Advancing cost effective water quality improvement in the North Central Region through farmer-led engagement for prairie filter strips

Final report for LNC16-378

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2016: $197,678.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Sand County Foundation
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Craig Ficenec
Sand County Foundation
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Project Information


Despite increased use of cover crops and better nutrient management, farmers in the Corn Belt are struggling to significantly reduce agriculture’s impact on water quality. Greater levels of protection against farm runoff are needed, especially under more extreme weather events. Research at Iowa State University (ISU) verifies that establishing perennial vegetation on small portions of farm fields can provide disproportionally large benefits of sediment and nutrient filtration. Meanwhile, advanced information technology enables farmers to more precisely map the areas of fields that cause greater soil and nutrient losses, or earn lower rates of economic return. Farmers who convert strategically selected areas of annually cropped ground to permanent and diverse vegetative cover can potentially meet rising expectation for water quality protection with minimal—and sometimes positive—impacts on farm profitability. Sand County Foundation, in partnership with farmers, researchers at ISU’s Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) program, faculty at the University of Wisconsin (UW), and the Valley Stewardship Network, will extend and adapt the experience of Iowa STRIPS into Wisconsin and the North Central Region. We will examine results from ISU’s annual survey of two-dozen farmers applying prairie strips in Iowa, and survey farmers considering the practice in southern Wisconsin. We will install prairie strips on four Wisconsin farms according to farmers’ needs, and evaluate performance and farmer satisfaction across three years. Two private agricultural information technology companies will share precision planning tools to assist in placing prairie strips in the field. And, a partnering private agricultural lender will estimate annualized costs of applying and maintaining the practice. In addition, we will utilize data from completed ISU research to improve modeling of prairie strips in Wisconsin with the Wisconsin Phosphorus Index. We will communicate results widely to farmers, conservation professionals, and stakeholders in Wisconsin watersheds where water quality improvements efforts are underway. Our outreach will include field events at the four demonstration sites, presentations at partner events, and outreach through print and social media. Our work will help farmers, their private-sector consultants, and conservation agency staff to identify ways that permanent vegetative cover can advance both water quality objectives and efficient farm operations. Results may also encourage investment in prairie strips by municipal and industrial wastewater facilities regulated under the Clean Water Act, as they examine means to attain least-cost reductions of nutrient loading to waterways under Wisconsin’s first-in-the-nation Adaptive Management Option for regulatory compliance.

Project Objectives:

Learning Objectives: Farmers will identify least-cost options to minimize environmental impact, service providers will understand farmers’ motivations and constraints for establishing prairie strips, and the public will recognize the potential value of prairie strips to meet water quality goals.

Action Objectives: Wisconsin farmers will share experiences with prairie strips among peers and advisors. Advisors will encourage their clients to adopt the practice. Watershed stakeholders will apply models to estimate retention of sediment and phosphorus with prairie strips.

Beyond the grant period, we anticipate expanded practice adoption, potentially accelerated through phosphorus credits to regulated point sources, and applications of precision conservation data tools.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Greg Olson (Educator)
  • Pam Porter (Educator)
  • Dr. John Delaney (Educator)
  • Dr. Laura Ward Good (Researcher)


Involves research:
Participation Summary


Educational approach:

We provided direct assistance to early adopters to plan and implement prairie strips on their farms. In turn, these early adopters are influencing their producer peers by hosting workshops and presenting at professional development events. In addition, project cooperators are creating local media content, printed handouts, and presentations to raise awareness and understanding of prairie strips among farmers and conservation service providers.

Project Activities

Prairie Strips Survey
Prairie Strips on-farm demonstration
On-farm Field days
Off-farm presentations
On farm modeling of prairie strips

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
7 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
7 Workshop field days
2 Other educational activities: Hosted booth at two events

Participation Summary:

187 Farmers participated
466 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The 10 consultations reflect the six farms that have installed prairie strips, and an additional four farms where we have provided in-field advising but the farmer has not yet decided to install prairie strips. The six on-farm demonstrations reflect the six farms where prairie strips have been installed.

Presentations, field days, and booths are described in the Project Activities section above.

Sand County Foundation created a 2-page handout titled "Prairie Strips: A Win-Win for Farmers and Water Quality" (SCF-Prairie-Strips-handout-v1), and the Valley Stewardship Network created a 4-page handout titled "Farming with Prairie Strips in Southwest Wisconsin".

Published press is as follows:

Valley Stewardship Network's November 2017 press release titled "Valley Stewardship Network Receives Fishers & Farmers Funding for Prairie STRIPS in Southwest Wisconsin" was published by the La Crosse Tribune, and the County Line, and is posted on the Fishers & Farmers Partnership website,

Sand County Foundation's July 2018 press release titled Using prairie strips to protect Wisconsin water was published by the Wisconsin State Farmer.

Articles listed above are also listed on the Iowa State University STRIPS program webpage.

The ISU STRIPS program's outreach in Wisconsin also references our work, in an article in Agri-View, and an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio

As an indication of public interest in prairie strips, a Sand County Foundation Facebook post citing a January 2020 article in No-Till Farmer magazine about the new CP-43 Prairie Strips practice now available in the Conservation Reserve Program garnered over 1,000 likes, over 200 shares, and 77 comments, an extraordinarily strong response compared to typical social media postings by our organization.

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
17 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Benefits, challenges, and strategies for expanding the adoption of prairie strips
  • Specific steps and methods to establish prairie strips

Project Outcomes

10 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Key practices changed:
  • Seven farmers have seeded and are currently managing prairie strips ranging in area from 1 to 6 acres per farm with direct SARE financial assistance. Three additional farms have installed edge of field prairie strip buffers with consultation by SARE project collaborators.

4 Grants applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Our interview with a collaborating farmer in Washington County, Wisconsin, is profiled here:

This interview is also one of the Iowa State University STRIPS program farmer profiles, here:

Farmer interest in prairie strips has accelerated since our grant ended on December 31 2019. Between January and May 2020, Sand County Foundation has made five presentations to farmers in Wisconsin (at producer-led watershed protection group and county soil and water conservation / university extension hosted meetings). At least six farmers currently seeking technical and financial support with us to implement prairie strips this year.  This, coupled with the new offering of prairie strips practice CP-43 in the Continuous CRP program, may lead to accelerated adoption of the practice in Wisconsin. Our experience through our SARE-funded project has enabled us to gain funding for prairie strips from the United Soybean Board for work in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois through September, 2020; and a pending proposal to USB for renewed funding, if awarded, will enable us to continue our work into 2021 with expansion into Minnesota. 


We are near completion of an 8-page document "Estimating the water quality benefits of prairie strips in Wisconsin", outlining our modeling of water quality benefits of prairie strips in Wisconsin including analysis of three farms supported by this project. The document recommends next steps that can be taken to model sediment and phosphorus reductions from prairie strips using SnapPlus (Wisconsin's farm nutrient management software tool) to help farmers meet state nutrient management standards and potentially gain phosphorus reduction credits from point source dischargers (namely, municipal wastewater utilities and food processors) who utilize a nutrient trading option for permit compliance from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.