Native Prairie Strips: A Game-Changing Farming Technique

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Photo by Anna MacDonald
Planting crop fields with strips of diverse native perennials will boost overall yields and soil health.

A new and potentially game-changing farming technique for conventional crop production is turning heads—and both farmers and environmentalists are taking a good, long look. Seven years’ worth of field research at Iowa State University has developed into what’s known as STRIPS, or Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips, in which highly diverse patches of native perennial plants are strategically woven through crop fields.

Research has shown that if just 10 percent of a field is converted to prairie strips, nitrogen loss will be reduced by 80 percent, phosphorus loss will be cut by 90 percent, and sediment loss will drop by 95 percent. Overall, 5,353 pounds of soil per acre will be kept in the field instead of washed downstream. The reasons the strips can return so many benefits are manifold, but, in part, deep-rooted native perennials add organic matter to soils, prevent surface runoff, and result in better water retention and filtration. These outcomes deflect the need for heavy applications of fertilizer. In other words, a small strip can make big waves in amber grain.

Integrating the prairie strips into cropland can counter the “profit vs. long-term health” conundrum by creating what’s known as a “disproportionate benefit.” By targeting the parts of a field that are both low-yielding and high in conservation value, growers can gain environmental and production benefits worth more than the collective cost of installation. Using this method costs $25 to $36 per acre of rowcrop, annually—and Conservation Reserve Program contracts can lower that price by up to 85 percent.

To implement STRIPS, you can contact farmer liaison Tim Youngquist by email, or at 712-269-0592.