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ARS Home » Plains Area » Fort Collins, Colorado » Center for Agricultural Resources Research » Soil Management and Sugarbeet Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #378529

Research Project: Management Practices for Long Term Productivity of Great Plains Agriculture

Location: Soil Management and Sugarbeet Research

Title: The future of soil, water, and air conservation

item Delgado, Jorge
item GANTZER, CLARK - University Of Missouri
item SASSENRATH, GRETCHEN - Kansas State University

Submitted to: Soil and Water Conservation Society
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: 11/20/2020
Publication Date: 12/15/2020
Citation: Delgado, J.A., Gantzer, C.J., Sassenrath, G.F. 2020. The future of soil, water, and air conservation. In: Delgado, J.A., Gantzer, C.J., Sassenrath, G.F., editors. Soil and Water Conservation: A Celebration of 75 Years. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society. p. 307-331.

Interpretive Summary: Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress over the past 75 years has contributed significantly to increasing soil and water conservation and the sustainability of agricultural systems in the United States. Federal agencies such as NRCS and ARS, along with universities, extension personnel, farmers, nonprofit organizations, consultants, and other peers working in conservation have also contributed to increased conservation and sustainability. The implementation of these conservation practices significantly contributed to reducing erosion rates and protecting water quality. The legislation enacted during this time related to the conservation of soil and water, as well as other conservation efforts, have contributed to maintaining high yields which increase farmers’ incomes while helping to conserve the environment. With that said, the challenges of today are perhaps even greater than they were 75 years ago. In addition to the climate change challenge, we still have the unresolved challenge of protecting water quality from nutrient losses from agricultural fields. We also have the challenge of decreasing soil organic matter content and potential negative impacts to soil health due to agricultural intensification, even in cases where there is a lower erosion rate. There is also the challenge of determining how to manage spatial and temporal variability to increase conservation effectiveness across the landscape. These challenges are related to soil productivity and must be addressed if a level of sustainability over the next 75 years comparable to that of the previous 75 years is to be achieved.

Technical Abstract: More than three-quarters of a century ago, the United States was at a crossroads with respect to the question of how to manage lands to mitigate erosion. Hugh Hammond Bennett, who was the first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and often called “the father of soil conservation”, once described erosion as a “national menace” because of the severe threat to water quality, sustainability and food security it presented. In response to this threat, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that led to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935. The agency was subsequently renamed in 1994 as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to better reflect the increased scope of the agency’s work in conservation. Mainly during the first half of the last seventy-five years, agricultural systems were managed using uniform conservation practices across fields. Even before new precision farming and conservation techniques were developed, there were efforts to manage spatial variability using traditional soil survey maps across the field for soil and water conservation such as the classic example of grass waterways. Today, advances in precision agriculture and conservation methodologies alongside advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques make it possible to manage the spatial and temporal variability. With these advances will come improvements in the development and application of precision conservation to manage hot spots across the landscape. Additionally, recent advances in soil biology and next-generation fertilizers, such as enhanced efficiency fertilizers with bio-stimulants, are promising approaches with the potential to increase nutrient use efficiencies, reduce nutrient losses, and maintain or even improve soil health. The next 75 years offer promising opportunities to find solutions to the challenges of continuing to increase productivity, improve soil health, and reduce nutrient losses across the landscape while minimizing erosion rates.