On December 5, 2013, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the release of the CEAP-Cropland report on the effects of recently installed conservation practices on cropland in the Chesapeake Bay region. This new report, using data collected in 2003-06 and 2011, demonstrates that during the time between the two surveys, agricultural producers have significantly increased their use of an array of conservation measures to improve and protect water and soil quality in the Chesapeake Bay region. These conservation practices are generating substantial natural resource benefits for producers and the communities of the Chesapeake Bay region.
The first national CEAP farmer surveys documented the conservation and production practices in place from 2003-06 and informed the original Chesapeake Bay region CEAP report. In order to provide more up-to-date information and assess the benefits of more recent conservation investments in the Chesapeake Bay region, NRCS performed a second CEAP survey in the region during the fall of 2011 and covered the conservation and production practices in use from 2009 to 2011.
Major findings from the new Chesapeake Bay study are listed below. More specific details on effects of practices are in the full report and the summary documents.
The voluntary, incentives-based conservation approach continues to be effective. Additional conservation measures installed have resulted in reductions in sheet and rill erosion rates by 57 percent and edge-of-field sediment losses by 62 percent since 2006. Estimated edge-of-field nitrogen losses in surface runoff were reduced by 38 percent, nitrogen losses in subsurface flows were reduced by 12 percent, and phosphorus losses were reduced by 45 percent compared to 2003-06 loss rates. Structural practices were adopted on 66 percent of cropped acres, or a 27 percent increase between the survey periods. The number of cropped acres that farmers planted to cover crops every year more than tripled and 52 percent of all cultivated acres in the region had cover crops applied at least one out of every four years.
Progress has been made toward addressing conservation needs, and opportunities exist to increase conservation on cropped acres in the Chesapeake Bay region. The efforts of the region's farmers on their own and with support from local, state, and Federal programs, especially focused programs like the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), have generated significant progress in addressing conservation concerns on cropland acres with a high potential benefit for protecting and improving water quality. Acres with high potential conservation benefits are those that could respond well to additional conservation treatments and have the greatest potential for losses of sediment and nutrients. Conservation measures adopted between 2003-06 and 2011 reduced the number of cropped acres with high potential conservation benefits by 80 percent, dropping from the 2003-06 level of 813,000 acres to 157,000 acres (4 percent of all cropped acres) in 2011. Opportunities remain for progress in avoiding nutrient losses through improved nutrient application management. Specifically, avoidance could be better achieved through better incorporation of the 4Rs (the right rate, the right timing, the right method, and the right form) into nutrient management plans.
Comprehensive conservation planning that incorporates targeting is essential for effectiveness and efficiency. This study shows that the increased use of additional conservation practices on acres with high potential benefits significantly reduced losses due to runoff. The increased use of cover crops and winter annuals decreased leaching losses. Additional gains will depend on continued use of current practices and continuing improvement in the rate, timing, method, and form of nutrient applications.