Created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Colorado State University, the free, on-line "Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool" helps producers calculate how much carbon their conservation actions can remove from the atmosphere.

Access the tool here.

“Producers will input information about their land and current and past management practices to establish a baseline,” said Vilsack. “The tool will let them select from a list of alternative conservation practices to see how each one changes their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture. For example, a producer planning to implement conservation tillage could estimate how that conservation practice will increase soil carbon, and decrease emissions for the operation overall.”

The hope is the tool will allow producers to make decisions “that reduce energy costs while building carbon stocks in the soil. It would also serve as a gateway for future efforts to help producers participate in voluntary carbon markets.”

Another NRCS online project, a database, will allow researchers access to the most extensive database on soil carbon in the world. “While NRCS has collected soil samples for more than a century, this rapid assessment is an ambitious project. In fact, it is the largest concentrated soil sampling effort in history. NRCS scientists collected more than 144,000 soil samples at 6,000 locations across the country to provide baseline data on regional carbon stocks.

“This will allow outside researchers and scientists to begin taking a fresh look at carbon in soil, which ultimately will have regional benefits to crop production.”

  • Cover crops.

New cover cropping guidelines are coming from USDA agencies.

Why is this necessary?

Despite the benefits of the practice, “some producers have encountered conflicting cover crop management issues when working with multiple USDA agencies,” said Vilsack. “For example, there was a perception that crop insurance policies did not always allow cover crops -- which conflicts with the NRCS incentives to plant cover crops. Some cover crop recommendations conflict with language in the 2008 farm bill for how the Farm Service Agency (FSA) is to give commodity payments. That's a problem.”

The new cover cropping model, “uses local climate data, tillage management and soil data to account for daily crop growth and use of soil moisture,” said Vilsack. “With this information, experts determined the latest possible time to terminate a cover crop, to maximize carbon sequestration and at the same time minimize risk to the cash crop yield.”

It would also establish four cover crop termination zones across the country.

“These provide a regionally-appropriate approach to cover crops and the tools to identify the proper cover crop management in an area, taking into account local climate and cropping systems. We took the time needed to get this right -- including truth-testing our recommendations with folks on the ground. Going forward (the Risk Management Agency), the NRCS and FSA will all uniformly refer producers to these guidelines, and will use them to administer programs.”

That will result in farmers having “more flexibility and a greater opportunity to utilize cover crops on their operations, while staying in compliance across all USDA agencies,” said Vilsack. “They can reap the conservation and economic benefits that cover crops can provide -- healthy soils and sustained food and fiber production. Producers will have a greater degree of certainty that they can use these practices, while still being eligible for crop insurance and other programs.”