ERS Charts of Note
Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Recent ERS research explored how climate change could affect the cost of the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP). Researchers trained statistical models to predict crop yields from historical weather data, and used weather simulations from climate models to build scenarios showing how yields might respond to climate change. Economic models then simulated how farmers and markets might respond to changes in weather and yields. The study explored potential impacts in the year 2080, and compared climate scenarios arising from different projections of greenhouse gas emissions levels to a hypothetical future with climate similar to that of the past several decades. Under the scenario with moderate emissions reductions, in which farmers adapt to changes in climate with adjustments to what they plant, where they plant it, and how they manage it, the cost of today’s FCIP would be on average about 3.5 percent higher than under a future with a climate similar to that of the recent past. Under the scenario in which emissions trends continue, the cost of FCIP would increase by an average of 22 percent. The estimated increases in the cost of FCIP are an average across the climate models shown in the chart—some models are more optimistic, while others more pessimistic. Cost estimates are higher in scenarios with no adaptation. This chart appears in the ERS report, Climate Change and Agricultural Risk Management Into the 21st Century, released July 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.
Monday, June 10, 2019
Droughts are among the most frequent causes of crop yield losses, failures, and subsequent crop revenue losses across the world. In 2016, 22 percent of total U.S. corn acreage was planted with drought-tolerant (DT) varieties. DT traits improve the plant’s ability to take water up from soils and convert water into plant matter. This creates a natural link between DT corn adoption and use of other water-management practices in corn production, such as conservation tillage and irrigation. Minimal disturbance of soils through conservation tillage makes more water available to the crop by reducing evaporation. No-till management—a conservation practice in which farmers do not disturb soils using tillage operations—was used on 41 percent of DT corn fields in 2016, compared to 28 percent of non-DT corn fields. Overall, conservation tillage (including no-till) was used on 62 percent of DT corn fields and 53 percent of non-DT corn fields that year. The higher adoption rates for DT corn suggest that producers may be using conservation tillage to complement the DT corn’s ability to conserve water. 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.
Thursday, May 2, 2019
Tillage—the mechanical manipulation of the soil—helps to prepare the soil for planting, control weeds, incorporate surface-applied manure or fertilizer, and encourage soil warming for early planting. In recent decades, some farmers have eliminated the use of tillage altogether using “no-till” methods, or limited tillage to narrow strips where row-crops will be planted using “strip-till” methods. No-till and strip-till minimize soil disturbance and keep crop residue on the soil surface to reduce erosion and conserve soil moisture. Recent ERS research shows that many farmers who use no-till or strip-till often alternate these practices with full-width tillage (tilling the entire soil surface). On land where corn was planted in 2016, for example, no-till or strip till was used continuously during 2013–2016 on 18 percent, no-till or strip-till was used alternately with full width tillage on 27 percent, and full-width tillage was used continuously on 55 percent. The exact mix of tillage practices varied across the surveys. One reason farmers alternate tillage practices is because of crop rotation. For example, corn and soybeans are often grown in rotation, but farmers used no-till or strip-till more often for soybeans (about 34 percent in 2012) than for corn (27 percent in 2016). In many cases, farmers use no-till when growing soybeans, but use full-width tillage when growing corn. This chart appears in the ERS report, Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States, released September 2018.
Monday, April 22, 2019
Every summer, a “hypoxic zone” forms in the Gulf of Mexico where dissolved oxygen is too low for many aquatic species to survive. This zone is fueled by nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin, a region containing about 70 percent of U.S. cropland. Recent ERS research modeled two scenarios for reducing nitrogen loadings to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent. The Gulf Constraint scenario reduces nitrogen loadings at the lowest cost, without consideration of the regional origin of nutrients. The greatest nitrogen reductions would occur in the Lower Mississippi sub-basin (reduced to 72 percent of the baseline amount) and in the Ohio sub-basin (43 percent). Because these regions are relatively close to the Gulf and have relatively high baseline nitrogen discharges per acre (i.e., high potential to reduce discharges by adopting low-cost conservation practices), the estimated cost of reducing nitrogen loadings originating here is generally lower than elsewhere. On the other hand, the Regional Constraints scenario evenly reduces nitrogen loadings by 45 percent from each of the sub-basins. Under the Regional scenario, total edge-of-field nitrogen reductions (and aggregate costs) are projected to rise relative to the Gulf scenario for the Tennessee, Upper Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas-White-Red sub-basins and drop for the Lower Mississippi region. 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.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other USDA working lands programs provide payments to farmers and ranchers who sign contracts to adopt certain conservation practices. Most contracted practices are implemented as planned. But some types of practices, such as installation of field borders and filter strips, are less likely to be completed. While USDA can reallocate funding that would have gone toward uncompleted practices, modifying contracts requires additional USDA staff resources and leads to delays in getting conservation efforts on the ground. However, there is a tradeoff between practices that have higher rates of completion and practices that have higher rates of “additionality.” Additionality is a measure of payment effectiveness that estimates the percentage of producers who adopted the practices because of the financial assistance. This research shows that practices that are less likely to be completed tend to have higher additionality. All efforts to incentivize behavior face a challenge in achieving greater additionality because it is difficult for program managers to observe the private incentives to adopt practices in the absence of payments. The tradeoff between additionality and completion rates is a direct reflection of these hidden incentives. One implication of this research is that practice completion rates, which can be easily calculated using program administrative data, could be used as an indirect measure of additionality. This chart appears in the ERS report, Working Lands Conservation Contract Modifications: Patterns in Dropped Practices, released March 2019.
Thursday, March 21, 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.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
The 2018 Farm Act continues to emphasize support for farm risk management and to expand coverage within the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) that was established in the 2014 Farm Act. Since 2007, the largest growth in insured acres has come from the introduction of coverage for pasture, rangeland, and forage areas. The 2018 Farm Act introduces a catastrophic coverage option for these policies, which is likely to further increase the total acres insured for pasture, rangeland, and forage areas. Premiums for catastrophic coverage policies are fully subsidized (farmers pay no premium, only an administrative fee), while higher levels of coverage are only partially subsidized (farmers pay part of the premium). The availability of cheaper policies may induce additional participation in FCIP. However, the county base values that are used to assess the economic value of insured production covered by pasture, rangeland, and forage policies will be lower in the 2019 crop year than in previous years. In turn, this decrease lowers the value of insured hay and forage production and may reduce the demand for pasture, rangeland, and forage area policies. This chart appears in the ERS crop insurance topic page of The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, published February 2019.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Voluntary conservation incentive programs are the backbone of U.S. agricultural conservation policy. For fiscal years 2019 to 2023, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects mandatory spending on conservation programs under the 2018 Farm Act would be $555 million higher than baseline (projected) spending if the previous 2014 Farm Act had remained in force. That represents an increase of about 2 percent. Nearly all of this spending will flow through five programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program. For these programs and their predecessors, inflation-adjusted spending increased under both the 2002 and 2008 Farm Acts (2002-2013) but was lower under the 2014 Farm Act (2014-2018). CBO projections suggest that the 2018 Farm Act will provide slightly higher funding, on average, than the 2014 Farm Act. Although program funding is mandatory and does not require appropriations, spending in future years is subject to congressional review and has sometimes been reduced from levels specified in the Farm Acts. This chart appears in the ERS topic page The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, updated February 2019.
Monday, February 4, 2019
Droughts have been among the most significant causes of crop yield reductions and losses for centuries. Most crop farmers have limited options to reduce the damaging physical effects of drought. Although Federal disaster program and crop insurance payments tend to be higher during droughts, they typically do not fully compensate farmers for drought-related losses. Farmers with access to ample sources of irrigation water can, at least partially, mitigate drought stress: irrigation both provides water and cools the crop. However, many water-intensive crops, including corn, are mostly grown on non-irrigated cropland. Drought-tolerant (DT) corn was commercially introduced in 2011. By 2016, DT corn acreage made up 22 percent of total U.S. planted corn acreage, with the highest shares in drought-prone Nebraska (42 percent) and Kansas (39 percent). Regional differences in drought severity and how recently farmers had experienced drought significantly influenced the adoption of DT corn. For example, States with counties that had experienced at least one severe-or-worse drought between 2011 and 2015 had adoption rates of at least 25 percent. Northern corn-producing States—such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan—experienced less severe droughts during this time period and had lower adoption rates, ranging from 14 to 20 percent. This chart appears in the January 2019 ERS report, Development, Adoption, and Management of Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Every summer, a large area forms in the Gulf of Mexico where dissolved oxygen is too low for many aquatic species to survive. This “hypoxic zone” is fueled by nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), a region containing about 70 percent of U.S. cropland. Implementing a cost-effective strategy to reduce nutrients arriving at the Gulf by 45 percent would involve a range of land-use reallocations and conservation practices within the MARB. ERS researchers estimated that the most cost-effective practice would generally be optimally placed wetland restoration, especially in the Lower Mississippi and Tennessee sub-basins. Buffers would also generally be more cost effective than on-field practices because they treat nutrient loss from their surrounding areas. However, the terrain within the MARB offers limited opportunities for buffer and optimal wetland placement. Drainage water management, nutrient management, and cover crops (when used with structural erosion controls) were also generally more cost effective than the other practices and combinations of practices as detailed in the chart legend. The lowest nitrogen reduction costs per pound discharged to the Gulf were estimated to occur in the Lower Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio sub-basins. This chart appears in the September 2018 Amber Waves feature, “Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Cropland Nutrient Deliveries to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Monday, December 3, 2018
As of the end of fiscal year 2017, USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered 23.4 million acres of environmentally sensitive land. With an annual budget of $1.8 billion, CRP was USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending at that time. Enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Program acreage tends to be concentrated on marginally productive cropland that is susceptible to erosion by wind or rainfall. A large share of CRP acreage is located in the Great Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land are found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, southern Idaho, and the Mississippi Delta. This chart appears in the ERS data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated October 2018.
Friday, November 23, 2018
Conservation tillage reduces soil disturbance and keeps soil covered, thereby conserving soil moisture and lessening erosion. When used in conjunction with other practices, it can also help promote soil health. No-till, a type of conservation tillage where farmers plant directly into remaining crop residue without tilling, accounted for the majority of conservation tillage acreage for wheat (45 percent of total acres) in 2017 and soybeans (40 percent of total acres) in 2012. ERS researchers found that adoption of no-till, in general, increased from 2000 to 2007—particularly for wheat (2004-2009) and soybeans (2002-2006). In later periods, no-till adoption increased more slowly for wheat (2009-2017) and may have declined for soybeans (2006-2012) and cotton (2007-2015). Data for corn indicate only modest gains in adoption of no-till between 2005 and 2016. This chart appears in the ERS report, Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States, released in September 2018.
Friday, September 28, 2018
Conservation tillage helps protect soil by reducing soil disturbance and keeping the soil covered. These actions conserve soil moisture, reduce soil erosion, and, when used in conjunction with other practices, can help promote soil health. Healthy soils can improve environmental outcomes and benefit farmers. For example, greater rainfall infiltration and soil water-holding capacity can reduce runoff of sediment and nutrients while increasing drought resilience. Based on the most recent surveys, conservation tillage was used on a majority of wheat (67 percent), corn (65 percent), and soybeans (70 percent). However, conservation tillage was used on just 40 percent of cotton acres. No-till production, a type of conservation tillage where farmers plant directly into remaining crop residue without tilling, accounted for the majority of conservation tillage acres on wheat (45 percent of total acres) and soybeans (40 percent). Almost 50 percent of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acreage was in no-till or strip-till—a mulch till method where tillage occurs in a narrow strip where seeds are planted—at some time over a 4-year period (the survey year and 3 previous years). However, only about 20 percent of these acres were in no-till or strip-till all 4 years. This chart appears in the ERS report, Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States, released September 2018.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Every summer, a large area forms in the Gulf of Mexico where dissolved oxygen is too low for many aquatic species to survive. This “hypoxic zone” is fueled by nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), a region containing about 70 percent of U.S. cropland. Recent ERS research estimated that the least-cost strategy for reducing nutrient deliveries to the Gulf from cropland in the MARB would focus a large share of the nutrient-reducing practices and cropping changes in the Lower Mississippi sub-basin. Almost half of nitrogen (44 percent) and phosphorus (46 percent) reductions under the least-cost scenario would come from the Lower Mississippi. Although the baseline analysis estimates that agriculture in the Upper Mississippi sub-basin delivers the most nitrogen to the Gulf relative to other sub-basins (over 32 percent), the Lower Mississippi sub-basin’s proximity to the Gulf means that a higher percentage of nutrient losses there reaches the Gulf than from fields farther upstream. The Lower Mississippi was estimated to have relatively high per-acre nutrient losses and deliveries to the Gulf, as well as the lowest per-pound costs of reducing nitrogen deliveries for almost all conservation practices analyzed. 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, September 12, 2018
USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Conservation tillage practices—including no-till, strip-till row crop planting, and mulch till—can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Strip tillage disturbs only the soil within the planting row, while mulch tillage minimizes soil disturbance and distributes crop residue. Between 2011 and 2016, the prevalence of EQIP contracts that included conservation tillage practices (as defined in the note) varied regionally. For example, the share was relatively high in North Dakota and northern Iowa, but much lower in neighboring counties in South Dakota. These variations may be due to underlying differences in regional adoption patterns, as well as differences in State and local funding priorities through EQIP. This chart updates data found in the April 2013 ERS report, “The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation.”
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Native grasses, including switchgrass, have extensive root networks that reach deep into the soil—increasing water filtration, nutrient holding capacity, and erosion control. Switchgrass also offers a potential renewable source for liquid fuels or bioelectricity, but is not currently widely grown. An ERS study simulated the effects on agricultural land use and on the environment of growing enough switchgrass to generate 250 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually—approximately the amount generated by U.S. hydropower today. Switchgrass is expected to be grown in regions that have high switchgrass yields, but relatively low yields of food crops or hay. The Northern Plains (NP) and Appalachia (AP) would provide two-thirds of total land planted in switchgrass. As switchgrass acreage increases and displaces non-energy crops, nitrogen fertilizer applied per acre of non-energy crop increases. All regions would experience increased nitrogen application per cropland acre, except the Pacific region (PA), which shows a small decrease. However, the overall effect of planting more switchgrass would be to retain more nitrogen nutrient and reduce nitrogen runoff into water bodies. The amount of nitrogen lost to water is expected to decline compared with the baseline scenario by about 4 percent nationally, with declines experienced in 7 of 10 regions. This chart is derived from the January 2017 ERS report, Dedicated Energy Crops and Competition for Agricultural Land.
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
As late as 1988, pollination services accounted for only 11 percent of beekeeper revenue, with the majority of revenue coming from honey sales. In 2016, that share had risen to 41 percent, slightly surpassing revenue from honey sales. The relatively recent increase in pollination service revenue mainly stems from the dramatic growth in acreage for almonds. Compared with other crops, almonds require more honey bee colonies per acre for pollination and suffer greater yield losses without insect pollination. Beekeeper surveys in California and the Pacific Northwest indicate that, until 2004, almond pollination fees were only slightly higher than fees for other crops. From 2004 to 2006, however, almond pollination service fees more than doubled and, after receding slightly, remained high through 2016. Recent data show almond farmers paid $165 per colony rented in 2016, roughly triple the average of $55 for other crops. This chart appears in the July 2018 Amber Waves Finding, “Driven by Almonds, Pollination Services Now Exceed Honey as a Source of Beekeeper Revenue.”