Practices and strategies that minimize nutrient loss and soil erosion and increase soil health can have positive impacts on water quality while maintaining and improving soil productivity. The 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll found that many farmers have increased their use of key practices in recent years. Results of the poll were recently released by Iowa State University, which conducts the annual survey.
Farm Poll participants were asked about how their use of various types of tillage, nutrient management, pest management and other conservation and agronomic practices may have changed over the last 10 years. The list of practices was drawn primarily from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Farmers were asked to report whether they had made a major decrease, a moderate decrease, no change, a moderate increase or a major increase in their use of each of the practices.
It is important to note that the "no change" category could signify that a farmer had adopted the practice more than 10 years before the 2015 survey.
Farmers moving in right direction on key farming practices
“On the whole, the results indicate that Iowa farmers are moving in the right direction on most of these key practices,” says J. Arbuckle, associate professor of sociology and an ISU Extension sociologist. “Many farmers report that they are increasing their use of practices that can reduce or prevent soil degradation and nutrient loss, and reducing their use of practices that can have negative impacts.”
Nearly half of farmers surveyed (46%) reported increasing use of no-till over the last decade. The use of fall tillage had decreased, with 36% of farmers reporting a moderate or major drop in use of that practice, while 14% reported an increase in their use of tillage in the autumn months. There was a similar trend for spring tillage; 36% of farmers reported a decrease and 10% reported an increase in tillage during the spring.
More farmers are adjusting their nutrient management
Farmers also appear to be changing their nutrient management practices in ways that align with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy recommendations. The poll shows 61% of farmers indicated they had increased their use of soil testing and other related methods to determine optimal fertilizer rates. Additionally, 47% had increased their use of GPS-facilitated precision practices like variable rate fertilizer application, and 46% reported that they had increased use of nitrogen stabilizers.
The timing of nitrogen fertilizer application can have a substantial effect on nutrient loss. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy recommends that nitrogen be applied in the spring and/or during the growing season and discourages fall application. Results showed that almost a third of farmers have shifted away from fall application of nitrogen. Conversely, 38% reported an increase in the use of growing-season application of nitrogen, and 33% had increased their use of spring application.
Farmers also increasing use of other conservation practices
“Farmers often adopt practices on a gradual basis, trying them out first on a small scale to see if they make sense for their operations,” Arbuckle notes. “For a lot of the practices, farmers reported ‘moderate increases’ that may represent such trial adoption. It’s very important to provide information and technical assistance necessary to help them transform those initial steps into long-term adoption.”
Farmers reported changes in several other major types of conservation and agronomic practices. In the survey 62% indicated they had increased use of practices focused on improving soil health. Nearly 60% reported increased installation of agricultural drainage such as tile or ditches, 54% had increased use of structural conservation practices such as terraces, grassed waterways, contour buffer strips, and buffer strips along streams, and 35% had increased use of cover crops to some extent.
Still much work to be done to meet nutrient reduction goals
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to meet the Nutrient Reduction Strategy nutrient loss goals, and soil erosion and poor soil health continue to be major problems in Iowa,” Arbuckle says. “But results from the 2015 Farm Poll suggest that many Iowa farmers are taking important steps to improve water quality and reduce soil degradation.”
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.