The first part of this article was published in the March 9 issue of Agri-View.
Lee Tesdell is working on establishing prairie strips on his Tesdell Century Farm near Slater in Polk County, Iowa. He contacted Iowa State University in 2017 to ask about prairie strips, which he had read about in a newsletter from Practical Farmers of Iowa. He talked to his renter, saying it’s extremely important for landlords and renters to work together for conservation practices.
Marshall McDaniel with the Iowa State University-Department of Agronomy is part of the program that Tesdell connected with. Currently the program includes more than 15,000 acres of prairie strips protecting more than 150,000 cropland acres in 15 states.
McDaniel said they haven’t seen any issue with pesticides or herbicides affecting the strips, with proper management. They’ve seen increased wildlife use, including by deer.
“Whitetail deer were here already,” Tesdell said. “They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do. Pheasants like the strips, but they’re no threat to row crops. Badgers were already in the terraces even before the prairie seeds; they really like the soft soil.”
He said he hasn’t so far seen a big increase in pollinators in the strips.
“When the prairie flowers are blooming I go down and watch for pollinators,” he said. “Honey bees don’t seem interested in flowers like the black-eyed susans, but they like some others. I have a bee keeper brings bees over, plus I’ve seen bumblebees and such. The honey bees, I see them in my alfalfa before we bale it. I also see them on soybean blossoms. My vegetable garden and fruit trees they like.”
Matt O’Neal is involved in pollinator research on the prairie strips.
“Our research shows that prairie strips are a net benefit for pollinators, both wild and managed – wild bees and honey bees, which are mostly managed in this part of the world,” said O’Neal, a professor in the Iowa State University-Department of Plant Pathology, Entomology and Microbiology. “Measured in terms of abundance, diversity, increase in honey-bee health and productivity, they’re 24 percent better as compared to a farm without strips.”
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He said pollinator populations have been declining because of pesticides, pathogens and poor forage.
“The forage part is especially noticeable in landscapes like in Iowa,” he said. “A study years ago kept bees on farms where they were growing soybeans. The bees would pull their honey crop off clover and soybeans. But when those stop flowering, they immediately start eating their own honey. That’s supposed to last them all winter. Most of the honey in the Midwest is coming from soybeans; that’s quite a bit of nectar for several weeks. Honey bees take advantage of those resources. But when that’s gone there’s not much left. There are not many non-crop areas that would have native prairies.
“But when we gave them access to prairie they recovered due to nectar available in late-flowering plants – in August, September and even October. And in time and space, strips supplement available forage; they don’t need to forage as far. Prairie strips represent a native mix that would have been in native prairies.
“Honey bees don’t use all the plants in the prairie strips. (In our test) they had 36 different flowering plants but pollen brought back to the hive only represented 17 species. So honey bees and wild bees can share some resources. If you’re interested in the decades-long decline in bees in the United States, strips can help. A healthier bee is a well-fed bee. The healthier it is, the better it’s able to fight Varroa mites and diseases. When we fed them a diet with native pollen, resistance to viral diseases increased. Just like with humans, the better the diet, the more they’re able to resist negative outcomes."
Prairie strips are a new tool in a farmer’s toolbox. Like any tool, each farmer needs to consider what the benefit is on an individual farm. But the potential exists for benefits that may continue to grow.
“Think of a ‘Big Mac,’” O’Neal said. “That nails it – lots of layers, lots of benefits. The impact on limiting soil erosion and nutrient loss – that’s the moneymaker, the soil, keeping it in our fields. Where we grow corn and soy, pollinators are the sesame seeds on the bun. They’re an extra, a bonus.
“Improving diversity in prairie strips in fields may improve crop yields. We may see more predators coming out of the strips into crops, like lady beetles.
“I’ve had a farmer tell us when he put strips into some of his fields his return on investment increased – because he put strips in land that was costing him to farm. The amount of input was never going to give him a profit. With the help of yield maps and patient review he could see taking that land out of production and putting it in strips in the end increased productivity.”
Visit www.nrem.iastate.edu/research/strips and www.allendanseed.com/seed and soilhealthnexus.org for more information.
This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.
Julie Belschner writes on various agricultural issues; she is the managing editor for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.