ERS Charts of Note
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Friday, May 20, 2022
Researchers at USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) used the USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) to identify farmers’ concerns about soil erosion on their fields, specifically fields growing oats or cotton in 2015, wheat in 2017, and soybeans in 2018. Across all acreage represented in the selected ARMS data, farmers reported that 25 percent of acres had water-driven erosion and 16 percent had wind-driven erosion. ERS researchers compared these self-reported measures to estimates from the National Resources Inventory (NRI), a science-based assessment conducted by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The 2017 NRI found that about 18 percent of cultivated cropland had water-driven erosion. For the NRI, a field is determined as having a problem with water-driven erosion if annual soil losses exceed its soil loss tolerance, which is the maximum rate of annual soil loss that still permits sustained economic crop production. The NRI assessment also found that about 14 percent of all cultivated cropland had more soil losses from wind-driven erosion than its soil loss tolerance. The difference in rates of erosion between the two data sources may reflect farmer perceptions about what is considered an erosion problem relative to the criteria used in the NRI. This chart can be found in the ERS report USDA Conservation Technical Assistance and Within-Field Resource Concerns, published in May 2022.
Friday, May 6, 2022
When management practices degrade a natural resource used in farming to the degree that its sustainability or intended use is impaired, then a given land unit is said to have a resource concern. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified 47 specific resource concerns affecting crop fields in the United States. ERS researchers classified the soil and water resource concerns from this list into seven broad categories in USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). These seven broad concerns are on-field water quality, low organic matter, poor drainage, soil compaction, wind-driven erosion, water-driven erosion, and other concerns. Cotton, wheat, oat, and soybean farmers were asked to report if they were experiencing one or multiple of the seven categories of concerns on the fields surveyed by ARMS between 2015 and 2018. Overall, farmers represented across these surveys reported that 49 percent of their fields had at least one resource concern and 26 percent of their fields had two or more concerns. The percentages of fields with at least one self-reported resource concern varied by region. Resource concerns were most common in the Midwest, the largest region by the number of fields, and were least common in the South. Farmers growing soybeans reported that about 51 percent of their fields have one or multiple resource concerns. Farmers growing durum wheat, which covers 2-5 percent of the total wheat area in the country, reported one or more resource concerns on about 40 percent of fields. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “USDA Conservation Technical Assistance and Within-Field Resource Concerns,” published May 2022.
Wednesday, March 9, 2022
USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) General Signup allows landowners and producers to retire eligible agricultural land with a history of crop production in exchange for payment. Landowners and producers may select one or more practices that they agree to establish for the duration of a 10- to 15-year contract, if chosen for enrollment. Practices are awarded different points based on the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), which incorporates the expected impact of the chosen cover practice on wildlife benefits and carbon sequestration, as well as on the anticipated durability of that impact. Landowners and producers who choose a cover practice worth more points have a greater likelihood of acceptance. In 2020, more than 80 percent of re-enrolling offers and more than 90 percent of offers on land not previously enrolled in CRP chose a practice other than the lowest-scoring practice, which is non-native grasses with low diversity. The most common practice is native grasses and other plants with high diversity, which provides between 40 and 70 additional points relative to the low-diversity non-native grass practice, while only requiring the use of native species and slightly greater species richness and complexity. Grasslands practices (native and non-native grass practices) are the most common group of practices, followed by wildlife practices (wildlife and rare and declining habitat practices). Pollinator habitat is rarely the only practice on an offer. Tree practices are relatively rare. This chart is drawn from the Cover Practice Definitions and Incentives in the Conservation Reserve Program report published by USDA’s Economic Research Service, February 23, 2022.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows landowners and producers to enroll eligible, environmentally sensitive agricultural land in return for payments determined through long-term contracts. Most land in the program has come in through the General Signup, a competitive offer process administered by USDA, Farm Service Agency (FSA). Every offer in each General Signup is scored using the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). “The single most important producer decision involves determining which cover practice to apply to the acres offered,” FSA says in its “EBI Fact Sheet,” which provides guidance to potential program participants. “Planting or establishing the highest scoring cover mixture is the best way to improve the chances of offer acceptance.” In a recent report, ERS analyzed the EBI points for the 11 most common practices selected in the General Signup. Cover practices that are considered higher quality, such as pollinator habitat or those using hardwood trees, earn more EBI points. Some cover practices score additional points if the land being offered for the CRP falls within a wildlife priority zone (WPZ). For practices outside of WPZs, the EBI points awarded ranged from 13 to 100. Within WPZs, the EBI points ranged higher, from 13 to 130. This chart appears in the ERS report Cover Practice Definitions and Incentives in the Conservation Reserve Program, published on February 23, 2022.
Friday, October 1, 2021
Farmers typically add cover crops to a rotation between two commodity or forage crops to provide seasonal living soil cover. According to data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Surveys, the level of cover crop adoption varies according to the primary commodity. In the fall preceding the survey year, farmers adopted cover crops on 5 percent of corn-for-grain (2016), 8 percent of soybean (2018), 13 percent of cotton (2015) and 25 percent of corn-for-silage (2016) acreage. The adoption rate in the survey year (2017) was lowest for winter wheat. This reflects the fact that farmers typically plant cover crops around the same time as winter wheat in the fall, which makes it difficult to grow both winter wheat and a fall-planted cover crop in the same crop year. In contrast, the rate of cover crop adoption was highest on corn-for-silage fields in the 2016 survey. Because corn silage is used exclusively for feeding livestock, farmers planting corn-for-silage may also grow cover crops for their forage value. Corn-for-silage also affords a longer planting window for cover crops compared with corn planted for grain because of an earlier harvest, and cover crops can help address soil health and erosion concerns on fields harvested for silage. Harvesting corn-for-silage involves removing both the grain and the stalks of the corn plant, leaving little plant residue on the field after harvest. This chart appears in the ERS report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released in February 2021
Friday, August 20, 2021
A conservation crop rotation involves a sequence of crops grown on the same ground over a period of time for conservation purposes, such as soil erosion control, soil health, and increased crop diversity. To meet the conservation practice standard for a conservation crop rotation as determined by USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a given field must include crops, such as many small grains, that generate greater residue (crop materials such as stalks, stems, or leaves that are left in the field after the crop has been harvested) and meet crop diversity requirements across years. Cropping systems that include cover crops are more likely to meet the standard. Cover crops are typically added to a crop rotation between two commodity or forage crops to provide living, seasonal soil cover. For corn, 70 percent of acres with cover crops in 2016 were in fields that met the criteria for a conservation crop rotation, compared to 26 percent of acres without a cover crop that also met the criteria. For cotton in 2015, 34 percent of acres that used a cover crop were in a conservation crop rotation, compared to only 4 percent of acres without a cover crop that met conservation crop rotation criteria. For soybeans in 2018, 94 percent of acres that used a cover crop met conservation crop rotation criteria, compared to only 13 percent of acres without a cover crop that also met those criteria. The association between cover crops and the use of conservation rotations in corn and cotton is more limited than for soybeans because corn and cotton fields may not include a legume or other crop with low-nitrogen fertilizer demands. This chart appears in the ERS report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released February 2021.
Friday, July 9, 2021
Cover crops—which farmers add to a crop rotation in between the planting of two crops—provide living, seasonal soil cover with a variety of benefits, such as increased soil moisture capacity, weed suppression, and reduced nutrient runoff. Researchers from USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) reported which cover crops were grown the fall before planting corn, cotton, and soybeans. For corn fields intended for use as grain or silage (the harvesting of the entire plant for forage) in 2016, more than 90 percent of acres with cover crops used a grass or small grain cover crop, such as rye, winter wheat, or oats. At 63 percent of acreage, rye was more than twice as common as winter wheat (26 percent) as the cover crop on corn for grain fields. Rye and winter wheat were also the most common cover crops on soybean fields in 2018. Winter wheat was the most common cover crop used on cotton fields in 2015. This likely reflects the role of wheat stubble in protecting cotton seedlings from wind and the potentially negative impact of certain chemicals produced by cereal rye on growing cotton plants. This chart appears in the ERS report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released in February 2021. It also appears in the July 2021 Amber Waves finding Grass Cover Crops, Such as Rye and Winter Wheat, Were the Most Common Cover Crops Used Before Planting Corn, Soybeans, and Cotton.
Thursday, April 22, 2021
The use of cover crops on U.S. cropland increased 50 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to data in the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Cover crops—such as unharvested cereal rye, oats, winter wheat, and clover—are typically added to a crop rotation during the period between two commodity or forage crops. Persistent year-after-year adoption of cover crops (defined as 3 or 4 years of adoption within a 4-year crop rotation) can increase the accumulation of soil organic matter and provide a living, seasonal coverage of soil. Together, those two outcomes benefit farmers and the ecosystem. For example, healthier soils with consistent living cover can reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into waterways, increase soil moisture capacity, and sequester carbon. Among fields that adopted a cover crop in at least 1 year of the rotation, persistent cover crop use occurred on 69 percent of cotton acres (2015), 56 percent of corn-for-silage acres (2016), 19 percent of corn-for-grain acres (2016), and 32 percent of soybean acres (2018). Nationally, cover crop acreage has increased over time as conservation programs have promoted cover crop adoption through research, technical assistance, and financial assistance. Many of the fields with only 1 or 2 years of cover crops are those that started planting in the third or fourth year surveyed, suggesting that they may be new adopters. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released February 2021, and in the March 2021 Amber Waves article, Persistent Cover Crop Adoption Varies by Primary Commodity Crop.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Agriculture in the semi-arid region overlying the High Plains Aquifer, which spans parts of eight states, relies on groundwater. In several areas, significantly more groundwater is extracted than is returned to the aquifer each year, leading to declining water levels. In Kansas, USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) specifically focuses on retiring irrigated cropland to reduce stress on limited water resources. To represent the amount of water that retired rights would have used in the absence of CREP, in effect the amount of use reduced by the program, ERS researchers used a group of 98 unenrolled farmers similar to 98 enrolled farmers based on factors like farm size, crops grown, and soil quality. Trends of unenrolled matched farmers are largely representative of the average unenrolled farmer in the Western District, where most enrollments have occurred, and which has experienced the most significant aquifer depletion. From 1996 to 2017, unenrolled matched farmers decreased their water use by 0.94 percent a year relative to 1996 levels, compared to 0.64 percent a year for the average unenrolled farmer in the Western District. Furthermore, although unenrolled matched farmers initially experienced more rapid depletion, declines in saturated thickness have been very similar for the two groups since 2008. This chart appears in the October 2020 Amber Waves feature, “Incentives to Retire Water Rights Have Reduced Stress on the High Plains Aquifer.”
Monday, October 5, 2020
USDA’s voluntary conservation programs form the backbone of U.S. agricultural conservation policy. These programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Conservation Technical Assistance. The programs help agricultural producers improve their environmental performance related to soil health, water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1996 and 2011, real (inflation-adjusted) conservation spending grew by roughly 50 percent, largely due to expansion of the major working lands programs. Since 2011, annual spending has remained between $6.0 and $6.5 billion (except in 2015) and is projected to remain within that range between 2019 and 2023. Under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the 2018 Farm Act), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates mandatory conservation spending of $29.5 billion over 5 years. This is about $560 million more than CBO’s projection of 2019-23 spending with the extension of the programs and provisions of the 2014 Farm Act. Although most conservation programs receive “mandatory” funding, the funding levels are not guaranteed and could be revised in future years. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Conservation Programs, updated September 2019.
Monday, September 14, 2020
Errata: On October 30, 2020, the Chart of Note was revised to correct shares of land exiting the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by land use category. Land used for crop land was corrected to 79 percent. Land used for trees was corrected to 6 percent. No other values were affected.
Between 2013 and 2016, contracts for about 7.6 million acres of land enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) expired. About 2.76 million acres of expiring land reenrolled in the CRP. Of the almost 4.89 million acres that exited the program during the period, 57 percent transitioned to annual crop production. At least half of the exiting CRP land transitioned to annual crop production in each of the four years. The most common annual crops grown on expired CRP land were soybeans (21 percent of the exiting CRP land that went into annual crop production), corn (16 percent), and wheat (16 percent). Perennial forage (such as alfalfa) and specialty crop (such as pecans) production accounted for 12 and 11 percent, respectively. Taken together, 79 percent of former CRP land was put to some type of crop production (annual, perennial forage, or perennial specialty) after exiting the program. The remaining exiting land was most often used as grass cover (14 percent) or tree cover (6 percent). Post-CRP acreage under grass cover may be used as pastureland or represent acres that are untouched after expiring from a grassland practice in CRP. This chart appears in the December 2019 ERS report, The Fate of Land in Expiring Conservation Reserve Program Contracts, 2013-2016.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 22.3 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of fiscal 2019. With an annual budget of roughly $1.8 billion, CRP was USDA’s largest single conservation program in terms of spending that year. CRP enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Voluntary retirement of cropland under CRP provides numerous environmental benefits related to soil erosion, water quality, wildlife habitat provision, and other environmental services. As of January 2020, total CRP enrollment was 21.9 million acres—with a large share of that land located in the Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land were found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta. Approximately 5.4 million acres will expire in September 2020. CRP General Signup 54, which concluded in February 2020, accepted over 3.8 million acres for enrollment in October 2020. Acreage continues to be accepted under continuous signup. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated March 2020.
Monday, January 13, 2020
Errata: On December 4, 2020, the Chart of Note was revised. The acreages shown in the figure were updated to correct an undercounting of roughly 188 acres of land that exited USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program over the study period.
ERS researchers tracked the fate of 7.6 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land in contracts that expired between 2013 and 2016. About 36 percent of expiring land (2.76 million acres) reenrolled into the CRP. Of the about 4.89 million acres that exited the program (i.e. were not reenrolled), nearly 80 percent of the land was put into some type of crop production—with the remainder going into grass, tree, and other non-agricultural covers. CRP land associated with tree practices was the most likely to be reenrolled in the program, at a rate of 47 percent, compared with 35 percent of land in grass practices and 29 percent of land in wildlife practices. Of land that did not reenroll, 77 percent of land in a tree practice retained a tree cover, and only 13 percent went to annual crop production. In contrast, 65 percent of land in a wetland practice and 59 percent of land in a grass practice went to annual crop production. This chart appears in the January 2020 ERS report, The Fate of Land in Expiring Conservation Reserve Program Contracts, 2013-2016.
Friday, September 20, 2019
As farmers have adopted soil health and conservation practices like conservation tillage, they have helped reduce soil erosion on the Nation’s working lands. Data from USDA’s National Resources Inventory (NRI) show erosion on cultivated cropland due to water and wind has declined by 45 percent, from 2.9 billion tons in 1982 to 1.6 billion tons in 2012. Though part of this decline is due to less land being cropped over time, a larger portion is due to changes in farm management practices. Reducing erosion is an important first step toward improving soil health, which can increase yields in crop and forage production. Healthy soil also has a positive impact on water quality, decreasing nutrient runoff into streams and rivers. In addition, healthier soil tends to have a greater ability to hold water, which can give crops greater drought resilience. This chart appears in the May 2019 ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019. It is also in the August 2019 Amber Waves feature, “Conservation Trends in Agriculture Reflect Policy, Technology, and Other Factors.”
Friday, September 6, 2019
USDA conservation programs provide nearly $6 billion annually for financial and technical assistance to support the adoption of conservation practices on U.S. farms. This conservation effort relies mainly on voluntary incentive programs. The largest single conservation program (in terms of budget) is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which provides funding for the retirement of environmentally sensitive land. However, the largest share of conservation funding goes toward incentivizing conservation practices on lands that remain in production, or “working lands.” The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one such program, which provides financial assistance to farmers who adopt or install conservation practices on land in agricultural production. EQIP expenditures for crop management practices focused on five categories of practices—conservation crop rotations, cover crops, nutrient management, terraces, and conservation tillage (residue management). Farmers who use cover crops grow a crop (often over the winter) that will be left in place as residue or incorporated into the soil to increase organic matter. Between 1998 and 2016, the share of EQIP expenditures going to nutrient management and terracing decreased, while the share of expenditures going to cover crops increased. This chart appears in the May 2019 ERS report Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019. Also see the August 2019 Amber Waves feature, “Conservation Trends in Agriculture Reflect Policy, Technology, and Other Factors.”
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
The 2018 Farm Act continues to emphasize support for farm risk management and to expand coverage within the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) that was established in the 2014 Farm Act. Since 2007, the largest growth in insured acres has come from the introduction of coverage for pasture, rangeland, and forage areas. The 2018 Farm Act introduces a catastrophic coverage option for these policies, which is likely to further increase the total acres insured for pasture, rangeland, and forage areas. Premiums for catastrophic coverage policies are fully subsidized (farmers pay no premium, only an administrative fee), while higher levels of coverage are only partially subsidized (farmers pay part of the premium). The availability of cheaper policies may induce additional participation in FCIP. However, the county base values that are used to assess the economic value of insured production covered by pasture, rangeland, and forage policies will be lower in the 2019 crop year than in previous years. In turn, this decrease lowers the value of insured hay and forage production and may reduce the demand for pasture, rangeland, and forage area policies. This chart appears in the ERS crop insurance topic page of The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, published February 2019.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Voluntary conservation incentive programs are the backbone of U.S. agricultural conservation policy. For fiscal years 2019 to 2023, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects mandatory spending on conservation programs under the 2018 Farm Act would be $555 million higher than baseline (projected) spending if the previous 2014 Farm Act had remained in force. That represents an increase of about 2 percent. Nearly all of this spending will flow through five programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program. For these programs and their predecessors, inflation-adjusted spending increased under both the 2002 and 2008 Farm Acts (2002-2013) but was lower under the 2014 Farm Act (2014-2018). CBO projections suggest that the 2018 Farm Act will provide slightly higher funding, on average, than the 2014 Farm Act. Although program funding is mandatory and does not require appropriations, spending in future years is subject to congressional review and has sometimes been reduced from levels specified in the Farm Acts. This chart appears in the ERS topic page The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, updated February 2019.
Monday, December 3, 2018
As of the end of fiscal year 2017, USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered 23.4 million acres of environmentally sensitive land. With an annual budget of $1.8 billion, CRP was USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending at that time. Enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Program acreage tends to be concentrated on marginally productive cropland that is susceptible to erosion by wind or rainfall. A large share of CRP acreage is located in the Great Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land are found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, southern Idaho, and the Mississippi Delta. This chart appears in the ERS data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated October 2018.
Friday, May 4, 2018
USDA agricultural conservation programs provide technical and financial assistance to farmers who adopt and maintain practices that conserve resources or enhance environmental quality. Although USDA implements more than a dozen individual conservation programs, nearly all assistance is channeled through six: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). EQIP, CSP, and CTA are often referred to as “Working Land Programs” because they focus primarily on supporting conservation on land in agricultural production (crops or grazing). The 2014 Farm Act continued to emphasize working land conservation. Between 2012 and 2017, combined funding for Working Land Programs accounted for more than 50 percent of spending in USDA conservation programs. This emphasis reflects a long-term trend—begun under the 2002 Farm Act—that increased annual spending in Working Land Programs. In 2017 dollars (to adjust for inflation), this spending increased from roughly $1 billion under the 1996 Farm Act to more than $3 billion under the 2014 Act. This chart updates data found in the May 2014 Amber Waves feature, "2014 Farm Act Continues Most Previous Trends In Conservation."
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services in all parts of the United States. For most U.S. agricultural programs, farmers who receive benefits must refrain from draining wetlands on their farm. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Wetland Compliance (WC), for the first time since 1996. ERS researchers examined the effect of premium subsidies on farmer’s compliance incentives under the 2014 Farm Act. (Because of data limitations, ERS researchers focused on States that include the Prairie Pothole region: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, where wetland habitat is critical to ducks and other migratory birds.) In Prairie Pothole States, WC incentives are strong. When the compliance incentive includes premium subsidies, an estimated 75 percent (2.6 million acres) of potentially convertible wetland is on farms where Compliance incentives (farm program benefits) are clearly large enough to offset revenue lost by not draining these lands for crop production. Severing the link between WC and crop insurance premium subsidies (while continuing the link between Compliance and other 2014 Farm Act programs) would reduce the number of potentially convertible wetlands with strong protection by 15 percent (from 2.6 to 2.2 million acres). This chart appears in the July 2017 report, Conservation Compliance: How Farmer Incentives Are Changing in the Crop Insurance Era.