THE SLOAN FARM
Dick Sloan owns and operates a 520-acre farm near Rowley, Iowa, in the Cedar River watershed. Even with a corn suitability rating in the mid-80s, he has identified several ways to successfully incorporate prairie into his operation. He says that, “highly productive farms now, and in the future, are built around systems which protect native species… Farming is so much more than maximizing today’s production of corn and soybeans.” His curiosity about how to improve both his farm and the environmental health of his local community is a key to Dick’s outlook on prairie strips.
Growing up on the farm that his grandfather purchased in 1938, Dick absorbed a land ethic centered around a diverse production system and soil conservation. He saw his father rotate oats and alfalfa with row crops and raise several different animals, including cattle and swine. He also installed grass waterways and practiced conservation tillage. Dick returned home to farm in 1978 after he received a degree in biology from Iowa State University. As he took more ownership over the farm, Dick got out of the cattle business and simplified the operation towards corn, soybeans, and pigs, before reintroducing small grains back into the rotation, such as winter rye. Today, Dick continues to experiment with his farm practices to achieve results that benefit both the sustained profitability of his farm and the continued conservation of the land.
Aerial view of the Sloan Farm. The location of the prairie strips are highlighted in blue.
PUTTING IDEAS INTO PRACTICE
Sloan learned about prairie strips during a visit to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in 2011. At that point, research on their efficacy had primarily only been done at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. That research pointed to disproportionately beneficial results when row-cropped fields were converted to 10% native, perennial vegetation. So Dick thought, “Well, okay, but who’s doing this?” Dick decided that he would give prairie strips a shot on his farm to take an idea developed by academics and implement it on an active farm operation. Dick planned and planted his prairie strips in 2011 and 2012. He credits his established relationship with his local conservation offices for making the process of receiving Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments and cost-share possible. (The formal adoption of prairie strips as a CRP practice, CP43, was many years down the road.) He purchased the seed through Pheasants Forever, a mix designed to meet the specifications of CP-25 (Restoration of Rare and Declining Habitat). It consisted of 29 native species of grasses and forbs, such as big bluestem and prairie dropseed. Since then, he’s seen four additional native species in the prairie despite not directly planting them. The aerial view of the farm shows how laying out the strips on the contours makes for a unique field. Dick made sure to space them correctly as to not interfere with farm operations, such as planting and harvesting. He hired the Buchanan County Conservation Board to drill-seed his prairie strips. Dick utilized his own equipment and labor to do establishment mowing and other maintenance, such as treating tree saplings with herbicide to keep woody species from taking over his prairie. He worked with the ISU STRIPS team to help burn his prairie strips once they were established.
Dick Sloan (far right) at a STRIPS field day on his farm.
JUST ONE TOOL OF MANY
Dick doesn’t solely rely on prairie strips to achieve his conservation goals on his farm. Other practices he utilizes include no-till farming, terraces, waterways, and cover crops. He is also implementing a substantial wetland restoration. Working with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), the wetland will have a seven-acre permanent pool and a buffer of native, perennial vegetation to contain surges from heavy rainfall. The total conservation easement is nearly 30 acres. In addition to his full-time job as a farmer, Dick is a leader in farmer-led research, working with Iowa State University STRIPS, Iowa Learning Farms, the Tallgrass Prairie Center, and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). With PFI, he has been involved with research on cover crops and hosted on-farm field days. He is also involved in the Cedar River Watershed Coalition and served as chairman of the Lime Creek Watershed Council, where he worked within his community to encourage more residents to adopt management practices that would lead to improved water quality.
"Highly productive farms now, and in the future, are built around systems which protect native species."
Soil health is one of the key measures of success on Dick’s farm. He compares prairie strips to a bank where, “You have a diverse, healthy ecosystem operating that provides a basis for beneficial insects to be able to thrive in your fields.” In addition to the beneficial insects, he appreciates the habitat and aesthetic beauty the prairie adds to his farm. He’s seen Upland Sandpiper on the farm for several years now. Dick’s advice for others looking to implement prairie strips? “You have to learn how to manage it. You need to know what to look out for. Maybe it scares you at first but you figure it out.”