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Some manure nutrients produced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can be captured for later use

Friday, September 30, 2016

In 2010, to help meet water quality goals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted a limit on the amount of pollutants that the Chesapeake Bay can receive. Nitrogen and phosphorus, in particular, can lead to adverse effects on public health, recreation, and ecosystems when present in excess amounts. The EPA estimates that applications of manure contribute 15 percent of nitrogen and 37 percent of phosphorus loadings to the Bay. Furthermore, ERS estimates that animal feeding operations (AFOs), which raise animals in confinement, account for 88 percent of manure nitrogen and 84 percent of manure phosphorus generation in that watershed. ERS also estimates that about a third of nitrogen and half of phosphorus produced at AFOs can be recovered for later use. That adds to about 234 million pounds of nitrogen and 106 million pounds of phosphorus recovered. These nutrients can then be redistributed regionally to fertilize agricultural land, thereby lessening nutrient run-off problems in the Bay. The remaining nutrients cannot be recovered. Both nitrogen and phosphorus may be lost during collection, storage, and transportation; nitrogen may also volatize into the atmosphere. This chart is based on the ERS report Comparing Participation in Nutrient Trading by Livestock Operations to Crop Producers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, released in September 2016.

Some conservation practices are more widely adopted than others

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The environmental effects of agricultural production, e.g., soil erosion and the loss of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides to water, can be mitigated using conservation practices. Some practices are more widely adopted than other practices; no conservation practice has been universally adopted by U.S. farmers. Variation in conservation practice adoption is due, at least in part, to variation in soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and financial risk aversion. These factors affect the onfarm cost and benefit of practice adoption. Presumably, farmers will adopt conservation practices only when the benefits exceed cost. Government programs can increase adoption rates by helping defray costs. The potential environmental gain also varies—ecosystem service benefits (such as improved water quality and enhanced wildlife habitat) depend both on the practice and on the location and physical characteristics of the land. This chart is based on data from ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices.

USDA conservation funding shifts from land retirement toward working land

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

USDA relies mainly on voluntary programs providing financial and technical support to encourage farmers to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. In inflation adjusted terms, USDA conservation program expenditures increased by roughly 70 percent between 1996 and 2012. Much of the increases in real spending over this period occurred in working land programs and agricultural easements. Working land programs provide assistance to farmers who install or maintain conservation practices (such as nutrient management, conservation tillage, and the use of field-edge filter strips) on land in crop production and grazing. Agricultural easements provide long-term protection for agricultural land and wetlands. The Conservation Reserve Program—which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and encourages partial-field practices such as using grass waterways and riparian buffers—is still USDA’s largest conservation program, but has slowly ebbed in prominence. While real spending on USDA conservation programs rose under the 2002 Farm Act (2002-07) and the 2008 Farm Act (2008-13), the 2014 Farm Act reduced mandatory spending, and expenditures over 2014 and 2015 appear to be leveling off. This chart is found in the Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials data product on the ERS website.

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.

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).

Maintaining and restoring wetlands could remove nitrogen cost effectively over much of the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds

Monday, June 1, 2015

Every year, agriculture contributes an estimated 60-80 percent of delivered nitrogen and 49-60 percent of delivered phosphorous in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen in waters can cause rapid and dense growth of algae and aquatic plants, leading to degradation in water quality as found in the hypoxic zone of the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients have depleted oxygen needed to support marine life. Nitrogen removal is one of the many benefits of wetlands. An ERS analysis found that on an annual basis, the amount of nitrogen removed per dollar spent to restore and preserve a new wetland ranged from 0.15 to 34 pounds within the area of study (the Upper Mississippi/Ohio River watershed), or a range of $0.03 to $7.00 per pound of nitrogen removed. Restoring and protecting wetlands in the very productive corn-producing areas of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio tends to be more cost effective than elsewhere in the study area. The study suggests that if nitrogen reduction was the only environmental goal, these corn-producing areas would be a good place to restore wetlands. Hydrologic conditions in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds are unique, so the cost effectiveness of wetlands elsewhere is uncertain. This map is found in the ERS report, Targeting Investments To Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015.

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.

Costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary across the United States

Friday, April 10, 2015

USDA’s costs of restoring and preserving new wetlands across the contiguous United States range from about $170 to $6,100 per acre, with some of the lowest costs in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and the highest in major corn-producing areas and western Washington and Oregon. To analyze conservation program expenditures, ERS researchers generated county-level estimates of wetland costs for each of the major wetland regions as designated by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (outlined in black in the map), using primarily NRCS Wetland Reserve Program contract data. Variations in costs are driven by differences in land values and the complexity of restoring hydrology and wetland ecosystems. Information about how the costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary spatially (together with the relative benefits) can inform wetland targeting policies within States/regions and across the U.S. This map is found in the ERS report, Targeting Investments to Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015.

"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.

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.

Herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybean growers more likely to practice conservation tillage

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

By leaving at least 30 percent of crop residue covering the soil surface after all tillage and planting operations, conservation tillage (including no-till, ridge-till, and mulch-till) reduces soil erosion, increases water retention, and reduces soil degradation and water/chemical runoff. Conservation tillage also reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture. By 2006, approximately 86 percent of land planted with herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans was under conservation tillage, compared to only 36 percent of conventional soybean acres. Differences in the use of no-till were just as pronounced. While approximately 45 percent of HT soybean acres were cultivated using no-till technologies in 2006, only 5 percent of the acres planted with conventional seeds were cultivated using no-till techniques, which are often considered the most effective of all conservation tillage systems. Cotton and corn data exhibit similar, though less pronounced, patterns. This chart is found in “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops by U.S. Farmers Has Increased Steadily for Over 15 Years” in the March 2014 Amber Waves online magazine.

Crop insurance premium subsidies now subject to environmental compliance

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 2014 Farm Act adds crop insurance premium subsidies to the list of benefits that could be withheld for noncompliance with conservation provisions, further supporting farmer incentives for environmental stewardship. Producers who fail to apply approved soil conservation plans on highly erodible cropland or who drain wetlands could become ineligible for all or part of a number of commodity programs, conservation programs, disaster assistance, and now crop insurance premium subsidies. In recent years, the value of such subsidies has increased as premium subsidy rates, crop insurance participation, and commodity prices all rose. On average, the Federal Government pays roughly 60 percent of crop insurance premiums, and about 80 percent of acreage for all major commodity crops is now covered by crop insurance. In 2012, crop insurance premium subsidies were roughly $6.7 billion or about 60 percent as large as commodity, conservation, and disaster assistance payments combined. This chart is found on the Conservation page in Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications, on the ERS website.

Agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions disproportionately high relative to share of economy

Monday, June 2, 2014

The agricultural sector accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2012. Given that agricultural production accounts for only about 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, 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 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 5 percent. This chart is found in ERS’ Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated May 2014.

Funding for conservation shifts towards working land conservation under the Agricultural Act of 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Between 2014 and 2018, the Agricultural Act of 2014 calls for mandatory spending on USDA conservation programs to decline by $200 million, or less than one percent of the $28 billion (for the entire 5 year period) that the Congressional Budget Office projects would have been spent if the 2008 Farm Act had continued through 2018. However, funding will shift from land retirement and conservation easement programs (e.g., Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and predecessors) to working land conservation programs (the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)). Combined funding for EQIP and CSP is projected to account for more than 50 percent of conservation spending during 2014-2018. These programs (and predecessors) accounted for just over 40 percent of spending during 2008-2013 and 32 percent during 2003-2007. Although CSP funding will be higher during 2014-2018 than during 2008-2013, a large share will go to servicing CSP contracts signed during 2008-2012. Under the 2014 Farm Act, USDA can enroll up to 10 million acres per year, down from 12.789 million acres per year under the 2008 Farm Act (2008-2012). This chart is found in the ERS analysis of 2014 Agricultural Act Impacts.

Rural counties drive the 2000-11 growth in U.S. onshore production of oil and natural gas

Friday, February 21, 2014

From 2000 to 2011, onshore gross withdrawals of natural gas in the lower 48 States increased by about 47 percent, reaching historic highs in every year after 2006. Over the same period, withdrawals of oil increased by 11 percent, with much of that growth occurring between 2007 and 2011. Rural counties (nonmetro noncore) accounted for almost all of the growth in oil production and a large share of the growth in gas production based on newly released data from ERS on County-level Oil and Gas Production in the U.S. While just over 35 percent of counties in the lower 48 States reported some level of oil or natural gas production during 2000-11, sizeable changes in production levels were more concentrated. Interestingly, the number of counties with an increase in oil and gas production of $20 million or more over the decade (218 counties) was nearly the same as the number (212) with a decrease of $20 million or more. This map is found in the Documentation and Maps page of the data product County-level Oil and Gas Production in the U.S., and also in the Amber Waves article, "Onshore Oil and Gas Development in the Lower 48 States: Introducing a County-Level Database of Production for 2000-2011."

Crop insurance subsidies provide continuing, although uneven, incentives for conservation compliance as direct payments end

Monday, February 10, 2014

Under environmental compliance, U.S. farmers who crop highly erodible land without applying an approved soil conservation system or who drain wetlands risk losing all or part of many Federal agricultural payments. The Agricultural Act of 2014 makes several changes which, on balance, continue to provide compliance incentives. Direct payments, which were paid to farmers regardless of economic conditions, were eliminated, but the act makes crop insurance premium subsidies subject to compliance, along with other continuing or new conservation and commodity programs. In some areas (those where the ratio of average insurance subsidies to direct payments for 2005-2010 exceeds 100 percent), the loss of direct payments will be more than offset by making crop insurance premium subsidies subject to compliance. In other areas, where direct payments were large relative to premium subsidies, compliance incentives will depend more heavily on new commodity programs. This map is found in the ERS report, The Future of Environmental Compliance Incentives in U.S. Agriculture, EIB-94, March 2012.

The Conservation Reserve Program is regionally concentrated

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 26 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of 2013, with an annual budget of roughly $2 billion (currently USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending). 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 land is 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 are found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta. This chart appears in ERS’s data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

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