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NRCS Climate-Smart Mitigation Activities

Producers and land managers are experiencing firsthand the impacts of climate change, which is caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. With support from NRCS, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners across the nation’s working lands can contribute to climate solutions by implementing voluntary climate-smart conservation activities that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and increase carbon sequestration on their individual operations while delivering agricultural products to the world.

While NRCS offers a broad suite of voluntary conservation practices and enhancements, the agency identifies a sub-set as critical to climate change mitigation. When applied appropriately, these practices may deliver quantifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and/or increases in carbon sequestration. Many offer co-benefits and ancillary benefits that help operations build climate change resilience while addressing other natural resource concerns such as soil health, water quality, pollinator and wildlife habitat and air quality.

NRCS climate-smart agriculture and forestry mitigation practices are divided into mitigation categories. These mitigation categories are:

Brief descriptions on individual climate-smart conservation practices are outlined below. New practices will be added as science, innovation and quantification methodologies advance.

Producers interested in applying new climate-smart practices across their operations may be eligible for financial support through the NRCS conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Download the NRCS Fiscal Year 2022 Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Mitigation Activity List to see the full list of mitigation activities outlined below, including practices available through EQIP and enhancements available through CSP. NRCS is continually evaluating and updating our conservation activities to ensure the latest data and quantifiable benefits are reflected. The list will continue to be updated to reflect the latest science and any practice modifications.

For producers, more information on state specific program enrollment opportunities for EQIP and CSP is available here.

Mitigation Categories

Soil Health

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Producers interested in managing for soil health are encouraged to minimize soil disturbance while maximizing soil cover, biodiversity and the presence of living roots. Together, these principles reduce emissions to the atmosphere, increase carbon sequestration and have the co-benefit of reducing soil erosion, improving water infiltration, increasing nutrient cycling, decreasing money spent on inputs like fertilizer, building more resilient soils over time and serving as a climate solution.

NRCS offers a suite of climate-smart conservation practices within the Soil Health mitigation category, including but not limited to:

Conservation Cover

Conservation cover is a permanent vegetative cover. Plants that produce high volumes of organic matter are recommended when this practice is applied to increase carbon sequestration and build soil health. Producers who plant conservation cover may generate co-benefits including improved water quality and strengthened benefits to wildlife or pollinator habitat.

Conservation Crop Rotation

Conservation crop rotation is growing crops in a planned sequence on the same field over time. Producers who rotate crops may increase carbon sequestration while delivering the co-benefits of building soil health, reducing plant pest pressures, providing feed or forage for livestock and improving water quality.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on conservation crop rotation to learn how one producer uses this practice to improve cropland and build soil health.

Residue and Tillage Management, No-Till

No-till limits soil disturbance to manage the amount, orientation and distribution of crop and plant residue on the soil surface. Producers who practice no-till maintain crop residue throughout the year and plant directly into it. No-till may increase soil carbon sequestration while reducing emissions from the field and delivering the co-benefits of reducing fossil fuel use, increasing plant-available moisture and improving water quality. No-till reduces the amount of soil carbon released into the atmosphere when compared to soil disturbance practices, while also reducing emissions and sequestering carbon.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on no-till to learn how one producer uses this practice to improve soil health and reduce input costs.

Residue and Tillage Management, Reduced Till

Like no-till, reduced till minimizes soil disturbance to manage the amount, orientation and distribution of crop and plant residue on the soil surface throughout the year. This practice limits soil-disturbing activities used to grow and harvest crops in systems where the field surface is tilled prior to planting. Producers who practice reduced till may slowly build soil carbon stocks while delivering the co-benefits of increasing plant-available moisture and improving water quality. Reduced till decreases the amount of soil carbon released into the atmosphere through disturbance and supports soil carbon sequestration.

Contour Buffer Strips

Contour buffer strips are narrow strips of permanent, herbaceous vegetative cover established around the hill slope on sloping cropland. These strips are alternated down the slope with wider cropped strips, farmed on the contour. Producers who apply contour buffer strips may increase carbon sequestration through perennial biomass plantings while delivering the co-benefits of reduced erosion, enhanced soil health, improved water quality and water infiltration.

Cover Crop

Cover crops are grasses, legumes and forbs planted for seasonal vegetative cover. Cover crops are not cash crops, but instead are planted to build soil health and carbon stocks by reducing erosion, incrementally increasing organic matter and building soil structure while reducing soil compaction. Producers who plant cover crops may also deliver co-benefits of improved water quality, suppressed weed pressure and broken pest cycles.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on cover crops to learn how one producer uses this practice to maintain healthy soil and increase water infiltration on his cropland.

Field Border

A field border is a strip of permanent vegetation established at the edge or around the perimeter of a cropland or pasture field. Producers who implement field borders may build perennial biomass and soil carbon stocks while delivering the co-benefits of improving water quality and providing habitat for wildlife or pollinators.

Filter Strips

Filter strips are areas of herbaceous vegetation that remove contaminants from overland flow. Filter strips are generally established where environmentally sensitive areas need to be protected from nutrient, sediment, other suspended solids and other dissolved contaminants in runoff. Producers who implement filter strips may increase soil carbon and sequester carbon in perennial biomass while preventing nitrogen from entering water bodies. This may provide the co-benefits of improving water quality while also reducing indirect emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Grassed Waterways

Grassed waterways are shaped channels planted to grass or other suitable vegetation to reduce the speed of water runoff. Producers who plant grassed waterways may build soil carbon, increase perennial biomass carbon and deliver the co-benefits of reducing flooding, improving water quality and protecting vulnerable soils.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on grassed waterways to learn how one land manager uses this practice to reduce erosion and provide wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Mulching

Mulching is applying plant residues or other materials to the land’s surface. Producers who mulch may increase soil carbon sequestration while delivering co-benefits such as improving moisture management, limiting erosion, building soil health and increasing plant health.

Stripcropping

Stripcropping is growing planned rotations of erosion-resistant and erosion-susceptible crops or fallow in a systematic arrangement of strips across a cropland field. Producers who plant stripcrops, and in particular the addition of perennial cover grown in strips with annual crops, may increase soil carbon sequestration while delivering the co-benefits of building soil health, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and increasing plant productivity and health.

Vegetative Barriers

Vegetative barriers are permanent strips of stiff, dense vegetation established along the general contour of slopes or across concentrated flow areas. Producers who plant vegetative barriers may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soil carbon while delivering the co-benefits of improved soil health, reduced erosion, improved water quality and increased pollinator habitat.

Herbaceous Wind Barriers

Herbaceous wind barriers are areas of herbaceous vegetation established in narrow strips within a cropland field to reduce wind speed and wind erosion. Producers who plant herbaceous wind barriers may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soil carbon while delivering the co-benefits of building soil health, reducing erosion, improving ambient air quality and strengthening plant health by reducing crop damage by wind.

Nitrogen Management

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While nitrogen fertilizer supports healthy plant growth, excess nitrogen may be converted into nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. NRCS’s nutrient management conservation practice may provide climate-smart benefits from implementing the 4Rs of nitrogen management – Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time and Right Place.

Nutrient Management

Nutrient management enables producers to manage the rate, source, placement and timing of plant nutrients and soil amendments while reducing environmental impact. This conservation practice, and particularly applications that improve nitrogen use efficiency, such as use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, split applications, reduced application rates, and precision agriculture, may reduce nitrous oxide emissions while delivering the co-benefits of strengthening plant health and productivity, improving water quality, lowering input costs and improving or maintaining soil organic matter.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on nutrient management to learn how one producer uses this practice to feed the soil on his organic farm.

Livestock Waste Management

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NRCS works with livestock producers to reduce methane emissions and support climate change mitigation related to livestock waste management.

Anaerobic Digester

An anaerobic digester is a component of a waste management system where biological treatment breaks down animal manure and other organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Through the manure decomposition process, methane is generated and captured for combustion in an engine or via a flare. Anaerobic digesters may be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while delivering the co-benefits of managing odors, reducing pathogens and generating electricity for consumption on-site or sale into the electricity market.

Waste Separation Facility

A waste separation facility is a filtration or screening device, settling tank, settling basin or settling channel used to partition solids or nutrients from a waste stream. Producers may use a waste separation facility to strengthen manure handling methods, including in support of anaerobic digesters. This practice may reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide the co-benefit of reducing odors.

Grazing Land Management

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Producers who implement conservation practices for managing grazing on pasture and range lands may improve livestock forage while sequestering carbon in perennial biomass and soils.

NRCS offers a suite of climate-smart conservation practices that support managed grazing on pasture and range lands.

Pasture and Hay Planting

Pasture and hay planting is used to establish adapted and compatible herbaceous plants suitable for pasture or hay production. Producers who participate in pasture and hay planting may increase perennial biomass and soil carbon sequestration while delivering the co-benefits of improving livestock nutrition and health, providing available forage during periods of otherwise low production and building soil health.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video to learn how one producer worked with NRCS to support his grazing plan.

Prescribed Grazing

Prescribed grazing is managing the harvest of vegetation with grazing or browsing animals to achieve specific ecological, economic and management goals. Producers who practice prescribed grazing may sequester carbon in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of enhancing or maintaining desired plant species for forage, improving water quality, increasing stocking rates and livestock vigor and building soil health.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on prescribed grazing to learn how one producer uses this practice to manage cattle while increasing forage utilization and stocking rates.

Range Planting

Range planting is the establishment of adapted perennial vegetation on range land. Producers who participate in range planting may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of supporting desired plant communities, providing or improving livestock forage, improving water quality and building soil health.

Agroforestry, Forestry and Upland Wildlife Habitat

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Producers who implement conservation practices for agroforestry, forestry and upland wildlife habitat may sequester carbon in perennial biomass and soils while establishing trees and perennial biomass. These practices may improve forest and tree health, support wildlife, reduce erosion and sequester carbon to support climate change mitigation.

NRCS offers a suite of climate-smart conservation practices that support agroforestry, forestry and upland wildlife habitat.

Alley Cropping

Alley cropping is planting trees or shrubs in sets of rows with crops or forages produced between the woody plants. Producers who practice alley cropping may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of improving crop or forage quality, reducing wind and water erosion, improving water quality and building soil health.

Multi-Story Cropping

Multi-story cropping is managing an overstory of trees or shrubs with understory plants that are separately managed for a variety of products. Producers who practice multi-story cropping may deliver co-benefits of improving biodiversity and building soil health.

Windbreak and Shelterbelt Establishment and Renovation

This practice establishes, enhances or renovates windbreaks, which are single or multiple rows of trees or shrubs planted in linear or curvilinear configurations. Producers who establish windbreaks may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of reducing erosion, protecting crops, livestock and buildings from wind-related damage, enhancing moisture management and improving ambient air quality.

In 2021, Windbreak and Shelterbelt Establishment and Windbreak and Shelterbelt Renovation were combined into one practice: Windbreak and Shelterbelt Establishment and Renovation. Windbreak and Shelterbelt Renovation will remain available as a standalone practice in 2022 during this transition.

Silvopasture

Silvopasture is the establishment and management of desired tree and forage species on the same land unit. Producers who practice silvopasture may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of providing forage, shade or shelter for livestock, reducing soil and wind erosion, improving water quality, increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat and building soil health.

Riparian Herbaceous Cover

Riparian herbaceous cover consists of grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, legumes or forbs that are tolerant of intermittent flooding or saturated soils and established as the dominant vegetation between upland and aquatic habitats. Land managers who establish riparian herbaceous cover may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of enhancing wildlife or pollinator habitat, improving water quality, reducing streambank erosion and establishing desired plant communities.

Riparian Forest Buffer

A riparian forest buffer is an area covered by trees or shrubs that is located near, and generally uphill from, a body of water. Land managers who implement riparian forest buffers may generate carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while generating the co-benefits of improving water quality, restoring diversity of riparian plant communities, providing wildlife habitat and improving stream conditions for certain species.

Hedgerow Planting

A hedgerow planting is dense vegetation established in a linear design. Producers who implement hedgerow plantings may generate carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of providing wildlife or pollinator habitat and developing living fences.

Tree and Shrub Establishment

This conservation practice establishes woody vegetation by planting seedlings or cuttings, direct seeding or through natural regeneration. Land managers who establish trees or shrubs may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of maintaining or increasing plant diversity, establishing wildlife or pollinator habitat, reducing erosion and improving water quality.

Watch this short Conservation at Work video on tree and shrub establishment to learn how one producer planted trees to benefit his honeybees and other pollinators.

Upland Wildlife Habitat Management

This practice supports land managers in establishing and maintaining upland habitats and connectivity within the landscape for wildlife. Examples include creating food plots and planting warm or cool season grasses or legumes, forbs, trees or other woody vegetation depending on the target wildlife species. Landowners who manage for upland wildlife habitat may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while generating the co-benefits of improving wildlife and plant species diversity, increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat and improving water quality.

Restoration of Disturbed Lands

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Producers and landowners may work with NRCS to implement conservation practices that restore previously disturbed lands. Possible benefits may include carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while generating co-benefits of reduced erosion, improved water quality and restored habitat.

NRCS offers a suite of climate-smart conservation practices that support these restoration efforts.

Land Reclamation, Landslide Treatment

The landslide treatment conservation practice is used to stabilize or manage natural materials, mine waste or overburden to reduce downslope movement. Producers and land managers who practice landslide treatment may increase perennial biomass and soil carbon sequestration on these degraded lands through the establishment of permanent trees, shrubs and grasses. Potential co-benefits include reducing erosion, improving water quality and generally improving land utility.

Land Reclamation, Abandoned Mined Land

The abandoned mined land conservation practice is used to reclaim land and water areas adversely affected by past mining activities. Producers and land managers who reclaim abandoned mined land may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils through the establishment of permanent trees, shrubs and grasses. Potential co-benefits include reducing erosion, improving water quality and providing additional utility to these degraded lands.

In 2021, the criteria for Land Reclamation, Currently Mined Land were added to the criteria for Land Reclamation, Abandoned Mined Land. Land Reclamation, Currently Mined Land will remain available as a standalone practice in 2022 during this transition.

Rice Production

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Rice producers may work with NRCS to conserve valuable water resources while delivering climate benefits through conservation efforts that promote water management on rice fields.

Irrigation Water Management

This conservation practice is the process of determining and controlling the volume, frequency and application rate of irrigation water. On rice fields, specific applications of irrigation water management, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program enhancement Alternated Wetting and Drying, may reduce methane emissions to the atmosphere while delivering the co-benefits of improving water-use efficiency, reducing soil erosion and improving plant productivity and plant health.

Additional Resources: Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry

Producers and landowners interested in climate-smart agriculture and forestry are encouraged to contact the NRCS office at their local USDA Service Center for additional information, including one-on-one support specific to their operation. Visit farmers.gov/service-locator to find your local office.

Visit farmers.gov/climate-smart for additional information on climate solutions for your working land, including USDA programs and digital tools. You may access state-specific application ranking dates for NRCS conservation programs here.

Visit USDA’s Climate Solutions webpage for Department-wide resources, tools and announcements to support agricultural producers and rural communities in making informed, science-based decisions to support climate change mitigation and build climate resilience.