Whether it's to reduce out-of-pocket expenses or to improve water quality, nutrient management was squarely put on the front burner by the 2002 Farm Bill.

Competitive funding was expanded for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The program affects cost-sharing arrangements in Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs), especially those involving nitrogen and phosphorus.

“The 2002 Farm Bill definitely set the stage to offer producers more flexibility in cost-sharing programs tied to nutrient management and soil conservation,” says Pat Murphy. Murphy is a Wisconsin resource conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Madison. “Producers can now have more than one cost-sharing contract on a farm, and that will aid them in developing comprehensive soil conservation and nutrient management programs.”

Under the 2002 Farm Bill, some key changes were made to the EQIP program that impact the cost-share funding levels for soil conservation and nutrient management programs. According to NRCS, the more notable changes included:

  • Removal of limits on eligibility for large operations, called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), to receive cost-share funds for animal waste management facilities. Any CAFO operator receiving cost-share help for such facilities is required to develop a comprehensive NMP.

  • The program provides funding for technical assistance in complying with environmental regulations, with most of the funding (60%) targeted to livestock operations. The program was revised so large livestock producers — namely, CAFOs — could become eligible and participate in the program.

  • The program now allows up to 90% cost sharing for “limited-resource” or beginning producers. Cost sharing for most practices ranges from 50% to 75% and may include a cap on the total cost-sharing payment received for an individual practice.

  • Annual payment limits, which had been $10,000 per year and the multi-year cap of $50,000, were removed. The new bill provides for a total payment cap of $450,000 per producer over the six-year period of the new bill.

“Revising the EQIP program to allow technical assistance to both grain and livestock producers is a big benefit,” says Sue Porter, nutrient management specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural Trade and Consumer Protection. “Producers can now seek NRCS cost-share funds to help defray the cost of hiring certified Technical Service Providers (TSP), such as crop consultants.”

These TSPs must also meet NRCS standards and requirements, and they are legally responsible for the services they provide. Certified TSPs are being placed on a national, Web-based registry called TechReg, which is available to anyone seeking conservation technical assistance. (Additional information is available at techreg.usda.gov)

  • A producer may choose to apply for an NRCS EQIP Nutrient Management Plan that would typically be four years in length. In most counties, EQIP pays $7/acre for three years plus one additional year without a cost-share payment to comply with an EQIP practice maintenance requirement.

  • If an EQIP program participant elects to use non-NRCS technical assistance to develop a plan, payment for this assistance will go from NRCS through the farmer to a TSP for preparing the annual NMP. Payment for this service ranges from $4 to $7/acre — decreasing with larger-sized farms (based on the 2003 NRCS Technical Service Provider Not-to-Exceed Rates).

Being able to apply for EQIP cost-share funds at $7/acre offered Roger Magnuson of Ponderosa Partnership, near Auroraville, WI, added incentive to work directly with a certified TSP from Olsen's Mill, Inc., also based in Auroraville.

The cost share was used to begin developing a basic NMP involving soil sampling and mapping on the partnership's 600-acre corn, soybean and wheat operation.

“For a number of years, we only did random soil sampling. But I always felt that it wasn't giving us a true or accurate picture of all our cropland,” says Magnuson. “With the help of the TSP, we're now using a grid soil sampling system of 21½2 acres, which is used by Olsen's Mill to generate maps for applying fertilizer at variable rates using GPS.”

Consider These Steps Before Building Your NMP

A grower shouldn't dive into a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) overnight, says Pat Murphy, a Wisconsin resource conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Madison. He suggests following these steps:

  1. Review 590 Nutrient Management Technical Standard: Contact your local NRCS field office or County Conservation District office for a copy of your state's 590 Nutrient Management Technical Standard. The standard defines the minimum but necessary requirements and components of an acceptable NMP, especially when participating in federal and state farm programs involving cost sharing.

    Each NRCS state office, along with other state departments (natural resources and agriculture, for example), have developed and adopted specific, technical standards relating to conservation and nutrient management. These technical standards are based on local conditions and partnerships with pertinent agencies.

    “These requirements can vary state by state, and that's a key reason why producers need to review them,” says Murphy. “Plus, in cases where manure storage construction may be involved along with nutrient management plans, producers need to check and examine what county standards must be met.”

  2. Tolerable soil losses: You'll also need to review your conservation plan with NRCS to make sure your soil losses are at tolerable rates. “Many grain producers are already used to dealing with Conservation Compliance Plans, since they're required for farm program eligibility,” says Murphy. “However, checking with your local NRCS or county Land Conservation Department is still important because conservation compliance plans do not necessarily reduce soil erosion to tolerable rates.”

  3. Soil sampling/testing: It's also necessary to have current soil tests based on excepted methods that are normally developed by your state's agricultural college.

    “You can't overstate the importance of good soil sampling techniques,” says Sue Porter, nutrient management specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural Trade and Consumer Protection. “If the soil sample doesn't represent the general soil conditions of the field accurately, the recommendations based on the sample will be useless. Soil sampling, testing and mapping are the cornerstones in building a solid nutrient management plan.”

    In past years, the 590 Standard for Nutrient Management centered on nitrogen. However, in July 2002 the standard was revised to also include phosphorus. That's because it, too, has a major impact on water quality, adds Porter.

  4. Cropping history: According to Murphy and Porter, it's also important to maintain detailed records about your cropping history and what actually happened in fields (maps, yields, crop rotations, planting conditions, weather conditions, manure and fertilizer applications, nutrient credits, etc.).

Such records — from one year to the next — assist in future planning. This linking of one year's crop production to the next is a key element in developing a workable and comprehensive NMP.

For more information, check the NRCS Web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov. For your particular state, scroll down the left-hand column and click on “States and Regions.”