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1108 PD: The View from Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 24 July 2008

I wrote of our Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) Course a few articles ago. The facilitated portion of the course is now done. In this article, I comment on the course and what we accomplished.

The course participants (see photo) are NRCS employees from all regions of the state of Michigan. Each of them works with a landowner in their local area. The landowners have a variety of reasons for wanting a CNMP developed, including participation in USDA cost-share programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Some want a CNMP from an innovation standpoint; they will be the first in the neighborhood with one of these documents. Others want one so they can make better nutrient application decisions.

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The course was delivered over a three-month period. The first two days were delivered in April. My job as the instructor was not only delivering the course but writing a CNMP myself.

Fortunately, we found a cooperative landowner, Dan Stuart and his family. They operate a 300-cow confinement dairy farm with nearly 600 acres in alfalfa and corn silage in crop production. Dan had several resource concerns that are now scheduled to be mitigated in the schedule of implementation. I delivered the completed CNMP to him the first of June. We signed the document together on June 10.

One of the strengths of the course included was having a cooperating landowner willing to allow us access to his farm. In April, we conducted a thorough production area inventory and evaluation. We identified leaks on the headquarter site area, discussing with Dan alternatives for mitigating them, and then he chose which alternatives to install and implement.

The third and fourth days of the course were delivered in May. We shifted our focus to the land application area. We addressed sensitive areas on the crop land and completed a crop nutrient budget for each of the 50 fields on the farm.

The fifth and final day, June 10, was a wrap-up of the CNMP using our Michigan template. We moved through the remaining elements in the CNMP.

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One of those is implementation. And it is this part of CNMP development that has been sorely lacking.

I often tell folks that while my work is largely conservation planning, the very best CNMP is worthless until it is implemented by the landowner. Or written this way, planning is fine, but the execution of the plan brings results.

What about these results after the plan is executed?

If the planner has done his or her job, the resource concerns are identified and the landowner has decided how to mitigate them so the concern, such as polluted water or soil eroding from a crop field, is reduced. The key is, of course, the landowner must execute the CNMP so the water is cleaner and the soil stays on the crop field. Yes, this is somewhat simplistic, but this is the bottom line. I’ll also submit to my readers that as conservationists and federal government employees, we have a fiduciary responsibility. That is, the CNMP we develop will have a positive environmental impact. Once again, we come back to the landowner; he or she must execute the CNMP.

I drilled into my students the need to robustly write the schedule of implementation. This document contains the action items and time stamp of engineering and management practices that will be installed, operated and maintained by the landowner. We do place a landowner signature on this page to denote its importance.

We must do everything we can to show that we have spent federal taxpayer dollars effectively. In other words, a resource concern has been mitigated with a practice that improves the environment for everyone in that watershed, and beyond that watershed, too. This is the contractual agreement the U.S. government makes with the landowner.

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The cost of developing a CNMP is $4,000 to $16,000, depending upon herd size and land base. But these dollars pale in comparison to the investment of a waste storage facility that may cost federal taxpayers $100,000 to $300,000. The landowner bears some significant cost as well. So the importance of developing the CNMP properly is obvious.

The implementation or execution of the CNMP includes the record keeping component, too. Often I listen to folks talk about records as an obligation. They are not at all. Records help all of us make better decisions. We know the dairy industry has made huge strides in terms of breeding and milk production based on the Dairy Herd Information Association’s (DHIA) system. Knowing individual cow and herd trends can logically be linked to field and farm crop trends.

Note the word trend. As a scientist, I am more interested in the change over a time period rather than an individual measurement. Thus, recording action items such as manure-hauling events, crop yield and soil fertility over a period of months and years helps the farm manager operate more efficiently and profitably. We do this with records, the recording of measurements and then comparing these data points with historical data.

I end with this. My goal, and it is a strategic goal, is to have 23 landowners who are located somewhere in Michigan, call their supervisors and say this: “Your employee helped me change my attitude about resource management on my farm, through that notebook called a CNMP. Thank you for his or her efforts.” Priceless. PD

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