As more farmers adopt practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy farmers, agricultural leaders, ag retailers and others are increasingly focused on measuring the effectiveness of the pioneering plan to improve the state’s waters and reduce nitrogen and phosphorus delivery to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Measurement is a big challenge that we face with the (Iowa) Nutrient Reduction Strategy, especially in convincing the public that we are on track," said John Lawrence an Iowa State University (ISU) economist and associate dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Farmers basically get one chance a year to change their cropping systems to reduce nutrient loss, but we all live in a 365-day, 24/7 news cycle and the public wants to know what’s happening right now."

All Iowans are beginning to understand that attaining the goals of the water quality plan will take time and will require significant investment, Lawrence noted in recent presentations to leaders of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and to an Iowa Soybean Association research conference. Still, it will be important for Iowa agriculture to show progress over time at improving water quality to maintain public support for the strategy, he said.

Measurement has always been a part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was launched in mid-2013 and was developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with technical support from ISU.

Collecting the data

The measurement of progress on the strategy’s goals goes beyond simply testing rivers and streams for nitrate and phosphorus levels, Lawrence said. It can take many years to show a decline in nutrient levels, especially in the larger rivers, such as the Des Moines or the Cedar, said Lawrence who led ISU’s work to build the science and technical foundation for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Nutrient levels in streams and rivers water can be also affected by weather, development and a range of other factors, he said.

In addition, Iowa’s famous deep, black soils are naturally very high in nitrogen and farmers’ practices are only a piece of what causes nitrogen to end up in the streams and rivers. That’s especially true in the area known as the Des Moines lobe in north-central Iowa. Average Iowa soil contains 10,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre in organic matter that converts to nitrate, far more than the 150 to 200 pounds per acre that farmers typically apply to raise corn.

So, instead of only measuring the water, it’s also important to measure farmers’ adoption of conservation practices, such as changes in cropping systems, the number of acres planted to cover crops or the number of edge-of-field practices installed, Lawrence and others say. It will also be important to measure farmers’ awareness of the issue and enthusiasm about adopting practices to improve water quality, they said.

"Ultimately we all want to see changes in the water. But we’ll need to see changes on the land before we see changes in the water," Lawrence said.

The key, he said, is obtaining the information on what farmers are doing on the land that will lead to improvements in water quality.

One information source is public money that is invested in technical assistance and cost-share by federal and state governments. Cost-share programs for conservation and water quality have been extremely popular in Iowa and are an indication that farmers are buying into the strategy, Lawrence said. In addition, federal and state agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, gather information as they work with farmers on conservation and other farm programs.

Getting non-public data is tougher, but just as important, Lawrence said. "We might know that a farmer got cost-share on 80 acres of cover crops, but we need to know if he planted his entire field to cover crops, not just the 80 he got cost-share on."

Ag retailers join effort

A new organization program called the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC) is designed, in part, to do just that.

INREC, launched in late 2015 by Farm Bureau and other groups, will work with co-ops nd other agricultural retailers across the state to develop, document and analyze conservation practices. It is designed to measure and validate the environmental progress that farmers are making statewide, as well as foster additional improvements and enhance the role of certified crop advisors and ag retailers as "change agents" to encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices.

The new organization, Lawrence said, will help collect data on farmers’ conservation and water quality practices that are done without federal or state cost-share funding. "It will help fill in a critical piece that is not available from public sources," he said,

A third way to measure what’s happening on the land is by asking farmers about their practices and attitudes about conservation and water quality, said J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., an ISU Extension sociologist who conducts the annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll. Results of recent polls have been positive.

The poll taken in 2014, with the strategy in place only about a year, showed that more than half of farmers were somewhat to very knowledgeable about it and supported the strategy’s goals.

The 2015 ISU poll, released in March, showed that 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. Soil testing, in-season fertilizer applications and other practices designed to reduce nutrient loss were also on the rise, the poll showed. In addition, the ISU poll showed that farmers have invested as much as $2.2 billion to make those conservation improvements.

In the 2015 poll, 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, concern about leaving the land better for future generations, as well as economics.

In addition, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has contracted with ISU to survey farmers in the key watersheds about their conservation and water quality activities.

"It’s clear that farmers are aware of the conservation and water quality issues and want to do more," Arbuckle said.

The public and private data on conservation and water quality practices, along with polls of farmers, combine to provide a deep reservoir of information that can augment water monitoring in Iowa, Lawrence said. "We have a lot of sources and tangible data that we can measure," he said. "That will help us assure the public that (we) are making progress."