Agricultural Practices

Science Center Objects

Environmentally responsible land management has direct and indirect implications for wildlife, water quality, and air quality in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems far beyond their extent. Agricultural land use accounts for over 50 percent of the surface area of the contiguous United States. Public recognition that social, aesthetic, and recreational values enhance the traditional uses of agricultural land justifies that information is needed to quantify the effectiveness of conservation programs.

Native sunflowers in a Kansas Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field

Native sunflowers in a Kansas Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field (Credit: Mark Vandever. Public domain.)


Conservation Practices in Agriculturally Dominated Landscapes:

A multi-state (14), multi-regional cooperative effort between USDA and FORT seeks to improve Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) benefit estimates by conducting on-site assessments of fields (~3,000) currently and previously enrolled in the program. FORT furnishes USDA with information evaluating which CRP conservation practices are successfully implemented, which are providing expected benefits for wildlife, and which are persisting after formal contracts have expired.  FORT developed an rapid assessment tool to assess wildlife habitat, soil erosion, and adherence to practice requirements that is essential for making estimates of benefits accurate and defensible. More accurate and defensible estimates of the benefits generated by CRP strengthen the case for the 23.5 million acre program and provide a basis for making policy changes that improve it. Learn more. 




Blue Vane trap in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field

Blue Vane trap in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field (Credit: Mark Vandever. Public domain.)

Native Pollinators in Agricultural Ecosystems:

FORT assessed grassland and cropland fields for native bee habitat, diversity, and richness to evaluate the extent to which CRP grasslands provide floral food sources and refugia for native bees in agriculturally intense landscapes. In addition, pollinators and plants were collected and submitted to the USGS Northern Prairie research center pollen library to help establish relationships between plant species and pollinators. Learn more. 







Crop duster plane

Agricultural aircraft applying pesticides adjacent to a CRP field in eastern Colorado (Credit: Mark Vandever. Public domain.)

Pesticide Exposure to Native Bees in Agricultural Landscapes:

There is a lack of knowledge and understanding of how widespread use of pesticides may affect bees as they move across a diverse agricultural landscape. Studies have shown there are impacts to honey bees due to exposure to pesticides including neonicotinoid insecticides and fungicides, but the effects of these compounds on native pollinators are largely unknown. Habitat quality and quantity were metrics used to better understand ecosystem services the USDA Conservation Reserve Program provides for native pollinators. However, there is limited information on native bee health as a result of pesticide exposure. The overall objective of this study was to understand the occurrence, accumulation and potential effects of pesticides on native bee populations in agricultural landscapes. This information is the first step in determining if native bees are experiencing the same level of population declines in agricultural areas as honey bees and if pesticides might be implicated. Learn more. 



Using telemetry to track movement, habitat use and dispersal of frogs in an Iowa wetland

Using telemetry to track movement, habitat use and dispersal of frogs in an Iowa wetland. (Credit: Mark Vandever. Public domain.)


Pesticide exposure to Amphibians and Water Quality in Agricultural  Wetlands:

FORT completed a multi-year project assessing the value of USDA constructed wetlands and other permanent depressional wetlands on amphibian habitats—as reflected in a suite of attributes not limited to but including buffer size and condition, water quality, amphibian occupancy, reproduction, and exposure to pesticides. This multi-year research project was a collaboration between FORT, USGS ARMI, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa State University.




Wind erosion in Kansas

Abandoned center-pivot irrigated cropland results in destabilized sandy soils that are badly eroded by wind. An example of a recently plowed field in Kansas. (Credit: Mark Vandever. Public domain.)



Restoring Native Vegetation on Retired Farmland across the High Plains:

FORT is evaluating new protocols to reestablish native vegetation on abandoned center-pivot irrigated cropland in the High Plains subregion of the Great Plains. Stabilizing the sandy soils in this region has proven very difficult due to the instability of these soils in a dry, windy climate. Efforts to re-vegetate these abandoned croplands through the USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program have produced poor results, at best, and many outright failures. Continued failure raises the potential that vast areas could eventually become regions of shifting dunes or covered mostly by invasive weeds. Restoring the sandsage prairie and other sand prairies to native vegetation is paramount for endemic wildlife such as the lesser prairie-chicken as well as for other environmental benefits such as cleaner air, water and healthier soil. In FY18 and FY19, FORT will use a more robust, repeatable protocol to help re-establish native grassland on CREP sites in SW Kansas.





A false-color aerial photo illuminates the stark contrast between irrigated center pivot cropland and dryland agriculture in eas

A false-color aerial photo illuminates the stark contrast between irrigated center pivot cropland and dryland agriculture in eastern Washington (Public domain.)

Assessment of environmental benefits of the CRP with space based observations:

Earth observation satellites offer an efficient medium to assess various characteristics of the CRP program; yet little work has been conducted in this field. The remote sensing archive provides a record in time for each CRP parcel and may hold clues to the environmental benefits of CRP lands. Land tenure in the CRP fluctuates and there is little information on the environmental services provided by these fields after the CRP contract expires. Fields that do not return to cultivation and remain in grassland may continue to provide some level of conservation benefits and habitat quality that is not fully captured by CRP acreage alone. In FY18 and FY19 FORT will evaluate if remotely sensed data can be linked with previously collected field data to assess environmental benefits and habitat quality of CRP land. This presents a unique opportunity to test new and efficient ways to evaluate environmental benefits of CRP grasslands.