Only 5 percent of U.S. cropland is planted to cover crops amid debate over their financial benefits to farmers. Congress may need to offer a "sizable" subsidy to growers if it wants large-scale adoption of the farming practice, said two university economists.
Four months after it announced a temporary rule change, the USDA said on Wednesday that it would alter crop insurance rules permanently so farmers can hay, graze, or chop cover crops at any time and still be eligible for a full prevented planting payment.
Extolled as a defense against erosion and nutrient loss during fallow seasons, cover crops are being planted on a larger portion of U.S. cropland than before, said USDA economists. Plantings expanded 50 percent in a five-year period, but still only 5 percent of cropland is sown with them—and incentive payments are an important factor in adoption of the practice.
U.S. cropland could lose two inches of soil nationwide by 2035 if climate change delivers its expected droughts and floods, said the Union of Concerned Scientists on Thursday. In a report, the group recommended such steps as crop insurance discounts for farmers who adopt practices that reduce erosion and improve soil health.
Since the 1930s, the government has relied on voluntary conservation efforts by farmers, often supplemented by federal payments, to reduce erosion and protect water quality. That approach is no longer sufficient, says the American Enterprise Institute.
"Simple and familiar conservation practices, if applied in the right places," are key to reducing worrisome levels of nitrates and other types of farm runoff in the drinking water of rural communities, says the Environmental Working Group. In a report, "Trouble in farm country," the green group said stewardship of all working land should be a requirement for growers who want farm and crop insurance subsidies.
Planting thin strips of native grasses and flowers at the edges of cropland delivers a broad range of conservation benefits— from reducing soil loss and runoff to attracting pollinators — according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Farmers taking part in a survey about cover crops reported a nearly 3-percent increase in wheat yields when cover crops are used in the offseason, says the Conservation Technology Information Center. This was the first time the survey compiled enough responses to calculate the impact on wheat; past surveys associated cover crops with higher corn and soybean yields.
A third of the Earth’s land is severely degraded and 24 billion tons of fertile soil are disappearing each year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that puts the majority of the blame on intensive agriculture. “The Global Land Outlook is billed as the most comprehensive study of its type, mapping the interlinked impacts of urbanisation, climate change, erosion and forest loss," reports The Guardian. "But the biggest factor is the expansion of industrial farming.”
“About a third of the world's soils are degraded because of soil erosion, contamination, urbanization and other issues,” but planting pulses like lentils and chickpeas could help, says Reuters, quoting a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report.
The election of Donald Trump means that environmentalists can forget about new, broader rules on land and water stewardship by farmers, said a prominent Republican farm leader. "Those new regulations are not going to happen," said Chuck Conner, who added that the 2018 farm bill would continue the system of incentives for voluntary action against erosion and polluted runoff.
Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve, the largest land-idling program in the United States with 23.9 million acres under contract, is becoming dominated by high-priority practices, such as filter strips along waterways and habitat restoration for wildlife. The USDA says it accepted three times as much fragile land in three years through the continuous signup option as it did in the first "general" signup, open to all landowners.
A variety of USDA programs will be tapped to provide $328 million in technical and financial assistance to improve water quality and restore coastal ecosystems over three years on agricultural land in the Gulf of Mexico area, said USDA. The strategy calls for conservation improvements on 3.2 million acres of high-priority land in 200 counties and parishes.
Voluntary soil and water conservation programs "aren't leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment," says the Environmental Working Group in unveiling a database that tracks federal conservation spending to the county level. EWG says Congress should require farmers to perform more stewardship work in exchange for farm supports, and focus scattershot conservation programs on the practices with the greatest payoff in the areas with the greatest need.
Wind and water erosion carry away as much as 40 million tonnes of topsoil each year, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in a report that lists erosion as one of several threats to food production.
Genetically engineered crops get undue credit for reducing soil losses on cropland, says the Environmental Working Group. In a three-page analysis, EWG says the credit really should go to so-called conservation compliance and the Conservation...
The trio of practices known as Conservation Agriculture can boost yields in sub-Saharan Africa, says a meta-analysis of 41 studies, but researchers say it may not be a blanket answer. Some 930 million people live in sub-Saharan Africa and two-thirds of them rely on small farms for their livelihoods. Over-grazing, fragile soils and growing aridity are among the problems facing the region.
Some 15 million tons of Iowa's topsoil washed into waterways from Iowa fields in the first half of this year, says the Environmental Working Group in a report that calls for more erosion-prevention work.