Iowa farmers boosted cover crop acres by nearly 43% for the 2020 crop year and made steady progress in adding and maintaining other proven conservation practices, according to a new report that tracks ag retailer sales data to determine conservation progress in the state.

The annual report, developed by the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC), tracks progress farmers are making on a wide range of conservation practices that improve water quality and reduce soil erosion.

INREC gathers the conservation information using sales data from ag retailers and agronomists, working directly with farmers, to measure and demonstrate progress in conservation practices.

“The numbers show that farmers continue to make strong progress implementing practices that are known to reduce our losses of nitrogen and phosphorus,” said Shawn Richmond, INREC’s director of environmental services. “The continued growth of cover crops is very encouraging.”

The new INREC data showed that Iowa farmers planted 3.1 million acres of cover crops in fall 2019 for the 2020 crop year, equal to 13.3% of the state’s nearly 23 million crop acres.

A growing number of Iowa farmers are planting cool-season cover crops, such as winter rye, on their fields in the fall to help hold soil in place and protect water quality during the winter months.

Richmond noted that farmers have nearly doubled cover crop acreage in the four years that INREC has been gathering data on conservation practices. The 2020 total of cover crop acres is 94% higher than the 1.6 million acres planted for the 2017 crop year.

The gains in cover crops reflect the tremendous progress in cover crops throughout Iowa. Prior to the 2013 adoption of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS), Iowa’s cover crop acreage was estimated at only around 10,000 acres.

Another promising signal, Richmond said, is Iowa farmers’ increased use of nitrification inhibitors, an additive that helps protect water quality by keeping nitrogen fertilizer (commonly known as anhydrous fertilizer) in the soil until the growing season.

Farmers used inhibitors on nearly 84% of the acres treated with anhydrous in 2020. That was up from 72.6% in 2017.

The INREC data also showed continued gains in no-till farming practices on both acres being planted to corn or to soybeans. Farmers used a no-till program on nearly 37% of Iowa’s crop acreage 2020, a gain of nearly 10% since 2017.

No-till leaves crop residue on the ground, letting it break down into organic matter. This improves soil quality, naturally filters out nutrients from groundwater before it enters Iowa watersheds and helps to improve Iowa water quality.

The entire INREC progress report can be accessed at

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