Prairie strips

Prairie strips offer farmers a range of possibilities to address erosion, wildlife habitat and water quality issues.

Tim Youngquist has a bit of a duel role, just like the prairie strips he promotes serve multiple roles.

Youngquist farms with his father in southwest Sac County, Iowa, where they have worked to implement some prairie strips into their fields. But he also serves as the farmer liaison for the researchers doing on-farm research into prairie strips at Iowa State University.

The strips he works on and promotes are used by farmers to address erosion, wildlife habitat and water quality issues, among other things.

Both the man and the strips are multi-tasking.

“I guess I’m kind of a prairie diplomat,” Youngquist says. “Farmers have a lot of questions.”

Omar de Kok-Mercado works with Youngquist and with other researchers on the prairie strip project. He sees the strips slowly catching on and offering farmers a range of possibilities for improving their own farm situations

The ISU researchers are working with farmers in six different states with about 1,600 acres of prairie strips, de Kok-Mercado says. And the improved ability of farmers to use the CRP program in more prairie strip situations has been helpful this year.

Before this year, farmers could use the CP21 program under CRP for filter strips along creeks. But the CP43 program is also useful now to those who want to implement prairie strips on their farms and are looking at a way to make it more affordable.

The idea of prairie strips isn’t completely new. Iowa and much of the Midwest and plains states were once covered with prairie. But this effort began in 2014 with research at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. Soon a team of researchers and Extension experts began working with farmers on different types of prairie strips. Some are being used as buffers alongside streams. Others are being used to replace end-rows on fields or are along the bottom end or the fence-line area. And some are aligned in strips across the field like terraces.

The ideal situation from an environmental standpoint would be to use the strips like terraces, Youngquist says, but many farmers may opt for easier versions and the CRP program can help with that.

Meanwhile, de Kok-Mercado says that if used as field strips like terraces, prairie strips could reduce erosion by up to 95% and reduce phosphorus and nitrogen coming off a field by over 80%.

And he says one option used by some farmers is to simply look at a yield map and put a low-yielding section of the field into prairie. If that area is entered into the CRP program the farmer could get paid for it and also make more money on the rest of the field because the land in question was often losing money.

He says the prairie strips are more resilient than a grass CRP strip because it includes a variety of plants that do well under different conditions at different times during the growing season. Most mixtures include multiple flowering plants.

Youngquist and his father, Dennis, tried their first prairie strip about 10 years ago. They added more three years ago and the new strip included a mix of up to 60 different plants.

The end result is a reduction in erosion and nutrient loss and a dramatic increase in wildlife habitat, including pheasants.

Plus, he says the resulting area is often alive with flowers, providing good pollinator habitat and improving the natural beauty of the field.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.