Straight From D.C.: Benefits of Conservation Agricultural Practices

Straight From D.C.: Benefits of Conservation Agricultural Practices

Conservation-savvy farmers glowingly tout the long-term benefits of their practices. “Our cost of production is far less per bushel with no-till,” says Ken Rulon, an Indiana farmer who has been using no-till for two decades. “Our soil is healthier, and our organic matter and earthworm populations are steadily increasing.”  

In spite of the benefits, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates U.S. farmers use no-till methods on about a quarter of cropland, but only about 6% is continuous no-till.

Other farm-level benefits from conservation practices include:

  • Reduction in fuel consumption (up to 66% from no-till)
  • Increased soil fertility
  • Increased production stability and yields
  • Lower production costs

Various studies have found consistently higher net returns from using no-till compared to conventional tillage, ranging from $5 to $20 per acre.

Use of conservation practices by farmers also generates benefits that accrue to the general public, including reduced soil erosion, decreased emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and enhanced water quality. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University, estimates if all U.S. crop farmers used conservation practices such as no-till and cover crops, they could sequester an additional 300 million tons of carbon every year. Since the benefits of such practices can’t be fully captured by individual farmers, the U.S. government is taking steps to encourage more farmers to do so.

In the past several farm bills, Congress has been doing exactly that by providing incentives and cost-sharing for farmers to implement and maintain conservation practices in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). For the five-year lifetime of the 2014 farm bill, the Congressional Budget Office has projected USDA will distribute $12 billion to farmers under EQIP and CSP.

In the past, rules of the federal crop insurance program discouraged farmers wishing to insure their field crops from using a cover crop for conservation purposes. However, after the severe and widespread drought of 2012, more farmers began to appreciate the benefits of using cover crops. 

A survey conducted under the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NC-SARE) program found corn and soybean fields planted after a cover crop in 2012 on average yielded 9.6% and 11% more respectively than comparable fields lacking prior cover crops. Subsequently, USDA’s NRCS and Risk Management Agency jointly developed guidelines for the 2014 crop, spelling out how to manage cover crops in conjunction with an insured field crop.

Several efforts are underway to shed more light on conservation practices, including ongoing work by the Conservation Technology Information Center and NC-SARE on cover crops and the soil renaissance initiative established by the Farm Foundation and Noble Foundation. The United Nations has proclaimed 2015 the International Year of Soils to promote awareness about the profound importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions. 

On Dec. 14, negotiators agreed to an international climate change plan in Lima, Peru. This is the first step toward reaching an agreement under which all countries, including developing countries, would settle to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers can play a positive role in this process by adopting conservation practices, while helping their financial bottom lines at the same time. 

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