Nutrient management plan pays off

PPI cites economical and ecological advantages for farms Implementing a nutrient management plan for your farm might sound burdensome and time-consuming. But it really does make sound economical and ecological sense to do so, according to Clifford Snyder with the Potash and Phosphate Institute. And best of all, it could keep the federal government from telling you how to run your business.

Today, NMPs are mandatory for all confined livestock operations with conservation plans and on any operation with a conservation plan that has animal waste on the farm. NMPs are not required across the board for row crop operations just yet, but the time is coming, Snyder believes.

That's why row crop farmers need to get serious about NMPs. In fact, if they don't, the federal government could mandate its own nutrient management rules. Some could be counterproductive to everyone - environmentalists and farmers alike - Snyder believes.

For example, one requirement being considered is to make farmers who farm around impaired waterways implement and manage a wetlands on some crop fields to act as a water-filtering structure. "But not all fields can benefit from vegetative buffers (wetlands)," Snyder said.

To head off federal mandates, "we have to step up our nutrient management intensity. Nutrient management planning is a vehicle to do that," Snyder said. "We need to make sure that the regulators are listening to the farmers and the researchers who are developing interpretations (of nutrient management goals) for those farmers to use."

Snyder says that a nutrient management plan, as he sees it, isn't so much a list of dos and don'ts as it is a common sense method of using nutrients more efficiently. "To start with, a plan has to be specific to the goals of the farmer. It has to consider the sensitivity of the watershed where that farmer operates."

Here are some components of an NMP for as row crop producer:

- Every farmer should have a field map of each of his fields. "It may be an aerial photo or satellite image," Snyder said. "You also need to know exactly the number of acres there are in each field."

- The farmer needs to be specific as to the crop or crop rotation that he has on each field.

- Representative soil tests that are no more than two to three years old.

- Soil survey information that details soil types and characteristics.

- Realistic yield goals. Snyder suggests a three-year average yield.

- An understanding of your nutrient sources and how those sources can best be managed.

- An understanding of the rates, timing and placement you need to derive the best economic benefit.

- An understanding of the carryover of nutrients. "For example, if you put out enough fertilizer in 2000 to make a 200-bushel corn crop and you have a drought and only make 80 to 90 bushels, then you need to recognize that there's some nutrient carryover to account for before you begin treatments for the next season."

- Economic considerations. "For example, it wouldn't make sense for a farmer to spend $10,000 on buffer strips, vegetative filters or riparian zones on a 20-acre field that's worth $500 an acre. You have to determine the cost-benefits of these conservation practices."

- A narrative. "The farmer should be able to state the goals that he has for each field. Then the person in charge of the NMP should have a narrative stating that the NMP is helping the farmer achieve that goal." An example of a narrative from a farmer might be: "I just bought this land and over the next five years, I want it to produce 20 percent more cotton."

- An annual review. Evaluate what is done on the field, and whether goals were achieved. In addition, "I would encourage many of these farmers to consider collecting water samples from runoff on their fields, so they know what's going on on their fields and don't have to wait for some environmentalist extremist group to come along and sample it."

There are a couple of obstacles to broad acceptance of NMPs by farmers, notes Snyder. For example, an NMP will have to be written by a trained expert. However, USDA's Extension Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service don't currently have the manpower or resources to do anything more than monitor NMPs.

Writing an NMP would likely fall on the shoulders of certified crop advisors, according to Snyder, who has been training CCAs in nutrient management planning for several years. That farmers would likely pay for that service is a big roadblock.

However, there is continuing discussion on cost-sharing for implementing best management practices under a NMP. There is also the possibility for the development of computerized tools that would help a farmer write NMPs for his fields. And there is also the under-appreciated benefit that more efficient nutrient management could translate into reduced inputs and/or higher yields.

Snyder also noted that a farmer must be willing to share all of his records with his advisor. "That's another reason why farmers are reluctant to initiate NMPs."

During the recent Southern Soil Fertility Conference in Memphis, soil scientists pointed out that NMPs being implemented by livestock operations could provide some unique opportunities for row-crop farmers in the near future. For example, NMPs may reveal that a field or part of a field may be at high risk for phosphorus loss when manure is spread there. "The livestock operation may have to allocate animal waste or fertilizer sources to other land areas to minimize that offsite loss," Snyder said. " Those areas could include nearby farmland."

Snyder believes that voluntarily adoption of NMPs is the ideal way to proceed for agriculture. "The problem with most farmers is when you tell them that they have to do something, they automatically develop a negative attitude toward it. That's why I'm an advocate for voluntary compliance."

One arguable advantage for NMPs is that there is no single formula for how to write them. "Managing nutrients is a process that must be defined locally, not by some Washington group," noted Snyder.

Already, several states have established goals to restore water quality to pre-1980s levels. "This isn't very realistic," Snyder said. "We can't ask our producers to step back 20 years in time, not with the market we have today. It's easier to do everything possible that's both practical and economical today. Then over time, water quality will begin to improve. But we can't expect marked changes within a short time period because the problems we have now didn't come about overnight."

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