An Assessment of Water Quality Protection Practices by Louisiana Farmers

Naveen Adusumilli, Hendrix, James, Morgan, Donna S., Hogan, Jr., William A.  |  1/11/2018 9:17:46 PM

Ernest Girouard, Naveen Adusumilli, Donna Morgan, Alan Hogan and James Hendrix

The Louisiana Master Farmer Program, with certification granted through the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, seeks to educate farmers on management practices that will reduce the runoff of pollutants to surface water and groundwater and improve soil health. Upon completion of the Master Farmer program, the farmers are presumed to be in compliance with Louisiana’s soil and water conservation requirements. Farmers receive Master Farmer certification, valid for five years, with six hours of continuing education credits required per year. There are currently 339 certified Master Farmers and 3,742 farmers across the state in various stages of the program.

Surveys were conducted statewide in 2013 and 2016 to determine the amount of conservation implemented and recommended practices adopted, mostly outside of government cost-share programs, by farmers in their crop and animal production operations. The surveys were collaboratively developed by the LSU AgCenter and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Both surveys were distributed to farmers at certification meetings, workshops and field days. In 2013, 265 farmers from 38 parishes responded to the survey; in 2016, 159 farmers from 30 parishes responded to the survey.

In both surveys, 70 percent of the respondents indicated they had greater than 20 years of farming experience. The respondents were mostly row crop producers, livestock producers and some combination of row crops, livestock, aquaculture, forestry and vegetables. Results of the two surveys were compared where possible.

The overall perception regarding the impact of farming practices on water quality is presented in Figure 1. The survey results show that the majority of the sample in both years are convinced of the relationship between farming practices and water quality. They believe that poor farming practices can affect water quality. The results suggest that some farmers are not convinced regarding the impact of farming practices on water quality, demonstrating the need to develop more educational opportunities.

Adoption of the most critical best management practices (BMPs) is presented in Figure 2. Several more practices not shown here were part of the survey questionnaire. The “yes” percentages of each conservation practice are reported. For example, 87 percent of the respondents in 2013 reported that conservation tillage was adopted on their farm; the remaining 13 percent of the respondents (not shown in the graph) reported conservation tillage was not adopted. Similarly, 68 percent in 2016 reported conservation tillage was adopted, and 32 percent reported no adoption.

Survey responses show that some practices are popular among farmers, whereas other practices are adopted at a minimal level. For example, cover crop adoption increased in 2016 compared to 2013, whereas conservation tillage adoption decreased in 2016 relative to 2013. NRCS has made changes to its existing conservation tools to provide additional cost-share for an extended period to improve adoption of many practices. Despite the vast amount of research showing benefits of these practices on water quality improvement, lack of information on costs, the impact on farm profitability, and technical knowledge on agronomics might have affected adoption; however, barriers to adoption were not asked in the survey.

Although Louisiana receives more than 60 inches of average annual rainfall, irrigated acres of major crops are on the rise. Because of low commodity prices coupled with rising input costs and extreme weather events, it is economically wise to adopt practices that would improve irrigation efficiency on the farm, which would reduce fuel use, reduce water use, and improve overall farm profits. Moreover, efficient irrigation practices minimize nutrient and soil loss from the fields. Figure 3 presents the extent of adoption of irrigation efficiency practices. The results are from new questions introduced in 2016 survey; hence, there was no benchmark for comparison. According to the survey, approximately 90 percent of the farmers who irrigate do not adopt tools that would improve efficiency. In addition, recording of irrigation water use is also minimal among farmers, mostly because adequate rainfall reduces the amount of irrigation needed in most years. The results provide an avenue to work with farmers to promote the value of recording irrigation water use. Irrigation is one of the variable inputs that has the most potential for savings in production costs, specifically fuel costs. Moreover, recording water use allows estimation of irrigation cost savings when efficiency improvements are added to the current irrigation practices. Because the majority of the irrigation costs include energy costs to pump water, recording water use can allow evaluation of practices that could save energy costs on the farm.

The collaborative effort between the LSU AgCenter, NRCS and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, among others, to promote the use of management practices that minimize the discharge of contaminants into water bodies has resulted in increased efficiency among the majority of the farmers. Approximately 50 percent of the respondents indicated that these management practices have decreased fertilizer application amounts to their crops (Figure 4). Many farmers use BMPs but often consider them as practices that have been handed down for years and are part of their normal farming operation, suggesting that the cumulative amount of conservation on the ground is much greater than recorded through government programs; however, there is still work to be done to improve adoption of the recommended nutrient management practices through the use of new tools and technology. No benchmarking across surveys is available to make a comparison in this category. Adoption of BMPs could be influenced by costs, time and sometimes convenience. Practices that would minimally address the conservation needs would only exacerbate the economic burden of the farmer, hence, the portfolio of the recommended BMPs should consist of those that provide the most “bang for the buck” both economically and environmentally.

Ernest Girouard, now retired, was the statewide coordinator of the Louisiana Master Farmer Program. Naveen Adusumilli is an assistant professor of water economics at the Red River Research Station, Bossier City. Donna Morgan is a conservation agronomist in the Central Region. Alan Hogan is an extension associate in the Southwest Region, and James Hendrix is a conservation agronomist in the Northeast Region.

(This article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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Figure 1. Beliefs about relationship between farming practices and impact on water quality (125 respondents in 2016; 265 respondents in 2013).

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Figure 2. Survey responses on adoption of on-farm Best Management Practices (97 respondents in 2016; 128 respondents in 2013; more than one response per respondent is possible)

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Figure 3. Survey responses on adoption of irrigation efficiency practices (83 respondents in 2016; the questions were not part of the 2013 survey; more than one response per respondent is possible).

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Figure 4. Beliefs about nutrient management practices (103 respondents in 2016; the question was not part of the 2013 survey).

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