July 9 Virtual Field Day: Prairie Strips – Small Footprint, Big Impact

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group, is hosting a free virtual prairie strips field day on Thursday, July 9 at 1pm CDT.  Join us as we explore the multitude of benefits prairie strips can offer with Tim Youngquist, ISU Prairie STRIPS farmer liaison, and Gary Guthrie, Story County landowner with prairie strips.

Photo Credit: Omar de Kok-Mercado

Prairie strips is a farmland conservation practice that uses strategically placed native prairie plantings in crop fields. The practice has been tested by the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team since 2007 on experimental plots at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and increasingly on commercial farms across Iowa. Results from more than eight years of trials showed that converting just 10 percent of a crop field to prairie strips could result in a reduction of 95 percent of the sediment, 90 percent of the phosphorus and 84 percent of the nitrogen from overland flow of surface water.

“Prairie strips are a useful conservation tool that farmers and landowners throughout the Midwest are integrating into their farming operations,” noted Youngquist. “Prairie keeps soil in place, filters water, offers habitat for many native species of wildlife and pollinators, provides beautiful blooming flowers, and more.”

Make plans to join us and participate in the live field day. Shortly before 1:00 pm CDT on July 9th, click this URL or visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events and click “Join Live Virtual Field Day”.

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive is available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

Prairie Strips – Saving Soil, Cleaning Water, and Creating Wildlife Habitat

The final practice included in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual is prairie strips. These areas of perennial vegetation address three main resource concerns (soil erosion, nutrient loss, and wildlife habitat)

Prairie species have stiff stems and deep roots that slow down water, allow it to infiltrate, and filter out sediment and nutrients. Patches of native perennial vegetation create valuable habitat for a wide variety of birds, insects, and mammals.

Prairie strips can be placed around the edge of a field, within the field, alongside or perpendicular to waterways, and in terrace channels. To provide erosion control, improved water quality, and wildlife habitat, a minimum of 10% of the field should be converted to prairie. Prairie strips should have a minimum width of 30’ and be spaced at intervals that work with your farming equipment.

Check out the decision tree below to see if prairie strips can work for you!

Prairie flowers and grasses take time to establish, typically requiring two to three seasons of establishment management. Annual and perennial weeds grow quickly and can outcompete prairie plants in the first two growing seasons. Mowing prairie is an essential management practice that must be done during the first year whenever the height of the vegetation reaches twelve inches. Mower height should be set to four to six inches.

This helpful graphic can help identify which seed mix is right for your field.

Be sure to join us for two prairie strips events coming up this summer:

July 9, 1pm CDT – Virtual Field Day: Prairie Strips – Small Footprint, Big Impact

July 29, 12pm CDT – Webinar: Tim Youngquist, STRIPS Farmer Liaison

Find all our upcoming virtual field days and webinars on our Events Page.

Liz Ripley

Global Experience Highlights the Importance of Iowa Agriculture

The next guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series this summer was written by Riley Wilgenbusch. He is a senior at ISU majoring in Agronomy and Global Resource Systems and grew up in Story City, Iowa, where he spent time on his family’s hobby farm and participated in many agriculture-related activities.

Interning with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! has so far given me a diverse perspective on Iowa Agriculture to contrast my prior international work experiences and studies in Global Resource Systems. In the summer of 2019, specifically, I traveled across Europe and Africa co-authoring a research paper for the Animal Production and Health Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) before working as a public health intern studying the intersectionality between nutrition and health in the context of healthcare delivery systems in Kamuli, Uganda.

Harvesting cacao in Uganda as part of my diversified agriculture education.

This summer, however, my plans brought me back to Iowa where I’m learning about some of the world’s largest agriculture systems with a renewed perspective. I credit my sustainability research at FAO with my renewed sense of urgency in the environmental research portion of the internship. As the interns have been collecting data on monarch habitats in restored prairies, examining soil health data within industrial agriculture systems, and attending webinars and field days focused on a variety of different conservation practices in agriculture, I’m beginning to contextualize the paper I wrote last summer and see firsthand the toll agriculture can take on natural ecosystems if not carefully managed.

I specifically recall a presentation at a field day that highlighted the monocrop systems that dominate Iowa’s landscapes. This is in stark contrast to my experiences working with subsistence farming and nutrition education in Uganda. Understanding the challenges facing people living in food-insecure areas of the world, I’m hopeful to see future crop diversification in Iowa to help make progress toward eliminating food insecurity in the United States.

I also appreciate the diverse landscapes he’s learned about in Iowa this summer, too. In combination with lessons on the history of Iowa’s landscape formation, I have traveled across the state visiting different county parks as part of a project to promote individualized learning activities for youth and families in Iowa’s great outdoors. As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten to “debunk” the myth that Iowa is all flat cropland. From the steep terrain and terrace farming of the far northeast to the smooth, rolling hills of the southwest, Iowa is full of hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. Having been around the world, I’m thrilled to learn more about the state I’ve always called home.

Working with other interns on prairie plant research related to monarch habitats in central Iowa

As the summer progresses, I’m looking forward to doing more prairie research and monarch monitoring. As pollinator habitats continue to disappear, posing major threats to crop production, the importance of this environmental research can’t be understated. While I’m looking toward a career in healthcare delivery and research, I will always carry an agricultural perspective with me. This internship with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! is a tremendous opportunity to learn hands-on and promote the importance of agriculture and sustainability to audiences across the state.

-Riley Wilgenbusch

Making Nutrient Reducing Prairie Strips More Predictably Successful, Multi-Functional, and Cost Effective

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar on Wednesday about research on how to optimize nutrient reducing prairie strips. Justin Meissen, Research and Restoration Manager at the Tallgrass Prairie Center, shared information about applied research focused on improving the chances of successful implementation, maximizing the ability to provide multiple ecological benefits, and improvising cost-effectiveness. He highlighted key results from prairie reconstruction field experiments and field trials.

Meissen shared the methods and results of these projects during the webinar. The seed mix design project found that seed mix was an important component of establishment success, and that grass/forb balanced seed mixes had the most conservation benefits across different categories. The project looking at the establishment of prairie on dry marginal land found that key prairie species established well in dry conditions and was cost-effective. The planting season project found that planting in the dormant season was more cost-effective for establishing pollinator habitat.

To learn more about the research into establishing prairie strips to provide conservation benefits, and the research going into optimizing this practice, watch the full webinar here.

Be sure to join us next week, on Wednesday, June 17 at noon. Mark Licht, Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University, will be presenting a webinar about the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual titled “A Resource for Successful Adoption of Conservation Practices”. The manual can be downloaded for free at the link.

Hilary Pierce

June 10 Webinar: Making Nutrient Reducing Prairie Strips More Predictably Successful, Multi-Functional, and Cost Effective

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, June 10 at noon about research on how to optimize nutrient reducing prairie strips.  

Prairie strip in Grundy County

Targeted restoration of native perennial vegetation (e.g. prairie strips) shows great promise as a nutrient reduction practice. To optimize the potential value of this practice, applied research focused on improving the chances of successful implementation, maximizing the ability to provide multiple ecological benefits, and improving cost-effectiveness is needed. Justin Meissen, Research and Restoration Manager at the Tallgrass Prairie Center, will give an overview of ongoing research in these areas and highlight key results from prairie reconstruction field experiments and field trials.

“As the Farm Bill rolls out new conservation practices like Prairie Strips and more farmers try prairie reconstruction for the first time, it’s important that good recommendations are available to ensure farmer success. Prairie reconstruction research provides the foundation for those recommendations,” said Meissen. Meissen is a researcher at the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center whose work focuses on understanding barriers to establishment in prairie restorations, incorporating ecology and practicality in seed mix design, and methods of re-integrating native prairie vegetation in working landscapes.  

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on June 10:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been approved for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Getting Conservation in the Hands of Local Citizens

Our newest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, A Passion for Prairies, features Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s David Stein. He is truly passionate about helping people learn more about their local ecology through on-the-ground outreach across central Iowa. Enthusiastic may be an understatement when it comes to Stein’s zeal and motivation to provide a personal, education-minded, place-based approach to conservation on working lands!

As a Watershed Program Coordinator with the non-profit (former RC&D) Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Stein holds a unique position in that the area he serves here in the heart of Iowa is at the direct interface of urban areas and prime agricultural land. That presents both unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to water quality, soil health, and facilitating corridors of habitat for wildlife.

Stein is particularly passionate about native prairie establishment, and its benefits to reduce runoff, improve water quality, build soil health, and provide habitat/food resources to many species of wildlife. Tune in to the Conservation Chat to hear about Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s targeted efforts to establish corridors of habitat, creating uninterrupted flyways between publicly-owned and privately-owned lands.

Photographs by Prairie Rivers of Iowa

Interested in doing some native landscaping, establishing a pollinator garden, or other native plantings on your land?  Look no farther that Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Native Plant Seed Bank! Tune in to the podcast to learn more about this awesome new initiative, the brainchild of Stein (and his proudest accomplishment on the job thus far). The seed bank is currently offering 10 different species of native plants (flowers and grasses), and they are accepting deposits of native seed, as well—an incredible conservation resource for central Iowa.

Catch this episode and all previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt


ISU Bee Research and Best Management Practices


CassOn Wednesday, Randall Paul Cass, Extension Entomologist at Iowa State University presented an Iowa Learning Farms webinar. He discussed research being conducted at Iowa State University, which focuses on observing the challenges and opportunities for bees in Iowa’s agricultural landscapes.

Cass began by discussing some common misconceptions people may have about bees – including being able to identify bees that don’t look the way that most people expect bees to look. He went on to talk about native bees in Iowa and honeybees, which were introduced from Europe for honey production. Most native bees in Iowa are solitary bees that nest in the ground or in stems and many have more specialist relationships with native flowering plants than the introduced honeybees.

Because of Iowa’s annual crop production, limited forage availability and extreme weather conditions/changing temperatures, Iowa presents a challenging landscape for honeybees. Cass discussed research that has been done on how bee hive mass differs depending on the landscape (areas of high cultivation vs. areas of low cultivation) where the hives are placed. The study found that hives got heavier in areas of high cultivation (soybean fields), due to the availability of food resources for the bees from flowering soybean plants. This study also found that all hives, in both high and low cultivation areas, lost weight toward the end of the season.

bee study 1.PNG

Results from the study comparing hive mass of hives placed in areas of high cultivation to hives placed in areas of low cultivation

The study led to a recent research project which looked at prairie vs. soybean field placement of hives – this project started with all hives placed in soybean fields and then after the beans had flowered, half of the hives were moved to a prairie environment. The study found that hive mass increased in the hives moved from the soybean fields to the prairie in late summer. Cass discussed other results from this study, related to insecticide treatments, as well as a survey conducted with landowners on their interest in perennial vegetation establishment, allowing beekeepers onto their property, and if they feel pollinator friendly practices are important.

bee study 2

Results of the study comparing hive mass of hives placed in soybean fields (agricultural sites) throughout the year to hives that were moved from soybean fields to prairie sites in late summer

To learn more about the research being done on bees and agriculture at Iowa State University, watch the full webinar here!

Join us next month, on Wednesday, November 20 at noon when Erika Lundy, Extension Beef Specialist, and Rebecca Vittetoe, Extension Field Agronomist, will present a webinar titled “ISU Research Focuses on Integrating Cover Crops for Grazing into Row Crop Enterprises”.

Hilary Pierce

Water Rocks! Launches New Pollinator Classroom Presentation

The Power of Pollinators classroom education module extends the Water Rocks! portfolio designed to assist teachers in teaching about environmental science in Iowa

Water Rocks! has announced the launch of “The Power of Pollinators, its newest conservation-focused, interactive classroom presentation for upper-elementary and middle school classrooms. The new Pollinators module was developed with assistance and input from Iowa State University experts as well as classroom teachers across Iowa. Water Rocks! piloted the programming with Turkey Valley Schools fourth and fifth grade classes in late October.

“Turkey Valley Schools have shown leadership in conservation thinking through the establishment of native prairie and butterfly garden projects, and inclusion of critical conservation lessons in multiple grade levels across the district,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The pilot experience allowed us to learn as much as we taught. The teachers and students were very motivated to help fine-tune the learning modules.”

Turkey Valley 4th grade students and teacher Robyn Vsetecka show off their school garden plot. The students chose to plant a mix of vegetables and flowering plants to attract pollinators.

Conservation takes center stage at Turkey Valley Community Schools; their native prairie plot was established over twenty years ago on school grounds.

Water Rocks! classroom education modules are designed primarily for grades four through seven. Content is adjusted in collaboration with each classroom teacher to ensure the best outcomes. And, each module is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

“The Water Rocks! team really grabbed the attention of the students and helped them quickly learn new vocabulary and scientific concepts in a high-energy and fun way,” said Robyn Vsetecka, fourth grade teacher at Turkey Valley Schools. “They covered a lot ground, but the approach wasn’t overwhelming for those students unfamiliar with pollinators, yet still informative and engaging for the ones who already had some experience.”

Students eagerly listen to instructions as they prepare to compete in the Monarch Migration Madness game.

Pollinator Jenga was quite a hit with the students and teachers alike at Turkey Valley!

The Pollinator module uses a variety of visual aids, interactive games and on-your-feet activities, to facilitate age- and grade-appropriate learning for all learners. Favorites among the students were the Pollinator Jenga game, Monarch Migration Madness game, and seeing bee houses.

“We were delighted to see the students’ faces light up when we helped them realize that each could make an impact on supporting pollinators by doing things a simple as planting wildflowers or even adding potted plants on a patio or balcony,” noted Staudt.

To learn more about Water Rocks! classroom education modules, or to request a free school visit, please go to https://www.waterrocks.org/classroom-visits/.


Edge of Field Practices Steal the Show

Participants at the August 9th field day in Spirit Lake were treated to burgers, information and one spectacular view.


Over 50 people attended the Wetland, Saturated Buffer and Bioreactor Field Day hosted by Prairie Lakes Conference and Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District. They came to learn how edge of field practices like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors are key to reducing nitrate loss from agricultural land in Iowa. However, they stuck around long after to take pictures and to discuss about how beautiful the project had turned out.

Chris LaRue of the Iowa DNR, and Heather Jobst of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation explained, “This is a perfect example of what happens when many partners come together with a shared vision, and stay unified.”


Golfers can be seen in the distance playing a round at the Okoboji View Golf Course.

One key stakeholder who participated in the wetland restoration project was the Okoboji View Golf Course, which sits right behind the project.  Staff from the golf course led a discussion about their experience and the economic upside to the project.

“We have actually seen an increase in our business as a direct result of the project. It is very beautiful to be out here,” explained a staff member.

The Spirit Lake restoration project really is the perfect example of public and private stakeholders coming together with a shared goal. It is also a great example of a project bringing urban and rural issues together.

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, especially the lake.

~Nathan Stevenson



Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers