Farm and Rural Life Poll Examines Conservation Practice Use

Survey shows that many farmers are using or considering use of recommended practices


AMES, Iowa – The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented in 2013 and efforts to track progress toward its goals are ongoing. The INRS recommends that farmers use a number of soil and water conservation best management practices to reduce nutrient loss into waterways. The 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll asked farmers if they were using or considering use of many of those practices.

A list of 20 practices was provided and farmers who plant row crops were asked to select one of three responses: the practice was not used in 2015, no plans to use it; not used in 2015, might use it in the future; and used the practice in 2015. Three types of conservation practices were covered: tillage and cover crops, nitrogen management and structural practices such as buffers and terraces.

“The scientists who conducted the science assessment for the INRS have concluded that to meet targeted reduction goals, most Iowa farmers will have to increase their use of a diverse mix of practices that are appropriate for their farms,” said J. Gordon Arbuckle, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “This year’s survey tried to get a handle on what practices farmers are using now, and which ones that might be willing to try.”

Among in-field practices listed, no-till was the most commonly used, with 42 percent of respondents reporting employing the practice on at least some of the land they farm. Conservation tillage, excluding no-till and strip tillage, was second, used by 35 percent. Twenty-one percent reported use of cover crops on at least some land.

“Minimizing tillage and use of cover crops are effective ways to reduce erosion and nutrient loss while also improving soil health,” Arbuckle said. “Overall, about 57 percent of farmers reported using some kind of reduced tillage on at least part of their land.”

The survey also asked about nitrogen management practices that can reduce nitrogen loss. The use of nitrogen stabilizers was reported by 38 percent of respondents. Twenty-eight percent reported that they applied nitrogen during the growing season, and 15 percent used a variable rate N application. The corn nitrogen rate calculator, which was developed by Iowa State and partner universities to help farmers determine economically sound N fertilizer rates, was used by 18 percent of respondents.

“The INRS
science assessment estimates that farmers can reduce nutrient loss by about 10 percent by using the N rate calculator,” said Arbuckle. “They could also save money on fertilizer.”

Buffers along streams or field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff were the most commonly reported conservation practice, with 46 percent of farmers indicating they were used in 2015. Terraces were reported by 37 percent of respondents and 25 percent used in-field buffer strips. Sedimentation basins (18 percent), extended rotations (15 percent) and converting some cropland from row crops to perennial crops such as hay (14 percent) were also reported.

“The survey results show that many Iowa farmers are using recommended best management practices to some extent,” said Arbuckle. “That said, the majority of Iowa crop farms could incorporate practices such as cover crops and in-field or edge-of-field filter strips to further reduce nutrient loss, yet minorities of farmers report using these and other proven practices. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Arbuckle noted that the survey also asked farmers if they might consider using best management practices in the future, and results were encouraging.

“Many farmers indicated that they are open to the idea of using practices such as cover crops, the N rate calculator, and variable rate nitrogen application,” said Arbuckle. “That suggests that we need to continue to work with farmers and their advisors to help incorporate more of these practices into more farm operations.”

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been in existence since 1982, surveying Iowa farmers on issues of importance to agricultural stakeholders. It is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.