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Conservation Stewardship Program: Advancing Soil Health

September 13, 2017


Dark, healthy soil. Photo credit: USDA

Editor’s note: On September 19, 2017 NSAC published on editorial piece in The Hill, which discussed how the 2018 Farm Bill could help to promote soil health. To read the full text of that article, click here

While agricultural consensus can be hard to come by, there is mounting agreement on the need to maintain and enhance soil health. Boosting a  farm’s soil health helps to improve water absorption and flow, nutrient cycling, and the filtering and buffering of potential pollutants. Because of the strong positive impacts that healthy soil can have (e.g., sustaining plant and animal life, reducing environmental impacts like erosion and runoff, mitigating the effects of climate change, and increasing yields) farmers have increasingly sought opportunities for soil quality enhancement on their operations.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a number of ways to help farmers achieve their soil health goals through education and technical assistance; when it comes to providing financial assistance for soil health, however, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the USDA’s primary tool. Last year, CSP underwent a program “reinvention” to make it more transparent, accessible, flexible, and farmer friendly, and as part of the reinvention process certain changes were also made to further boost  CSP’s efficacy at helping farmers address soil health issues.

Recognizing the growing importance for programs like CSP to address soil health, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has analyzed CSP’s performance on this issue using data from its fiscal year (FY) 2016 sign-up period – FY 2017 sign-up data was not used because the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the program, has not yet released the data. Although the FY 2016 data predates the reinvention, it can still provide a preview of the program’s overall performance on soil health, as well as pointing to which outcomes that should be further enhanced in FY 2017 and beyond.

Our analysis below focuses on the CSP conservation activities that have particularly outsized impacts on soil health. CSP conservation activities are set at the federal level, but are prioritized at the state and local level, which ensures that application selection reflects the area’s specific needs.

Soil Friendly Crop Rotations

Resource Conserving Crop Rotations (RCCRs) are among the most important conservation activities within CSP for improving soil health, reducing soil erosion, improving soil moisture efficiency, and reducing plant pressures. NRCS defines resource-conserving crops as:

  • a perennial grass (such as hay, pasture, alfalfa, etc.);
  • a legume grown for use as forage, seed, planting, or green manure;
  • a legume-grass mixture; or
  • a small grain grown in combination with a grass or legume, either inter-seeded or planted in rotation.

A resource-conserving crop rotation adopted through CSP must include at least one resource-conserving crop that is integrated into a three-year crop rotation. The FY 2016 CSP enrollment included the adoption of more than 50,000 acres of RCCRs across the country, showing how positively farmers feel about the program. Because RCCRs are so effective, in fact, Congress made the adoption or improvement of RCCRs eligible for supplemental payments within CSP. Of the states with the highest level of RCCR acres in FY 2016, South Dakota led the way (as it also has in previous years) with more than 25,000 acres adopted. The chart below illustrates the top five states that enrolled the highest number of acres with RCCRs in FY 2016.

State RCCRs (acres)
South Dakota 25,997
North Dakota 10,371
Louisiana 2,725
Michigan 2,672
Indiana 2,277

Another important CSP enhancement that benefits soil health is the Soil Health Crop Rotation. which was first made available in 2015. As farmer interest in soil health investment has risen, so too has adoption of the Soil Health Crop Rotation. In FY 2016, CSP enrollees adopted this enhancement on nearly 30,000 acres part of their overall CSP contracts.

The Soil Health Crop Rotation enhancement involves the adoption of a crop rotation that addresses all four core components of soil health: increasing diversity of the cropping system; maintaining residue throughout the year; keeping a living root; and minimizing chemical, physical, and biological disturbances to the soil. These rotations must include at least four different crop and/or cover crops that are grown in a sequence to increase overall soil organic matter. The chart below illustrates the top states where soil health crop rotations were adopted in FY 2016:

State Soil Health Crop Rotation (acres)
Arkansas 19,150
Georgia 5,519
California 1,221

Cover Cropping

The number of program participants willing to add conserving crops to their rotation is significant, but not as large as those who are using CSP to add cover crops to the cropping systems. In FY 2016, CSP enrolled over a million acres in cover crop practices, including:

  • the use of cover crop mixes: 449,542 acres
  • the use of deep rooted cover crops to break up soil compaction: 346,061 acres
  • planting annual grass cover crops to scavenge residual nitrogen: 311,686 acres
  • planting high residue cover crops for weed suppression and soil health: 87,222 acres
  • using legume cover crops as a nitrogen source: 36,729 acres
  • intensive cover cropping in annual crops: 34,415 acres

Other Cropland Soil Health Activities

Several additional cropland conservation activities adopted as of the FY 2016 sign-up also provide significant benefits for soil health, including the following:

  • Intensive no-till: 107,804 acres
  • Residue and tillage management, no-till: 24,961 acres
  • Forest stand improvement for soil health: 58,390 acres
  • Conversion of cropped land to grass based agriculture: 5,121 acres

Sustainable Livestock

While much attention has been given to the soil health benefits of diversifying crop rotations, there is perhaps less recognition of the parallel benefits that sustainable livestock management practices can provide. In order to address this disparity, NSAC is advocating for a supplemental payment to be made available for management-intensive rotational grazing within CSP in the next farm bill. Rotational grazing, which involves regularly and systematically moving animals to fresh pasture, provides marked benefits for soil health, including increased quality and quantity of forage growth, increased carbon sequestration, and improved manure distribution and nutrient cycling, wildlife habitat, erosion mitigation, and water quality.

The soil-building enhancements that CSP currently offers pertaining to livestock management include: management-intensive rotational grazing, integrating cover crops within pasture, high species diversity grazing lands, prairie restoration for grazing and wildlife habitat, and management for rangeland soil health.

Our analysis of the FY 2016 CSP sign-up revealed strong demand for management for rangeland soil health (218,336 acres), moderate demand for management-intensive rotational grazing (16, 372 acres), and low demand for cover crops, high species grazing lands, and prairie restoration (at a combined 7,403 acres).

Pastured Cropland

Finally, CSP can also encourage soil health building through livestock management through the use of the land-use designation of “pastured cropland.” Pastured cropland is land that has been used for crops but is now in permanent vegetative cover in a grass-based livestock system. The payment rate for pastured cropland is higher than that for general pasture land because NRCS recognizes that there is a higher foregone income associated with maintaining permanent vegetative cover on land suitable for cropland. NSAC encourages USDA to further explore the expanded use of this definition as an incentive to incorporate high level grazing activities within integrated crop livestock systems.

In the FY 2016 sign-up, more than 570,000 acres were enrolled in CSP as pastured cropland. The chart below illustrates the top states for acres enrolled under this land use designation in FY 2016:

State Acres Pastured Cropland
Oklahoma 204,032
Missouri 52,185
South Dakota 38,437
Texas 32,996
Minnesota 31,865

Next Farm Bill – Opportunities and Needs

The next farm bill presents an opportunity to continue building upon CSP’s success at promoting and advancing farming practices that contribute to improved soil health. As part of our efforts working on the 2018 Farm Bill, NSAC will advocate for modifications that strengthen and improve CSP, including:

  • Expand and improve CSP offerings that benefit soil health
  • Raise incentives for high level conservation activities
  • Expand grazing opportunities, including a supplemental payment for management intensive rotational grazing
  • Ensure continued and expanded flexibility to prioritize key soil health activities at the state and local levels

As updated data becomes available, NSAC will continue to provide updates and analysis on CSP’s performance and outcomes. To learn more about our Farm Bill 2018 priorities, click here and also stay tuned to our blog for ongoing updates.


Categories: Carousel, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Sustainable Livestock


One response to “Conservation Stewardship Program: Advancing Soil Health”

  1. […] Author: Reana Kovalcik Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition […]

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