The first Saturday of June is National Prairie Day, which encourages people to, “Celebrate the native grasslands in your region and across our nation.”
Every farmer should be able to appreciate the prairie, for the simple reason that the prairie helped build the rich topsoil that is the foundation of our agricultural productivity.
However, prairie should not only be celebrated as part of our history; it’s still a part of our current landscape. The remnants of virgin prairie that still exist, even though they may be tiny and scattered, still provide vital habitat – maybe not enough for a bison or a prairie chicken – but for a plethora of plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, and birds.
There are also “sleeping” remnants – virgin prairies that have been invaded by trees and brush or introduced cool-season grasses. There are many examples of prairies coming “back to life” (native plants coming back on their own) with the removal of woody vegetation and prescribed fire. There are also “camouflaged” prairies – areas that might not look special, such as roadsides, pastures and hayfields, and odd areas, which still have a strong native plant community.
One example is a pasture here in Madison County where the NRCS/SWCD staff were planning some conservation practices to address erosion, provide water for livestock, and increase forage by removing brush. During field visits, staff had noticed that there was an area with several prairie indicators, which we avoided when planning the other conservation practices. Then, on a later field visit, staff observed Regal Fritillaries in the field – a species of butterfly that relies on native violets for its food source as a caterpillar. That “camouflaged” prairie remnant wasn’t large, and it wasn’t intentionally being preserved, but the Regal Fritillary is proof that it is supporting species that depend on prairie for habitat.
Beyond our past and present, prairie also belongs in our future. Besides the critical habitat it provides for wildlife, it can also play a role in our conservation toolbox when it comes to preventing soil erosion and runoff, and keeping our waters clean.
One of those tools are prairie strips, a conservation practice based on filter strips and contour buffer strips. Instead of seeding down an entire field, prairie strips are placed in strategic areas of the field where they will do the most good for intercepting runoff, slowing water down, and giving it a chance to be soaked up by the soil before it runs off the field. The key with prairie strips is that they are planted to a diverse mix of native plants, so that while they’re doing good for soil and water, they’re also providing habitat for pollinators, grassland songbirds, upland gamebirds, and other wildlife – which is one of the reasons why it made sense to establish prairie strips in the crop fields at Badger Creek Wildlife Management Area. To learn more about prairie strips, visit www.prairiestrips.org. Also, keep in mind that prairie strips is now its own practice in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Ready to see more prairie in your future? Our office may be able to provide assistance! The USDA and its partners (Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Pheasants Forever) offer advice and technical assistance, and there are also opportunities for financial assistance through Farm Bill programs (CRP, EQIP, etc.), state cost share programs (REAP), and others.
Though the USDA Service Center’s doors are currently closed to the public, we are still open for business via phone (515-462-2961), and there is information available on the Madison County Soil & Water Conservation District’s web site: www.Madison-SWCD.org.