Prairie on Farms helping to improve water quality

DYSART, Iowa — The Prairie on Farms Project draws on the expertise of the University of Northern Iowa's Tallgrass Prairie Center in helping to introduce prairie on farms, said Laura Jackson, center director.

Karen Oberhauser, of the Monarch Joint Venture, Laura Jackson, director of the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center, and Cassie Luze look at prairie grasses and flowers during a Prairie on Farms workshop on the Luze Farm near Dysart.

DYSART, Iowa — The Prairie on Farms Project draws on the expertise of the University of Northern Iowa's Tallgrass Prairie Center to help introduce prairie on farms, said Center Director Laura Jackson.

The Prairie on Farms Project hosted a workshop earlier this fall at the Luze Farm near Dysart, where 7 acres of prairie strips have been incorporated into an 80-acre corn and soybean field.

Jackson said the Tallgrass Prairie Center's roots go back to the 1970s, when founder Daryl Smith and others at UNI began efforts to find, preserve and reconstruct examples of diverse prairies on UNI's campus in Cedar Falls and in the surrounding area.

The Legislature created a program in 1988 to promote the use of prairies along roadsides as an integrated approach to managing weeds. A statewide coordinator was located at UNI to help counties with roadside management.

"We work with 50 counties to provide seed and technical support for the functional use of prairies in roadsides so they don't have to mow and spray as much," Jackson said. "It also provides multiple benefits to the community in terms of wildlife habitat and aesthetic beauty."


Those experiences helped the Tallgrass Prairie Center develop skills and techniques to reduce the cost involved in putting a prairie.

"It's going to come up; it's going to look good, and it's going to perform the way you want it to perform," Jackson said.

The center began efforts to partner with Iowa State University's Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips project about a year-and-a-half ago.

"They had this wonderful data showing that prairie strips in farm fields on the contour could have some really really high performance in terms of interrupting sediment movement, reducing nutrient loss and building soil," Jackson said. "We thought we had something to contribute because of our long experience working on prairie reconstruction techniques and technical support."

Prairie on Farms has support from the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Monarch Joint Venture, a nationwide organization devoted to recovering monarch habitat.

Randy Luze, who farms with his parents Marcia and Larry and also is with Peoples Company, had thought about putting in CRP grass buffer strips on a sloping row-crop field when he read about the STRIPS program.

Luze's wife, Cassie, who works at UNI and is friends with Jackson and Prairie Center founder Smith, introduced the three of them.

"It all came together that we should put prairie on those strips instead of a forage mix for hay," Luze said.


They started working on plans a year ago, and it fit into the Prairie on Farms grant program.

Luze has three prairie strips going down the north slope, two going down the south slope and two on the contour. The 30-foot-wide strips are 160 feet apart.

The NRCS in Tama County helped lay out the strips. When Luze planted the field, he jumped his GPS over 30 feet when he got to the first flag and left a blank strip. Dave Williams, Prairie Institute Manager at the Tallgrass Prairie Center, no-till drilled prairie grass seed into the blank strips. After he finished planting, NRCS took acre measurements. The strips are in the continuous CRP buffer strip program.

In a field across the road, Luze and Williams put in strips for another landowner, planting prairie on the top of terraces.

"We're hoping between increasing our use of cover crops and these prairie strips we can work towards the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy," Luze said.

He also pointed out neighbor Al Schafbuch's cover crop test plots. Schafbuch is using different cover crop mixes and seeding strategies including flying on cover corps with an airplane and blowing them on with a Hagie sprayer.

"Some good things going on in our neighborhood," Luze said.

Ashley Kittle, Prairie on Farms coordinator, said the program also has a prairie strip demonstration at the Northeast Research and Demonstration Farm at Nashua, and a prairie planting near Mount Auburn. This fall four acres of prairie strips were seeded in the Miller Creek Watershed south of Waterloo.


Prairie on Farms held spring workshops at the Luze and Nashua farms and also held a fall workshop at Nashua.

The project will soon launch an online seed mix calculator that customizes a seed mix for soil type, county and other factors critical to planting success, Kittle said.

Julie Mueller, who works with ISU Prairie STRIPS, said research shows that by strategically converting as little as 10 percent of row-cropped fields to perennial prairie, operators can reduce sediment movement in their fields by 95 percent, total phosphorus loss by 90 percent and total nitrogen loss by 85 percent.

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