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Conservation practices have decreased soil erosion on cultivated cropland over time

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.”

Shifts in payments for the top five crop management practices in USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program

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.”

Increased compliance enforcement would result in greater reductions in excess nitrogen applications

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.

No-till and strip-till are widely adopted conservation practices, but are often used in rotation with full-width tillage

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.

Regional strategies for reducing nitrogen loadings to the Gulf of Mexico differ according to how policy objectives are formulated

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.

Lower completion rates for contracted practices are associated with greater impacts on participant behavior

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.

The costs of reducing nitrogen discharges to the Gulf of Mexico vary by region

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.”

No-till adoption slows for some crops

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.

Conservation tillage is used on a majority of U.S. corn, soybean, and wheat acres

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.

Reducing nutrient loadings to the Gulf of Mexico most cost effectively would concentrate efforts in the Lower Mississippi sub-basin

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.

Prevalence of USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program contracts for conservation tillage varies by region

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.”

Conservation program spending levels off but continues shift to Working Land Programs

Friday, May 4, 2018

USDA agricultural conservation programs provide technical and financial assistance to farmers who adopt and maintain practices that conserve resources or enhance environmental quality. Although USDA implements more than a dozen individual conservation programs, nearly all assistance is channeled through six: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). EQIP, CSP, and CTA are often referred to as “Working Land Programs” because they focus primarily on supporting conservation on land in agricultural production (crops or grazing). The 2014 Farm Act continued to emphasize working land conservation. Between 2012 and 2017, combined funding for Working Land Programs accounted for more than 50 percent of spending in USDA conservation programs. This emphasis reflects a long-term trend—begun under the 2002 Farm Act—that increased annual spending in Working Land Programs. In 2017 dollars (to adjust for inflation), this spending increased from roughly $1 billion under the 1996 Farm Act to more than $3 billion under the 2014 Act. This chart updates data found in the May 2014 Amber Waves feature, "2014 Farm Act Continues Most Previous Trends In Conservation."

USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program continues expansion of financial assistance for cover crops

Monday, April 23, 2018

USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP). Two of the most popular EQIP practices for addressing soil-related resource concerns are no-till (or strip-till row crop planting) and cover crops. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Cover crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) are typically grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. Planting a cover crop can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Between 2005 and 2016, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased from about $5 million to more than $90 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till declined, in part due to increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment. The larger total annual obligations for cover crops in more recent years partly reflects the higher per-acre costs of implementing cover crops. This may include seed costs and the cost of removing the cover crop. This chart updates data found in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

Wetland Compliance incentives are strong in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services in all parts of the United States. For most U.S. agricultural programs, farmers who receive benefits must refrain from draining wetlands on their farm. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Wetland Compliance (WC), for the first time since 1996. ERS researchers examined the effect of premium subsidies on farmer’s compliance incentives under the 2014 Farm Act. (Because of data limitations, ERS researchers focused on States that include the Prairie Pothole region: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, where wetland habitat is critical to ducks and other migratory birds.) In Prairie Pothole States, WC incentives are strong. When the compliance incentive includes premium subsidies, an estimated 75 percent (2.6 million acres) of potentially convertible wetland is on farms where Compliance incentives (farm program benefits) are clearly large enough to offset revenue lost by not draining these lands for crop production. Severing the link between WC and crop insurance premium subsidies (while continuing the link between Compliance and other 2014 Farm Act programs) would reduce the number of potentially convertible wetlands with strong protection by 15 percent (from 2.6 to 2.2 million acres). This chart appears in the July 2017 report, Conservation Compliance: How Farmer Incentives Are Changing in the Crop Insurance Era.

Compliance incentives under the 2014 Farm Act would be lower without link to crop insurance premium subsidy

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

To be eligible for most U.S. farm program benefits, participating farmers must apply soil conservation systems on cropland that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Highly Erodible Land Compliance (HELC), for the first time since 1996. These premium subsidies account for a significant share of Compliance incentives—typically between 30 and 40 percent, depending on crop prices. The 2014 Act also included major changes in other Compliance-linked programs, including the elimination of Direct Payments, a large program under the 2008 Farm Act. On individual farms, Compliance-linked benefits could be higher or lower than they would have been under a continuation of the 2008 Act. Under the 2014 Act (blue bars), ERS researchers estimated that less than 10 million acres are on farms that would have experienced a 50-percent or larger decline in Compliance incentives between the two Farm Acts given crop prices similar to 2010 levels. If premium subsidies were not subject to Compliance (green bars), more than 40 million acres of cropland in HEL fields would be on farms where Compliance incentives would decline by 50 percent or more. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Conservation Compliance in the Crop Insurance Era."

Declines in pollinator forage suitability concentrated in the Midwest

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

About one-third of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators like bees. Managed honeybees in the United States alone provide over $350 million worth of pollination services each year. Pollinators rely on the land to provide forage, the pollen and nectar of flowering plants that pollinators feed on to survive. If forage is inadequate, pollinator health may be poor. ERS developed a forage suitability index (FSI) to examine how broad trends in land use have affected the availability of forage for pollinators. Findings show the national average FSI increased by about 2 percent from 1982 to 2002, due in part to the introduction of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in 1986. The mix of species farmers agree to plant on CRP land often improves pollinator forage. However, the national average FSI plateaued between 2002 and 2012. The FSI had a greater-than-average decline in North Dakota and South Dakota—the summer foraging grounds for many managed honeybee colonies. Decreases in CRP acreage and increases in soybean acreage, which provide poor forage for pollinators, helped drive this decline. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves finding, "Declines in Pollinator Forage Suitability Were Concentrated in the Midwest, the Over-Summering Grounds for Many Honeybees."

Conservation Compliance links crop insurance premium subsidies to soil conservation

Friday, September 15, 2017

Most U.S. agricultural programs that provide payments to farmers require participating farmers to apply soil conservation systems on cropland that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. ERS research shows that this provision, Highly Erodible Land Compliance (HELC), is effective in reducing soil erosion when the farm program benefits that could be lost due to noncompliance exceed the cost of meeting conservation requirements. Under the 2014 Farm Act, some programs previously linked to HELC were eliminated, while new ones were created. In addition, crop insurance premium subsidies were re-linked to HELC for first time since 1996. Twenty-five million acres of highly erodible cropland are estimated to be in farms with relatively strong Compliance incentives (rightmost bars) under the Act. Without premium subsidies, farms with this level of HELC incentive would include only 14 million acres of highly erodible cropland. By comparison, farms with relatively weak Compliance incentives (the second and third sets of bars) include an estimated 27 million acres of highly erodible cropland. Without premium subsidies, farms with this level of HELC incentive would include an estimated 45 million acres of highly erodible cropland. A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Conservation Compliance: How Farmer Incentives Are Changing in the Crop Insurance Era, released July 2017.

Almond producers accounted for 80 percent—over $280 million—of pollination service fees in 2016

Monday, August 7, 2017

Farmers growing crops that depend on pollination can rely on wild pollinators in the area or pay beekeepers to provide honeybees or other managed bees, such as the blue orchard bee. In 2016, U.S. farmers paid $354 million for pollination services. Producers of almonds alone accounted for 80 percent of that amount—over $280 million. By comparison, producers of apples and blueberries paid about $10 million each. Pollination services helped support the production of these crops—which, in 2016, had a total production value of about $5.2 billion for almonds, $3.5 billion for apples, and $720 million for blueberries. Between 2007 and 2016, the production value of almonds grew by 85 percent in real terms, while the production value of both apples and blueberries grew by about 15 percent. Over the same period, the number of honey-producing colonies grew by 14 percent. This chart uses data found in the ERS report Land Use, Land Cover, and Pollinator Health: A Review and Trend Analysis, released June 2017.

Conservation Compliance has significantly reduced water erosion on fields designated as highly erodible

Friday, July 28, 2017

Conservation Compliance ties eligibility for most Federal farm program benefits to soil and wetland conservation requirements. Under Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC), for example, farmers who grow crops in fields designated as highly erodible land (HEL) must apply an approved conservation system—one or more practices that work together to reduce soil erosion. ERS researchers used a statistical model to compare water (rainfall) erosion on cropland in HEL fields to similar cropland not in HEL fields. Between 1982 and 1997, soil erosion reductions were significantly larger in HEL fields (39 percent, or 6.6 tons per acre) than in those not designated as HEL fields (24 percent, or 3.9 tons per acre). The difference—about 2.7 tons per acre—is statistically different from zero, suggesting that HELC did make a significant difference in soil erosion reduction. During 1997-2012, after the initial implementation of HELC was complete, ERS analysis finds that these soil conservation gains were maintained. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Conservation Compliance in the Crop Insurance Era."

To promote soil health, USDA’s funding for cover crops increased ten-fold between 2005 and 2013

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Farmers can receive Federal financial assistance for implementing a wide range of conservation practices from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Adopting no-till and planting cover crops are two common agricultural practices that can improve soil health. Farmers receiving payments for no-till agree to plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Those receiving payments for cover crops plant certain crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) or a mixture of crops to maintain cover and add organic matter. Cover crops are usually grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. From 2005 to 2013, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased ten-fold—from about $5 million to more than $50 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till adoption declined. This shift in focus can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment and improving availability of cover crop seeds and educational materials. This chart appears in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

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