In a recent survey, 60% of approximately 2,000 farmers said they have adopted nutrient management plans, and more than half said they have fully adopted conservation tillage, nutrient management, grassed waterways and integrated pest management (IPM). Mostly from the Midwest, these respondents represent about 2.5 million acres of cropland.

“Although we are pleased that high numbers of these farmers indicate they are utilizing conservation practices, anything less than full adoption should be of concern not only to the fertilizer industry, but to the entire agriculture community,” says Ford West, president of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI). “As the public spotlight continues to shine heavily on biofuels, it's critical that producers understand the public relations and policy implications that could follow anything but outstanding environmental performance.”

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and TFI conducted the survey to better understand farmers' use of best management practices (BMP) and conservation practices. At a time of record-high commodity prices, some farmers may hesitate to adopt conservation methods.

“These are new times. We encourage farmers to look beyond this current year at the bigger picture,” says CTIC Executive Director Karen Scanlon. “A comprehensive system of conservation practices will not only help to maintain valuable resources, but also build soil quality and manage inputs.”

Although farmers are getting high prices for commodities, they also are paying high input costs, Scanlon says. Conservation practices, she says, can help farmers apply inputs at the right time and in the right way to save on fuel and fertilizer costs.

Farmers also see that good conservation practices last over the long term, Scanlon says. “Farmers who have no-tilled for years aren't going back to their old practices,” she states. “They don't want to compromise the organic matter that they've built up by reverting back to tillage.”

The survey did reveal that some producers are not choosing conservation practices. Scanlon says the most common reason that farmers give for not adopting conservation practices is an economic one.

Some growers have concerns about the cost of specialized equipment or soil testing. Others are worried that conservation practices will lower crop yields.

Farmers need to pencil out the economics over time, Scanlon says, noting that organizations like CTIC can help farmers understand the economics of transitioning from conventional tillage to no-till, for example, and see the financial picture from year to year. CTIC focuses on an entire system (not just no-till, for example, but nutrient management, cover crops, IPM, buffers and so on).

Cost sharing
The survey respondents prefer financial assistance over technical assistance when it comes to implementing buffers, water and sediment control, and other conservation measures.

"A significant barrier to the adoption of best management practices is not only the availability of cost-share money, but the fact that the cost-share money is often accompanied by red tape,” says TFI's West. “While we understand the need for accountability, barriers exist, for example, to certified crop adviser participation in current cost-share programs. If CCAs are a top source of BMP advice, then farmers' use of them for technical assistance should be allowed in cost-share programs.”

Several federal programs provide some financial assistance. These include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Security Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. Some states also offer financial assistance. “Contact your local conservation district office,” Scanlon says.

Risk Protection Program
Farmers can look to environmental and other organizations for assistance as well. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, offers a Risk Protection Program. The program began in 2000 in northeast Indiana's Upper St. Joseph River Watershed, which extends into Michigan and Ohio. Four years later, the program was implemented in Indiana's Tippecanoe River Watershed.

Funding was provided by the Monsanto Fund for a three-year period and also was given to The Nature Conservancy project offices in Iowa and Michigan. “The program was started as a result of the rare and threatened species we are looking to protect in each given area,” explains Kent Wamsley, field representative, Tippecanoe River Project, The Nature Conservancy. “The focus is on rare and threatened fish and mussel species. The major threat to them is sedimentation.”

In this program, growers can enroll a maximum of 150 acres of either strip-till or no-till and compare them to conventional corn production systems over a three-year period.

Crop inputs and yields are tracked using Purdue University's WinMax program. The Nature Conservancy uses these data to determine economic gain or loss for each system and if payment to the grower is necessary. The program covers the dollar difference if the new high-residue farming system does not outperform conventional systems, Wamsley says.

The Nature Conservancy has enrolled about 10,000 acres in the Tippecanoe River Watershed into the Risk Protection Program since 2004. Though annual enrollment has decreased since that time, farmers who participated in the three-year program are now using high-residue corn systems on more than three-quarters of their operations, and some have made a full transition into a no-till or strip-till system, Wamsley says.

“Several of these growers have been able to fine-tune their fertilizer programs and lessen the amount they are putting on the field without yield loss,” says Wamsley, adding that they also have realized fuel savings. “With the high cost of fuel today, one can quickly realize the savings from fewer trips across the field, which both no-till and strip-till do for them.”

The Nature Conservancy provides farmers financial assistance for crop consultant services and risk assurance. In previous years, it also offered financial assistance for soil testing and up to $3,000 for the purchase of no-till or strip-till equipment. However, due to a lack of funding, assistance for soil testing and equipment purchases is currently unavailable.

BMP Challenge
This year, The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Resource Conservation and Development and the BMP Challenge to expand the Risk Protection Program.

The American Farmland Trust, along with support from Agflex, Agren, the IPM Institute and the NRCS, provides the Reduced Tillage BMP Challenge and the Nutrient BMP Challenge. These programs pay participating farmers cash if their yield and income are reduced while testing reduced tillage or nutrient management techniques.

David Legvold, executive director, Cannon River Watershed Partnership, Northfield, MN, has participated in the BMP Challenge program for the last two years. He farms about 700 acres and has a cow/calf operation. A BMP Challenge facilitator in southeastern Minnesota, Legvold says the program's facilitators work closely with participants throughout the process. He conducted a BMP Challenge trial with high and low rates of manure on his farm. In this trial, he applied 1,500 gal. of manure/acre in a strip-till plot and 7,000 gal. of manure/acre on the remainder of the field. The strip-till plot yielded 192 bu./acre (compared to 181 bu./acre for the conventional method) at significantly less cost, so Legvold sent in the profit he earned to support the BMP Challenge program.