Using Science to Drive Conservation

November 22, 2016

Using Science to Drive Conservation in Iowa

By: Agribusiness Association of Iowa


Technology has always been a major driver in agriculture, especially in Iowa. Larger and more precise machinery used by farmers in Iowa and in other states has helped increase yields, improve crop protection practices, and make production more efficient. Looking forward, technology can also have a major impact in the assessment of new practices and evaluating the impact of implementation.


Obtaining an accurate measure of progress can be tricky because typical metrics like money spent and acres enrolled aren’t based on the most complete information available. For instance, more than $105 million is spent on conservation practices in the state of Iowa each year, but that figure doesn’t include the dollars spent outside of government programs fully from the pocket book of the land owner or tenant. It’s estimated that many billions of dollars will be required to meet the goals of Water Quality Initiative outlined in the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.


Good data to measure progress do exist but finding this data requires researchers to reorient their perspective and ask questions that will provide the answers needed. Agricultural retailer records contain a plethora of data that researchers can statistically sample, conglomerate and analyze to figure out the conservation practices that farmers are actually using. In the case of analyzing ground water quality, researchers can apply known reduction rates for the various practices and show, on a percentage basis, the level of reductions achieved statewide. This eliminates the need to interpret extremely large amounts of data from instantaneous, intermittent water samples that are heavily swayed by ever-changing weather effects. It also provides short-term information that is impossible to determine at the large watershed scale.


Promoting science-based strategies and measuring the progress of impacted acres has been the impetus for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa to form the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC). INREC is a strategic initiative with formal commitments from agricultural associations and agribusinesses. The council supports the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and identifies how to best manage the agriculture industry’s progress in environmental and conservation strategies.


“We have to be able to make informed decisions. Without the science, we can’t effectively target the practices that will have the most impact on our environmental efforts,” says Shawn Richmond, environmental technology director for INREC.


Having an industry coalition is key to increasing the statewide adoption of technology that enables conservation practices. Iowa has 23 million row crop acres: that’s a 23 with six zeros. To make a real impact, conservation practices need to touch millions of acres. Limited resources, however, such as money, time, equipment, and people, hinder implementation on a large scale. Such an ambitious undertaking requires a vast amount of financial resources and decades of work.


Fortunately, the private sector can step in to help meet these challenges. Non-government entities are the major developers of technology and continue to improve the tracking and analysis of conservation practices in use. Using this information, the private sector will continue to develop more efficient ways to implement conservation strategies on a massive scale. For conservation in Iowa, the future looks bright!