DRIFTLESS - Perennial, multi-species, prairie grasslands, grazed by large herds of bison, dominated the plains when European settlers first made their way west in America in the late 1800s. One can only imagine the wealth of the soil those early farmers encountered, like the Ingalls family of Laura Ingalls-Wilder ‘Little House on the Prairie’ fame.
That’s the ecoscape a group of dedicated conservationists from Iowa and Wisconsin are trying to replicate in small, strategic plantings across the two states. Their motivations range from soil restoration and conservation, stream bank restoration, surface and groundwater quality, to pollinator habitat.
STRIPS is the project of a team of scientists, educators, and extension specialists in Iowa who have chosen to work together on the use of prairie strips as a farmland conservation practice. They strive to more fully understand the assembly, management, function, and value of prairie strips; to communicate their results; and to assist others with the implementation of prairie strips on farm fields.
Their initial research site is located at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, Iowa. The team is now implementing and maintaining research and demonstration sites across the Midwest, including on private commercial farms.
In Wisconsin, they are partnering with John Delaney of Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) in Southwest Wisconsin, and the Sand County Foundation. The two organizations share funding from a Sustainable Agricultural Research & Education (SARE) grant to promote prairie strips as a conservation land use strategy. In addition, VSN has received a grant from Fishers & Farmers from the National Fish Habitat Partnership-USFWS to support Delaney’s work.
‘STRIPS’ stands for ‘Science-based Trials of Row crops Integrated with Prairie Strips.’ The STRIPS research shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple benefits. By converting 10 percent of a crop field to diverse, native perennials, farmers and farmland owners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90 percent, and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85 percent. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects.
More information about their research can be found at www.nrem.iastate.edu/research/STRIPS.
A prairie fire passion
Valley Stewardship Network’s John Delaney found himself in the grip of a prairie fire passion for the soil-building and environmental benefits of the prairie as an undergraduate studying Botany at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
“I was already fascinated with genetics from a biology class I took to fulfill my science credits,” Delaney remembered. “But then I took botany, and got to go out on walks on Driftless Region goat prairies and learn about prairie plants.”
It was a love at first sight for Delaney, who went on to earn his PhD from the University of Iowa at Ames in Prairie Ecology from the School of Agriculture.
“While I was a student in Ames, I was able to participate in a study that used cattle to mimic the role of bison in a managed grazing scenario,” Delaney said. “First we would burn a prairie area, and then when it came back, we would let the cattle in to graze. This method is called ‘Patch Burn Grazing.’”
Delaney pointed out that this rotation is great for grassland birds, and bird diversity in general. He explained that the rotating burning also gives refuge to native butterfly species that overwinter in the prairie, versus burning it all at once.
VSN prairie strips project
Delaney was hired by VSN in 2015 to work on GIS projects with landowners, and run their water quality research program, as well as his work in demonstrations, outreach, and landowner consultations for the prairie strips project.
Delaney currently has three prairie strip demonstration sites in Southwest Wisconsin, where the prairie strips are integrated with row crops on farms. The group will hold a prairie strips field day, in partnership with the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, on Friday, August 17, on the farm of David VanDyke of rural Viroqua.
In describing the importance of the prairie strips work, Delaney pointed to the work of the STRIPS group in Ames, Iowa, which has done edge-of-field monitoring to establish the clear benefits for ground and surface water quality.
“The STRIPS project has demonstrated that land planted into prairie shows a 95 percent decrease in soil erosion, an 89 percent decrease in phosphorous run off, an 84 percent decrease in nitrogen runoff, and a 42 percent reduction in the volume of water running off the edge of fields,” Delaney pointed out. “This can be a powerful tool to keep nutrients out of our ground and surface waters, help local municipalities to achieve their municipal water phosphorous goals, and help to reduce flooding impacts from catastrophic rain events.”
Delaney agreed that one area on the land that would be particularly beneficial to target for a prairie planting would be around the sinkholes this area is known for, and at the end of the waterways that funnel water to them. In the area’s karst geology, sinkholes function as large, obvious, direct conduits to groundwater.
Another place where a prairie planting would be particularly beneficial would be at the top of an eroded ravine. Research from UW Discovery Farms at Jersey Valley in Vernon County established that these kinds of ravines are also likely to contain direct conduits to groundwater.
One of the Discovery Farms edge-of-field monitoring stations was placed at the top of a ravine coming down off a field, and flowing into the Jersey Valley Lake. Their research results showed that the amount of nutrients measured at the top of the field was vastly greater than the amount that was measured flowing into the lake at the bottom of the ravine.
In addition to Delaney’s concern for water quality, he is also passionate about the critical need to provide habitat for pollinators. Native bee and other pollinator populations have plunged in recent years. Pollinators are of critical importance to agriculture. About one-third of our food comes from plants that require pollinators to produce seeds or fruit, yet pollinators are at risk? Honeybee colonies around the world have suffered unprecedented losses in recent years, and many once-common native bum-blebees and butterfly spe-cies are disappearing.
“Native flowers are the best source of nectar pollen you can possibly provide because our native pollinators have evolved with native flowers as their source of nectar,” according to Dealney.
The VSN official notes that there are over 400 native pollinator species in Wisconsin that benefit from installation of a prairie planting. He describes the recent catastrophic decline in pollinator populations as due to weakened immune systems, which cause them to fail to thrive and to be vulnerable to various diseases.
“The best thing you can do for native pollinators is to give them prairie flowers as the source of food they have evolved to eat,” Delaney explained.
Landowners who may wish to participate in VSN’s prairie strip project should contact VSN at 608-637-3615, firstname.lastname@example.org.
When a site is selected as appropriate by VSN, then the project will purchase the seed for the landowner. The range of species that are planted ranges from 25 to 50, with about 30 species being typical. Seeding can take place in the fall, spring or winter.
In the first year, maintenance will be limited to mowing the area a couple of times to prevent weeds from setting seeds in the planting area. Mowing also serves to ensure that the prairie plants, which are slower-growing than the weeds, will get sufficient light.
In the second year, the landowner will want to mow one or two times, but at a higher setting of about 12 inches. The prairie planting should be well established by the third or fourth year. At that point, maintenance can include haying it, grazing it, or burning it every 3-5 years.
Delaney says that for those interested in prairie strips planting to build healthy soils, the planting probably would need to remain intact for a minimum of 10 years. This would make prairie strips an ideal way for landowners taking the long view to bequeath amazing soils to future generations.