Conservation practices on cropland in the 121.5 million acres in the Upper Mississippi River Basin are reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide losses, according to a USDA report released today.

“This important new report confirms that farmers and ranchers are stepping up and implementing conservation practices that can and do have a significant impact on the health of America's soil and water,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says.

About half of the basin’s approximately 190,000 square miles is planted to corn and soybeans.

Vilsack says findings in the study, “Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Upper Mississippi River Basin,” will enable USDA to quantify for the effectiveness of conservation practices for the first time.

Quantifying the effectiveness of these practices will “enable USDA to design and implement conservation programs that will not only better meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, but also help ensure that taxpayers' conservation dollars are used as effectively as possible,” Vilsack says.

The basin covers the area between north central Minnesota and the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It includes large portions of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and small portions of Indiana, Michigan and South Dakota.

Key findings include:

  • Most acres in the basin receive some conservation treatment, resulting in a 69% reduction in sediment loss, but about 15% of the cropland acres still have excessive sediment losses and need more help.
  • The most critical conservation concern in the region is the loss of nitrogen from farm fields through leaching, including nitrogen loss through tile drainage systems.
  • Targeting critical acres improves effectiveness significantly; practices have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable acres, such as highly erodible land and soils prone to leaching;
  • A conservation system on crop acres works better than just one practice.

The study also revealed opportunities for improving the use of conservation practices on cropland to enhance environmental quality.

Consistent use of nutrient management — proper rate, form, timing and method of application — is generally lacking throughout the region. Improved nutrient management would reduce the risk of nutrients moving from fields to rivers and streams.

A system of practices that manages soil erosion and consistent nutrient management is needed to simultaneously address soil erosion and nitrogen leaching.

This study is part of a larger effort — the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) — to assess the effects of conservation practices on the nation's cropland, grazing lands, wetlands, wildlife and watersheds.

The complete cropland study report can be found at

More regional cropland studies on the effects of conservation practices will be released during the next several months.