across Iowa.
Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyles including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com