Monday, October 4, 2010


Source: Laura Miller, Leopold Center

AMES, Iowa –The tallgrass prairies that once covered Iowa contributed to the state’s fertile soil, but Iowa State University researchers say this endangered ecosystem offers so many other benefits to landowners.

A prairie can reduce soil erosion and nutrient pollution, help stabilize the hydrology of a watershed, increase the number of beneficial insects, be used to graze livestock or grow biomass for renewable energy production. A prairie also provides habitat for many wildlife species and songbirds, and it can store carbon from the atmosphere to reduce greenhouse gases.

These are some of the benefits outlined in a new publication, Incorporating Prairies into Multifunctional Landscapes. The publication was written by Meghann Jarchow, a Ph.D. candidate in the ISU Department of Agronomy, and her advisor, Matt Liebman, ISU’s Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair of Sustainable Agriculture. Both are members of a research team supported by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

The research team is developing multi-year cropping systems for Iowa that integrate annuals and perennials. Their work also is motivated by a concern to evaluate both the productivity and environmental impacts of cropping systems.

“Within the next few decades it is likely that the conditions surrounding agricultural production will have changed,” Jarchow explained. “As these changes occur, other types of cropping systems that are less reliant on stable weather, government subsidies, and low fossil fuel costs than corn and soybean are likely to become more desirable cropping system options. Prairies are one of those other types of cropping systems, which is why it is important for farmers and landowners to be familiar with these alternatives.”

Tallgrass prairies developed in Iowa more that 10,000 years ago. Before European settlement, prairies covered most of the central United States. Today nearly all of Iowa’s prairies have disappeared because of the growth of agricultural production, according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. It is estimated that less than 0.1 percent of Iowa’s native prairies remain.

The publication looks at ways that prairies can be incorporated into farms, how they affect nearby crops, and resources to establish your own prairie. Jarchow, whose background is in plant ecology, provided many of the full-color photographs in the publication.

The publication was sponsored by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Leopold Center and ISU Agriculture and natural Resource Extension. The publication can be downloaded, or printed copies requested at no charge, from the ISU University Extension Online Store at:

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