ISU researchers pave way to make prairie strips eligible option for federal conservation program

Prairie strips on an Iowa farm field

Prairie strips planted at strategic locations within corn and soybean fields have a number of environmental benefits and are now an eligible conservation practice under the Conservation Reserve Program. Image courtesy of Omar de Kok-Mercado. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – U.S. farmers will be able to collect federal conservation payments for installing prairie strips on their land, and Iowa State University researchers helped bridge the gap between the latest science and federal policy.

The 2018 Farm Bill, approved by Congress and signed into law December 2018, for the first time named prairie strips, or the strategic planting of small amounts of prairie within corn and soybean fields, as a conservation practice eligible to participate in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). New signups for the CRP program opened in early December, and that’s good news for farmers who want to protect their soil and improve water quality. CRP gives farmers a yearly rental payment for converting environmentally sensitive land from production and establishing conservation practices on that land. Prairie strips are now an official practice under the CRP Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers Initiative.

When developing policy to implement the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought input from ISU researchers who pioneered much of the science on prairie strips over the last decade. Omar de Kok-Mercado, a program coordinator in natural resource ecology and management for the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team, coordinated the STRIPS team’s efforts to develop technical specifications for the prairie strips policy and submitted the work to USDA. The new policy has been approved by USDA, and farmers can offer to apply prairie strips through the ongoing Continuous CRP signup at their local USDA Service Center.

Iowa State’s contribution to the CRP policy development process required translating experimental findings into real-world management guidelines that can be understood by farmers and implemented by policymakers. The new rules specific to prairie strips will provide greater clarity, flexibility and reliability for farmers who want to implement the practice, de Kok-Mercado said.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management and scientist on the STRIPS team, said she’s heard from many farmers excited to take advantage of the new rule.

“The 2018 Farm Bill sent a clear signal from Congress and the White House that this is the direction we want our farm conservation programs to go,” she said. “We’ve heard from farmers who have been waiting so they can sign up portions of their fields for prairie strips. With last year’s heavy rainfall events, they are looking for good options to both slow erosion and deal with challenging acres.”

ISU scientists began conducting research on prairie strips more than 10 years ago. Since then, they’ve documented a range of environmental benefits associated with the practice. Prairie strips reduce soil and nutrient loss from steep ground, provide habitat for wildlife and improve water infiltration. According to an ISU study from 2017, converting as little as 10% of the cropped area to prairie conservation strips reduced soil loss by 95%, phosphorus losses in surface runoff by 77%, nitrate concentrations in groundwater by 72% and total nitrogen losses in surface runoff by 70%, compared with all-crop watersheds. Pollinator and bird abundance more than doubled.

STRIPS research has been funded by multiple organizations, including the USDA Farm Service Agency, Forest Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

“As a scientist, it’s satisfying to be a part of the whole process,” Schulte Moore said. “Our USDA-funded research is now being used to improve USDA programming for people and the land.”

Most conservation practices aim for a single measurable benefit, but ISU experiments have shown that prairie strips address a range of concerns. Schulte Moore said prairie strips also are among the least expensive conservation practices on a per-acre basis.

Farmers can visit their local USDA service center to learn more about CRP and prairie strips.

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