Drought, high temperatures and hot winds accounted for 97 percent of crop losses last year in Iowa and resulted in nearly $2 billion in payouts to farmers under the federal crop insurance program, according to a report today.


The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said those losses could have been reduced if farmers had planted more cover crops and adopted farming practices that help retain soil moisture.


The crop insurance program, which was adopted as a result of widespread farm losses during the Great Depression, paid a record $17.3 billion for crop losses incurred in 2012, according to the report. Crop insurance payments averaged $4.1 billion a year from 2001 to 2010.


Iowa ranked second behind Illinois in total payments.


To avoid such steep losses, the National Resources Defense Council proposed a crop insurance "reform pilot plan that would build soil health to help climate-proof American farms, and would reduce government and taxpayer costs by encouraging farmers to become more resistant to weather-related risks."


The program would offer reduced premium rates to farmers who adopt soil management practices that sustain productive crop yields, reduce water loss and result in less farm runoff and reduced flooding.


Those practices include planting cover crops, such as alfalfa and clover, practicing no-till farming, in which a new crop is planted directly into stubble from the previous year, and adopting irrigation schedules.


Those practices also are being encouraged under a cost-share program that is driven in large part by an effort to reduce pollutants in rainwater runoff from farm fields. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said it has awarded $2.8 million in grants under the program, meaning that farmers will spend an equal amount to plant cover crops, engage in no-till or strip farming practices, or adopt a practice that limits the production of nitrates when applying fertilizer in the fall.


The department said 1,100 farmers have signed up to adopt the practices on 120,680 acres.