Long-term practitioners of conservation agriculture speak glowingly of the benefits of their practices. Indiana farmer Ken Rulon has been using no-till for 20 years. “Our cost of production is far less per bushel with no-till,” he said. “The soil is healthier, and organic matter and earthworm populations are increasing.”
Unfortunately, like the prophets of the Old Testament, these farmers are often not heeded by their neighbors. In a typical year, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that U.S. farmers use no-till methods on about a quarter of cropland, but only about 6% is continuous no-till.
Farm-level benefits from these practices include:
- Reduction in fuel consumption ( up to 66% from no-till),
- Increased soil fertility,
- Increased production stability and yields, and
- Lower production costs.
Various studies have found consistently higher net returns from using no-till compared to conventional tillage—ranging from $5 per acre to $20 per acre depending on the crop planted and fuel prices.
Use of conserving practices by farmers also generate benefits that accrue to the general public, such as reduced soil erosion, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and enhanced water quality. Dr. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University, estimates that if all U.S. crop farmers used conserving practices like no-till and cover crops, they could sequester an additional 300 million tons of carbon every year. Since the benefits of such practices cannot be fully captured by individual farmers, it makes sense for the U.S. government to take steps to encourage more farmers to do so.
Over the last several farm bills, Congress has been doing exactly that, by providing incentives and cost-sharing for farmers to implement and maintain conserving practices through 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 (CBO) has projected that USDA will distribute about $12 billion to farmers under these two programs, the first time that more resources are available under working lands programs than for land retirement/easement programs.
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 a North Central Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program found that corn and soybean fields planted after a cover crop in 2012 had average yields that were 9.6% and 11% higher, respectively, than yields on 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.
Thanks to the diligence of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) at Purdue University, there are pretty good data on the utilization of conservation tillage practices by U.S. farmers over the last few decades, although CTIC has not conducted a full national survey since 2004. The recently released 2012 Census of Agriculture asked farmers about key land use practices. In 2012, the Census found that 34% of crop land was cultivated using no-till practices, while less than 4% of cropland was planted with a cover crop in 2012, slightly lower than the last time cover crops were reported separately, in 1997.
Several efforts are underway to shed more light on these issues, including ongoing work at both CTIC and NC-SARE on cover crops. In addition, a task force of the agriculture and food policy initiative AGree is exploring the feasibility of providing incentives for crop insurance program participants to utilize conserving agricultural practices in cooperation with several USDA agencies. A key aspect of the AGree effort is whether it can be established quantitatively that use of such practices as conservation tillage and cover crops contribute to reduced yield loss and yield variability. Farm Foundation, in collaboration with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, is leading the Soil Renaissance to bring attention to the critical importance of soil and soil health in meeting multiple industry challenges, including feeding 9 billion people by 2050. The economics of soil health and measurement of soil health are two focuses, as well as research and education.