Stop 4 Benefits of Prairie

At this stop you can compare an agricultural field on left side of the road with a reconstructed prairie on the right. The majority of tallgrass prairie on the refuge was rebuilt or replanted on former corn or soybean fields, just like the one you are seeing. Hard work, innovation, and the use of management techniques resulted in reconstructing prairie from the ground up. What differences do you see when you compare the crop field to the rebuilt prairie?

A crop field supports corn or soybeans, while prairie contains a diversity of species, numbering 200 or more. USFWS photo of false white indigo and gray-headed coneflower in a prairie..

The breakdown or decomposition of prairie plants and their deep root systems over thousands of years created a thick, black layer of topsoil. One of the greatest legacies of the Iowa prairie is the fertile soil, which is the basis for Iowa's economy.

 

So why reconstruct prairie? Although agricultural fields are valuable, so is prairie. Tallgrass prairie preserves our natural, cultural, and historical heritage while providing a healthier natural environment for both people and wildlife. Prairies have supported peoples' livelihoods for thousands of years.

In early summer, the reconstructed prairie you see supports a stunning bloom of pale purple coneflowers. USFWS photo of a tallgrass prairie with pale purple coneflowers.

Historically, Native Americans relied on prairie plants for food, medicines, materials and clothing. Bison were the center of life for some Native Americans, providing them with clothing, shelter, food, tools, and weapons. European-American settlers relied on prairie for hunting and farming, and, like Native Americans, they used a variety of prairie plants for food and medicines.

 

Today, prairie continues to benefit people in a number of ways. The deep roots systems, reaching as much as fifteen feet below the surface, anchor soil, helping to prevent erosion. The roots also act as filters, taking nutrients out of agricultural runoff to improve water quality.

Prairies provide food and shelter for a variety of pollinating insects which can benefit nearby orchards and vegetable fields. Photo by Nancy Corona/USFWS of purple ironweed flowers and the yellow blooms of rosinweed.

Furthermore, prairie plants reduce water runoff, store carbon, build soil, and provide habitat for wildlife. People can enjoy the beauty of the prairie landscape while participating in outdoor activities such as nature photography, hiking, wildlife observation, and hunting. 


With proper planning, reconstructing, restoring and protecting prairies can continue while benefiting agricultural production. Iowa farmers are using prairie plants for prairie strips, an agricultural technique initiated at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (Neal Smith NWR). Prairie strips reduce erosion and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators, among other services. 

 

Continue to the next stop to learn about the variety of wildlife the tallgrass prairie ecosystem supports. 

Photo of prairie strips in a soybean field by Omar de Kok-Mercado/Iowa State University.