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Checking For Conservation Compliance

Checking For Conservation Compliance

USDA is taking to the skies to review soil conservation compliance. Working with experienced pilots, NRCS teams are conducting aerial reviews on a number of fields in certain areas of Iowa.

FAQ: I heard on the news NRCS is using aerial photos this spring to check fields for conservation compliance. In times past they came out and looked at fields at random to spot-check some farms. Is USDA now cracking down more widely on soil losses on HEL ground?

Answer: Provided by Richard Sims, state conservationist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Iowa.

Teams of federal conservation experts, partnering with experienced pilots, are conducting aerial conservation compliance reviews on 635 sites in nearly 40 counties in northwest and southwest Iowa this month.

The 1985 Farm Bill requires the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation or NRCS to check a random sampling of highly erodible fields each year to ensure farmers are following the provisions in their conservation plans. Conservation compliance is required for maintaining eligibility for USDA programs. Status reviews in the remaining 60 counties in Iowa will be conducted on the ground.

Other states have been using aerial surveys to save time and resources for several years. We here in Iowa are implementing this pilot project to see if we can increase our efficiencies and effectiveness while maintaining accuracy and fairness. If the project is successful, NRCS may chose to implement the strategy statewide.

Question: Why is NRCS flying the skies to review conservation compliance? How accurate is this procedure?

Hopefully, it'll save money and be more efficient in terms of time and labor than having NRCS personnel drive out to fields and do all of the checking by walking the ground.

Teams on the ground will verify the accuracy of the aerial status reviews that find farmers out of compliance. NRCS offices sent notification letters to all producers and landowners with fields the agency will review aerially.

Planes will be flying at lower altitudes, about 500 feet, to allow NRCS conservationists to visually evaluate tillage use, crop residue levels, conservation practices in place, the presence of ephemeral gullies and other key compliance factors. Farmers who are not following a conservation system or who drain wetlands could be found out of compliance and risk losing USDA benefits.

Question: Are you doing this now because this is time of year when soil erosion risk is highest?

The soil is prepared, the seeds are planted, but plants are not very tall and the ground is not protected very well from falling raindrops or flowing water. Yes, this is the time of year when erosion risk is the highest. It is to prepare for this time period that there has been a focus on reducing tillage and retaining crop residue.

The early part of each growing season is the best time for farmers to evaluate their operations for conservation practice effectiveness on their farms. We will need this land farmed in a century, and it is part of our job to be certain we keep it in shape to be able to do that. The soils farmers farm, the slope that occurs in fields, and rainfall events (intensity, duration, amount) all change the risk. Some farmers have a lot more erosion risk than other farmers on the acres they farm.

There is a website called the Iowa Daily Erosion Project. Under the erosion tab you can look at individual days, months, or even years where erosion estimates are calculated. The model for these erosion estimates is the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) model. A number of assumptons are used to calculate these predictions, including soil types, rainfall amounts and other data are used for this website.

View special web page providing soil erosion estimates

For example, looking at the site for May 11, 2011, you see some interesting information. A few areas of Iowa had heavy rain that day and it looks to me like one of the counties in west central Iowa averaged over a ton per acre soil loss that day. A township or two in SW Iowa lost an average of 5 to 7 tons per acre on May 11, if this model is right. That's a lot of soil loss for a single day.

Erosion doesn't occur every day, of course. But it can be tremendous on some days when rain is heavy and comes down fast. It varies a lot from year to year, too. The 2006 year doesn't look too bad. A year with more rain, like 2009, shows we experienced a lot more erosion. Go to the webpage and put in different dates to see what occurred. Take a look — it will make you think!

The Iowa Daily Erosion Project resulted from discussions by Rick Cruse, an ISU professor of soil management, and John Laflen, retired USDA Ag Research Service ag engineer. Soil erosion by water only occurs during storms that produce runoff and is thus a temporally and spatially dynamic process. To help visualize the process, Cruse and Laflen came up with the The Iowa Daily Erosion Project, a daily simulation of the erosion process on nearly 20,000 hill slopes across the state of Iowa. The project was implemented through the collaboration of scientists from ISU, University of Iowa and USDA's ARS National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory and the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames. The process was peer reviewed and published in the January/February 2006 issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

If you have specific questions or need details regarding USDA farm programs, contact your local USDA Farm Service Agency office. You can also get news and information about DCP, ACRE and other USDA programs at

Two Iowa State University Extension Web sites have farm program information and analysis. They are ISU's Ag Decision Maker site at and ISU Extension Specialist Steve Johnson's site at

And be sure to read the regular column "Frequently Asked Questions about the Farm Program" that appears in each issue of Wallaces Farmer magazine and at

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