Iowa farmers have substantially changed their tillage and other farming practices in the past decade to conserve topsoil, reduce nutrient losses and improve water quality, according to a new poll released last week by Iowa State University (ISU). The poll also showed that farmers have invested as much as $2.2 billion to make those conservation improvements.

In the 2015 edition of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which received 1,159 responses, farmers cited "stewardship ethics" as the biggest reason they were adopting these environmentally-friendly practices. The decisions to adopt conservation practices were also influenced by concerns about water quality and concern about leaving the land better for future generations, as well as economics.

Widespread adoption

"The results indicate that many farmers are adopting agronomic and conservation practices that are better for the environment," said J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., an ISU Extension sociologist who conducted the poll. "I just think we are seeing more emphasis on conservation. That was happening even before the nutrient reduction strategy was launched in 2013 and is continuing."

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said the new ISU poll captures the focus on conservation and water quality that he sees throughout the state. "It really shows that farmers are ready to engage in conservation and that their conservation ethic is a prime driver in what they are doing," Northey said. "We see it with strong attendance at conservation field days that we have around the state and in the strong interest in making more investment in conservation practices. It all shows that Iowa farmers are embracing conservation."

The ISU Farm and Rural Life Poll, which has been conducted by the university since 1982, showed that Iowa farmers have added to a wide range of conservation practices to save soil and improve water quality.

Specifically, the ISU poll showed that in the past decade:

• There has been a sharp rise in the soil testing and other methods to precisely determine optimum fertilization rates and to prevent over-applications. In the ISU poll, 61 percent of farmers said there has been a moderate or major increase in soil testing and other methods to determine optimal fertilizer rates.

• Along with testing, Iowa farmers are also using more precision techniques, such as variable-rate fertilizer applications, to apply the right amount of fertilizer at the right time. About 57 percent of farmers reported an increase in these precision practices.

• More farmers are moving away from nitrogen applications in the fall, with 36 percent saying they have made a moderate or major decrease. Conversely, there has been an increase of in-season applications which are designed to provide plants fertilizer when they best use them and can help reduce nutrient losses. Respondents reported those applications up 38 percent.

• More farmers are planting cover crops, with nearly 35 percent of respondents saying they’ve implemented a moderate or major increase in the practice.

• Those has been a gain in the construction of conservation structures, such as terraces, grassed waterways and buffer strips. More than half, 54 percent, of the respondents said they had increased their use of those conservation structures.

• The use of nitrogen stabilizers, which help keep the nutrients in the soil until plants can access it, is also increasing with 46 percent of the respondents reporting an increase.

Tillage changes

More than half of the poll’s respondents, 54 percent, say they have increased their use of conservation tillage methods that leave 30 percent of crop residue on the soil surface; and 46 percent have increased their use of no-till.

The ISU poll found that the biggest reason for the surge in conservation efforts was strong conservation ethics. Nearly half of the respondents, or 48 percent, cited those ethics as having a strong or very strong influence on their decisions.

Economic concerns were also a factor, cited as a strong or very strong influence by 43 percent. And concern about water quality ranked third, with 33 percent saying its influence was strong or very strong.

When asked about their motivations for environmental stewardship, the largest number of poll respondents, 81 percent, said they wanted to protect the land for the next generation of farmers. Other motivations offered in the poll that were rated as important or very important included:

• "Because it’s the right thing to do" at 80 percent;

• Avoiding polluting streams, rivers and lakes, also at 80 percent; and

• Protecting their investment in the land at 78 percent.

Conservation spending

The ISU poll also found that 88 percent of Iowa farmers said they had invested money in conservation improvements during the past decade. The poll asked farmers to consider all conservation expenses and all sources, including cost share from government programs and in-kind labor.

The ISU poll showed that 30 percent of the respondents indicated they had spent up to $5,000 on conservation and water quality practices, 18 percent had invested between $5,000 and $9,999 and 12 percent from $10,000 to $19,000. The poll also found that 23 percent of the respondents said they had invested up to $74,999 in conservation projects and 5 percent have invested more than that.

Those investments, Arbuckle noted, added up to billions of dollars when they are multiplied by the number of farmers in Iowa. Through an extrapolation process, the sociologist estimated that Iowa farmers had invested $1.3 billion to $2.2 billion, including their own funds, along with cost-share and in-kind labor over the past decade.

"Considered together, the data from this year’s survey shows that Iowa farmers have been making significant investments in conservation," Arbuckle said. "There’s still a lot of work to do, but the results indicate that things are moving in the right direction."

The entire ISU Farm and Rural Life Poll can be found at