Iowa farmers continue to make steady and measurable progress on implementing practices, such as cover crops, bioreactors and wetlands, which have been shown to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus and to improve the quality of the state’s streams, river and lakes.

That’s the finding of the annual progress report on Iowa’s water quality initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS.) The final draft of the report was unveiled last week during a meeting of the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council in Altoona. Iowa State University (ISU) officials who compiled the report expect to have it finalized next month.

“The findings of the report show me that we are really making some progress in a lot of areas,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who led the water council meeting. “It also shows me that we are getting engagement in water quality from farmers, ag groups, government agencies and all different levels in agriculture. That’s what it is going to take to reach our goals.”

A good snapshot

John Lawrence, ISU associate dean for extension programs and outreach in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the annual report provides a good snapshot of progress on the water quality initiative and highlights areas that need more attention. “The findings are not ‘mission accomplished’ by any means, but they do show we are making good progress in reaching our goals.”  

The latest NRS annual report, which measured progress in the 12 months ending May 31, 2017, showed:

•  A more than  20-fold increase in the Iowa acres planted to cover crops under state and federal cost share programs since 2011, when scientists first calculated loading estimates. In the six years since,   cover crops reduced nitrogen losses by 4,284.4 tons and trimmed phosphorus losses by  301.8 tons.

• A 6-fold gain in the acres covered by Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands  since 2011. The wetlands have reduced nitrogen losses by 1,075.2 tons during that period.

• A 4.5-fold gain in acres protected by cost-shared terraces. That has kept 308.6 tons of phosphorus out of Iowa streams.

Several other water quality practices, such as buffer strips, saturated buffers, pollinator plots and conversion of acres to perennial crops also showed gains.

Farmer investments

The report relied primarily on conservation practices that are covered in cost share because data is scarce on privately-financed practices, said Laurie Nowatzke, an ISU extension researcher who is measurement coordinator for the NRS. “Farmers’ investments are grossly underestimated in the report,” she said in her presentation to the Water Resources Coordinating Council.

For example, the report notes, surveys by Iowa Learning Farms and others pegged the total acreage planted to cover crops at more than 623,000 in 2016.

ISU Extension, Nowatzke said, hopes to gather more information on privately-financed practices in future reports through surveys of farmers, information from ag retailers and other sources.

Northey said he was very encouraged by the numbers in the report, which showed that a growing number of farmers are aware of the water quality strategy and are searching for information on how to take on the challenge of improving water quality on their own acres.

Outreach efforts

The report showed that outreach events on NRS effectively doubled in the past year to 474, with a total of 54,500 attendees. In addition, an ISU survey showed that 77 percent of farmers surveyed reported that they were knowledgeable about the water quality initiative, a gain of 9 percent over a year earlier.

“It really shows that folks are engaged in water quality and want to get things done,” Northey said. “No one can snap their fingers and solve everything, but if you get a range of people actively engaged you can really get some momentum.”

ISU’s Lawrence added that the latest NRS annual report, along with previous reports, show that farmers have made significant reductions in phosphorus losses. That makes sense, he said, because Iowa farmers have been working decades to reduce soil loss, which is tied closely with phosphorus. “I’m encouraged that as we shift more of our focus on nitrogen, we can make more progress there,” he said.