Photo by Rachael Brugger
A new report that calculates the cost of establishing strips of prairie amid row crops suggests that it might be one of the most cost-effective and low-effort conservation practices available to farmers and landowners in the Midwest.
The innovative practice, which has been studied by Iowa State researchers for several years, converts one-tenth of a row-cropped field to perennial prairie, resulting in more than a 90-percent reduction in soil and nutrient runoff from the entire field. According to the new economic study, the average cost to treat runoff from an acre is just $24 to $35 per year.
A new publication from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture summarizes the results of this economic study, led by John Tyndall, a member of the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies research team and assistant professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. The STRIPs team has been conducting its research at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa.
Previous STRIPs research recommends that prairie conservation strips be planted along the contour of a slope or waterway or in areas of low crop productivity to maximize their effectiveness. The current study outlines the total yearly cost of the practice spread out over a 15-year land-management regime. This includes the cost of land conversion and maintenance, as well as the opportunity cost of lost revenue or rent from acreage taken out of crop production.
The study finds that the cost of establishing and maintaining a prairie strip is minimal. It is the annual opportunity cost of foregone land rent or crop value that makes up the bulk—upwards of 90 percent—of the total cost of the conservation practice.
"For most farmers, this is the hang-up,” Tyndall says. "An incremental amount of land is taken out of production.”
Costs are calculated based on a range of Iowa-specific crop and land values. Land rent is used to approximate the lost revenue. Thus, the cost of treating runoff with prairie strips on farmland with low Corn Suitability Rating comes to about $24 per year; for high CSR land, the cost increases to $35 per year.
"However, in Iowa, rental rates or foregone crop revenues can scale considerably higher than those reflected in the average range used here,” Tyndall says.
In 2012, the highest recorded land rent would have brought the cost of planting prairie strips upwards of $60 per year per acre of treated crops.
This is where programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program or Conservation Reserve Program come in. The study suggests that payments made to the farmer or landowner from a CRP contract would reduce their annual out-of-pocket expenses to an average of $3 to $5 per year for every crop acre treated by prairie strips.
Jeri Neal, leader of the Leopold Center’s Ecology Initiative, says this research develops existing knowledge about prairie conservation strips as the STRIPs team moves from experimental research to trials on farms. "Transparency about costs helps farmers make more informed land management decisions.”
Given that converting just 10 percent of a field into prairie can effectively manage more than 90 percent of off-field concerns, such as sedimentation and nutrient transport, this represents a highly efficient best management practice on farmland.
"It is exciting research,” Neal says, "made stronger by practical considerations of costs.”
The publication, "The Cost of Prairie Conservation Strips,” can be found on the Leopold Center website, listed by title.