Twenty-Seven Years of Source-Identified Seed Development, Production, and Prairie Restoration in Iowa’s Roadsides and Agricultural Lands

Greg Houseal, Program Manager, Natural Selections Seed, Tallgrass Prairie Center, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA

The state of Iowa, in the Midwest of the United States, is situated on some of the richest agricultural soils in the world.  Seventy-five percent of its 36 million acres (14.6 million hectares) of land have been converted to row crops, predominantly corn and soybeans. It was once the heart of the tallgrass prairie biome, a globally endangered ecosystem. An estimated 0.01% of original prairie still exists in Iowa, and that figure is not much greater for the entire biome.  

The almost complete destruction of the ecosystem has long fueled an interest in using Iowa source germplasm (seeds) for increase and commercial production for restoring tallgrass prairie.  The Tallgrass Prairie Center, University of Northern Iowa, has several programs aimed at restoring tallgrass prairie on the few remaining areas available for perennial vegetation in an agricultural landscape:  roadside rights-of-way, prairie strips within row crop agricultural fields, and indirectly on federally subsidized Conservation Reserve Program pollinator plantings (Figure 1).  Iowa boasts some 994,000 acres (402,000 hectares) of state and county rights of way, more land than public-owned federal, state, county, and city conservation areas combined (838,656 acres, 339,392 hectares).  Iowa farmers and landowners currently have about 1.6 million acres (650,000 hectares) enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, much of it planted to prairie, with a recent emphasis on forb-rich mixes for pollinator recovery.  Recent work by Iowa State University’s STRIPS team has demonstrated that planting prairie in strips on as little as 10% of row crop acres can mitigate up to 90% of sediment and nutrient run-off from agricultural practices.  Prairie strips can stop erosion, reduce nutrient loss, improve soil and water quality, and support pollinators and other wildlife.  The strips average 30 or more feet in width and are planted transverse to hill slopes within row crop fields.  

Figure 1. Species rich planting provides important pollinator habitat, water quality benefits, and beautification along a Fayette County roadside.

Figure 1. Species rich planting provides important pollinator habitat, water quality benefits, and beautification along a Fayette County roadside.

The Center’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Program (IRVM), working with county IRVM programs statewide has planted diverse prairie on an estimated 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) since 1990 (Figure 2).  The Iowa Department of Transportation’s IRVM program has planted an additional 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) on state rights-of-way. 

Figure 2. Since 1998, the IRVM Seed Distribution Program at the Tallgrass Prairie Center has supplied 82 of Iowa’s 99 counties with a diverse species mix of mostly Iowa source-identified seed, funded with transportation enhancement funds. 

Figure 2. Since 1998, the IRVM Seed Distribution Program at the Tallgrass Prairie Center has supplied 82 of Iowa’s 99 counties with a diverse species mix of mostly Iowa source-identified seed, funded with transportation enhancement funds. 

Prairie on Farms, a recently created program at the Center, jointly with the Prairie Research and Restoration Program, has installed 33 acres of prairie strips and waterways as research and demonstration sites for field days and workshops aimed at educating and creating awareness for these practices among farmers, conservation professionals, and land manager (Figure 3).  The work includes research on the performance of various seed mixes commonly used for CRP plantings.

Figure 3. Prairie on Farm strips mitigate water and nutrient runoff on working agricultural fields while providing much needed pollinator and wildlife habitat.


Figure 3. Prairie on Farm strips mitigate water and nutrient runoff on working agricultural fields while providing much needed pollinator and wildlife habitat.

For the past 27 years, Natural Selections Seed, formerly the Iowa Ecotype Project, has collected and increased seed from remnant prairies throughout Iowa as source identified foundation material for seed increase (Figure 4).  Greenhouse grown seedling plugs are transplanted into seed increase nursery beds within three provenance zones, southern, central, and northern Iowa source populations.  Certified as Iowa Source Identified seed, per the Association of Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) guidelines, it is released and further increased and certified by commercial seed producers in and around Iowa.  Since 1990, the project has made over 3000 original collections of seed, and released nearly 400 lots of seed of over 60 species to 17 growers for commercial production.  Over one-and-a-quarter million pounds (570,000 kg) of seed have been produced from these releases since 1996.  In addition to Natural Selections seed releases, private growers can collect and increase their own source material.  The Iowa Crop Improvement Association annually certifies source identified seed of 140-180 native species (http://www.iowacrop.org).

Figure 4. Source identified ‘Northern Iowa’ Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) foundation seed increase plot, one of over 80 species being developed as plant materials in the Natural Selections Seed program at the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

Figure 4. Source identified ‘Northern Iowa’ Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) foundation seed increase plot, one of over 80 species being developed as plant materials in the Natural Selections Seed program at the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

Together, these programs are working in concert to promote more perennial tallgrass prairie vegetation on Iowa’s agriculturally intensive landscape, for the multiple environmental and societal benefits of soil and water quality, habitat, and beautification. This would not be possible without a seed-based approach to regionally appropriate plant material development and restoration practices.

To read more about these programs, partnerships, and funding visit www.tallgrassprairiecenter.org.

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