ISU Extension and Outreach
ISU Extension and Outreach
ISU Extension and Outreach reliable information about agriculture, 4H programs, food and nutrition, and family sciences. ISU Extension and Outreach has an office in Muscatine.

Muscatine Living

By Chris Kick–Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

AMES, Iowa–Formally known as Prairie STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips,” these narrow bands of 30-120 foot wide prairie are a federally recognized conservation practice that has shown significant benefits for water quality improvement, wildlife conservation, pollinator habitat, and aesthetic beauty.

In 2015, Eric Hoien installed prairie strips on 24 acres of his 129-acre farm that adjoins a lake, working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Conservation Reserve Program. “The strips are a way of combining conservation with farming,” said Hoien: “They don’t require taking a whole field out of production, as would some other conservation programs.”

Paul Mugge, an organic farmer from O’Brien County, installed Prairie Strips on his farm about 23 years ago, about eight years before researchers at Iowa State University began to study them as part of a defined research project.

His goal, at the time, was to provide a barrier to the pollen from neighboring farms that were not organic. He quickly found that the strips did much more than stop pollen. They also stopped erosion and nutrient loss, improved the clarity of water leaving his farm, and provided wildlife habitat and a place for people to take photos on an Iowa prairie.

By placing the strips at the bottom of fields, where water leaves the property, researchers found at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge they were able to reduce soil loss by 95%, phosphorus losses in surface runoff by 90%, nitrate concentrations in groundwater by 72% and total nitrogen losses in surface runoff by nearly 85%, compared with watersheds where only crops were grown.

Prairie Strip located mid-field. Photo courtesy Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Practical solution

Tim Youngquist, the Prairie Strips liaison for Iowa State, said farmers like knowing they can still farm most of their land while maintaining the strips that can be placed in the most sensitive parts of the farm, while allowing the farmer to plant most of the farm as usual.

Youngquist said farmers sometimes plant the strips where point rows would otherwise exist, and places where the slope and terrain would make normal farming practices difficult. Youngquist said the federal provisions are lenient enough to allow farmers to turn equipment or drive across with equipment, to access other parts of their farm. The strips have also fared well in fields where herbicides are used, provided some common sense is applied.

Continued growth

The program has grown substantially since its inception, and has been a federally recognized conservation practice, with farm bill funding, since 2020. Today, more than 15,000 acres are in prairie strips across the U.S., with most located in the upper Midwest.

“We are really excited to see how much this has expanded,” said Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State. “With water quality concerns across the Midwest and most of the country, we feel the strips have real-world value almost anywhere people live and farm.”

For more information on Prairie Strips, including testimonials from landowners who have implemented them, visit the Prairie Strips project website.

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