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Iowans Take Saving Monarchs Seriously
With a goal of establishing 790,000 acres of monarch butterfly habitat by 2038, Iowa understands the importance of identifying non-crop areas to establish habitat in agricultural landscapes. Specifically, monarchs need milkweeds to eat during the caterpillar stage and nectar plants when they are butterflies.
With 50 members including ag and other businesses, state and federal agencies, and universities, the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, which is supported by Iowa State University (ISU), offers farmers, gardeners, and rural and urban communities ways to create habitat for monarchs to thrive. Reports from 2018 through 2020 indicate Iowa established 340,000 acres of habitat. That’s about the size of Houston city limits and a good start, says Nicole Shimp, program specialist at ISU.
“We’ve seen a good jump in habitat established in agriculture areas through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP),” she says. Some milkweed species set deep roots to tolerate less productive soils and dry spells, while other species grow well in wet soil.
ISU research provides useful information about the best way to establish milkweed and pollinator habitat, says Steve Bradbury, Professor, Emeritus who’s been part of the consortium since it started in 2014. The site, https://monarch.ent.iastate.edu/habitat-how, guides growers through site selection and preparation, management, and sources for seed and local contacts.
“Research shows that monarchs lay increasing amounts of eggs in habitat plots of half an acre to 7 acres,” he says. Optimally, habitat patches 150 to 300 ft. apart create “easy stepping stones” for female monarchs moving across agricultural landscapes looking for milkweed to lay eggs and blooming wildflowers for nectar.
“Right now, what’s most important is to establish habitat and don’t worry about where you’re putting plots,” Bradbury says. Habitat sites established throughout Iowa’s agricultural landscapes, including sites near crop fields, are predicted to produce more monarchs across the landscape as compared to scenarios in which no habitat is established within 100 to 125 feet of corn and soybean fields. If farmers follow practices to reduce pesticide spray drift and use integrated pest management practices, research indicates that maximum benefits for monarch populations will be realized.
Establishing pollinator plants when installing water quality projects, like artificial wetlands or saturated buffers, provides an efficient way to stack conservation benefits.
Farmers could also consider planting milkweed and nectar plants on less productive cropland in spaces between sheds and grain bins that are costly and labor-intensive to maintain with mowing.
A potential approach the Consortium is exploring with USDA is to see if existing, native grass-dominated CRP sites could be augmented with milkweed and native wildflowers.
Many landowners have started planting monarch habitat seed mixes on roadsides. It can be challenging to ensure local governments and farmers who maintain the ditches do not cut them until after caterpillars are done feeding on milkweed, as late as mid-August in Iowa.
Gardeners and homeowners also participate. For example, Iowa’s Blank Park Zoo promotes a “Plant. Grow. Fly.” project with “recipes” for seed mixes for butterflies. There are many options from growing in pots to acreage.
The Iowa State University website lists a habitat seed mix with milkweed and about 50 wildflower and native grass species that attract and benefit monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Using a diversity of wildflowers can ensure blooming flowers and nectar throughout the season to support migration and reproduction. The Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center has an online calculator to help choose the right seeds for different soils and regions of the state.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, 2310 Pammel Dr., c/o 339 Science II, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011 (ph 515-294-9227; neshimp@iastate.edu; https://monarch.ent.iastate.edu).

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2023 - Volume #47, Issue #2