Prairie strips are the newest tool in the toolbox to keep farm inputs on the field and out of Iowa’s waterways. They’re a strip of ground seeded to a mix of native prairie plants, curbing runoff with deep root systems and providing wildlife habitats.
This year 18 farmers across Iowa are working with Iowa State University to learn more about how prairie strips work on farmland. ISU Professor Matt Helmers says the results from the original site near Prairie City are promising.
He says, ”If we put ten percent of those small catchments or watersheds into prairie, we see about a 95 percent reduction in how much sediment is leaving that field.”
It’s a significant reduction in overall runoff, which includes a 90 percent reduction in total phosphorus and in sediment-bound nitrogen.
Given the results, there’s been no shortage of support for research on prairie strips, including a recent $500,000 USDA grant awarded to the team and Helmers says there’s a lot of questions that kind of funding can answer.
”We’ll look at plant diversity. We’ll look at some of the soil quality inside and outside of the strips.” Helmers says, ”How much does it cost a farmer to put these in, as we think about their management. You know, what are some of the management challenges of that?”
One challenge is mowing the strip for the first few years to prevent weeds from establishing a stand. Helmers says producers willing to manage the strips are usually serious about their roles as environmental stewards.
He says, ”There are farmers that are interested in doing all they can to reduce sediment and nutrients that are leaving their field. I think some of them are interested in what kind of biodiversity benefits, habitat benefits, they might get with these prairie strips.”