ERS Charts of Note
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.
Thursday, February 18, 2021
According to USDA’s 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations, irrigation delivery organizations such as irrigation districts and ditch companies supplied an estimated 41.4 million acre-feet of off-farm water to U.S. farms and ranches in 2019. These organizations also delivered water to other customers: 2.3 million acre-feet to domestic users, 1.5 million acre-feet to industrial users, and 1.5 million acre-feet to other irrigation organizations. In addition, organizations intentionally released water from their systems for other purposes, including 3.1 million acre-feet for downstream users, 1.2 million acre-feet for managed groundwater recharge, and 1.0 million acre-feet to meet environmental requirements. Beyond these intentional deliveries and releases, a total of 10.7 million acre-feet of water left organization systems as conveyance losses, which represents water lost to groundwater seepage or evaporation during transport or storage. This implies an average conveyance loss rate of 16 percent. As the second largest outflow from water delivery systems, reducing conveyance losses is an important focus for water conservation efforts. However, hydrologic systems are complex natural systems, so conveyance losses in many cases provide benefits elsewhere in the environment. For example, conveyance losses may provide unmanaged groundwater recharge or indirect flows into surface water systems that can support wildlife habitat. This chart is based on data found in USDA’s Survey of Irrigation Organizations, updated December 17, 2020.
Monday, February 8, 2021
USDA’s 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations identified 2,543 irrigation organizations that delivered off-farm water directly to U.S. farms and ranches, including irrigation districts, ditch companies, acequias, and similar entities. Water is measured in “acre-feet,” or the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land under a foot of water. Irrigation delivery organizations obtained their water supplies, which totaled more than 70 million acre-feet, from a variety of sources. About 29 million acre-feet came from Federal water projects, which are large water storage and distribution systems built and maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Irrigation organizations diverted an additional 22 million acre-feet directly from natural water bodies, such as rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. The next largest sources of water were State water projects and private or local water projects, which delivered a combined 14 million acre-feet of water to organizations in 2019. Other water sources include water from other reservoirs, often owned by the organizations themselves (2 million acre-feet); water purchased or contracted from other suppliers (2 million acre-feet); groundwater pumped from well fields into water conveyance infrastructure (1 million acre-feet); water obtained directly from municipal and industrial suppliers (0.5 million acre-feet); and water captured from agricultural drainage systems (0.3 million acre-feet). This chart is based on data found in USDA’s Survey of Irrigation Organizations, updated December 17, 2020.
Friday, January 15, 2021
The 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations (SIO), jointly conducted by USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service, collected information about different types of organizations involved in the local management of water supplies for irrigated farms and ranches. Irrigation organizations directly influence on-farm water use through delivery of irrigation supplies and management of groundwater withdrawals. According to the survey’s data, in 2019, there were an estimated 2,677 irrigation organizations in the 24 States where most U.S. irrigation occurred. About 95 percent of these organizations—such as irrigation districts and ditch companies—had a primary function of delivering water directly to farms, typically through a system of irrigation storage facilities, canals, pipelines, acequias, and ditches. About 27 percent of organizations were involved in at least some aspect of groundwater management as a primary function, with 23 percent of organizations engaging in both water delivery and groundwater management. Groundwater management may include monitoring aquifer conditions, collecting pumping data, charging pumping fees, issuing permits for new wells, or overseeing aquifer recharge efforts. Some irrigation organizations perform secondary functions, such as delivering water to municipal and residential users (14 percent of organizations); managing agricultural water drainage (11 percent); and generating electricity (3 percent). This chart is based on data found in USDA’s Survey of Irrigation Organizations, updated December 17, 2020.
Monday, November 16, 2020
In 2019, Wisconsin’s production of fluid milk was second only to California’s. According to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin generated 30.6 billion pounds of milk that year, with milk sales totaling $5 billion. In recent years, Wisconsin dairy farms have been exposed to substantial weather volatility characterized by frequent droughts, storms, and temperature extremes (both hot and cold). This has resulted in considerable fluctuations in dairy productivity. Researchers from the Economic Research Service (ERS) among others, found that total factor productivity (TFP), which measures the rate of growth in total output (aggregate milk produced) relative to the rate of growth in total inputs (such as the number of cows, farm labor, feed, and machinery), increased at an average annual rate of 2.16 percent for Wisconsin dairy farms between 1996 and 2012. This increase was primarily driven, at an annual rate of 1.91 percent, by technological progress—such as improved herd genetics, advanced feed formulations, and improvements in milking and feed handling equipment. However, trends in rainfall and temperature variation were responsible for a 0.32 percent annual decline in the productivity of Wisconsin dairy farms during the same period. For example, an average increase in temperature of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit reduced milk output for the average Wisconsin dairy farm by 20.1 metric tons per year. This is equivalent to reducing the herd size of the average farm by 1.6 cows every year. This chart appears in ERS’s October 2020 Amber Waves finding, “Climatic Trends Dampened Recent Productivity Growth on Wisconsin Dairy Farms.”
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.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that agriculture and forestry together accounted for 10.5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. This includes carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with agricultural electricity consumption. The greenhouse gases with the largest contributions to rising temperature are CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). Globally, CO2 emissions are the largest contributor to climate change. However, the emissions profile for agriculture differs from that of the economy as a whole. U.S. agriculture emitted 698 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2018: 12.3 percent as carbon dioxide, 36.2 percent as methane, and 51.3 percent as nitrous oxide. Increases in carbon storage (sinks) offset 11.6 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Carbon sinks include forest management to increase carbon in forests, increases in tree carbon stocks in settlements, conversion of agricultural to forest land (afforestation), and crop management practices that increase carbon in agricultural soils. This chart updates data that appears in the Economic Research Service data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.
Monday, April 13, 2020
Under USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), farmers and ranchers voluntarily agree to implement specific conservation practices in exchange for technical and financial assistance. To study how well program incentives line up with participant motivations, ERS researchers collected practice status information about four years after the EQIP contracts were originally signed. Overall, most EQIP contracts were completed as planned—about 80 percent of conservation practices signed in 2010 were completed as originally specified by 2014. For the 20 percent of practices that were dropped, only about 40 percent occurred with the entire contract cancelled or terminated. Some EQIP contracts are simple (single conservation practice), but most contracts are complex (multiple practices). Simple contracts represented 5 percent of all practices on contracts signed in 2010, and slightly less than 5 percent of all conservation practices dropped by 2014. Complex contracts that were entirely cancelled or terminated contained 35 percent of all of the practices dropped (by 2014) even though those same contracts only represent 5 percent of all practices (completed and dropped by 2014). However, the largest share of dropped practices (almost 60 percent) occurred on complex contracts where at least one of the originally planned practices was completed as planned. This suggests that farmers’ incentives to complete conservation practices can vary within a contract. This chart uses data from the Economic Research Service (ERS) report, Working Lands Conservation Contract Modifications: Patterns in Dropped Practices, released March 2019. The topic is also discussed in the ERS Amber Waves article, “Partially Completed Conservation Contracts Reveal On-Farm Practice Incentives.”
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.”
Monday, September 9, 2019
U.S. farm output since 1948 has grown by 170 percent. Increases in total factor productivity (TFP), measured as total output per unit of total input, accounted for more than 90 percent of that output growth. However, TFP growth rates fluctuate considerably year-to-year, mostly in response to adverse weather, which can lower productivity estimates. Recent ERS research modeled a future climate-change scenario with an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and a 1-inch decrease in average annual precipitation. Results showed that the “TFP gap index”—the difference in total-factor productivity levels between the projected period (2030–40) and the reference period (2000–10)—varies by State. For some States, those climate changes fall within the range of what is historically observed, while for other States they do not, which accounts for regional variation. States in the latter category are projected to experience larger effects. The States experiencing the greatest impacts would include Louisiana and Mississippi in the Delta region; Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut in the Northeast region; Missouri in the Corn Belt region; Florida in the Southeast region; North Dakota in the Northern Plains region; and Oklahoma in the Southern Plains region. This chart appears in the Amber Waves article, “Climate Change Likely to Have Uneven Impacts on Agricultural Productivity,” released August 2019.
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, August 27, 2019
Droughts are among the most frequent causes of crop yield losses, failures, and subsequent crop revenue losses across the world. Genetically engineered (GE) and non-GE drought tolerance became broadly available in corn varieties between 2011 and 2013. By 2016, 22 percent of total U.S. corn acreage was planted with DT varieties. To better understand this growth rate, ERS researchers compared it to the adoption of GE herbicide-tolerant (HT) and insect-resistant (Bt) corn. Between 1996 and 2000, HT corn acreage increased from 3 to 7 percent of total U.S. corn acreage, while Bt corn acreage increased from just over 1 percent to 19 percent. By 2012, nearly 75 percent of U.S. corn acres were planted to varieties with at least one GE trait. In 2016, 91 percent of DT corn fields also had HT or Bt traits. Some evidence suggests that these three traits are complementary. For example, a corn crop will generally be less vulnerable to drought if it is not competing with weeds for water, and if its roots and leaves are not damaged by insect pests. This chart appears in the January 2019 ERS report, Development, Adoption, and Management of Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States. This Chart of Note was originally published March 21, 2019.
Monday, July 29, 2019
Droughts are among the most frequent causes of crop yield losses, failures, and subsequent crop revenue losses across the world. Farmers with access to ample sources of irrigation water can, at least partially, mitigate drought stress. Farmers can also plant drought-tolerant (DT) crop varieties—in 2016, DT varieties made up 22 percent of total U.S. corn acreage. DT traits improve the plant’s ability to take water up from soils and convert water into grain under a range of drought conditions. The use of irrigation does not preclude the use of DT corn. For example, nearly 31 percent of Nebraska’s irrigated fields were planted with DT varieties. Farmers’ decisions to irrigate their DT corn fields are influenced by many factors, including the extent of soil moisture deficits (if any), amount and timing of rainfall throughout the growing season, and irrigation expenses. However, most of the main U.S. corn producing States generally had higher levels of DT use on dryland fields. For example, 60 percent of non-irrigated fields in Nebraska were planted with DT varieties. This chart appears in the January 2019 ERS report, Development, Adoption, and Management of Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States. Also see the article “Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States: Research, Commercialization, and Related Crop Production Practices” from the March 2019 edition of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.
Friday, July 26, 2019
Excess nitrogen runoff from agriculture into the northern Gulf of Mexico is a major contributor to zones of reduced oxygen that pose seasonal dangers to aquatic life and fishing stocks. ERS has studied potential regulatory tools that could provide incentives to adopt nutrient-reducing management practices, such as requiring conservation compliance to qualify for USDA farm program benefits. ERS researchers explored the scope and effectiveness of a hypothetical “nutrient compliance” policy requiring farmers who receive Federal farm program benefits (including conservation and commodity program payments) to limit excess nitrogen fertilizer applications on land within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). The researchers estimated that 14.4 percent of farms in the MARB, controlling 25.1 percent of cropland, apply nitrogen in excess of crop needs and receive program benefits—but that these farms contribute 88.1 percent of all excess nitrogen applications in the MARB. The analysis suggests that 8.7 percent of MARB farms would be affected by a compliance policy that disallows application of nutrients at levels greater than 40 percent above crop needs. Both the expected compliance benefits to farmers and hence the effectiveness of the nutrient compliance policy are influenced by the chance of being found out-of-compliance through inspection and enforcement. It was found that as enforcement goes down, fewer farms and crop area acres, and less excess nitrogen are affected. For example, assuming 100-percent enforcement, the analysis suggests that 71 percent of affected farms would have an incentive to comply (because program benefits exceed nutrient management costs). With an enforcement rate of 25 percent, by comparison, the share of farms estimated to comply falls to 31 percent of those affected by compliance (or 2.7 percent of all farms in the MARB), and the share of excess nutrients that would be controlled falls to 15.7 percent. This chart appears in the ERS report Reducing Nutrient Losses From Cropland in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin: Cost Efficiency and Regional Distribution, released September 2018.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
Under USDA organic regulations, farmers who shift to organic farming systems must make changes across the spectrum of their production inputs and practices. Organic producers rely on complex rotations, cover crops, and nonchemical practices for pest and nutrient management, such as biological pest management. Practices associated with soil health—including the use of cover crops and rotational grazing—are more widely used in organic farming systems than in conventional systems. Nearly 40 percent of all organic field and specialty crop producers used cover crops in 2014, higher than among conventional producers (7 percent and 11 percent, respectively) in 2012. For livestock, USDA organic regulations require that organic dairy cows and other ruminant livestock obtain part of their dry matter intake, or forage, from pasture during the grazing season, while many conventional dairy operations did not use any forage from pasture as part of their feeding mix. Rotational grazing—managing where and when livestock graze to prevent overgrazing and to optimize pasture growth—is a soil-health strategy that is also used more frequently in the organic dairy sector. In 2014, 65 percent of organic livestock producers used rotational grazing, compared with 22 percent of conventional livestock producers in 2012. This chart appears in the May 2019 ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019.