Evaluating Methods for Making Native Plants Productive and Profitable on the Iowa Landscape

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $9,979.42
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft
Iowa State Univ


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, wildlife


    Grazing cattle on reconstructed prairies is a solution proposed by land managers and graziers in Iowa, as an opportunity to balance the conservation goals of incorporating perennial, native plants into the Iowa landscape while maintaining the productivity and profitability of the state’s agricultural lands. Though grazing native plants is common to much of the Western United States, the limited amount of grazing lands in Iowa are dominated by exotic, cool-season grasses and legumes. In a case study at Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa we explored the nutritional quality and yields of reconstructed native plant grassland and prairie through clip sampling. Results from sampling found that all of the nutritional requirements of cattle would not be met with the harvested samples, although some aspects of nutrition may be achieved during the season. We created an economic budget model based on this case study, which suggests that grazing prairie is most profitable for graziers when a reduced rental rate is offered by land owners to provide a service of disturbance to the prairie.  A review of the ecological literature suggests that grazing has the potential to maintain or increase plant biodiversity, though native plant abundance was not well studied.  This review also concluded that water quality and wildlife populations could be maintained under strategic grazing management.  Communication should be a priority in designing management strategies for conservation lands that involve multiple stakeholders. Grazing prairies presents a balanced approach to both agricultural production and natural resource conservation. 


    Perennial native plants, which in Iowa are dominantly warm-season grasses with smaller amounts of forbs, cool-season grasses, and legumes, are often utilized in the landscape for conservation purposes – whether to improve water quality, decrease soil erosion, or create habitat for wild game and non-game species.  These conservation purposes are often defined as ecosystem services, or processes and resources derived from the ecosystem that provides services on which society depends.  Two divergent approaches to conservation are 1) land is set aside with prohibited disturbance and 2) working agricultural lands are managed in order to enhance conservation.  Planting of native perennials is encouraged by various governmental programs (i.e. Conservation Reserve Program, CRP) and private organizations (i.e. Pheasants Forever), however this land is typically set aside, not a part of the agricultural production land. 

    In many cases, landowners or managers receive cost-share or payment in order to establish or maintain areas of native perennial vegetation in order to preserve or enhance specific or general ecosystem services.  However, these payments are often not always enough to keep landowners or managers invested in conservation, when crop production is more profitable. In an era of an increasing need to preserve and enhance ecosystem services, we must seek to reconcile the goal of conservation with the need to maintain economic feasibility. 

    One possibility, which is pioneering the balancing act of conservation and profitability, is the concept of grazing livestock in native or reconstructed ecosystems. In theory, by grazing livestock in conservation areas, the land is able to generate profit while still maintaining the ecosystem services of conservation. Not only does grazing native plants improve conservation efforts, but can benefit grazing operations by providing dominantly warm-season grass forage during summer months when cool-season pastures are less productive.  Grazing native lands has the potential to meet the needs of conservation and economic feasibility, but there is little data about putting the idea into practice in Iowa.

    In order for grazing native plants to fully meet the goals of producers, conservationists, and land managers, three questions need to be answered: 1) how are producers in Iowa currently utilizing native plants in grazing operations; 2) what in-field tools can be used to determine when to graze native plants to optimize productivity and quality; and 3) can the incorporation of grazing native plants into a grazing operation be economically feasible in Iowa. 

    Project objectives:

    I. Farmer survey of current practices and barriers to implementation: This portion of the study aims to identify agricultural producers in Iowa who are grazing livestock on native plants in order to document the varying approaches to grazing native plants, and the positive and negative aspects of each approach. Participants were interviewed regarding the inclusion of native plants into their operation, including specific details on forage production, animal production, timing, and specific plants utilized.  Data was analyzed qualitatively, creating a baseline report, or directory, of strategies for grazing native plants in Iowa.

    II. Evaluating Management Tools for Grazing Native Plants: objective was not completed.

    III. GIS-based prairie productivity calculator and economic analysis: Three prairie locations will be randomly selected, and samples will be harvested, then dried and weighed to determine dry-matter yield. Forage quality data was converted into relevant animal nutrition components in order to compare the forage quality available with the animal nutrition needs Based on the results from the study of prairie productivity, an economic analysis of the use of prairies for grazing.

    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.