Farmer adoption of conservation practices increased by nearly 42 million acres nationwide from 2003 to 2006 and 2013 to 2016, according to a recent report from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.
The Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland report provides a comparison of two Conservation Effects Assessment Project reports conducted a decade apart.
The CEAP update found significant gains in conservation tillage, resulting in reductions in both water and wind erosion, along with increases in soil carbon. Annual erosion rates dropped by more than 160 million tons nationally, while edge-of-field sediment losses declined by 74 million tons. Reduced tillage intensity is taking hold across much of Minnesota as well, with steady gains in strip-till and modest gains in no-till observed.
The report also shows farmers saving more than 100 million gallons of diesel fuel equivalents per year, much of this associated with reduced tillage. NRCS reports that this fuel savings avoided nearly 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.
Noting increased crop demand, especially for corn and soybeans, that leads to increased demand for fertilizers, the report finds both challenges and opportunities. Farmers are also increasingly using advanced technology — things like enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and variable-rate application to improve efficiency. At the same time, NRCS sees a growing need to improve nutrient management.
Better crediting of manure nutrients needed
The time frame of the report does not include the recent increases in fertilizer prices and availability challenges but it does call for better crediting of nutrients provided by manure, along with greater cooperation between those farms specializing in livestock production and those specializing in crop production. I have seen much interest in manure transfers through sale or trade during the past few months. Once again, farmers seem to be ahead of many observers in addressing emerging challenges.
The CEAP comparison also addresses the potential for increased nitrogen and soluble phosphorus losses through tile, noting that “transitioning to conservation tillage systems … requires nutrient method and form adjustments to incorporate nutrients that previously may have been tilled into the soil under conventional systems.” This is an important point for more than half of Minnesota cropland, where subsurface drainage is critical to maintaining soil health and crop yields while forming a conservation foundation for other conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops and precision nutrient applications.
The NRCS also found that during both time periods, a small proportion of acres accounted for most nutrient and sediment loss. The 2013-16 CEAP report shows that 73% of subsurface nitrogen losses came from 28% of acres. Further, these higher losses are not easy to identify from one field to the next, as they are generally smaller areas within larger fields. Herein lies another incentive for the site-specific, variable-rate practices many farmers are either implementing already or exploring.
Our next major snapshot of conservation practices, which will provide state-specific data, is the upcoming 2022 Census of Agriculture. Farmers are encouraged to participate in this survey to provide an accurate picture of the industry.
Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.