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Prairie strips are cost-effective, study finds

This strip of prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa contributed to a study on the effectiveness of mixed native grasses for conservation. (Courtesy of Lisa Schulte Moore)
This strip of prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa contributed to a study on the effectiveness of mixed native grasses for conservation. (Courtesy of Lisa Schulte Moore)

Native prairie grasses can be a cost-effective choice for farmland conservation, according to a new economic study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Economist John Tyndall looked at the costs of implementing prairie strips — a strategy of planting small patches of native grasses amid row crops.

“[Prairie strips are] on par with a couple of other technologies,” Tyndall said, such as contour buffer strips and vegetative filter strips, in terms of overall cost. “And they’re far more inexpensive than a practice such as terraces, which are pretty common.”

Tyndall’s work follows extensive research at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa, that also found significant environmental benefits from the native grasses. (For more about the environmental benefits, check out this story.)

Tydnall calculated that the biggest expense of prairie strips is the same as for other conservation practices: the lost revenue or rental income from land taken out of production. He said prairie strips are cheap to maintain but they can cost a bit more to plant than the traditional seed mixes used on conservation acres.

“When you have high diversity planting mixes,” Tyndall said, “[the prices are] going to be higher than when you have a low diversity mix.”

The prairie mix used at Neal Smith included cold and warm season native grasses, sedges, and some flowers.

“Our seed mix had about 35 native prairie plants,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, an Iowa State ecologist who was one of the lead scientists on the study.  

Tyndall said the cost is an important factor when a landowner chooses a conservation practice and he said he hopes his study will prompt additional economic comparisons to give landowners better side-by-side figures. He said right now there are not clear studies that compare the costs of different options.

“We think we created a protocol that could be followed by other similar types of studies so that eventually we do have a body of literature out there that can compare best management practices economically,” Tyndall said.

One variable that will likely remain difficult to calculate is government dollars to support conservation.

When Conservation Reserve Program money or other federal funds are applied to the cost, Tyndall said, a landowner could potentially implement prairie strips for as little as $3 to $5 per acre per year (based on gross annual costs without CRP of $24 to $35 per acre per year).

“One of the challenges is that the programs change all the time,” Tyndall said of government support, “and what the benefits are vary from year to year. But they also vary from region to region.”

Tyndall’s research focused only on Iowa.

The breakdown of prairie strip costs is available as a fact sheet from the Leopold Center.