Blank Park Zoo
Blank Park Zoo

Open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission: $14 Adult | $8 Child

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Open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission: $14 Adult | $8 Child

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Prairies For Agriculture

Prairies For Agriculture Project:  
Benefitting Farms and Nature

Central College, Pella, Iowa

Mission:  To improve Midwestern farms AND the environment by increasing the use of diverse, native prairie plantings to provide agricultural and environmental benefits.

Introduction
Tallgrass Prairie used to blanket much of the Midwest, creating a dramatic, seasonally-changing vista from horizon to horizon.  But this complex ecosystem created its own demise by building rich soils underneath it.  From 1830 to 1900, the vast majority of prairies were plowed under; today, less than 1/10th of one percent of prairies remains in Iowa, making this one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.  Not surprisingly, many prairie organisms are declining in numbers; grassland birds, for instance, are the fastest declining group of birds in the U.S.  Sadly, tallgrass prairies disappeared so quickly and completely that the average Midwesterner has no connection with the ecosystem that built the perfect conditions for today’s agriculture.  Fortunately, prairie plantings have tremendous potential to provide benefits in the agricultural landscape.  Examining and demonstrating these benefits is what the Prairies For Agriculture Project is about.  Furthermore, we hope to help Iowans discover and connect with the incredible plants, animals, and other organisms that have inhabited this region for thousands of years.  
    
The Prairies For Agriculture Project
Faculty and students at Central College are studying the restoration of tallgrass prairies in a manner that benefits nature and agriculture.  On our research site, we planted over 300 plots with many combinations of prairie plants, ranging from one to 64 species.  Our broad goal is to determine which specific mixes of plants provide the most agricultural and environmental benefits. These plantings are not intended to compete with crops; instead, most farms have areas that can’t be cultivated, places like stream borders, steep hills, terraces, field borders, etc.  In most cases, un-farmable sites are planted with a European grass called smooth brome.  If our research shows that diverse prairie plantings provide greater benefits than smooth brome, then prairies may reclaim a part of their place in the Midwestern landscape. 
      
Project Objectives
The Prairies For Agriculture Project is encouraging the broad-scale reconstruction of an endangered ecosystem in a manner that provides economic and environmental benefits for farmers, ranchers, and members of the public.  Our goals over the next two decades are to find the best mix or mixes of prairie plants for:

  • creating biomass for production of biofuels.
  • maximizing use by animals, especially those with declining populations or game animals.  
  • sequestering carbon in the soil, thus slowing climate change.
  • decreasing soil erosion.
  • supporting pollinators and other beneficial insects in an agricultural landscape.
  • reducing runoff/atmospheric release of phosphorus and nitrogen.
  • providing nutritious forage for livestock.
  • building soil quality.

Project Methods
Our 14 acre site has been divided into 378 plots, measuring 9 x 9 meters and surrounded on all sides by a two meter wide, mowed buffer.  The plots were randomly assigned a vegetation mix, and planting began in fall of 2011; the majority of plots were planted in spring of 2012.  Some plots are planted with a single species while others contain 4, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, or 64 species.  Each mix type is replicated on three plots; therefore, the whole site contains approximately 125 different mixes of plants and growing conditions.  Single species plots include the dominant prairie grasses as well as non-native plants commonly used by local producers.  The diverse mixes of plants include many different combinations of cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, nitrogen-fixing legumes, and other prairie flowers.  
  
Biomass will be quantified by cutting strips of a constant size through each plot, drying, and weighing the vegetation.  To assess animal use of different plantings, we will focus on insects, foraging by small mammals, and foraging by birds.  To evaluate soil chemistry, we will focus on sequestration of carbon and storage of nitrogen and phosphorus.  Soil chemistry will be measured using standard techniques conducted by licensed and reputable labs.  Soil erosion likely will be monitored in one of two ways.  We will use either silt fences to trap and quantify eroded soil or spread tracer substances on the soil and measure their loss.    

Forage production likely will be an important benefit of planting diverse mixes of prairie vegetation.  The biomass measurements described above also will allow us to test forage production of many different mixes of prairie plants.  Forage quality can be assessed using standard chemical analysis of fiber, crude protein, and mineral content; we will use these methods to test many different species as well as to assess the quality of important forage plants when grown with different combinations of legumes and forbs. 

Clearly, we have enough research questions for years of work.  The prairie vegetation we are establishing will persist for decades, and this project is intended to continue for at least 15 to 20 years, allowing time to address these questions.   

From an educational perspective, we are designing our site with education/demonstration as one of the primary goals.  A classroom/office is present on site which will be ideal for presentations, orientations, and meetings.  In addition, plots are individually marked, and interpretive signs will be created so that un-guided visitors can learn about our project.  Most importantly, we will coordinate with local schools, nature groups, the NRCS office (5 miles away), and state and county Farm Bureau chapters to offer guided visits.

For More Information: Contact Russ Benedict, Central College Biology Department, (641) 628-4335; benedictr@central.edu

        

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