Little strips of prairie can go a long way

New research out of MSU shows that it is possible to manage farmland to address two challenges simultaneously – protecting biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem services. The key is to strategically place native perennial vegetation within agricultural systems, using the innovative practice of prairie strips.

A narrow green strip of prairie runs through a wheat field.
Prairie strips, like the one shown here, can be integrated into farmland to promote soil health, increase biodiversity and diminish carbon footprints without sacrificing crop yields. Credit: Kurt Stepnitz Photography

Today, 38% of the landscape in the Midwest is planted in row crop agriculture. “We need to make this land habitable for species for the ecosystem services the increased biodiversity can provide to the farms” said Lindsey Kemmerling, the first author of the MSU-led study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

In 2019, strips were integrated into the Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research Program, or KBS LTER – a 33-year-old experiment in Michigan that included treatments that varied methods of agricultural management across a gradient of land use intensity. The strips occupy 5% of land area within the two lowest intensity management treatments in the experiment. 

Nicholas Haddad, Department of Integrative Biology, Kellogg Biological Station

Nick Haddad, Director of the KBS LTER and professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and his colleagues wondered what other benefits the prairie strips could bring to farms in Michigan and throughout the Midwest, where roughly a quarter of agricultural land was once prairie.

To tackle this question, a team of researchers came together to study a broad swath of ecosystem services, from greenhouse gas emissions to predation on insect pests. Their research showed that a prairie strip’s flora and fauna brought an array of beneficial services to the strips and the surrounding farmland. Fields with prairie strips and reduced chemical inputs had higher butterfly abundance, spider abundance, and pollination services. In addition, soil organic carbon, butterfly richness, and spider richness increased with a decrease in land use intensity.

Importantly, the team found that even with 5% of crop land taken out of production for prairie strips, yield of cropland with prairie strips was equal to that of the most intensively managed fields without strips. Meaning that when combined with the right field management practices, the array of benefits gained by adding a prairie strip essentially offset the loss of cropland. That is, prairie strips could be implemented without compromising crop yield.

“Prairie strips have broad-ranging effects — including improved soil health and increased biodiversity,” said Haddad. “We were excited to see that the benefits of prairie strips for biodiversity and ecosystems in the strips spilled over into cropland.” 

Lindsey Kemmerling
Lindsey Kemmerling, who earned her doctorate from MSU in 2022.

“The most surprising thing to me was how quickly we saw the changes,” said Kemmerling, who is now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota. The team measured positive changes within the first year of establishing the prairie strips and some of those advantages became more pronounced in the experiment’s second year.

“It’s promising to see these changes develop as the prairie strips are maturing,” Kemmerling said. “It’s exciting to think about a few years ahead and how they’ll be performing, I think particularly for biodiversity and for carbon accumulation in the soil.”

“I feel proud that KBS research is relevant and important given that half of global land area is managed or human-dominated,” said Sarah Evans, a coinvestigator on the new study. Evans is an associate professor with KBS and the Department of Integrative Biology at MSU . “We get to study how humans interact with nature and still identify ecological principles in these managed systems.”

“Going into this project, one of the major unknowns was how the benefits of prairie strips translate to Michigan, a region with different ecology and agriculture than were studied in Iowa,” said Corinn Rutkoski, a doctoral student in the Evans lab. “We found there’s immense potential for prairie strips to benefit Michigan farmers and ecosystems.” All told, the team found many reasons to help farmers bring prairie strips to their land.

This article was modified from the original, posted by MSU Today.