Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Publications

Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands

Lisa A. Schulte, Iowa State University
Jarad Niemi, Iowa State University
Matthew J. Helmers, Iowa State University
Matt Liebman, Iowa State University
J. Gordon Arbuckle, Iowa State University
David E. James, United States Department of Agriculture
Randall K. Kolka, United States Department of Agriculture
Matthew E. O'Neal, Iowa State University
Mark D. Tomer, United States Department of Agriculture
John C. Tyndall, Iowa State University
Heidi Asbjornsen, University of New Hampshire, Durham
Pauline Drobney, United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Jeri Neal, Iowa State University
Van Ryswyk Farms
Chris Witte, Iowa State University

This article is published as Schulte, Lisa A., Jarad Niemi, Matthew J. Helmers, Matt Liebman, J. Gordon Arbuckle, David E. James, Randall K. Kolka et al. "Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 42 (2017): 11247-11252. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620229114. Posted with permission.


Loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services from agricultural lands remain important challenges in the United States despite decades of spending on natural resource management. To date, conservation investment has emphasized engineering practices or vegetative strategies centered on monocultural plantings of nonnative plants, largely excluding native species from cropland. In a catchment-scale experiment, we quantified the multiple effects of integrating strips of native prairie species amid corn and soybean crops, with prairie strips arranged to arrest run-off on slopes. Replacing 10% of cropland with prairie strips increased biodiversity and ecosystem services with minimal impacts on crop production. Compared with catchments containing only crops, integrating prairie strips into cropland led to greater catchment-level insect taxa richness (2.6-fold), pollinator abundance (3.5-fold), native bird species richness (2.1-fold), and abundance of bird species of greatest conservation need (2.1-fold). Use of prairie strips also reduced total water runoff from catchments by 37%, resulting in retention of 20 times more soil and 4.3 times more phosphorus. Corn and soybean yields for catchments with prairie strips decreased only by the amount of the area taken out of crop production. Social survey results indicated demand among both farming and nonfarming populations for the environmental outcomes produced by prairie strips. If federal and state policies were aligned to promote prairie strips, the practice would be applicable to 3.9 million ha of cropland in Iowa alone.