Clean water is a priority for all farmers. Voluntary conservation via cover cropping and no-till practices can be a big part of the solution. And for every pound of nutrients held in-field is a pound that cannot enter local waterways.  It is also a pound that producers will not need to replace.

According to David Brandt — a corn, wheat, and soybeans producer in Carroll, Ohio — cover cropping and no-till make all the difference.

“Innovative farmers are working to improve air and water quality across the country,” says Brandt, “and what we’re doing with cover cropping and no-till is really working.”

Brandt has been using no-till practices since 1971 and cover cropping since 1978. “If every farmer in the United States cover cropped, we’d see even more nutrients held in-field. That really matters when we’re thinking about water quality. When a raindrop falls, we need to be able to control it.”

Brandt’s message is clear: Conservation practices are good for his land, the environment around him, and his bottom line. “We need to educate as many people as we can, farmers and non-farmers alike. The work we do here really makes a difference, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Approximately 300 million acres of land across the United States are used for cultivated crop production. That’s almost three areas the size of California, managed by farmers and landowners with production goals similar to David Brandt’s.

Nationwide, conservation practices on croplands play a critical role in improved water quality. Modeling efforts show that national cropland conservation practices implemented from 2003 to 2006 decrease edge-of-field nitrogen losses by 3.8 billion pounds per year and edge-of-field phosphorus losses by 584 million pounds per year relative to if no conservation practices were in use.

If you were to put those nutrients on a train, you’d have enough nitrogen and phosphorus to fill nearly 21,000 train cars stretching 237 miles – a distance further than Washington, DC to New York City – per year.1

In terms of fertilizer, nitrogen savings alone account for about 927 million dollars’ worth of anhydrous ammonia held in-field annually.2

Mr. Brandt is unsurprised by these findings, citing less than 100 pounds of soil lost per acre from his fields each year. “We need to get this information out there,” he says. “We need to show the numbers to tell the story.”

Every day, new producers are stepping up to work hand-in-hand with NRCS to implement systems that improve water quality and reduce input costs by trapping and controlling in-field nutrients.

Many producers have joined their friends and neighbors in landscape-scale efforts to minimize agricultural impacts and improve water quality throughout entire watersheds. By adopting a systems approach to conservation across the landscape, these targeted efforts have resulted in an ever-growing list of streams restored in working agricultural land.


1 Assumes that the freight capacity of one train car is 210,000 pounds and the length of one train car is 60 feet.

2 Assumes the use of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer that is 82 percent nitrogen and priced at $400 per ton.

NRCS works with farmers to apply conservation practices to address a number of resource concerns, including water quality. [Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Tim McCabe]