Establishing a Culture of Conservation with Prairie STRIPS

Written by Hanna Bates, Program Coordinator for the Iowa Water Center

Across the Midwest, farm fields are patterned with commodity crops, including corn and soybeans. Although supportive of our global economy, this agricultural system is a leaky one with shallow roots systems in the field that leaches nutrients and depletes the soil. In Iowa’s history, landscapes were previously protected in a blanket of prairie that would build deep roots and replenish the soil. Commodity production and conservation are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices, but an integrative system that farmers can establish on their farms.

Prairie STRIPS is a process in which farmers plant approximately 10% of prairie on the contour while growing their regular rotation in the rest of the field. Over the last 8 months, I have been working with a farmer in Hardin County to establish STRIPS on his 128-acre farm field. Planning STRIPS is an iterative process between the conservation planner and the farmer so that it fits his/her needs. In what I have learned in putting in prairie STRIPS, there is nothing cookie-cutter about the process. Rather, it is one that requires visits to the field and detailed conversations so that the farmer can reach the goals s/he sets for the land.

Visiting the field

Before we can start putting a plan on paper, it is important to go out and walk the field with the farmer to see what the topography is like and how the drainage flows through the field. In walking through this field, I saw that the farmer had grassed waterways already established. Despite having a few practices like this in place already, there were a few spots in the field that were experiencing a wash out every growing season and were financial losses. These happen to be primary spots where Prairie STRIPS could be placed. When this was noted to the farmer, he was excited for the possibilities of how his field could perform in yields by saving these spots and preventing problems, such as soil deposits and increased drainage velocity for the areas below the washout spots in his field.

Making the plan

After visiting the field, the next step is to work in ArcMap to sketch out where the potential STRIPS can be placed. Using a series of maps and knowing the future rotations plans in the field aids in this decision-making process. These aren’t necessarily viewed as limitations, but rather as narrowing the scope and providing direction to planning in ArcMap. We started with integrating the contoured STRIPS with the grassed waterways as well as adding blocked STRIPS at the south end of the field. We presented the plan to the farmer and the few edits we had to make to the plan were to square off where the Prairie STRIPS meet the grassed waterways for ease of mobility for his equipment. All strips were placed at intervals that are divisible by 30-feet to accommodate equipment and create uniform farming lanes. Prairie species included in the STRIPS is a mix of grasses and forbs (see Table 1 below). Maintenance will require routine mowing.

Identifying future needs

The Prairie STRIPS are currently in the first year of growth as they were planted in late Spring 2018. The first several years require some maintenance with mowing, but as the species grow and mature over time, they will require less maintenance. As these plants mature, they will provide a wildlife habitat and serve as a corridor for migrating birds. The STRIPS will provide ecosystem benefits as well as serve the community up in Hardin County by being a model for conservation and set an example for others in respect to what good farming is.

In Summer 2019, we will hold a Prairie STRIPS field day on the farm. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to receive the details!

Table 1. Prairie STRIPS Prairie Species
Grasses Forbs
Big Bluestem Anise Hyssop
Sideoats Grama Common Milkweed
Prairie Brome Smooth Blue Aster
Canada Wild Rye New England Aster
Switchgrass Canada Milk Vetch
Little Bluestem White Wild Indigo
Indiangrass Partridge Pea
Prairie Dropseed Tall Coreopsis
White Prairie Clover
Purple Prairie Clover
Showy Tick Trefoil
Purple Coneflower
Rattlesnake Master
Ox-eye Sunflower
Meadow Blazingstar
Prairie Blazingstar
Wild Bergamot
Wild Quinine
Foxglove Beardtongue
Yellow Coneflower
Black-eyed Susan
Compass Plant
Stiff Goldenrod
Purple Meadow Rue
Blue Vervain
Culver’s Root
Golden Alexanders

Reviewed by the STRIPS science team at Iowa State University for science/economic content related to prairie strips on September, 7, 2018.