Field reportsMonarchsSite Prep/Planting/Maintenance

Understanding Farm Benefits of Planting Pollinator Forage

Prairie strips in a soybean field. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

Farmers can always appreciate when they find easy, low-cost solutions that garner multiple benefits. Farmers are faced with many challenges – in addition to the farm operations challenges they face, society also looks to farmers to be leaders in addressing many environmental resource concerns. As important stewards of the land, farmers can implement pollinator plantings or improved management on low-yield or non-crop areas that have a multitude of benefits. Full-farm analyses can help to identify areas where it may no longer make economic sense to produce crops. These low-yield areas also often overlap with other issues like water, soil, and nutrient runoff. To mitigate these issues, many programs encourage and provide incentives for establishing some sort of perennial vegetation in those areas. Instead of just planting perennial grasses, benefits in these areas can be maximized for pollinators, wildlife, and other resource concerns if the diversity of plants in these projects is high and include flowering forbs and legumes. 

Planting pollinator habitat on or adjacent to crops can be done in a variety of ways. It can occur on field margins, such as in hedgerows, or buffer strips. It can also occur within fields such as flower-rich cover crops and prairie strips. Managing in-field or adjacent lands for pollinator and monarch habitat and forage can have a variety of land and landowner benefits. Permanent vegetation cover helps reduce soil erosion and absorbs excess nitrogen that could otherwise be leached below the root zone. Soil health can be improved when planting pollinator mixes and often leads to reduced surface water runoff which in turn leads to increased local water quality. There are also benefits related to annual weed suppression, increases in beneficial insects, biodiversity, and aesthetics.

According to a study completed at Iowa State University on the Prairie Strips program, farmers in their study that planted 10% of a field into 15-foot to 30-foot strips of prairie along the contour were able to document the following benefits

  • 44% reduction in water runoff
  • 95% reduction in soil loss
  • 90% reduction in phosphorus runoff
  • 84% reduction in nitrate-nitrogen runoff
  • No difference in per acre corn and soybean yields
  • Weed abundance did not increase
  • Reduced emissions of heat-trapping gases, especially nitrous oxide

Watch the following video highlighting an Iowa farmer’s experience planting prairie strips in corn and soybean fields:

Prairie Strips: Build Benefits Naturally from SWCS Events on Vimeo.

Farmers recognize that land is highly variable and yield will vary substantially based on many factors, many outside of a farmer’s control. New precision agriculture technologies can help farmers track where these problem areas are and do more thorough cost-benefit analyses about the economics of producing crops in those areas. In consultation with area ag or conservation advisors, farmers can then elect to do something different with that land, like put in pollinator habitat and enroll it into some sort of conservation program.

Ensuring that these areas benefit a variety of environmental and farm profitability concerns is critical.  While the benefits presented above cannot be guaranteed for every low-yield area of the farm, every acre of habitat is part of a broader solution to addressing resource concerns like water quality, soil health, and biodiversity. These benefits come at the intersection of ensuring farm profitability is not compromised.  

To learn more about the specific benefits you can achieve, as well as get answers to your questions from experts, register for our November 17th webinar Creating Pollinator Habitat:  Maximizing benefits to the land and landowner. This webinar will walk through issues monarch butterflies are facing, what can be done about it at the farm-level, and the benefits to the land and landowner that can off-set upfront costs. It will feature:

  • Kiley Friedrich – Agriculture Program Coordinator, Monarch Joint Venture
  • Dallas Glazik, Farm Bill Biologist, Pheasants Forever
  • Brandon Hunnicutt – Nebraska farmer and National Corn Growers Association board member
  • Matt Mulica – Facilitator, Keystone Monarch Collaborative’s Farmers for Monarchs

Also, please visit our State Resources page on Farmers for Monarchs to find information on free seed, cost share assistance, and technical support.