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New USDA report quantifies benefits from conservation

By Wes Nelson

WILLMAR — A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirms that farmers have significantly reduced the loss of sediment and nutrients from farm fields through the utilization of voluntary conservation practices within the lower Mississippi River basin.

The report, released by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, marks the completion of a watershed-wide assessment of conservation efforts in the Mississippi River watershed. It found that conservation practices, like controlling soil erosion and managing nutrients, has reduced the edge-of-field losses of sediments by 35 percent, losses of nitrogen by 21 percent, and losses of phosphorous by 52 percent.

While the report shows the positive impacts of conservation, it also signals the need for additional conservation work since the most critical of concerns within the lower Mississippi River basin is controlling runoff of surface water and better management of nutrients.

Examples of how to improve nutrient management would include applying nitrogen and phosphorous at the appropriate rates, applying them in the proper form, carefully selecting the timing of such applications, and choosing the best application method.

Model simulations have also shown that increasing the use of cover crops will have a significant impact on reducing edge-of-field losses of sediment and nutrients, while also improving water quality.

The lower Mississippi River report covers cropland in Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

Over the past few years, similar assessments were completed on the upper Mississippi, Tennessee-Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas-Red-White rivers. As a whole, assessments in these basins have shown that conservation on cropland acres prevents the loss of an estimated 243 million tons of sediment, 2.1 billion pounds of nitrogen, and 375 million pounds of phosphorous from farm fields every year.

Compared to what would have been lost if no conservation practices were in place, these figures translate to a 55 percent, 34 percent and 46 percent reduction in edge-of-field losses of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous, respectively.

Similarly, conservation has resulted in an estimated annual reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous entering the Gulf of Mexico of 17 percent and 22 percent respectively.

The scientific-based modeling has also indicated that greater rainfall amounts and more intense storms are resulting in relatively higher edge-of-field losses of sediment and nutrients in the lower Mississippi River basin than in any of the other four basins within the Mississippi River watershed.

USDA initiative reduces cost of sugar loan program

In the interest of reducing the cost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sugar loan program, while also helping to reduce an oversupply of domestic sugar, officials from the Commodity Credit Corporation recently announced that it had reduced its sugar inventory by 51,448 metric tons. This was accomplished by exchanging the sugar for 139,882 metric tons of credits under USDA’s Refined Sugar Re-Export Program.

Commodity Credit Corporation received an average of 2.72 tons of import access per ton of sugar inventory, thereby reducing the amount of sugar available to the market by 88,434 metric tons.

In addition, USDA announced that it will extend its offer to exchange the remaining 26,003 metric tons of sugar inventory for credits held by refiners with licenses under the Refined Sugar Re-Export Program.

The 1985 farm bill authorized USDA to purchase surplus commodities if the purchase results in an expected program savings. This was the third and latest action taken by USDA in recent months to reduce its inventory of sugar after processors began forfeiting their loan collateral to the government when sugar prices dropped below the cost to repay the loan principal and interest.

USDA will continue to monitor the sugar market on an ongoing basis and will take additional action, if necessary, to reduce the cost of the loan program.

Sugar program costs are expected to increase in 2013 due to record crops in North America and world prices that no longer support U.S. prices at the sugar program’s support level.

Fungicide exposure leaves bees susceptible to infection

Researchers from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Maryland recently discovered that when honey bees consume pollen that contains amounts of commonly used fungicides, even at levels too low to cause the bee’s death, it may leave them more susceptible to infection by the Nosema parasite.

Researchers collected pollen samples from honey bees pollinating apples, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, blueberries or cranberries. The scientists then analyzed the pollen to determine how much fungicide, insecticide or herbicide the bees were exposed to while pollinating each of the six crops.

In many cases, the pollen that bees brought back came primarily from plants other than the targeted crop. Some pollen samples contained very few pesticides, but the average number seen in a pollen sample was nine different pesticides, which could include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Fungicides were the most frequently found chemical substances in the pollen samples. The most common fungicide was chlorothalonil, which is widely used on apples and other crops. The fungicide pyraclostrobin, which was found less frequently in pollen samples, also increased bees’ susceptibility to Nosema infection.

The findings will provide new information that will be useful in understanding the myriad of problems affecting honey bees in the United States, including colony collapse disorder, dwindling honey bee colonies, and other health problems in managed bee colonies.

One unexpected finding from the research was that honey bees collected relatively little pollen from blueberry and cranberry plants.

To learn more, visit USDA’s Economic Research Service website at

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.