New research from Iowa State University has found alternating monocultural farmland with strips of prairie vegetation can improve soil quality, biodiversity and flood prevention.
The study, conducted in the American Midwest, found that while large monoculture farms growing exclusively corn or soy beans – both common in US agriculture – could have detrimental effects on the nutrients in soil, groundwater quality, wildlife habitats and the population of pollinators such as bees and butterflies, many of these issues could be offset by introducing farmland prairie strips. These strips, consisting of rows of diverse native plants, attract pollinators, provide a habitat for indigenous wildlife; and draw water and nutrients into the surrounding soil. As the plants are perennials, prairie strips planted once will grow again every spring without further intervention.
The Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) researchers found that when 10 per cent of a field of corn or soy was converted to strips of prairie plants, the benefits included:
- Reduction of soil loss by up to 95 per cent;
- Reduction of overland water flow by 37 per cent;
- Reduction of nitrogen loss in soil by 70 per cent;
- Reduction of soil phosphorus loss by 77 per cent; and
- Increase in biodiversity of between 210 and 350 percent, including insects, pollinators and native bird species.
Lisa Schulte Moore, a member of the STRIPS research team, said: “Research shows that areas of native prairie planted in the right places in a farm field can provide benefits that far outweigh losses from converting a small portion of a crop field to prairie. For example, when we work with farmers to site prairie strips on areas that were not profitable to farm, we can lower their financial costs while creating a wide variety of benefits.”
In addition to the environmental benefits of farmland prairie strips, the team noted that by boosting the viable productivity of a field’s soil, the practice can lead in the long term to improved crop yields, potential honey revenue due to the increased presence of bees, forage for livestock; and the possibility of leasing land for hunting purposes due to the increase in fauna. Schulte Moore is now working towards production of marketable products derived from prairie strips, such as biomass-based fuels, to fully monetise the investment.