More farmers sought for prairie strips

Published 5:51 pm Friday, December 8, 2023

This fall, five farmers in northeast Mower County enrolled nearly 80 acres of cropland to convert to native prairie strips that, unlike other set-aside programs, they can turn around on and cross with farm machinery.

With each getting up to $300 per acre annually from the federal government, they also will receive a newer incentive of $80 per acre each year through state funds managed by the Mower Soil & Water Conservation District in Austin.

These are enrollments in the prairie strips practice under the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA). Mower SWCD assists with signups.

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“Anyone with cropland in Mower County can qualify for the additional $80-per-acre incentive,” said Jessica Bulman, a conservation technician with Mower SWCD who leads local signups for CRP prairie strips. “It’s a great opportunity for farmers particularly because it offers so much flexibility compared to other conservation programs.”

Many landowners enroll prairie strips in areas sensitive to erosion, such as headlands and field fence lines. Other areas prime for strips are along heavy tree cover, where trees compete with corn and soybeans for sunlight, water and nutrients.

Farmers enrolling in the prairie-strips program have used crop-yield records as a planning tool to place prairie strips in areas that make CRP more profitable than farming those acres, said James Fett, Mower SWCD watershed technician. Prairie strips are beneficial for landowners who enroll acres on their headlands, where machinery compacts soil the most.

Mower SWCD encourages Mower farmers and rural landowners to learn more about prairie strips this winter and meet with Bulman to consider enrolling in the CRP program, with the potential for planting native prairie seeds in spring 2024 or spring 2025. These small amounts of prairie come in the form of in-field, contour buffer strips and edge-of-field filter strips.

Early results show immediate water-quality improvements due to the 60-foot-wide prairie strip at the DeWall farm near Grand Meadow, where Mower SWCD collects stormwater-runoff samples from a monitoring site next to it. Staff can see sediment trapped in the strip after rainfall. This site in the Root River’s south branch headwaters is part of the long-running Field to Stream Partnership led by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Farmers and landowners can sign up to establish prairie strips through CRP under a 10- or 15-year conservation contract that keeps those acres as native prairie. CRP provides landowners with a per-acre payment based on soil type. Most costs are covered via cost-share assistance for preparing the site, purchasing seed, seeding and establishing strips.

Prairie strips, which can act as a sponge and slow soil runoff caused by rain, can conserve soil, improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Ranging from 30 to 120 feet wide, the strips are highly effective at reducing the loss of sediment, nutrients and pesticides when stormwater leaves cropland.

Iowa State’s STRIPS team has done research on prairie strips for more than a decade and found that integrating small amounts of prairie into strategic locations within corn and soybean fields – in-field contour buffer strips and edge-of-field filter strips – can yield significant benefits for soil, water and biodiversity.

Converting as little as 10 percent of a cropped area to prairie-conservation strips, STRIPS reports, can reduce soil loss by 95 percent; phosphorus losses in surface runoff by 77 percent; nitrate concentrations in groundwater by 72 percent; and total nitrogen losses in surface runoff by 70 percent. Pollinator and bird abundance more than doubled. 

STRIPS also finds that prairie strips are one of the most-affordable and environmentally beneficial agricultural conservation practices available to farmers and landowners. Low-yielding acres are a great opportunity to integrate perennial vegetation, reducing input costs otherwise spent on low-yielding acres.