Conservation Adoption Varies

USDA Survey Points to Need for Incentives

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The use of conservation measures on the farm, such as no-till and strip-till, varies regionally, according to a new USDA survey of farmers. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The use of conservation measures on the farm varies regionally, according to a new USDA survey of farmers. The survey also raises questions about what factors determine whether full adoption of conservation measures is possible.

In the latest Agricultural Resource Management Survey, a joint effort of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service, farmers were asked in 2010 and 2011 to report the acreage of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton where no-till/strip-till was used and the acreage of all cropland that had cover crops in the survey year.

USDA estimates no-till/strip-till was used on 39% of combined corn, soybean, wheat and cotton acreage, based on the survey. About 23% of those acres were located on farms where no-till/strip-till was used on all corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton land, according to USDA. The remaining 15% of no-till/strip-till acres were located on farms where no-till/strip-till was used on only part of the acres.

"These results imply that a majority of 2010-11 corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acres (56%) were located on farms that were already equipped for and had experience with no-till/strip-till," the survey found. "Remaining land in these four crops (44%) was located on farms that did not use no-till or strip-till in 2010-11."

USDA said the survey was unable to explain why some producers opt for only partial adoption of conservation practices.

"We hypothesize that both crop and field characteristics play a role," USDA said. "More broadly, we hypothesize that regional differences in no-till/strip-till adoption reflect both differences in crop grown and in climate, soils, and topography -- factors that have already been shown to affect no-till adoption."

USDA said one of the mysteries of the survey results is that although continuous use of no-till/strip-till has proven benefits, almost 25% of all land in corn, soybean, wheat and cotton production was tilled on farms that also used no-till or strip-till.

Questions remain regarding what type of incentive, if any, may encourage these producers to extend no-till/strip-till to all the acres in their farm, USDA said. "A closely related question is: How do partial adopters differ from full adopters and non-adopters in terms of factors known to affect no-till/strip-till adoption?"

USDA said having that information could "help identify potential barriers to full adoption on farms that currently use no-till/strip-till on only a part of their cropland.

"Unfortunately, many of the field-specific attributes known to affect no-till/strip-till adoption (e.g., land erodibility and soil permeability) are not available in the farm-level phase 3 Agricultural Resource Management Survey," USDA said. "Further research using both farm- and field-level data may provide insight that is valuable in identifying opportunities to encourage no-till and strip-till adoption."

FERTILIZER APPLICATIONS

The USDA survey also found a "substantial share of producers" applied fertilizer after planting, which more closely matches plant needs than applications made before planting.

The survey found for corn and cotton, 22% and 59% of nitrogen was applied after planting, respectively. "Nonetheless, fertilizer continued to be applied in the fall before planting for corn and cotton," USDA said. "Some producers also applied nitrogen at rates that exceeded the benchmark rates. Over-application has substantial environmental and on-farm cost since excess nitrogen deteriorates water quality and creates greenhouse gas emissions, and it represents large opportunity costs for farm enterprises."

Just 6% of corn acres and 24% of cotton acres meet four criteria for the management of nitrogen, USDA said, including no fall application, overall application rate at or below the benchmark, at least some nitrogen applied after planting, and fertilizer incorporated or injected below the soil surface.

"While best-management practices are used individually by farmers, simultaneous adoption on all crop acres is rare," USDA said about the survey findings. "Combining no-till/strip-till, nutrient management, and cover crops on the same field provides multiple benefits, reducing the adverse environmental effect of crop production and improving soil health. However, successful applications require knowledge of how these practices are best integrated with specific crops, climate, and soil conditions."

In addition, USDA said the rate of adoption of cover crops remains "quite low" because many farmers still have reservations about the use of cover crops on their own farms.

"Incentive payments may encourage adoption of best-management practices and, if successful, provide a demonstration effect that encourages adoption by other farmers," USDA said.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, provides payments during a three-year period to help cover the cost of transitioning to no-till/strip-till, nutrient management and cover crop adoption.

USDA said between 2009 and 2012, EQIP funded about 3.7 million acres of no-till/strip-till, 6.5 million acres of nutrient management and 1.7 million acres of cover crops.

When it comes to the effectiveness of incentive payments in encouraging farmers to adopt nutrient management plans, USDA said those payments are "critical" in encouraging producers to prepare written plans. In addition, USDA said producers who receive nutrient management payments are unlikely to apply fertilizer in the fall before planting corn.

"Results are less conclusive regarding the effect of nutrient-management payments on nitrogen application rates or the proportion of nitrogen applied after planting," USDA said. "Nonetheless, the ARMS data show that most producers do not have written nutrient management plans."

Read the USDA survey results here: http://tinyurl.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley