Conservation in progress: Gains, but more challenges ahead

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2013 - Farmers have significantly reduced the loss of sediment and nutrients from farm fields through voluntary conservation work in the lower Mississippi River basin, according to a new report released by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Edge-of-field losses of sediment are down by 35 percent, nitrogen by 21 percent and phosphorous by 52 percent.

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However, significant conservation treatment is still needed to reduce nonpoint sources of pollution,

The findings echo some familiar conservation policy themes about the need for more conservation planning and targeting of vulnerable cropland to provide the most “bang for the buck.” But it also indicated that extreme weather in the region, with higher rainfall and more intense storms, leads to higher edge-of-field losses of sediment and nutrients in the lower Mississippi River basin than the other four basins in the Mississippi River watershed.

“Because of this, more soil erosion control and better management of nutrients are important in the basin,” the report concludes.

Model simulations show that an increase in cover crops will have a significant impact on reducing edge-of-field losses of sediment and nutrients and improve water quality.

The information in the report will help further develop NRCS' work in the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative and Gulf of Mexico Initiative, aimed at helping producers improve water quality, restore wetlands and sustain agricultural profitability.

The report is part of USDA's Conservation Effects Assessment Project, or CEAP, which uses advanced modeling techniques to assess the effects of conservation practices. The lower Mississippi report covers cropland in Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

"These assessments are part of the scientific backbone that helps us work with farmers to get the right conservation techniques on the right acres," said NRCS Chief, Jason Weller. "A focus on the most effective conservation techniques means that we're helping to deliver the best results for farmers and our natural resources."

Over the past few years, similar assessments were completed in the upper Mississippi River, Tennessee-Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas-Red-White basins. As a whole, NRCS says assessments in this project have shown:

    Conservation on cropland prevents an estimated 243 million tons of sediment, 2.1 billion pounds of nitrogen and 375 million pounds of phosphorus from leaving fields each year. These figures translate to a 55 percent, 34 percent and 46 percent reduction in sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus edge-of-field losses, respectively, compared to what would have been lost if no conservation practices were in place.

    Similarly, conservation has resulted in an estimated 17 percent reduction in nitrogen and 22 percent reduction in phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico annually. An additional reduction of 15 percent of nitrogen and 12 percent of phosphorus can be achieved by implementing comprehensive conservation plans on all cropland in the basin in areas that have not adequately addressed nutrient loss.

 

For the full 203-page report: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1176978.pdf

For an 11-page summary of findings: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1176980.pdf

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