Donnellson woman wants county to rethink roadside mowing

Margo Sprenger, a Lee County farmer, looks over a patch of native prairie. Sprenger is asking the county to not mow so deep into the ditches to allow natural native plants to grow. PCC File photo.



MONTROSE – Being in the farming business for more than 20 years gives a unique perspective on land usage and preservation. Some farmers perceive anything native in a field as a weed and a ding on profits to be sure, but a Donnellson woman is trying to keep just a little bit more of Iowa’s native plants intact.

Margo Sprenger, of rural Donnellson, made a pitch to the Lee County Supervisors on Tuesday morning as part of their workshop discussion following a very brief regular meeting.

Sprenger is asking supervisors to consider a full-time land management director to evaluate the county’s current maintenance program and it’s impact on native Iowa plants.

“It used to be that the mowing along our county roads was five feet or so, but now they have 15-foot mowers and they’re really taking things back a long ways along the roadside,” she said after Tuesday’s meeting.

“You used to be able to drive down our county roads and see beautiful Iowa plants along the roadside. Now it’s barren…it’s nothing,” Sprenger said.

Supervisor Chairman Ron Fedler said the argument for mowing deeper into the ditches is that when the plants seed and then blow in the summer it gets into the farmer’s fields who then have to deal with what are weeds to them.  “I know a very conservative farmer who’ll tell you, that’s a weed,” said Supervisor Chair Ron Fedler. “Then they’ll tell us they’re going to mow it, but they’re going to bill us for it.”

Fedler also indicated that he had spoken with officials with bordering states including North Dakota who said allowing the plants to grow tall next to the road causes drifting problems during the winter.

But Sprenger says in addition to the preservation aspect of her proposed changes, the county could see a cost savings by not mowing so deep into the ditch.

“I haven’t seen any budgets from neighboring counties, but I plan to ask for them. County officials from two of our neighboring counties mow along the roadway, and then manage the rest by allowing the natives to grow, and removing brush as needed.

The native plants, such as Purple Asters, Ohio Spider Wort and Iowa’s state flower, the Wild Rose also provide cover and nesting for Iowa’s wildlife such as rabbits, pheasants, quail, and many pollinators.

“Part of it is the eye, you know. People think this is what they want to see, this nice and mowed, but then the same people say, ‘where are the rabbits and pheasants?’.   One neighbor told me yesterday: ” I used to be able to come out and see four pheasants in a morning and they just aren’t there anymore.”

Sprenger and her husband Randy have many acres of farmland that they care for between Donnellson and Belfast. They noticed the variety of wildflowers in the roadways blooming in the spring and early summer, then watched as they were one by one mowed off.  This year she approached the county to see about implementing what the state calls an Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management program.

“The county is real careful and doesn’t mow through the nesting season. They’re very good about that and then around July 15th everything started to be mowed off until they were all gone,” she said.

Integrated roadside vegetation management is an approach to right-of-way maintenance that combines a variety of management techniques with sound ecological principles to establish and maintain safe, healthy, functional roadsides. IRVM includes judicious use of herbicides, spot mowing, prescribed burning, mechanical tree and brush removal and the prevention and treatment of erosion and other disturbances to the right-of-way, according to the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

In addition to providing a variety of resources to Iowa’s county roadside programs, UNI’s IRVM Program Office also provides guidance and support to Iowa counties establishing new IRVM programs, and strengthens IRVM statewide through partnerships with the Iowa Department of Transportation and other agencies.

“Truly, I think many people don’t understand that the mowed native plants are very beneficial.  My goal is to get these natives back by only mowing that 5-6 foot strip where that is all that is needed.  I agree that the county should be controlling the brush, but some of what they call brush is dogwood and elderberry, which are great habitat to feed the songbirds and other wildlife. I’d like to see this IRVM program put in place so that the weeds and invasive plants can be controlled, while the beneficial native plants will remain,” Sprenger added.

“It’s more a budgeting issue than anything,” said Supervisor Gary Folluo “And as the board changes it’s an issue of having that extra person. We get something planted and the next board doesn’t want to do it then we spend a lot of money for nothing. I certainly do enjoy it when I’m driving and I see native ditches and wildlife I think it’s pretty, but I also like to see the grass cut as well.”

Sprenger asked to have some other county officials from area counties and native experts to speak to the council and Fedler encouraged her to bring them in as part of the public discussion at a future meeting.

Pictured above is the mowing path that had been cut in the past at about 5-8 feet from the road. There’s a push to have the county go back to that distance from the current path of about 15 feet to allow more native plants to spring up.
This is more of the native prairie that Sprenger is looking to have grow between the crop lines and the roads in the county.



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