Iowa STRIPS Program Reduces Runoff

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Since I mentioned the issue of the massive hypoxia, or “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve started to dig around into some various solutions to this problem. 

Most of the older articles I came across briefly mention that most efforts in the past resulted in minimal reduction of Nitrogen and Phosphorus leeching into our water ways, but they failed to outline what those ineffective steps were and why they didn’t have success. 

Then I came across the “STRIPS” program in an article by Darryl Fears in the Washington Post detailing an extensive program developed by the Iowa State University (AMES) to study the use of natural prairie as a solution. Spearheaded by Matthew Helmers and Lisa Shulte Moore, both professors at Iowa State, the program has assembled a core group of agricultural researchers, environmental scientists, farmers and educators to implement demonstrable measures that will have a real and needed solution to curbing the problem of fertilizer leeching.

“STRIPES” stands for Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips. My understanding is that the guiding principle of the program is to use natural prairie as a filter and buffer zone to hold soil and nutrients within the field and thus minimize erosion and run-off. This program differs from normal contour buffers by adjusting the width of the STRIP to correspond with the amount of water it will intercept, i.e. flatter land with less run-off needs a narrower STRIP and a wider STRIP in the higher-flow areas. The first data to come in after the initial 8 year trial looks impressive: reductions in sediment loss (95%), Phosphorus leeching (90%) and Nitrogen leeching (84%) were achieved with a 10% conversion of crop land to STRIPS. Additional trials are underway with collaborating farmers in Iowa, who are participating in the program.

Feedback from the participating farmers has been mixed so far. In an April 2016 Technical Report by Gordon Arbuckle Jr. lists some of the positive experiences as well as some of the challenges facing the implementation of the program. Farmers have been generally pleased to see less soil erosion, a marked increase in the wildlife in and around the STRIPS and establishing a practice of soil and water conservation. Some of the hurdles are weeds, erosion in the first year of establishment and loss of income due to crop-land conversion. 

I really hope this takes off and spreads throughout the corn-belt, it seems like real solution to this particular issue but it will take a lot of effort to implement such a wide reaching program. With the price of corn being at a relative low, it may be an uphill climb to get farmers to set aside 10% of their crop-land for a STRIPS program.      


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