Researchers find ways to preserve farmland with prairie

Tyler Chalfant | March 26th, 2020

Researchers are finding ways that prairie grasses could help make farming more sustainable. At Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station, located near Manhattan, Kansas, scientists are studying the natural prairie habitat that once covered most of Iowa and its neighboring Midwestern states. 

Iowa Public Radio recently interviewed researchers at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project. Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State and the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie LTER Project, explained that controlled burns can help ecosystems survive the effects of climate change. “Without fire, the grasses would lose their dominance,” he said. Other types of plants, such as shrubbery and eventually trees will eventually take root. 

Precipitation events are predicted to grow both larger and more infrequent in this region as a result of climate change, meaning that both drought and flooding will become more common. This is a perfect setup for soil erosion, and which prairie grasses can help prevent. 

Scientists are studying what these drought conditions could look like by recreating the extreme conditions of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After much of the region’s soil, torn up by unsustainable farming practices, blew away, the natural ecosystem recovered within 20 years. “The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert said. 

Planting prairie strips near cropland is one way to limit soil runoff. Another option may be perennial crops, which don’t need to be planted every year. Researchers have developed perennial strands of wheat and rice. If widely implemented, perennial crops would decrease damage to the soil, as well as the amount of carbon released into the air.

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