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Small prairie areas can deliver big agricultural impacts

Article cover photo
Huxley farmer Lee Tesdell drills perennial prairie seeds on a field last November. The prairie strips will help reduce water runoff, reduce soil loss and improve habitat. (Photo courtesy Tim Youngquist)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

Prairie strips could be defined as the successful marriage between row crop farming and restored prairie.

By taking just 10 percent of a field out of row-crop production and replacing it with perennial prairie, research has shown this practice reduces surface runoff, soil erosion and nitrogen and phosphorus export from the field.

 “At its core, it’s a very simple idea,” said Tim Youngquist, farmer liaison with Iowa State University’s (ISU) prairie strips project. “Using native vegetation to help filter water, create habitat and keep soil in place — these things are positive and the science behind them is solid.”

The prairie strips project — Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) — began in 2003 at ISU. The research team planted strips of prairie in different scenarios on four farm fields in the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. They studied soil displacement, water runoff and nutrient loads to find out the best ratios of cropland to prairie as well as the strategic locations of prairie within the field. Yield and profitability were taken into consideration and studies were conducted on insect, bird and wildlife habitat within the prairie strips.

The team found the ideal combination was planting 10 percent of the field to prairie along the contour and at the base of a hill slope. Their findings showed a 44 percent reduction in water runoff, 95 percent reduction in soil loss, 90 percent reduction of phosphorus runoff and 84 percent reduction in nitrogen runoff between 2007-2014.

Individualized research and demonstration

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Environmental Programs and Services (EPS) team worked with the STRIPS team in a supportive role, as ISA does with numerous projects across the state. Organizations and agencies contract with ISA regularly to oversee and perform water monitoring and soil sampling.

“The water monitoring work by the EPS team helps individual farmers learn what is leaving their fields. Gaining this perspective helps in their decision-making process on practice consideration as well as validates practice performance,” said Roger Wolf, EPS director. “We are all working toward the same goal of nutrient reduction in Iowa’s waters. By partnering with groups such as ISU’s prairie strips team and the Whiterock Conservancy project, we can help advance these goals.”

The EPS team worked specifically with ISU on a two-year study at Whiterock Conservancy near Guthrie Center. Anthony Seeman, ISA environmental research coordinator, handled the water sampling. He said this project was atypical of most prairie strips comparisons.

“The STRIPS concept is based on using conservation on the most vulnerable acres, generally 10 percent of the field, to get a large result,” said Seeman. “The site at Whiterock Conservancy already had oversized grass waterways that they converted to prairie. Because of this and other issues, they ended up adding much more than 10 percent of the field into perennial cover and in blocks rather than thin strips.”  

Monitoring of surface runoff at the sites showed that the prairie strip areas held the soil in place better with just over 11 pounds per acre of suspended solids in the samples, compared to the areas without prairie strips, at nearly 60 pounds per acre.

Even though the outcome of the project at Whiterock Conservancy ended up with more than the recommended 10 percent prairie areas, their goal remains the same as others who are using this conservation tool – to improve water quality from agricultural land.

Removing 10 percent of a row-crop field and replacing it with perennial prairie in strategically located strips reaps large dividends including reduced soil erosion and water runoff. (Photo courtesy Tim Youngquist)

Private farm implementation

Farmers and landowners are now adding prairie strips to their conservation farming operations. Youngquist is the “pivot point” between the STRIPS team and farmers and landowners across Iowa, working with them directly to design prairie strip sites on individual farms.

Lee Tesdell, an ISA member who owns and operates a century farm in central Iowa, worked with Youngquist and his tenant, Mike Helland, to figure out how to farm with the addition of prairie strips.

Tesdell had three terraces in one field that made it awkward for planting and harvesting corn when they came to the end of the terrace. Using the prairie plants to widen and lengthen the terrace, it made corn planting and harvesting much easier. 

“Our plan was to take out about three acres total for the prairie areas,” said Tesdell. “We seeded the prairie strips the day after Thanksgiving last year. This summer, I identified about six flower species that came up. The mix I planted has 60 or 70 varieties in it, so I’ve got a ways to go.”

Tesdell has been doing as much as he can to combat erosion on his farm.  He installed a woodchip bioreactor five years ago and a saturated buffer last year. Helland has been no-tilling Tesdell’s land for more than 25 years and added cover crops in 2012. Tesdell’s land is well protected by using these conservation practices.

Scaling up

The STRIPS team has proven results from dozens of farmers participating in their research across Iowa. Now the team is taking the next steps to get prairie strips on the landscape beyond research and demonstration.

Youngquist is the only person at ISU in the farmer liaison capacity for prairie strips. The team has recognized this and is working to get more people knowledgeable on prairie strip design.  The STRIPS team hosted a series of classes last summer to train consultants for implementation. The classes detailed the science behind the concept and reviewed the information needed to know for good design choices.

There is a lot of interest in prairie strips around the state and expanding across the Midwest. The team has received inquiries from as far away as Africa, said Youngquist. “By adding habitat and natural resource benefits, prairie strips will help us farm just a little bit better,” commented Youngquist.

Contact Carol Brown at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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