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Source: Iowa Soybean Assn news release

Adoption of conservation practices by Iowa soybean farmers, including the planting of cover crops, spiked in 2016. This is further proof, says the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), that momentum is building behind the state's innovative nutrient reduction strategy.

The annual survey of 321 soybean farmers, conducted by West Des Moines-based Blue Compass on behalf of the ISA, also affirms the willingness of producers to participate in multiple conservation practices and monitor their effectiveness.

The findings were released in conjunction with ISA's annual research conference being held today and tomorrow (Feb. 7-8) in Des Moines.

Nearly 50 percent of soybean farmers completing the online survey said they planted cover crops in 2016, a 20 percent increase from the previous year and more than triple the adoption in 2013.

Another 71 percent practice no-tillage farming, up from 61 percent the previous year and 49 percent just four years ago.

In-field studies by ISA find that tillage reduction results in less surface erosion and improved water quality, specifically related to suspended sediment and phosphorus. Research of the Raccoon River Watershed shows sediment loads peaked in the early 1970's and have decreased ever since.

Also, tile monitoring conducted last year by the ISA documented a 29 percent reduction in nitrate concentrations in fields planted to cover crops.

"Leadership is defined by positive action that truly addresses a need or challenge," said ISA President Rolland Schnell of Newton. "On the issue of improving water quality, Iowa soybean farmers are demonstrating their commitment by greater adoption of conservation practices."

All 321 soybean farmers surveyed say they use at least one method of conservation on their farm, with a whopping 77 percent using four or more practices. They include terraces, buffer strips, grassed waterways, strip tillage, bioreactors and saturated buffers.

When asked which conservation practices provide the greatest economic return for their operation, respondents cited rotating crops, using nutrients efficiently and effectively, no or reduced tillage, grassed waterways and terraces.

Farmers were equally split when asked if cover crops have a positive economic net return on their farming operation. Saturated buffers, wetlands and bioreactors were cited as providing the least economic return.

Schnell said this finding recognizes the fact that edge-of-field practices often come with a high price tag and no direct financial return to the farmer or landowner.

"This dilemma underscores the need for making cost-share dollars available for conservation work, particularly for practices providing the most significant benefits downstream," Schnell said. "We'll also continue to make the case for dedicated, long-term funding to increase the pace and number of water quality projects being implemented statewide.

He says the survey also reaffirms ISA's long-held belief that action rather than rhetoric, lawsuits or regulatory schemes is the most effective approach to better water.

"For more than a decade, the ISA has advocated the best approach for sustaining water quality improvements is by demonstrating how conservation practices work on the land and measuring their impact," Schnell said. "Our survey of farmers shows this approach, funded by individual producers and cost-share programs and backed by the soybean checkoff, is effective and constructive." 

The survey also found:
Sixty percent of survey respondents said landowners should be directly involved in implementing basic conservation practices.

By a margin of nearly 2-1, farmers plan to grow more soybeans this year than last. Eighteen percent said they will increase soybean acres while 10 percent said they'll plant fewer acres. Nearly 70 percent say the number of acres they plant to soybeans will remain unchanged while 2 percent were unsure.

When asked to predict the long-term profitability of their soybean farm, 45 percent of farmers foresee it remaining status quo. Twenty-five percent believe it will steadily improve while 22 percent predict it will worsen. Eight percent were unsure.

In terms of survey demographics, 21 percent of respondents grow fewer than 180 acres of soybeans; 46 percent 180-500 acres; 22 percent 500-1,000; 11 percent more than 1,000 acres.

The survey was completed two weeks prior to the Jan. 27 decision by the Iowa Supreme Court prohibiting Des Moines Water Works from seeking damages from drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties.

ISA develops policies and programs helping Iowa's more than 38,000 soybean farmers improve profit opportunities while promoting environmentally sensitive production using the soybean checkoff and other resources. Learn more at

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