Iowa farmers are significantly increasing the use of conservation practices geared toward achieving the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, according to a new Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll released last week.

The survey showed nearly 34 percent of farmers have increased their use of precision agriculture practices such as variable rate fertilizer since 2013, when the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented, according to Iowa State University Extension sociologist J. Gordon Arbuckle, who coordinates the annual survey.

The poll also showed significant increases in the use of conservation tillage, cover crops, buffer strips and nitrogen stabilizers. Meanwhile, farmers are adopting other management changes that reduce nutrient loss, such as doing less fall tillage and fewer fall fertilizer applications.

"In the last three years, there’s growth in every category of conservation tillage, nutrient man­agement and adoption of other agronomic practices necessary to continue successful im­­plementation of the Iowa Nut­rient Reduction Strategy," said Rick Robinson, Iowa Farm Bureau environmental policy ad­­visor. "We also saw declines in practices that scientists and agronomists might discourage, such as 17 to 21 percent decreases in fall tillage and fall application of fertilizer."

A range of practices

Among in-field nutrient re­­duction practices, no-till was the most common with 42 percent of respondents using the practice. More than 38 percent of respondents said they use nitrogen stabilizers, and 46 percent use buffers along streams or field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff.

About 26 percent of farmers reported they have increased their use of conservation tillage methods since 2013, and 19 percent reported an increase in continuous no-till. More than 21 percent of farmers said they had reduced fall tillage.

Farmers are also shifting the timing of nitrogen applications closer to when the crops need the fertilizer, with 22 percent reporting an increase in spring a­­p­­plications and 20 percent saying they have increased nitrogen applications during the growing season. Accordingly, 17 percent of poll respondents said they have decreased fall nitrogen applications.

The poll showed farmers have made several other changes affecting nutrient loss and soil erosion in the past four years. Forty-four percent said they have increased practices to improve soil health, and 35 percent had increased use of structural practices such as terraces, buffer strips or grassed waterways.

Twenty percent of farmers re­­ported an increase in cover crops use. An Iowa Learning Farms estimate showed Iowa farmers planted more than 623,700 total acres of cover crops in 2016, a 32 percent increase compared to 2015. In 2009, just 10,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Iowa.

Encouraging results

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said he is encouraged by the range of responses showing farmers are increasingly aware of the soil health and water quality issues and are continuing to try new practices.

"It is encouraging that 20 percent of the poll respondents used cover crops in 2015 and 33 percent said they might use them in the future, especially when compared to the number of farmers using cover crops just a few years ago," Northey said. "It also shows the potential for significant growth in acreage of cover crops. In many cases, farmers are trying cover crops on a limited acreage and then starting to expand that as they become more familiar with the practice and better understand how it fits into their farming operation."

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll contrasts last week’s statement by the Environmental Working Group suggesting that adoption of cover crops by Iowa farmers is too slow.

"We all recognize that we still have a lot of work to do, but the engagement by Iowa farmers and their willingness to make investments to better protect water quality is very encouraging," Northey said.