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Success Story

NRCS Refines Nutrient Management Strategies to Improve Conservation Outcomes

By Terry J. Cosby, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Publish Date
Overhead shot of a river with green fields on its right

In 2022, NRCS developed a strategic operational plan to address changing trends in agriculture, enhancing our existing nutrient management conservation efforts.

For decades, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has supported producers and landowners in addressing their nutrient management and water quality concerns. We continue to refine our strategies as we learn more, including from data in a recent report on cropland conservation outcomes from our Conservation Effects Assessment Project.

This report showed that despite many wins in conservation outcomes, there was an increase in soluble nitrogen and phosphorus lost to the environment nationally over a ten-year period. This increase was due to many factors, including changing trends in production, climate, and technology. Preventing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources from entering local waters ensures that they can be utilized by crops and benefits both water quality and farmer finances. 

These findings can help NRCS more effectively support farmers nationwide by refining applied conservation to address site-specific risk for nutrient losses. In 2022, we developed a strategic operational plan to address these changing trends, enhancing our existing nutrient management conservation efforts. This plan includes promoting SMART Nutrient Management planning and highlighting the importance of comprehensive, site-specific assessment of nutrient loss risks. 

The plan also includes several science-based nutrient management and water quality strategies for improving conservation outcomes, and NRCS continues to move this work forward. To date NRCS has:

  • Updated how producers can be paid for utilizing nutrient management related practices. NRCS has allowed payments to producers for soil, source nutrient, and water testing. Testing is key to determine the proper rate of nutrient application. NRCS has also created new payment scenarios to more closely align with the technology that farmers are encouraged to adopt, including enhanced efficiency fertilizers and precision application technology, which can help ensure nutrients are available at the right time, the right rate and in the right place. 
  • Initiated development of a new mapping tool to help conservation planners identify areas on the land that can be more sensitive to nutrient loss. The Sensitive Area Analysis Tool uses soil survey data to show the areas of a field at risk for nutrient loss that can benefit from site-specific nutrient management plans and other practices that can help mitigate nutrient losses. The tool will be available for use in early 2023. Ask NRCS at your local USDA Service Center for details.
  • Updated manure testing protocols through an agreement with the University of Minnesota (Recommended Methods of Manure Analysis, Second Edition). These new testing protocols for manure testing take management practices into account and deliver more accurate values specific to the farm. These protocols will be used to update NRCS nutrient management policy including laboratory testing procedures and determination of accredited laboratories.
  • Led an effort to create four new, long-term assessments to better understand the importance of legacy (historical) sources of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrate, as well as sediment. Effective conservation options for addressing legacy sources are being evaluated. For example, NRCS is supporting a stakeholder-driven study of a perennial grass buffer to enhance plant uptake of legacy nutrients, reduce losses and improve on-farm nutrient cycling.

These and many other efforts are continuing in 2023 and beyond. The Inflation Reduction Act is providing NRCS with an additional $19.5 billion over the next four years to help support climate-smart agricultural practices, including nutrient management. NRCS is targeting funding for nutrient management, increasing program flexibilities, and expanding partnerships to support the development and implementation of nutrient management plans. NRCS will keep partners and producers informed as we make further improvements and updates.