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Iowa poll examines use of conservation practicesIowa poll examines use of conservation practices

Survey shows many farmers are using or considering use of recommended practices to save soil and protect water quality.

Rod Swoboda 1

April 6, 2017

4 Min Read
GAINING GROUND: “We recognize that we still have a lot of work to do, but the engagement by Iowa farmers and their willingness to make investments to better protect water quality is encouraging,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy got its start in 2013, and efforts to track progress toward its goals are ongoing. The strategy recommends that farmers use a number of soil and water conservation best management practices to reduce nutrient loss into waterways. The 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll asked farmers if they were using or considering use of many of those practices.

The results released last week show that farmers are significantly increasing their use of practices geared toward achieving the goals of the strategy. “In the last three years there’s been growth in every category of conservation tillage, nutrient management and adoption of other practices necessary to continue successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” says Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau. “We also saw declines in practices that scientists and agronomists might discourage, such as 17% to 21% decreases in fall tillage and fall application of fertilizer.”

A list of 20 practices was provided in the survey, and farmers who plant row crops were asked to select one of three responses:
• practice was not used in 2015, no plans to use it
• not used in 2015, might use it in the future
• used the practice in 2015

Three types of conservation practices were covered:
• tillage and cover crops
• nitrogen management
• structural practices, such as buffers and terraces

Targeting nutrient reduction goals “The scientists who conducted the science assessment for the INRS have concluded that to meet targeted reduction goals, most Iowa farmers will have to increase their use of a diverse mix of practices that are appropriate for their farms,” says J. Gordon Arbuckle, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “This year’s survey tried to get a handle on what practices farmers are using now, and which ones that might be willing to try.” Arbuckle coordinates the annual survey. Among in-field practices listed, no-till was the most commonly used, with 42% of respondents reporting employing the practice on at least some of the land they farm. Conservation tillage, excluding no-till and strip tillage, was second, used by 35%. And 21% reported use of cover crops on at least some land. “Minimizing tillage and use of cover crops are effective ways to reduce erosion and nutrient loss, while also improving soil health,” Arbuckle says. “Overall, about 57% of farmers reported using some kind of reduced tillage on at least part of their land.”

More farmers managing nitrogen The survey also asked about nitrogen management practices that can reduce nitrogen loss. The use of nitrogen stabilizers was reported by 38% of respondents. Twenty-eight percent reported they applied nitrogen during the growing season, and 15% used a variable rate N application. The corn nitrogen rate calculator, which was developed by Iowa State and partner universities to help farmers determine economically sound N fertilizer application rates, was used by 18% of respondents. “The INRS science assessment estimates that farmers can reduce nutrient loss by about 10% by using the N rate calculator,” notes Arbuckle. “They could also save money on fertilizer.” Buffers along streams or field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff were the most commonly reported conservation practice, with 46% of farmers indicating they were used in 2015. Terraces were reported by 37% of respondents and 25% used in-field buffer strips. Sedimentation basins (18%), extended rotations (15%) and converting some cropland from row crops to perennial crops such as hay (14%) were also reported.

Increased use of practices needed “The survey results show that many Iowa farmers are using recommended best management practices to some extent,” notes Arbuckle. “That said, the majority of Iowa crop farms could incorporate practices such as cover crops and in-field or edge-of-field filter strips to further reduce nutrient loss, yet minorities of farmers report using these and other proven practices. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done.” Arbuckle says the survey also asked farmers if they might consider using best management practices in the future, and results were encouraging. “Many farmers indicated they are open to the idea of using practices such as cover crops, the N rate calculator and variable-rate nitrogen application,” says Arbuckle. “That suggests we need to continue to work with farmers and their advisers to help incorporate more of these practices into more farm operations.” ISU’s Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been in existence since 1982, surveying Iowa farmers on issues of importance to agricultural stakeholders. It is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda 1

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Rod, who has been a member of the editorial staff of Wallaces Farmer magazine since 1976, was appointed editor of the magazine in April 2003. He is widely recognized around the state, especially for his articles on crop production and soil conservation topics, and has won several writing awards, in addition to honors from farm, commodity and conservation organizations.

"As only the tenth person to hold the position of Wallaces Farmer editor in the past 100 years, I take seriously my responsibility to provide readers with timely articles useful to them in their farming operations," Rod says.

Raised on a farm that is still owned and operated by his family, Rod enjoys writing and interviewing farmers and others involved in agriculture, as well as planning and editing the magazine. You can also find Rod at other Farm Progress Company activities where he has responsibilities associated with the magazine, including hosting the Farm Progress Show, Farm Progress Hay Expo and the Iowa Master Farmer program.

A University of Illinois grad with a Bachelors of Science degree in agriculture (ag journalism major), Rod joined Wallaces Farmer after working several years in Washington D.C. as a writer for Farm Business Incorporated.

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