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Climate change is projected to cause declines and shifts in fieldcrop acreage across U.S. regions

Friday, September 9, 2016

Climate models predict U.S. agriculture will face changes in local patterns of precipitation and temperature over the next century. These climate changes will affect crop yields, crop-water demand, water-supply availability, farmer livelihoods, and consumer welfare. Using projections of temperature and precipitation under nine different scenarios, ERS research projects that climate change will result in a decline in national fieldcrop acreage in 2080 when measured relative to a scenario that assumes continuation of reference climate conditions (precipitation and temperature patterns averaged over 2001-08). Acreage trends show substantial variability across climate change scenarios and regions. When averaged over all climate scenarios, total acreage in the Mountain States, Pacific, and Southern Plains is projected to expand, while acreage in other regions--most notably the Corn Belt and Northern Plains--declines. Over half of all fieldcrop acreage in the U.S. is found in the Corn Belt and Northern Plains, and projected declines in these regions represent 2.1 percent of their combined acreage. Irrigated acreage for all regions is projected to decline, but in some regions increases in dryland acreage offset irrigated acreage losses. The acreage response reflects projected changes in regional irrigation supply as well as differential yield impacts and shifts in relative profitability across crops and production practices under the climate change scenarios. This chart is from the ERS report Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Adaptation in the U.S. Fieldcrop Sector, November 2015.

Land in shale areas more likely to leave Conservation Reserve Program

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil trapped in shale formations has diverse impacts on agriculture. Farmers in shale regions have the potential to receive lease or royalty payments, but may face competition with energy companies for labor, water, and transportation infrastructure, and may also have an increased risk of soil or water contamination. In addition, shale energy development may affect farmers’ participation in certain USDA programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP covered about 27 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of 2013, with enrollees receiving annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. About 28 percent of CRP land is located in counties that overlay shale formations (“shale counties”). From 2007 to 2012, the CRP exit rate (including early exits and non-reenrollments) was greater, on average, in shale counties than in non-shale counties. Early exits and decisions not to re-enroll could be due to a number of factors, including the placement of oil or natural gas wells, pipelines, and access roads through CRP land. For acres that exit the CRP, landowners must pay an early-exit penalty, which is the sum of all CRP payments received since enrollment plus interest. This chart is found in the ERS report, Trends in U.S. Agriculture’s Consumption and Production of Energy: Renewable Power, Shale Energy, and Cellulosic Biomass, released on August 11, 2016.

Major crop producers apply most nitrogen fertilizer in the spring and after planting

Friday, April 22, 2016

Efficient nitrogen fertilizer applications closely coincide with plant needs to reduce the likelihood that nutrients are lost to the environment before they can be taken up by the crop. Fall nitrogen application occurs during the fall months before the crop is planted, spring application occurs in the spring months (before planting for spring-planted crops), and after-planting application occurs while the crop is growing. The most appropriate timing of nitrogen applications depends on the nutrient needs of the crop being grown. In general, applying nitrogen in the fall for a spring-planted crop leaves nitrogen vulnerable to runoff over a long period of time. Applying nitrogen after the crop is already growing, when nitrogen needs are highest, generally minimizes vulnerability to runoff and leaching. Cotton farmers applied a majority of nitrogen—59 percent—after planting. Winter wheat producers applied 45 percent of nitrogen after planting. Corn farmers applied 22 percent of nitrogen after planting, while spring wheat farmers applied 5 percent after planting. Farmers applied a significant share of nitrogen in the fall for corn (20 percent) and spring wheat (21 percent). Fall nitrogen application is high for winter wheat because it is planted in the fall. This chart is found in the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

Southern regions in the U.S. have the highest rates of cover crop adoption

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Cover crops are thought to play a role in improving soil health by keeping the soil “covered” when an economic crop is not growing. Cover crops reduce soil erosion, trap nitrogen and other nutrients, increase biomass, reduce weeds, loosen soil to reduce compaction, and improve water infiltration to store more rainfall. The 2010-11 Agricultural Resource Management Survey was the first USDA survey to ask respondents to report cover crop use (findings from the 2012 Agricultural Census—the most recent available—are similar). Approximately 4 percent of farmers adopted cover crops on some portion of their fields, accounting for 1.7 percent of total U.S. cropland (6.8 million acres) in 2010-11. Cover crop adoption was highest in the Southern Seaboard (5.7 percent) and lowest in the Heartland and Basin and Range (0.6 percent each). This distribution is likely due to the fact that cover crops are easiest to establish in warmer areas with longer growing seasons. Limited cover crop use overall, however, suggests that the benefits of cover crop adoption are being realized on few acres. This chart is from the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

Tillage practices vary across the United States

Monday, February 1, 2016

No-till and strip-till are two of many tillage methods farmers use to plant crops. In a no-till system, farmers plant directly into the undisturbed residue of the previous crop without tillage, except for nutrient injection; in a strip-till system, only a narrow strip is tilled where row crops are planted. These tillage practices contribute to improving soil health, and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. During 2010-11, about 23 percent of land in corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat was on a farm where no-till/strip-till was used on every acre (full adopters). Another 33 percent of acreage in these crops was located on farms where a mix of no-till, strip-till, and other tillage practices were used on only some acres (partial adopters). In the Prairie Gateway, Northern Great Plains, and Heartland regions—which account for 72 percent of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acreage—more than half of these crop acres were on farms that used no-till/strip-till to some extent. Partial adopters have the equipment and expertise, at least for some crops, to use no-till/strip-till; these farmers may be well positioned to expand these practices to a larger share of cropland acreage. This chart is from the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

No-till and strip-till were widely used —although not predominantly— on U.S. crop acres in 2010-11

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

No-till and strip-till are two of several tillage methods farmers use to plant crops. These practices disturb the soil less than other methods, reducing soil erosion, helping maintain soil carbon, and can contribute to improved soil health. In a no-till system, farmers plant directly into the undisturbed residue of the previous crop without tillage, except for nutrient injection; in a strip-till system, only a narrow strip is tilled where row-crops are planted. Overall, 39 percent of the combined corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acres (the four most widely grown crops in the U.S.) were in no-till/strip-till in 2010-11 (89 million acres per year), with adoption rates higher for some crops. Farmers may be more likely to use no-till/strip-till on crops that are thought to be well suited for the practices (e.g., soybeans) and more likely to use conventional tillage or other conservation tillage methods for crops where no-till/strip-till management is perceived as more risky (e.g., corn). Some farmers may also vary tillage based on field characteristics or weather. Tillage practices are often part of conservation plans that must be in use on highly erodible land to meet eligibility requirements (conservation compliance) for most Federal agricultural programs, including commodity programs and (after 2014) crop-insurance premium subsidies. This chart is from the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.

More efficient irrigation methods are being adopted on farmland in the Western United States

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

About 75 percent of irrigated cropland in the United States is located in the 17 western-most contiguous States, based on USDA’s 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (the most recent available). Between 1984 and 2013, while the amount of irrigated land in the West has remained fairly stable (at about 40 million acres) and the amount of water applied has been mostly flat (between 70 and 76 million acre-feet per year), the use of more efficient irrigation systems to deliver the water has increased. In 1984, 71 percent of Western crop irrigation water was applied using gravity irrigation systems that tend to use water inefficiently. By 2013, operators used gravity systems to apply just 41 percent of water for crop production, while pressure-sprinkler irrigation systems (including drip, low-pressure sprinkler, or low-energy precision application systems), which can apply water more efficiently, accounted for 59 percent of irrigation water use and about 60 percent of irrigated acres. This chart is found in the ERS topic page on Irrigation & Water Use, updated October 2015.

U.S. irrigated fieldcrop acreage projected to decline under climate change

Friday, November 27, 2015

Climate models predict U.S. agriculture will face significant changes in local patterns of precipitation and temperature over the next century. These climate changes will affect crop yields, crop-water demand, water-supply availability, farmer livelihoods, and consumer welfare. Irrigation is an important strategy for adapting to shifting production conditions under climate change. Using projections of temperature and precipitation under nine climate change scenarios for 2020, 2040, 2060, and 2080, ERS analysis finds that on average, irrigated fieldcrop acreage would decline relative to a reference scenario that assumes continuation of climate conditions (precipitation and temperature patterns averaged over 2001-08). Before midcentury, the decline in irrigated acreage is largely driven by regional constraints on surface-water availability for irrigation. Beyond midcentury, the decline reflects a combination of increasing surface-water shortages and declining relative profitability of irrigated production. This chart is from the ERS report, Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Adaptation in the U.S. Fieldcrop Sector, ERR-201, November 2015.

Dairy production is concentrated in climates that expose animals to less heat stress

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Above a temperature threshold, an animal may experience heat stress resulting in changes in its respiration, blood chemistry, hormones, metabolism, and feed intake. Dairy cattle are particularly sensitive to heat stress; high temperatures lower milk output and reduce the percentages of fat, solids, lactose, and protein in milk. In the United States, dairy production is largely concentrated in climates that expose animals to less heat stress. The Temperature Humidity Index (THI) load provides a measure of the amount of heat stress an animal is under. The annual THI load is similar to “cooling degree days,” a concept often used to convey the amount of energy needed to cool a building in the summer. The map shows concentrations of dairy cows in regions with relatively low levels of heat stress: California’s Central Valley, Idaho, Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania. Relatively few dairies are located in the very warm Gulf Coast region (which includes southern Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida). This map is drawn from Climate Change, Heat Stress, and Dairy Production, ERR-175, September 2014.

While total acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continues to decline, land in "continuous signup" steadily increases

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Agricultural Act of 2014 gradually reduces the cap on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million acres to 24 million acres by 2017. CRP acreage declined 34 percent since 2007, falling from 36.8 million acres to 24.2 million by April 2015. Environmental benefits may not be diminishing as quickly as the drop in enrolled acreage might suggest. While initially enrolling mainly whole fields or farms (through periodically announced general signups), CRP increasingly uses “continuous signup” (which has stricter eligibility requirements than general signup) to enroll high-priority parcels that often provide greater per-acre environmental benefits. Conservation practices on these acres include riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, and wetland restoration. Riparian buffers, for example, are vegetated areas that help shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses by intercepting nutrients and other materials, and provide habitat and wildlife corridors. Enrollment under continuous signup increased by about 50 percent, from 3.8 million acres in 2007 to 5.7 million acres in 2014. A version of this chart is found on the ERS web page, Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications (Conservation).

Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Agriculture accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2013. Since agricultural production accounts for only about 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity. In agriculture, crop and livestock activities are unique sources of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, notably from soil nutrient management, enteric fermentation (a normal digestive process in animals that produces methane), and manure management. GHG emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990. During this time period, total U.S. GHG emissions increased approximately 6 percent. This chart is from the Land and Natural Resources section of ERS’s Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials data product.

Incentive payments often boost adoption of conservation practices

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, Congress provided an estimated $28 billion in mandatory 2014-18 funding for USDA conservation program payments that encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices. If farmers would have adopted the practice even without financial incentive, however, the practices are not “additional,” and the payments provide income for farmers without improving environmental quality. Some farmers have adopted specific conservation practices without receiving payments because doing so reduces production costs or preserves the long-term productivity of their farmland (e.g., conservation tillage). Many other farmers have not adopted conservation practices, presumably because the cost of doing so exceeds expected onfarm benefits, the value of which can vary based on many factors, including soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and risk aversion. Since the value of onfarm benefits can vary widely across practices and farms, identifying which farmers will adopt a conservation practice only if they receive a payment is not straightforward. Additionality tends to be high for practices that are expensive to install, have limited onfarm benefits, or onfarm benefits that accrue only in the distant future (e.g., soil conservation structures, buffer practices, and written nutrient management plans). Practices that can be profitable in the short term are more likely to be adopted without payment assistance and tend to be less additional (e.g., conservation tillage). Research indicates that the likelihood a payment will result in additional environmental benefit increases as the implementation cost of the conservation practice increases (such as soil conservation structures) and its impact on farm profitability declines. This chart is based on data from the ERS report, Additionality in U.S. Agricultural Conservation and Regulatory Offset Programs, ERR-170, July 2014.

Productivity rises in global agriculture

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

By using new technologies, farmers can produce more food using fewer economic resources at lower costs. One measure of technological change is total factor productivity (TFP). Increased TFP means that fewer economic resources (land, labor, capital and materials) are needed to produce a given amount of economic output. However, TFP does not account for the environmental impacts of agricultural production; resources that are free to the farm sector (such as water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity) are not typically included in TFP. As a result, TFP indexes may over- or under-estimate the actual resource savings from technological change. Growth in global agricultural TFP began to accelerate in the 1980s, led by large developing countries like China and Brazil. This growth helped keep food prices down even as global demand surged. This chart uses data available in International Agricultural Productivity on the ERS website, updated October 2014.

"No-till" practices are used on over half of major cropland acres

Friday, December 5, 2014

Soil health improves when farmers refrain from disturbing the soil. While no-till production systems are increasingly used on land in corn, soybeans, and wheat—the three largest U.S. crops by acreage—they are not necessarily used every year. Field-level data, collected through the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, show that farmers often rotate no-till with other tillage systems. Farmers growing wheat (in 2009), corn (in 2010), and soybeans (in 2012) were asked about no-till use in the survey year and the 3 previous years. No-till was used continuously over the 4-year period on 21 percent of surveyed acres. On almost half of the cropland surveyed, farmers did not use no-till. Some of the benefit of using no-till, including higher organic matter and greater carbon sequestration, is realized only if no-till is applied continuously over a number of years. Nonetheless, because tilling the soil can help control weeds and pests, some farmers rotate tillage practices much like they rotate crops. This chart is drawn from data reported in ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated in December 2014.

Per-cow milk production is lower in hot climates

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Above a temperature threshold, an animal may experience heat stress, which results in changes in its respiration, blood chemistry, hormones, metabolism, and feed intake. Depending on the species, high temperatures can reduce meat and milk production and lower animal reproduction rates. Dairy cattle are particularly sensitive to heat stress; experiments have shown that high temperatures lower milk output and reduce the percentages of fat, solids, lactose, and protein in milk. A 2010 USDA survey of dairy farmers shows how climate influences milk production in practice. For small, medium and large dairies, milk output per cow was lower in areas with high heat stress compared to areas with low or medium heat stress. In much of the United States, climate change is likely to result in higher average temperatures, hotter daily maximum temperatures, and more frequent heat waves. Such changes could increase heat stress and lower milk production, unless new technologies are developed and adopted that counteract the effects of a warner climate. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Climate Change, Heat Stress, and Dairy Production, ERR-175, September 2014.

Western U.S. irrigated agriculture is shifting to more efficient methods

Monday, September 8, 2014

About 75 percent of irrigated cropland in the U.S. is located in 17 western States based on the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (the most recent available), conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. While the amount of irrigated land in the West has increased by over 2 million acres since 1984, the amount of water applied has declined slightly as irrigation systems have shifted toward more efficient methods. In 1984, 71 percent of Western crop irrigation water was applied using gravity irrigation systems that tend to use water inefficiently. By 2008, operators used gravity systems to apply just 48 percent of water for crop production while pressure-sprinkler irrigation systems, which can apply water more efficiently, accounted for 51.5 percent of irrigation water use. In 2008, much of the acreage using pressure irrigation systems included drip, low-pressure sprinkler, or low-energy precision application systems. Improved pressure-sprinkler systems resulted in remarkably stable agricultural water use over the past 25 years, as fewer acre-feet were required to irrigate an increasing number of acres. This chart is found in Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands, EIB-99, September 2012.

Environmental vulnerability varies across the Chesapeake Bay watershed

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary, and its watershed covers 64,000 square miles across 6 States (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established limits for nutrient and sedi­ment emissions from point (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint (e.g., agricultural runoff) sources to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of a total maximum daily load (TMDL). Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrient emissions in the watershed. About 19 percent of all cropped acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are critically undertreated, meaning that the management practices in place are inadequate for preventing significant losses of pollutants from these fields. Critically undertreated acres are not distributed among the four sub-basins in the same way as cropland. For example, the Susquehanna watershed contains 69 percent of critically undertreated acres but only 41 percent of cropland. Targeting conservation resources to highly vulnerable regions could improve the economic performance of environmental policies and programs. This chart displays data found in the ERS report, An Economic Assessment of Policy Options To Reduce Agricultural Pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, ERR-166, June 2014.

Most U.S. corn acres at risk of nitrogen losses to the environment

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Corn is the most widely planted crop in the U.S. and the largest user of nitrogen fertilizer. By using this fertilizer, farmers can produce high crop yields profitably; however nitrogen is also a source of environmental degradation when it leaves the field through runoff or leaching or as a gas. When the best nitrogen management practices aren’t applied, the risk that excess nitrogen can move from cornfields to water resources or the atmosphere is increased. Nitrogen management practices that minimize environmental losses of nitrogen include applying only the amount of nitrogen needed for crop growth (agronomic rate), not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring, and injecting or incorporating fertilizer into the soil rather than leaving it on top of the soil. In 2010, about 66 percent of all U.S. corn acres did not meet all three criteria. Nitrogen from the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Lake States (regions that together account for nearly 90 percent of U.S. corn acres) contribute to both the hypoxic (low oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to algae blooms in the Great Lakes. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres, 2001-10, EB-20, November 2012.

Many factors, including conservation payments, influence the adoption of conservation practices

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Federal Government spent more than $6 billion in fiscal 2013 on conservation payments to encourage the adoption of practices addressing environmental and resource conservation goals, but such payments lead to additional improvement in environmental quality only if those receiving them adopted conservation practices that they would not have adopted without the payment. Some farmers have adopted specific conservation practices without receiving payments because doing so reduces production costs or preserves the long-term productivity of their farmland (e.g., conservation tillage). Many other farmers have not adopted conservation practices, presumably because the cost of doing so exceeds expected onfarm benefits, the value of which can vary based on many factors—soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and risk aversion. Since the value of onfarm benefits can vary widely across practices and farms, identifying which farmers will adopt a conservation practice only if they receive a payment is not straightforward, but research indicates that the likelihood a payment will result in additional environmental benefits increases as the implementation cost of the conservation practice increases and its impact on farm profitability declines. This chart is found in the ERS report, Additionality in U.S. Agricultural Conservation and Regulatory Offset Programs, ERR-170, July 2014.

Increasing U.S. organic food sales encourage growth in organic farming

Friday, July 18, 2014

U.S. organic food sales have shown double-digit growth during most years since the 1990s and were estimated to have reached over $34 billion in 2013. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, organic food purchases now account for approximately 4 percent of total at-home U.S. food sales. Certified organic farmland has also expanded, although not as fast as organic sales, as organic production of acreage-extensive feed grains and oilseed crops has lagged growth in other organic sectors. Fresh produce is still the top organic sales category, and California and other States that grow these high-value organic crops have experienced growth in organic acreage since the 1990s. Overall, acreage used for organic agriculture accounted for 0.6 percent of all U.S. farmland in 2011 (0.5 percent of all U.S. pasture and 0.8 percent of all U.S. cropland). Major retailer initiatives to expand the number of organic products they sell could further boost demand. The 2014 Farm Act includes provisions to expand organic research, assist with organic certification costs, and provide other support for U.S. organic producers. This chart is found in “Support for the Organic Sector Expands in the 2014 Farm Act” in the July 2014 Amber Waves online magazine.

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