Agriculture

Seeing the benefits of cover crops, with radishes and rye

'If you are interested in having a place for the birds where beneficial insects can overwinter, consider prairie strips'

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Dick Sloan stands in one of his prairie strips during a mid-June field day to demonstrate the conservation practice on his farm near Brandon.
Orlan Love/The Gazette Dick Sloan stands in one of his prairie strips during a mid-June field day to demonstrate the conservation practice on his farm near Brandon.
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BRANDON — Strips of deep-rooted, thick-stemmed native plants growing on the contours of Dick Sloan’s cornfield slow the runoff from heavy rain, saving soil and nutrients while improving wildlife habitat.

The blooming prairie flowers also provide a home for pollinating insects, which was a major factor in Sloan’s decision to plant native vegetation on 4.5 acres that had been devoted to row crops.

“I started hearing about the decline of pollinating insects about five years ago and wanted to establish some perennial plants to help them out,” Sloan said at a recent field day to demonstrate the conservation practice on his farm near Brandon.

“If you are interested in having a place for the birds where beneficial insects can overwinter, consider prairie strips,” he said.

Sloan, an early adopter of conservation practices, started planting cover crops in 2011 — long before it was cool — and now covers his entire 700-acre farm with 16 different species ranging from rye to radishes. He planted his prairie strips — a mix of 29 native species of grass, forbs and legumes — in June 2012 without the assistance of the Iowa State University-based STRIPS program.

STRIPS — Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips — began in the fall of 2003 at a single site at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. Today, STRIPS personnel, some of whom were at Sloan’s field day, have helped more than 20 farmers across Iowa and northern Missouri — including Cedar Rapids-owned farmland near The Eastern Iowa Airport — install native prairie on their fields.

“It’s not a silver bullet. It’s another tool in the toolbox for saving soil and reducing the loss of nutrients to surface water,” said Tim Youngquist, an ISU agricultural specialist who helps farmers and landowners design and install prairie strips.

Youngquist said prairie strips can qualify for federal payments under three different continuous signup Conservation Reserve Program practices, which can greatly offset the cost of lost grain production.

In comparisons with 100 percent row crop no-till fields, fields with 10 percent prairie showed a 95 percent reduction in sediment losses, a 90 percent reduction in phosphorus losses and 85 percent reduction in nitrogen losses, according to STRIPS research.

Most of the farmers adopting STRIPS say soil conservation is their primary motive, according to Lisa Schulte Moore, an ISU associate professor of natural resource ecology and management and a founding member of the STRIPS project.

“But it’s not just a one-off. With STRIPS, you get soil conservation plus,” she said.

“The more flowering species in the mix, the more bees and the more species of bees,” said ISU researcher Amy Moorhouse, who is studying pollinators at Sloan’s farm and at nine other STRIPS sites.

Researchers found 107 species of bees at the well-established and diverse STRIPS sites at Neal Smith, she said.

Youngquist said the Cedar Rapids project, seeded in May, consists of five acres of prairie strips featuring a high biodiversity mix of 80 plant species.

In addition to milkweed in the seed mix, 300 milkweed root plugs were planted to jump-start the benefits for monarch butterflies, which rely on milkweed for survival, he said.

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The Cedar Rapids site, he said, will be one of six STRIPS sites targeted for intensive monitoring of water, sediment, nitrogen, phosphorous and populations of pollinators, birds and small mammals.

Youngquist said results from the STRIPS field will be compared with those of a neighboring field that is similar in all respects except for the prairie strips.

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