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

Project Overview

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

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans


  • Education and Training: demonstration
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, soil stabilization

    Proposal abstract:

    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 from proposal:

    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.

    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.