ERS Charts of Note
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Monday, December 5, 2022
Farmers add cover crops to a rotation to provide living, seasonal soil cover between the planting of two cash (commodity) or forage crops. Including cover crops in a rotation can provide benefits such as improved soil health and water quality, weed suppression, and reduced soil erosion. Data from the field-level USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) provide information on which cover crops were grown in the fall before planting corn, cotton, and soybeans. Cover crop mixes account for 18 to 25 percent of acres with cover crops. However, the use of single-species cover crops is more common. For corn fields in 2021, almost 75 percent of acres with cover crops used a grass or small grain cover crop, such as cereal rye, winter wheat, or oats. At 44 percent of acreage, cereal rye was almost twice as common as winter wheat (27 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 2019. The original version of this chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released in 2021.
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
The share of acreage for major cash crops—wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton—that are planted using conservation tillage has increased over the past two decades in the United States. Conservation tillage, which includes no-till and mulch till, reduces soil disturbance and preserves more crop residue relative to conventional tillage, in which a plow or other implement turns over most of the soil before planting. Conservation tillage promotes soil health and reduces soil erosion and nutrient runoff. In representative surveys, farmers reported employing conservation tillage on the majority of acres of wheat (68 percent), corn (76 percent), and soybeans (74 percent). Conservation tillage is less common on cotton fields (43 percent of acres). No-till production, a type of conservation tillage in which farmers plant directly into remaining crop residue without tilling, has increased substantially for wheat and corn over the past two decades. On wheat acres, no-till increased from 20 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2009 before rising to 45 percent in 2017. For corn acres, no-till increased from 16 percent in 2001 to 36 percent in 2021, including a jump from 28 percent in 2016. Mulch till, which aims to reduce soil disturbance through fewer and less intensive tillage operations than conventional production, accounted for about half of conservation tillage acres on corn and slightly more than half of conservation tillage on cotton. Mulch till has trended upward on each crop except for corn over the past two decades, including a recent increase for soybean acres from 31 percent in 2012 to 35 percent in 2018. This chart updates information in the USDA, Economic Research Service bulletin Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States, published in 2018.
Monday, June 6, 2022
Conservation technical assistance is a service that helps producers develop skills and knowledge for maintaining the natural resources involved in agricultural production. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical assistance through several different programs. The Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program provides comprehensive planning services and technical support for the adoption of conservation practices across the agricultural landscape. NRCS also provides free technical assistance to producers and landowners participating in working lands programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that primarily provide financial assistance for practice adoption. Similarly, NRCS provides technical support for participants in land conservation programs, which provide financial payments to producers and landowners that put land into long-term conservation, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Finally, NRCS administers several science and technology programs, among which the largest amount of funding goes to soil surveys. Spending for the CTA program has decreased in the studied period (2002-2019) by 23 percent, once adjusted for inflation. On the other hand, spending on technical assistance in support of working lands programs that primarily provide financial assistance has increased over the period from $163 million to $761 million. Spending on technical assistance for land conservation has increased, and spending on science and technology has decreased over the same period. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report USDA Conservation Technical Assistance and Within-Field Resource Concerns, published May 2022.
Wednesday, June 1, 2022
USDA asked farmers to self-report soil and water related resource concerns on their cotton, wheat, oat, and soybean fields for USDA’s 2015, 2017, and 2018 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). USDA also asked farmers to report any sources of technical assistance which helped address their on-field soil and water concerns. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defines a resource concern as an expected degradation of a natural resource used in farming to the degree that its sustainability or intended use is impaired. NRCS provides free technical assistance both as a standalone service under the Conservation Technical Assistance program (CTA) and to support implementation of practices receiving financial assistance from programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Producers can also seek technical assistance from other USDA agencies, the Cooperative Extension System, or sources such as conservation districts or State agencies. According to recent ARMS data, about 67 percent of fields that received any technical assistance received it from NRCS, with 46 percent of assisted fields receiving assistance exclusively from NRCS. Twenty five percent of assisted fields received assistance from multiple sources. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report USDA Conservation Technical Assistance and Within-Field Resource Concerns, published May 5, 2022.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
Cover crops are an increasingly popular management practice that farmers use to provide seasonal living cover between their primary commodity cash crops. Farmers often plant cover crops in the fall to provide winter cover for soil that otherwise would be bare. Over the past decade, fall cover crop adoption has grown in the United States, according to data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). On fields growing corn for grain, one of the most commonly grown commodity crops, 0.6 percent of the acreage used a fall cover crop before the 2010 crop. By 2016, 5.5 percent of corn-for-grain acreage had a preceding fall cover, and by 2021, 7.9 percent of corn-for-grain acreage followed a fall cover crop. This represents a 44-percent increase in fall cover crop adoption on corn-for-grain fields between 2016 and 2021. The growth in adoption of cover crops on cotton fields is similar, with a 46-percent increase between 2015 and 2019. The ARMS surveys asked farmers to report on the cropping history, including the history of cover crop use, for each selected field. The average within-survey growth in cover crop adoption was similar for each target crop, as evident in the average year-over-year changes. A version of this chart appeared in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released in February 2021. This chart adds data for 2019 cotton and 2021 corn-for-grain fields.
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.”