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Rye and winter wheat were the most common cover crops on corn, soybean, and cotton fields

Friday, July 9, 2021

Cover crops—which farmers add to a crop rotation in between the planting of two crops—provide living, seasonal soil cover with a variety of benefits, such as increased soil moisture capacity, weed suppression, and reduced nutrient runoff. Researchers from USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) reported which cover crops were grown the fall before planting corn, cotton, and soybeans. For corn fields intended for use as grain or silage (the harvesting of the entire plant for forage) in 2016, more than 90 percent of acres with cover crops used a grass or small grain cover crop, such as rye, winter wheat, or oats. At 63 percent of acreage, rye was more than twice as common as winter wheat (26 percent) as the cover crop on corn for grain fields. Rye and winter wheat were also the most common cover crops on soybean fields in 2018. Winter wheat was the most common cover crop used on cotton fields in 2015. This likely reflects the role of wheat stubble in protecting cotton seedlings from wind and the potentially negative impact of certain chemicals produced by cereal rye on growing cotton plants. This chart appears in the ERS report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released in February 2021. It also appears in the July 2021 Amber Waves finding Grass Cover Crops, Such as Rye and Winter Wheat, Were the Most Common Cover Crops Used Before Planting Corn, Soybeans, and Cotton.

Cover crop use is more persistent on cotton and corn silage fields

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The use of cover crops on U.S. cropland increased 50 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to data in the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Cover crops—such as unharvested cereal rye, oats, winter wheat, and clover—are typically added to a crop rotation during the period between two commodity or forage crops. Persistent year-after-year adoption of cover crops (defined as 3 or 4 years of adoption within a 4-year crop rotation) can increase the accumulation of soil organic matter and provide a living, seasonal coverage of soil. Together, those two outcomes benefit farmers and the ecosystem. For example, healthier soils with consistent living cover can reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into waterways, increase soil moisture capacity, and sequester carbon. Among fields that adopted a cover crop in at least 1 year of the rotation, persistent cover crop use occurred on 69 percent of cotton acres (2015), 56 percent of corn-for-silage acres (2016), 19 percent of corn-for-grain acres (2016), and 32 percent of soybean acres (2018). Nationally, cover crop acreage has increased over time as conservation programs have promoted cover crop adoption through research, technical assistance, and financial assistance. Many of the fields with only 1 or 2 years of cover crops are those that started planting in the third or fourth year surveyed, suggesting that they may be new adopters. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States, released February 2021, and in the March 2021 Amber Waves article, Persistent Cover Crop Adoption Varies by Primary Commodity Crop.

USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in Kansas largely attracts participants with higher rates of groundwater depletion

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Agriculture in the semi-arid region overlying the High Plains Aquifer, which spans parts of eight states, relies on groundwater. In several areas, significantly more groundwater is extracted than is returned to the aquifer each year, leading to declining water levels. In Kansas, USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) specifically focuses on retiring irrigated cropland to reduce stress on limited water resources. To represent the amount of water that retired rights would have used in the absence of CREP, in effect the amount of use reduced by the program, ERS researchers used a group of 98 unenrolled farmers similar to 98 enrolled farmers based on factors like farm size, crops grown, and soil quality. Trends of unenrolled matched farmers are largely representative of the average unenrolled farmer in the Western District, where most enrollments have occurred, and which has experienced the most significant aquifer depletion. From 1996 to 2017, unenrolled matched farmers decreased their water use by 0.94 percent a year relative to 1996 levels, compared to 0.64 percent a year for the average unenrolled farmer in the Western District. Furthermore, although unenrolled matched farmers initially experienced more rapid depletion, declines in saturated thickness have been very similar for the two groups since 2008. This chart appears in the October 2020 Amber Waves feature, “Incentives to Retire Water Rights Have Reduced Stress on the High Plains Aquifer.”

Conservation spending remained roughly level in recent years, a trend projected to continue through 2023

Monday, October 5, 2020

USDA’s voluntary conservation programs form the backbone of U.S. agricultural conservation policy. These programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Conservation Technical Assistance. The programs help agricultural producers improve their environmental performance related to soil health, water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1996 and 2011, real (inflation-adjusted) conservation spending grew by roughly 50 percent, largely due to expansion of the major working lands programs. Since 2011, annual spending has remained between $6.0 and $6.5 billion (except in 2015) and is projected to remain within that range between 2019 and 2023. Under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the 2018 Farm Act), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates mandatory conservation spending of $29.5 billion over 5 years. This is about $560 million more than CBO’s projection of 2019-23 spending with the extension of the programs and provisions of the 2014 Farm Act. Although most conservation programs receive “mandatory” funding, the funding levels are not guaranteed and could be revised in future years. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Conservation Programs, updated September 2019.

Most land exiting USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program was used for annual crop production

Monday, September 14, 2020

Errata: On October 30, 2020, the Chart of Note was revised to correct shares of land exiting the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by land use category. Land used for crop land was corrected to 79 percent. Land used for trees was corrected to 6 percent. No other values were affected.

Between 2013 and 2016, contracts for about 7.6 million acres of land enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) expired. About 2.76 million acres of expiring land reenrolled in the CRP. Of the almost 4.89 million acres that exited the program during the period, 57 percent transitioned to annual crop production. At least half of the exiting CRP land transitioned to annual crop production in each of the four years. The most common annual crops grown on expired CRP land were soybeans (21 percent of the exiting CRP land that went into annual crop production), corn (16 percent), and wheat (16 percent). Perennial forage (such as alfalfa) and specialty crop (such as pecans) production accounted for 12 and 11 percent, respectively. Taken together, 79 percent of former CRP land was put to some type of crop production (annual, perennial forage, or perennial specialty) after exiting the program. The remaining exiting land was most often used as grass cover (14 percent) or tree cover (6 percent). Post-CRP acreage under grass cover may be used as pastureland or represent acres that are untouched after expiring from a grassland practice in CRP. This chart appears in the December 2019 ERS report, The Fate of Land in Expiring Conservation Reserve Program Contracts, 2013-2016.

A large share of land enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program was located in the Plains, from Texas to Montana

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 22.3 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of fiscal 2019. With an annual budget of roughly $1.8 billion, CRP was USDA’s largest single conservation program in terms of spending that year. CRP enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Voluntary retirement of cropland under CRP provides numerous environmental benefits related to soil erosion, water quality, wildlife habitat provision, and other environmental services. As of January 2020, total CRP enrollment was 21.9 million acres—with a large share of that land located in the Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land were found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta. Approximately 5.4 million acres will expire in September 2020. CRP General Signup 54, which concluded in February 2020, accepted over 3.8 million acres for enrollment in October 2020. Acreage continues to be accepted under continuous signup. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated March 2020.

The fate of expiring Conservation Reserve Program acreage varied with its conservation practice

Monday, January 13, 2020

Errata: On December 4, 2020, the Chart of Note was revised. The acreages shown in the figure were updated to correct an undercounting of roughly 188 acres of land that exited USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program over the study period.

ERS researchers tracked the fate of 7.6 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land in contracts that expired between 2013 and 2016. About 36 percent of expiring land (2.76 million acres) reenrolled into the CRP. Of the about 4.89 million acres that exited the program (i.e. were not reenrolled), nearly 80 percent of the land was put into some type of crop production—with the remainder going into grass, tree, and other non-agricultural covers. CRP land associated with tree practices was the most likely to be reenrolled in the program, at a rate of 47 percent, compared with 35 percent of land in grass practices and 29 percent of land in wildlife practices. Of land that did not reenroll, 77 percent of land in a tree practice retained a tree cover, and only 13 percent went to annual crop production. In contrast, 65 percent of land in a wetland practice and 59 percent of land in a grass practice went to annual crop production. This chart appears in the January 2020 ERS report, The Fate of Land in Expiring Conservation Reserve Program Contracts, 2013-2016.

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.”

Pasture, rangeland, and forage-area crops have driven the growth in insured acres since 2007

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.

2018 Farm Act maintains conservation spending

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.

USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program is regionally concentrated

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.

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."

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."

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."

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is regionally concentrated

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

As of the end of 2016, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 23.5 million acres of environmentally sensitive land in the United States. With a $1.8 billion annual budget, CRP is currently USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending. Farmers who enroll in CRP 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 the ERS data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated March 2017.

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.

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