Using a voluntary program designed to promote environmental improvement projects on working farms, Iowa farmers have partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to invest more than $500 million over the past 10 years on projects to improve the environment.

The nationwide program, call­­ed the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), provides technical assistance and cost share to individual farmers who step up to complete projects to improve water quality, reduce soil loss and provide other improvements. 

In Iowa, the program is building momentum. In the last four years, the NRCS has extended more than $135 million in cost share and technical assistance for EQIP projects in the state, according to statistics released by the state NRCS office. That investment was matched by farmers, who typically finance 25% to 50% of EQIP projects.  

EQIP was first authorized in the 1996 Farm Bill and has been reauthorized and modified over the years to include funding for a range of environmental improvements. Under the rules of the program, one-half of EQIP’s funding nationwide is designated to assist livestock operations.

That has worked well in Iowa and other Midwestern states with many livestock operations, said Jon Hubbert, the Iowa NRCS state conservationist. 

“The flexibility of the program allows us to adapt our work to the situation for each particular producer and their operation,” Hubbert said. “That allows us to match up the program with what the producer needs, whether that’s confined feeding operations or grazing.”

A focus on livestock

EQIP’s focus on livestock has been instrumental in completing projects designed to provide environmental benefits in Iowa, said Rick Robinson, conservation and natural resources policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. 

“EQIP has really been the workhorse of the NRCS conservation programs in Iowa over the years,” Robinson said. “For many Iowa farmers, and especially livestock farmers, the technical and financial assistance through EQIP has been instrumental in getting projects planned, funded and on the ground. It’s been a critical tool for water quality protection.”

The program, Hubbert said, has worked well in Iowa as many cattle raisers transition from outdoor feedlots to indoor barns or hoop buildings. Feeding indoors out of the elements both improves cattle performance and significantly reduces the potential for manure runoff, he said.

“We put a lot of emphasis on manure management, so a producer can use that resource as a crop nutrient,” Hubbert said. 

The program worked well for Iowa County Farm Bureau member Alan Mohr as he planned and completed a cattle barn at his farm near Ladora. “The office really worked with me on this, and the cost share through EQIP helped reduce the debt pain for us,” he said.

The barn, which was completed in 2018, has improved cattle performance and allowed him to capture more manure to use as a crop nutrient. 

“I’m very happy with the decision to build the barn,” he said. “The consistency of the cattle we are raising in it has been very rewarding.”

Brian Waddingham, executive director of the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF), said the EQIP program works well for some farmers, but doesn't fit for every livestock project. 

CSIF, a partnership of Iowa’s ag commodity groups, works with farmers to help them implement on-farm best-management practices that assist Iowa’s farm families in raising livestock responsibly and successfully.

As with all cost-share or technical assistance programs, there’s not one program that is right for every farmer. Some farmers, Waddingham said, find the requirements of EQIP too restrictive or worry about the time it takes to get a final decision from NRCS officials. In those cases, he said, livestock farmers often decide to look for alternative ways to finance improvement projects. 

“We always encourage guys to talk with NRCS as they develop their plan to see if EQIP might work,” Waddingham said. “EQIP doesn’t always work, but certainly it doesn’t hurt to talk with your county NRCS office to see if it might.”

Not a fit for every farmer

That’s been the experience of Brian Sampson, a Story County Farm Bureau member who farms and feeds cattle near Roland. He has used EQIP to help build a hoop barn to feed cattle and has a pending project to replace a barn damaged by the 2020 derecho.

“EQIP can be a good fit for a lot of people, but you have to have patience because it can take a long time to get answers,” Sampson said. 

NRCS’ Hubbert acknowledg­ed there has been strong demand in Iowa for EQIP funding to build confinement feeding operations, which is causing a backlog. “Right now, we are able to do more on the grazing side, because there is not as big a demand for those funds right now.”

Even if a farmer isn't ultimately able to receive cost-share funding from EQIP, the program can still help, Hubbert emphasized. “We can help them get the plan developed. That way they can get started on the right path on their project.”