Saving the Topsoil with Prairie Strips
The first official day of Spring may have arrived, but farmers and ranchers were still waiting for the first signs of spring until this week.
Last month, a “bomb cyclone” hit the Midwest, with heavy rain, snow and wind creating a perfect storm that has resulted in flooded communities, damaged roads and plenty of mud to contend with during calving season.
Many farmers are itching to get into the fields; however, across South Dakota and the surrounding states, thousands of acres were either covered by the thick snow pack or pools of rain water.
As a result, spring planting may have been delayed longer than normal, but this gives farmers ample time to rethink their traditional planting strategies in favor of something “new.”
Prairie strips are a conservation practice that utilize strategically placed native prairie plantings in crop fields. This practice was adopted, further developed and tested by the Science-Based Trials of Row crops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa.
“After I heard about prairie strips in the Des Moines Register, I reached out to people in my local USDA office to help me implement them on one of my farms,” said Eric Hoien, a farmer from Spirit Lake, Iowa. “This farm sits directly adjacent to Big Spirit Lake, so a lot of people see it. I didn’t want people to think my farm might be impairing the water quality within the lake. There are the benefits of keeping the soil and nutrients on the land, which are important for continued sustainability of my farm. I had some initial concerns about whether I could establish prairie in an agricultural setting. But now I have been a part of five prairie reconstructions, and all my worries have been settled with how smooth of a transition and how beneficial prairie is.”
“The Strips team discovered that converting as little as 10 percent of row-cropped field to prairie can help reduce soil erosion, retain nutrients and provide habitat for wildlife without impacting per acre crop yield,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, ISU professor and managing associate director of natural resource ecology at the Bioeconomy Institute. “Research has demonstrated that sowing native prairie species in narrow bands along contours and at the base of slopes on corn and soybean farmland is a relatively low cost way to garner multiple agricultural conservation benefits. They also give farmland owners flexible management options and provide numerous benefits that other conservation practices may not offer.”
According to the research, which began in 2007, with 10 percent of a field planted into prairie strips, it’s possible to reduce sediment loss by 95 percent; reduce water runoff by 42 percent; reduce overland phosphorous loss by 90 percent; reduce overland nitrogen loss by nearly 85 percent; and increase habitat diversity to support habitat for birds, pollinators and other insects.
Farmers are showing interest in implementing the practice of prairie strips in their fields, and fortunately, it is a fairly affordable option to integrate into a field plan.
According to the STRIPS team, “The calculated average annual cost for one acre of prairie strips ranges between $280 and $390. Costs include land costs, potential tillage and herbicides to facilitate prairie plant establishment, prairie seed and annual and periodic mowing to encourage the prairie plants to take hold.”
“Prairie strips are now eligible as a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practice in the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Omar de Kok-Mercado, STRIPS Project Coordinator. “We are currently developing the technical guidelines with the USDA.”
As part of the Farm Bill, some of the costs of planting prairie strips could be relieved through CRP contracts offered by the USDA Farm Service Agency.
Similar to cover crops and more affordable than terraces, prairie strips include a mixture of plants to create a diverse ecosystem to support multiple land uses such as haying, grazing, hunting, honey production, bird watching and photography.
“Plant diversity lets a prairie flourish under a variety of climatic conditions,” said Schulte Moore. “Even if an individual species performs poorly because of yearling nutrient or water fluctuations, the ecosystem as a whole thrives, reducing vulnerability to climate extremes.”
Ranchers who manage pastures of native grasslands are already familiar with this diversity of species and the benefits of the long root systems of these plants. However, for farmers, who specialize in shallow-rooted annual crops such as corn and soybeans, the simple addition of prairie strips could drastically improve and address ongoing issues in their fields such as runoff and the loss of prairie-built topsoil.
So how are prairie strips installed? Timothy Youngquist, ISU agricultural specialist and STRIPS farmer liaison, explains how to set up and maintain these strips of prairie plants.
“Areas of potential erosion through the concentrated flow of water should be protected by conservation practices such as grassed waterways,” said Younquist. “Where contour row curvature becomes too sharp to keep equipment aligned with rows during field operations, increasing the buffer strip width can help avoid sharp ridge points.”
Planting 10 percent of the total acreage effectively protects the entire field; however, actual acre amounts may vary depending on field size, slope, soil quality and existing conservation practices.
“The strips are required to be at least 30-feet wide for CRP enrollment,” said Younquist. “Prairie strips can be planted at any time of year — spring before crop plant or fall after crop harvest are ideal.”
“I recommend planting on top of soybean ground,” said David Gossman, a farmer from Jackson County, Iowa, who has been successfully planting prairie strips on his 670-acre farm for 20 years. “Early on, we didn’t have access to a prairie drill, so we used a crop drill. Our first varieties consisted of Indian grass, big bluestem, and some forbs. We used somewhere between 15-20 species in the first mixes. We did solid switchgrass stands, but they ended up being more weeds than grass. We tried using some wildlife mixes in these areas as well, but they were unsuccessful. We used oats as a nurse crop and mowed it off at about a foot high, which worked well in some areas and not so well in others.”
To avoid past season’s herbicides impacting the development of young prairie plant species, Younquist recommends producers check out this searchable database of herbicide labels: http://www.csms.net/Label-Database.
“Seed options should include a diverse mix of native prairie species, including cool and warm season grasses, legumes, sedges and forbs,” said Younquist. “A diverse mix of prairie species can fill all available root space beneath the soil and reduce available space for weeds to germinate. If possible, use local ecotype seeds that are derive from local sources, generally considered 200 miles eat or west and 100 miles north or south from the planting site.”
Don’t be discouraged if the planting strips contain a great deal of annual weeds in the first year, the STRIPS team warns. Weed suppression may include mowing, spot treatment or burning to promote seedling establishment.
In just a few short years, mature prairie plants will outcompete the weedy plants and will no longer require maintenance. By year seven, strips are largely self-sustaining; however, mowing or burning every other year will promote additional prairie vegetation.
For livestock producers, an additional benefit to prairie strips is they provide additional forage for grazing. Depending on the time of year and maturity of plants, harvested prairie strips can be used for hay or bedding.
“Rotational or high-intensityy grazing can help maintain the prairie diversity,” said Schulte Moore. “Native warm season grasses planted in paddocks or strips can create valuable grazing in the summer when cool season pastures need rest and recovery.”
“I need a strong, healthy ecosystem to support my cows to thrive, which in turn supports the wildlife,” said Seth Watkins, a cow-calf producer from Clarinda, Iowa. “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.
To learn more about the benefits, costs and planting of prairie strips, visit http://www.prairiestrips.org or tallgrassprairiecenter.org.