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Posts tagged: Conservation

New Study Offers Sage Advice

A predatory bird

Within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, predatory birds are more abundant in prairie grasslands with mesquite cover than in open grasslands. Photo courtesy of New Mexico State University.

For many, one of the New Year’s first big chores is to remove a tree from inside their home. Trees, beautiful and useful as they are, do not belong everywhere. Such is the case with trees and other woody species that are expanding into the Western grasslands.

Over the years, woody species like juniper, pinyon pine, redcedar and mesquite have encroached on grassland and sagebrush ecosystems, altering these landscapes and making them unsuitable for native wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken and greater sage-grouse. Encroaching conifers also degrade rangelands for agricultural producers whose livestock rely on nutritious forage. Read more »

Collaboration on Drought Resilience is Delivering Results for America’s Communities and Economy

MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks department biologist and a local rancher

An MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks department biologist and a local rancher discuss water management in the Big Hole Valley, MT. The National Drought Resilience Partnership and the State of Montana are working to build long term drought resilience.

Over the past year, we have seen alarming mass tree mortality in California, the development of severe drought conditions in New England and the Southeast, and dropping water tables in regions throughout the United States. The five-year Western drought and recent droughts in other states threaten our communities, our farms, our freshwater fisheries, our forests, and our grasslands that depend on and provide clean, accessible water supplies.

For many years, Federal departments and agencies have been working to produce long term solutions to conserve and protect a safe, reliable water supply. Now, under the framework of the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP), a greater emphasis has been placed on improving federal agency collaboration to ensure more efficient use of program dollars and agency expertise.  The NDRP worked with a broad cross-section of stakeholder groups to shape six federal policy goals and an associated Federal Drought Resilience Action Plan.  As a result, more than 13 federal agencies and offices are cooperating in new ways under a shared strategy to deliver concrete results. Read more »

A Farewell Message from Secretary Tom Vilsack to Employees

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack behind a row of American flags

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack steps on stage at Bonelli Regional Park.

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent the following message to all USDA employees:

I want to take this opportunity on my final day at USDA to express my profound gratitude to the people who work at USDA. Every day, nearly 90,000 people leave their families and the comfort of their home to do the people’s work in the People’s Department. What an amazing job you do each day for the country. Read more »

Regional Partnerships Help De-Clutter Arizona Grasslands

Pronghorn in Arizona

Pronghorn are able to return to brush controlled grasslands in Northern Arizona that were previously dominated by invasive-woody brush. Photo: Steve Cassady.

A popular new year’s resolution is to de-clutter our homes. But what if a clutter-free home was the only way you could survive and thrive?

Across Arizona, there is wildlife living in grasslands impacted by poorly-planned fencing and woody invasive brush. Invasive plant species, such as pinion juniper and mesquite that grow and spread quickly, create obstacles in grassland habitats that make it difficult for pronghorn and other migratory, grassland-dependent species to avoid predators.

Further, these invasives crowd out native grasses that provide food for wildlife and livestock, reduce soil erosion and help soil absorb precipitation, which is vital to replenishing supplies of groundwater and improving water quality. Read more »

Innovation is Driving Down Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Corn-based Ethanol

A flexible fuel pump with ethanol

This flexible fuel pump offers 30% and 85% ethanol fuel.

Ethanol, primarily derived from corn, supplies about 10 percent of US motor fuel needs.  A new study from ICF which was released today, titled “A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol,” finds that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis.  This is comparable to reducing GHG emissions in the U.S. transportation sector by as much as 35.5 million metric tons per year.

Ethanol production has changed significantly over the past ten years. U.S. production has ramped up from 3.9 to 14.8 billion gallons per year between 2005 and 2015. As demand for corn ethanol has increased, corn production in the US expanded from 11.8 billion bushels in 2004 to 13.6 billion bushels in 2015 (NASS).

Unlike earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG benefits, which had to rely on projections of future ethanol production systems and expected impacts on the farm sector, this study was able to review how the industry and farm sectors have performed over the past decade to assess the current GHG profile of corn-based ethanol.

Earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG balance projected the effects of allocating billions of bushels of corn to ethanol production on supplies of corn and other commodities going to domestic and world food and feed markets.  Those studies expected that farmers in the U.S. and other regions would respond to higher corn prices by bringing new lands into corn production. Bringing new land into commodity production typically results in increased GHG emissions—and those emissions can be large if the former land use was native grassland, wetland, or forest. However, what actually occurred in the US and around the world is more complex.

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio produces corn-based ethanol.

Increased use of corn to produce ethanol in the US did have a positive price effect on corn.  As a result, within the US and abroad, idled croplands were brought into production; cropland already in production was managed more intensively; and by-products of corn ethanol production were used more efficiently as animal feed. Around the world, producers increased their use of double cropping.

The ICF report draws on those new data, including the analysis in Bruce Babcock and Zabid Iqbal’s publication “Using Recent Land Use Changes to Validate Land Use Change Models”.  Babcock and Iqbal’s study confirmed that the primary land-use change response by the world’s farmers to increased demand for corn during the period 2004-2012 was to increase double cropping, reduce un-harvested planted area, reduce fallow land, and reduce temporary pasture in order to expand production. Moreover, the use of distillers dried grains and solubles (or DDGS) became a preferred substitute for corn grain, thereby muting the increased demand.

Those types of production gains are emblematic of innovation in modern agriculture. In 1961, it took 3.38 billion acres of cropland to feed the world’s population of 3.5 billion people. Over the next fifty years, the world’s population doubled to seven billion people, while cultivated land increased by only 12 percent to 3.78 billion acres. Productivity gains driven by improvements in technology have allowed farmers to get more output from existing resources, and thereby to keep pace with the growing demands an increasing global population puts on agriculture for food, fiber, and energy products.

In addition to the gains from reduced levels of land conversion, the ICF report shows that the reductions in GHG emissions from corn ethanol are continually driven by a variety of improvements in efficiency, from the corn field to the ethanol refinery. On-farm conservation practices, such as reduced tillage and nitrogen management, improved the GHG balance of growing corn for ethanol. Production yields, measured in gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn, have increased by 3.4 percent between 2006 and 2014.

Ethanol plants have also improved process efficiencies and can now produce biofuels that generate double the lifecycle GHG reductions estimated earlier, and there are opportunities to improve performance even more. New enzymes and yeast strains have increased process efficiencies in starch conversion and fermentation. Those process upgrades have become drivers for a decreasing GHG-intensity of corn ethanol production. Improved technologies such as combined heat and power, and using landfill gas for energy offer continued areas for improved efficiencies.  New co-products, such as corn-oil biodiesel and DDGS have helped reduce GHG lifecycle emissions.

The report concludes that the GHG profile of corn ethanol is on track to be almost 50 percent lower than gasoline in 2022 if current trends in corn yields, process fuel switching, and improvements in trucking fuel efficiency continue.

One of the ICF report’s important findings is that there is a large potential for additional gains in ethanol’s GHG efficiency. The study examined the potential GHG benefits of additional on-farm conservation practices and efficiency improvements, such as the practices outlined in USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry strategy. When these practices and plant efficiency improvements are universally adopted, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol are even more pronounced over gasoline—potentially rising to 76 percent gain in GHG benefits.

Continuing these trends is good news for the transportation sector—and the agriculture sector—when it comes to reducing GHG emissions.

A nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production

USDA scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution that You’ll Want to Keep

A composite of farm field days participants

Farm field days show participants the most innovative farming methods.

The New Year is here and most of us are making resolutions about how to improve our lives in 2017. Well, we at the Natural Resources Conservation Service believe that learning about farming and conserving natural resources should be at the top of everyone’s list of resolutions. How can you make that happen? By signing up for a farm field day. Field days will give you plenty of opportunities to learn about how good agriculture is done and boost your knowledge of how to conserve and protect natural resources.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in or near Wisconsin, be sure to visit the Lower Fox River Watershed. It’s just south of Green Bay and home to the Great Lakes Demonstration Farm Network where you can see leading-edge conservation practices that are specifically designed to help farmers reduce how much phosphorus enters Green Bay and improve water quality in the Great Lakes. Read more »