Survey Shows Iowa Farmers Increasing Nutrient Loss Reduction Practices

Work still remains to be done to reach goals of Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

April 26, 2017, 2:48 pm | J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., Grant Wall

AMES, Iowa – The 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll examined trends in farming practices and strategies since 2013, the year that the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was started. The Farm Poll survey listed a number of nutrient loss reduction practices as well as some practices that are not recommended, and asked farmers if they had changed their use of the practices since 2013.

“For the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to meet its goals, most of Iowa’s farmers will have to continuously improve their nutrient management practices,” said J. Gordon Arbuckle, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University and director of the Farm Poll. “These survey questions give us an idea of which practices are being adopted more or less quickly.”

The results indicate that farmers are increasing their use of recommended practices and decreasing use of some practices that are not recommended. For example, about 26 percent of farmers reported they had increased their use of conservation tillage methods and 19 percent increased their use of continuous no-till. About 21 percent reported a reduction in fall tillage and 19 percent had reduced spring tillage. Only five and seven percent of respondents reported an increase in their fall and spring tillage, respectively.

“Reductions in tillage decrease soil loss, which means less phosphorus in waterways,” said Arbuckle. “Of course, there’s also the added benefit of keeping the soil where you want it – in the field growing crops.”

The poll also found farmers had increased their use of several nutrient management practices since 2013. The greatest change was reported in the use of precision agriculture practices such as variable rate fertilizer application, with 34 percent of farmers reporting either moderate or major increases in the practice. Soil testing and similar methods of determining fertilizer rates saw 31 percent of respondents reporting an increase in the practice while 27 percent reported increasing their use of nitrogen stabilizers.

Twenty-two and 20 percent of farmers reported an increase in spring or growing season applications of nitrogen, respectively. A decrease in fall application of nitrogen fertilizer was reported by 17 percent.

“Research shows that applying nitrogen during the growing season instead of the fall can reduce nutrient loss and potentially increase profits,” Arbuckle said.

A significant number of farmers reported increases in the use of other important conservation practices. Thirty-five percent reported having increased use of structural practices such as terraces, buffer strips or grassed waterways. Twenty percent reported an increase in cover crop use, and 14 percent indicated they had shifted at least some marginal cropland into other uses such as pasture or hay.

About 36 percent reported increasing their use of tile or other drainage practices, which can lead to nutrient loss.

“These results show positive trends in the use of practices that can reduce nutrient loss into waterways,” Arbuckle said. “Although the results indicate that many farmers are headed in the right direction, many more will need to adopt or increase their use of a diversity of nutrient loss reduction practices to meet strategy goals.”

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.

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