December 07, 2023

Extension Notebook: Benefits of prairie strips

By Rachel Curry

Grass waterways are a tool that is used to collect soil from erosion, filter water, and provide a drive lane to access other parts of a field. With so many advantages to using grass waterways, are there options that may provide even more benefits? Prairie strips can work in conjunction with or instead of grass waterways and provide additional benefits. Prairie strips can also be planted on a contour or in front of water and sediment control basins.

Prairie strips can offer a lot of benefits to your operation. The use of prairie strips can improve your soil health and water quality while capturing sediment that would be lost due to erosion. The strips can also capture surface nitrogen and phosphorus as well as subsurface nitrogen. Native plant species used in prairie strips grow deep roots that assist with water infiltration and erosion control. These perennial roots also help promote healthy and diverse microbial communities within the soil.

Prairie strip mixes often include a diversity of wildflower species to ensure flowers are blooming throughout the growing season to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies and other beneficial insects. About three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and a little more than a third of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, so the importance of pollinators cannot be understated. Prairie strips also attract beneficial predatory insects, such as predatory ground beetles. With an increase in predatory insects, there may be a reduction in pesticide application needs.

Prairie strips increase wildlife habitat and cover. Implementing prairie strips leads to increased bird populations and diversity. By bringing in a healthy bird population, you could see up to a 30% reduction in insect populations, resulting in a reduced need for pesticide applications. For the biggest impact, using a diverse planting mix will attract a greater variety of wildlife.

A diverse mix of plant species within your prairie strips, as compared to a monoculture of grass species in a typical grass waterway, will help reduce weed competition within the strips and reduce the number of weeds entering the field. The stiff stems of prairie plants also help slow the water moving through the strips as compared to the brome species typically used in traditional grass waterways.

Prairie strips are a newer conservation practice that falls under the Conservation Reserve Program umbrella and can be used in a variety of ways depending on the needs of the farmer. To see a benefit, at least 10% of the field size will need to be in prairie plants. Using prairie strips as CRP, the land area may not exceed 25% of the cropland area per tract and can range from 30 to 120 feet in width. Since prairie strips qualify for CRP, there are cost-share opportunities available through USDA-Farm Service Agency with advice and seed recommendations available through USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Along with all the benefits of planting a diverse prairie, prairie strips are aesthetically pleasing. Prairie plants are native to Illinois and are well-suited for our climate, though prairie strips require some maintenance to remain healthy. Adding prairie strips to your operation has many positives, including improving soil and water quality, reducing erosion, and creating habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects.

Listen to the “NLRS Podcast Episode 39: Are These Tools in Your Toolbox? Prairie Strips” to hear additional information about prairie strips.

Rachel Curry is a University of Illinois Extension Watershed Outreach Associate.