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Get Data on the Nation’s Conservation Activities: RCA Interactive Data Viewer

Farm Scene

By Bob Sowers, NRCS Information Management Specialist

Ever wanted to know how much assistance USDA provides to farmers getting started with cover crops? Or how much land has been affected by a USDA-supported wildlife practice in your state? The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) Interactive Data Viewer provides quick access to extensive data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on the nation’s conservation program activities. The Data Viewer was just updated with FY2019 data, and for the first time it includes data on practice enhancements and bundles supported by the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

In addition to these updates, two cropland soil health performance measures were added to the Data Viewer. The Cropland Soil Health and Sustainability measure identifies land units where at least two practices are applied to improve soil health during a single year. Practices include crop rotation, no-till, reduced till, cover crops, and CSP enhancements and bundles. The Cropland Soil Health Management System measure identifies areas where a group of conservation practices and enhancements (or bundles) are applied that address four basic soil health principles: minimize soil disturbance, maximize soil cover, maximize biodiversity, and maximize the presence of living roots.

CSP Enhancements and Bundles

CSP enhancements are practices that go beyond the minimum conservation practice standard to achieve a higher level of conservation, and CSP bundles are groups of enhancements applied simultaneously. To further explain what enhancements and bundles are, let’s use cover crops as an example. Cover crops are used by farmers to reduce soil erosion, increase soil health and organic matter, and break up compacted soils and pest cycles. Multi-species cover crops are a popular CSP enhancement. If a farmer uses several species in the cover crop rather than a single species, it adds roots of varied sizes to the soil, provides unique vegetation on the surface, and may increase its ability to take up excess nutrients. CSP bundles are several CSP enhancements applied together. For example, farmers who use “Crops Bundle #1—Precision Ag, No-Till” would take actions to enhance the effectiveness of a number of common practices, including conservation crop rotation, no-till, nutrient management, pest management, and cover crops, to help improve water quality, air quality, fish/wildlife habitat, and soil erosion or soil quality.

The addition of data on practice enhancements and bundles further extends the Viewer’s capabilities. For example, consider the most common practices and enhancements used to promote soil quality (see graph below). The previous version of the Viewer included data on top practices (crop rotations, cover crops, and nutrient management), but the updated Viewer also shows that enhancements are most often used in conjunction with nutrient management and integrated pest management (IPM).

Soil chart 1

 

Soil Health

Soil health is the key to a thriving farm operation. The updated Viewer can show long-term trends in cropland land unit acres where conservation practices and management systems have been adopted to promote soil health (see chart below).

Land Unit Chart 2

Since 2014, the application of the Cropland Soil Health and Sustainability System and Cropland Soil Health Management System has accounted for 15-20 percent of cropland soil quality practices. The chart shows that soil quality and soil health practices and soil health management systems are gradually increasing in use over time.

The Value of the Viewer

The RCA Interactive Data Viewer has long been a multipurpose tool to access data for NRCS conservation program activity, State and national land uses, cropland soil erosion, and rangeland and pastureland health. But, the Viewer also includes reports and results from the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP). CEAP is a multi-agency effort to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices and programs and show the results of our conservation dollars spent.

NRCS is continually striving to improve the RCA Interactive Data Viewer and make it ever more valuable and easier to use. Among other improvements, there are plans to give the Viewer a new interface. So, check back from time to time to see the new enhancements.