Farm conservation practices were once linked predominately to physical structures that helped to safeguard soil and water resources. Conservation practices today, however, are much more management focused, says Bruce Knight, chief executive officer for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“I'd encourage producers to sit down with their local NRCS staff and explore our new programs,” says Knight. “We are a dramatically different agency, with dramatically different programs, than we were just five years ago. We offer more programs, and — as agriculture moves more and more towards precision agriculture — we want to be involved more in precision conservation.”

Precision conservation is an idea that appeals to Dennis Friest, a Radcliffe, IA, corn and soybean farmer who also owns an independent farrow-to-finish hog operation with his family. “It used to be that the only way a farmer could get conservation money was to build new facilities,” says Friest. “Now the NRCS will reimburse many of the out-of-pocket costs I incur while putting together a nutrient management plan through EQIP.”

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of several current conservation programs that help agricultural producers hone management skills in a way that benefits both the producers themselves and the nation's soil and water resources, says Knight.

EQIP incentive payments are available for up to three years to producers who agree to carry out specific conservation practices that producers might hesitate to try without the incentive.

Thanks to EQIP, Friest says he's able to conduct on-farm research related to crop nutrient management. “We do side-by-side tests and grid soil samples,” he explains. “It helps us to be better environmentalists and to do the things we need to do to succeed.”

EQIP enhancements can also help farmers qualify for other conservation programs, such as the Conservation Security Program (CSP), says Knight. CSP provides financial and technical assistance to promote conservation and improve natural resources on private working lands, such as cropland and improved pasture, in all 50 states.

Friest says developing a farm nutrient management plan under EQIP was an essential component to developing a broader, Environmental Management System (EMS) under CSP. Knight agrees that CSP is much broader in scope compared to EQIP, which is targeted to the more narrow aspects of conservation.

“EQIP and CSP are complementing programs that don't compete,” says Knight. “We launched CSP two years ago in a few watersheds and it's now being offered in about 220 watersheds.

“EQIP may be the top conservation program for production agriculture today,” he adds, “but folks may say CSP is tops in five years.”

Knight advises farmers and ranchers to look at both EQIP and CSP to see how these programs could help them adopt better conservation management practices with new technology. “Do a self-assessment,” he advises, “but try to do it before CSP is offered in your watershed.”

Innovative farmers are especially welcome to take a look at new NRCS programs, says Knight. “In the past, we didn't lend much of a helping hand to conservation leaders,” he admits, “but CSP is a new program that is targeted specifically at early adapters. Our motto is to reward the best, and incentivise the rest.”

NRCS has also set aside grant money specifically for conservation innovation grants. “Over two years, we have funded $1.5 million in conservation innovation grants for nutrient management efforts in Iowa,” says Knight. “Conservation innovation grants require matching funds, and the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) has put up $1.5 million in matching grants.”

The ISA nutrient management program uses science-based research protocols, including GPS and combine yield monitors in on-farm strip trials, to establish cause and affect relationships. “Overall, it's clear that many farmers can become more profitable by making better decisions based on new information,” says Tracy Blackmer, director of research for ISA.

“We need to link policy to data,” he adds. “This program shows growers are proactive, and by collecting science-based data on their farm, they can often improve their nitrogen efficiency and profitability beyond any generalized recommendation or regulation.”

Friest agrees. “Not all conservation practices will work well on every farm,” he says, “but these conservation programs are a good opportunity to demonstrate that we as farmers can showcase our best management practices and keep from having one-size-fits-all government regulations that dictate what we can or can't do.”

Knight emphasizes that both EQIP and CSP are voluntary programs and that all NRCS programs and services vary, based on local needs and priorities. “We take a great deal of pride in how decision making is made at the local level,” says Knight. “There are different pay rates for different practices that are a priority for each area. It's up to each state and county to decide which incentives to offer when.”

NRCS is also making an increased effort to provide transparency in how decisions are made. “We publish our cost-share opportunities, conservation practices and priorities and our ranking process on the Web now,” says Knight. “The ranking process is different for each state. For example, water conservation practices would rank higher in Nebraska than in Iowa.”

NRCS also strives to provide equitable access to benefits to all producers, regardless of size of operation, crops produced, or geographic location.

“We've evolved so that we are taking a very different approach to work with commercial-sized operations so that we manage our programs in a very size-neutral manner,” says Knight. “Working to help a small-sized dairy operation that wants to put a rotational grazing system in place should be just as important as helping a large livestock producer install a better lagoon system. We shouldn't cast judgments that one practice is better than another. Both are equally valid conservation measures that deserve our encouragement and assistance.”

For more information on NRCS programs, visit the following USDA Web site: www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs.

EQIP Your Farm For Success

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) just wrapped up its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) services for fiscal year 2005, and the agency is gearing up for another strong showing in 2006, says Bruce Knight, chief executive officer for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“We wrote 46,000 contracts for the 2005 fiscal year with a budget of about $1 billion and change,” says Knight. “We said yes to about one in three contracts for 2005 and we spent about $12 million on 590 nutrient management plans.”

Knight says the agency has placed a priority on making programs operational just prior to the time when most farmers are making their planning decisions for the next cropping year. “We want to have our conservation programs queued up for farmers to be able to make their decisions in the winter months and then implement them in the spring,” he says. “Barring any problems in the budget reconciliation process, we expect the budget for 2006 to be at about the same $1 billion level. Any offset would likely occur in 2007, not 2006.”

Nebraska is one of the states where EQIP contracts are in great demand, says Rich Torpin, EQIP Liaison, Nebraska NRCS. “There has been a tremendous increase in EQIP dollars in Nebraska,” he says, “from about $3-4 million right after the 1996 Farm Bill to more than $20 million during the last three years.”

In Nebraska, the center-pivot irrigation cost-share program is very popular under EQIP, adds Torpin. Cost-share monies can be obtained in this state for 30% of the cost to convert from flood irrigation to center point irrigation systems.

Nebraska's EQIP program also offers a $10/acre incentive payment for no-till. “Farmers get that payment for three years to help them get started and learn about it,” says Torpin. “The payments help them buy equipment and provide a safety net as they learn the system.”

Every state is different, says Torpin, but the Nebraska EQIP program also pays an $8/acre incentive payment for a comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) with manure. Other Nebraska EQIP incentives include $6/acre for a site-specific NMP, which typically involves grid soil sampling, says Torpin, and a $3/acre incentive for a non-site-specific NMP.

The incentive payment is for producers who are just learning how to implement these plans. “The incentive payments give them a security blanket to make sure they don't lose money while they're learning how to do it,” explains Torpin. “It gives them a little money to hire a consultant or to help pay for their time in setting up record-keeping and documentation procedures.”

Torpin says farmers interested in trying a new conservation program should contact their local NRCS office. “Each state has a variety of different conservation practices to choose from,” he says, “and many of them offer significant incentive or cost-share monies to get started on the right foot.”
— By John Pocock