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Study shows link between conservation practices and income benefits



Illinois Correspondent


DEKALB, Ill. — It’s long been a subject of debate whether soil conservation health practices increase farm profitability. Now, a cooperative study between USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) and American Farmland Trust suggest evidence is building that cover crops, reduced tillage and other conservation-minded practices do indeed provide yield and income benefits to farmers.

Though adoption of soil health practices by Corn Belt farmers has been slow due to perceived financial risk and resistance to change, the economic analyses conducted on two Illinois and two Ohio farms should serve to convince producers that investment will pay dividends. This is according to Brian Brandt, AFT agricultural innovations director.

“There has been great interest and desire from farmers and conservation professionals to see real world results from implementing soil health practices, especially cover crops. These case studies provide the much needed evidence,” said Brandt. “In addition, we hope the case studies give more farmers confidence to take the next step and begin trying more of these practices on their farms so they can reap the benefits.”

AFT and Illinois NRCS’ “Accelerating Soil Health” case studies were performed on the following “soil health successful” farms:

·         Jim, Julie and Josh Lift, Illinois corn and soybean farmers implementing no-till and cover crops

·         Dan Lane, Ohio corn and soybean farmer using strip-till with banded dry fertilizer and cover crops

·         Larry, Adam and Beth Thorndyke, Illinois corn and soybean farmers with cover crops, strip-till, no-till and nutrient management

·         Eric Niemeyer, Ohio corn and soybean farmer implementing no-till, cover crops and nutrient management

The case studies, available to view online at the project website

(, were funded with a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant . Their Feb. 26 release comes weeks after issuance of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) 2019 Biennial Report. The report, which charts Illinois farmers’ progress in achieving stated goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the Mississippi Waterway System, showed that producers still have a long way to go to fulfill the mandate of the NLRS.  

“The results of the report were disheartening — no progress in reducing nutrient loss. In fact, the report showed an increase in loss of phosphorus and nitrogen. The anomaly of increased water flow, or perhaps no anomaly at all given the increased propensity for extreme weather in the region including heavy rain events, did nothing to help the situation,” according to AFT. “The evident role the weather played in slowing progress showed us that going forward our efforts will have to not only be about reducing nutrient runoff, but also about increasing resilience of soils to hold water and nutrients through extreme weather.”

“The next step is transitioning more farmers from awareness of nutrient loss practices to application,” noted John Sullivan, former Illinois Agriculture Director, of the NLRS biennial report, which was issued in December 2019.

The newly released AFT-NRCS case studies underscore the importance of adopting NRCS conservation soil health programs as a hedge against extreme weather conditions that can leach nutrients from farm fields, noted Acting State Conservationist for Ohio, Jon Bourdon

“These case studies provide NRCS with a greater understanding of the economic benefits of implementing a soil health management system and will benefit our conservation planners.  Most farmers want to be good stewards of the land, but the economic uncertainty of adopting new practices often proves challenging. This new information will help farmers make informed decisions and will result in healthier soil,” said Bourdon.

AFT will be hosting online training webinars for conservationists and farmers who want to learn how to conduct the partial budget economic analysis used in the AFT-NRCS project. Email with your interest in the training webinars and they will share the webinar details.