Prairie Strips

Benefits of Prairie Strips

Planting prairie helps prevent soil erosion which preserves soil fertility and keeps soil sediment from polluting lakes and streams.  The stiff, upright stems of the native perennial plants that make up prairie strips help to slow surface water runoff and hold soil in place when it rains, especially when topsoil is bare and vulnerable in the spring and fall.  By comparison, exotic grass species such as smooth brome or fescue typically established in buffer strips lay flat under heavy rain and do not impede the flow of water, sediment, or nutrients from crop fields. [1*]

At the rate we are losing our top soil, most of it will be gone in 150 years.  If that happens crop yields will collapse, people will starve, and more likely than not, war will breakout.  According to some prairie biologists it would take a re-established prairie 500 years to rebuild the soil lost over the past 150 years.

Adding strips of prairie to low-yield agricultural land is an absolutely great idea.  The strips can pay for themselves and provide benefits to you and future generations.  In addition to preventing sediment from polluting waterways, prairie prevents nitrogen and phosphorus from doing the same.  Prairie organisms metabolize excess soil nitrates and nitrites in a way that returns the excess nitrogen to the atmosphere as a gas.  Phosphorus running off a field during a heavy rain shower is captured and sequestered by deep-rooted prairie plants and is from then on continuously recycle in the prairie ecosystem until the vegetation is harvested or carried off by an herbivore.  In addition to, preventing soil erosion and water pollution, prairies are great at reducing flooding and sequestering carbon.  A young prairie can sequester one ton of carbon per acre annually. [2*]

The 10% of a field that might be planted to prairie strips is not lost acres.  Prairie hay growing on the strips can be harvested.  During hunting season, the strips can serve as either a refuge for upland game or a place to hunt.  It's also possible that a landowner could sell carbon credit for the carbon their young prairies sequester underground. [3*]

If all the above mentioned benefits aren't enough, prairie strips provide habitat for beneficial insects.  Even though soybeans regularly self-pollinate, they do better at setting pods when bees participate [4*].  In addition to insect-eating birds prairie strips provide homes for insects that eat aphids such as lady bugs, praying mantises, flower flies, and assassin bugs.

Where to place your Prairie Strips

Prairie Strips work like terraces in the way they prevent erosion and capture runoff.  However they are much less expensive to install.  Their drawback is that they are effective on slopes no steeper than 10%.  Terraces are your best choice for land conservation when slopes are greater than 10%.   In addition research has shown that, as a rule of thumb, prairie strips reach their maximum economic and environmental benefit when they comprise 10% of a row crop field.  Furthermore the USDA offers financial assistance to landowners wanting to install prairie strips.  One of their requirements is that the strips be at least 30-feet wide.

You can usually get the most bang for the buck by locating your prairie strips on the contour in row crop fields.  Other good places are in grass drainageways and along streams where the strips can serve as stream buffers.  End rows and point rows are also acceptable places for prairie strips as long as they are oriented so as to capture runoff.  In the end though, you will most likely locate the majority of your strips on your field's least productive acres.  Prairie & Wetlands works with Agsolver as needed to help you identify your least productive acres.  Agsolver is a company based in Ames, Iowa.  Their web address is:  https://agsolver.com.  They uses GIS and precision farming principles to develop maps that help farm operators identify their most and least productive land.

Still Skeptical?  Below is data to help you make a good decision.  Not only is there data related to environmental benefits, but also data about how in a short time you could put money in your pocket with prairie strips.

Supporting Data

Prairie strips have no impact on crop yield other than the land taken out of production.  Converting 10 percent of a row-cropped field to prairie strips:

  • Reduces sediment transport by 95 percent,
  • Reduces overland water flow by 42 percent, and
  • Reduces nitrogen transport by nearly 85 percent and phosphorus transport by 90 percent [1*]

On some fields, the nitrate-nitrogen concentration in groundwater can be reduced by 70 percent with prairie strips.  The performance and longevity of prairie strips can be improved when combined with other conservation practices such as no-till or reduced tillage, cover crops, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and streambank buffers.  Healthy soil and clean water are essential for all Iowans, rural and urban.

Cost Analysis

The cost of prairie strips compares favorably to other conservation practices that maintain and manage nitrogen and sediment.  Farmland owners should consider these primary costs:

  • Site preparation for seeding,
  • Prairie seeds,
  • Ongoing management to promote the establishment and maintenance of native plants, and
  • Opportunity cost of other potential income-generating uses associated with the land (e.g., crop production). [1*]

The cost of establishing a prairie is usually much greater than the annual cost of maintenance.  Fortunately government subsidies are available to offset up to 90% of the establishment cost.  Of course when making the decision to install prairie strips, it's also important to consider long-term costs and the subsidies available.  Within a 15-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contract from the  USDA Farm Service Agency, the total cost to a farmer can be reduced by about  75%.  Cost estimates change depending on land rent, crop prices, soil quality, management, the diversity of the seed mix and other factors. Costs are discussed in detail on the website: http://www.prairiestrips.org.

Tables 1 and 2 [5*]  provide cost analyses from two different perspectives.  (See below.)  Table 1 provides a rule-of-thumb summary.  It essentially says that a farm operator can gain all the benefits of prairie strips; namely a) as much as 95% less sediment transport, b) the opportunity to harvest prairie hay, c) more insect eating birds, d) more habitat for game animals, and e) potentially better soybean pollination; for as little as $8 an acre per year.  Table 2 provides a templated guide to help farm owners decide whether or not to install prairie strips.  A farm owner can enter the opportunity cost associated with prairie strips into Table 2 along with the cost of seed, preparing seedbeds, planting seeds and maintaining the prairie.  The farm owner can then manipulate the numbers on Table 2 to determine the investment likely to be needed for installing prairie strips to his/her particular piece of ground.

Prairie Strip Cost Analysis 1
Prairie Strip Cost Analysis 2

* CP 25 is a high diversity grass and forb seed mix for rare and declining habitat.  2017 seed prices used are a composite of five regional prairie seed companies. Average CP 25 seed mix cost used here is $250 per acre.

Prairie Strip Funding

Getting financial support

Iowa landowners can receive financial support and technical assistance from these programs:

• USDA Farm Service Agency offers annual, cost-share, and in some cases incentive, payments through CRP 10-15 year contracts: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/index

• Environmental Quality Incentives Program may assist with prairies to be harvested or grazed: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/ia/programs

• US Fish and Wildlife Partners Program works with landowners to restore wildlife habitat: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/partners

• Resource Enhancement and Protection awards small grants for soil and water protection: http://www.iowadnr.gov/Conservation/REAP

• Pheasants Forever funds habitat projects including native prairie seedings: http://iowapf.net/NativeGrassProgram.aspx

• Trees Forever funds pollinator projects: http://www.treesforever.org

Working with Tenants

Landowners need to include their tenants early in the discussion of prairie strips establishment. Those who farm the land need to know the reasons supporting prairie strips usage, prairie strip locations within the field, and how they will affect the tenant’s yield and profit. Chances are the equipment used on the land will belong to the tenant—a key factor in designing the strips. The tenant will also need to know if prairie strip maintenance is their responsibility; and if so, how to maintain them.  Involving tenants early will help to keep relationships positive, and reduce possibilities for land management errors including tilling up the prairie strips or herbicide and pesticide applications within the strips. [4*]

References

Citations

*1 www.prairiestrips.org (2017) A Landowner's Guide to Prairie Strips.  AE 3609.  June 2017.  Iowa State University Extension, Ames, Iowa

*2 Piñeiro, G., E. G. Jobbágy, J. Baker, B. C. Murray, and and R. B. Jackson (2009) Set-asides can be better climate investment than corn ethanol. Ecological Applications 19:277-28

*3 Jarchow, M. E. and M. Liebman (2011) Incorporating Prairies into Multifunctional Landscapes.  PMR 1007.  Iowa State University Extension, Ames, Iowa

*4 Erickson, E. H.,  G. A. Berger, J. G. Shannon, and J. M. Robins (1978) Honey Bee Pollination Increases Soybean Yields in The Mississippi Delta Region of Arkansas and Missouri.  Journal of Economic Entomology, Volume 71, Issue 4, 1 August 1978, Pages 601–603, https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/71.4.601

*5 Tyndall, J. C., L. A. Schulte, M. Liebman, and M. Helmers (2013) “Field-Level Financial Assessment of Contour Prairie Strips for Enhancement of Environmental Quality.” Environmental Management, 2013.

 

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