Where is your conservation plan? It is thrown in the glove box of the pickup truck? Hidden below a mound of junk mail? Perhaps in the shed under some hand tools?
Farmers need to dig out those plans as many face the growing possibility of being spot-checked in the field to make certain soil loss minimums are not being exceeded.
"Producers need to pay close attention to the contents of their conservation plans in terms of crop rotation, residue management and tillage methods in order to maintain compliance and be eligible for farm program payments, and even more importantly, RMA [Risk Management Agency] crop insurance premium subsidies," says Tony Francis, USDA Farm Service Agency executive director in Monroe County, Mo. And there are a number of factors that can lead to compliance issues if producers do not take the time to visit with their Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist to determine the impact on soil loss.
"Farmland is our biggest investment," says Beth Baragary, USDA NRCS area resource conservation agent. "Erosion decreases the value of that investment."
USDA NRCS Conservation Compliance includes highly erodible land conservation, or HELC. This provision aims to reduce soil loss on erosion-prone lands and keep healthy soils in the field. It has been a part of every farm bill since 1985. However, the 2014 Farm Bill re-established the application of HELC to crop insurance subsidies.
Every farmer participating in USDA programs signs a form saying he or she agrees to keep sheet and rill erosion and ephemeral gullies under control, Baragary says. "We have a random list sent to us," she says. "It is truly random. It is supposed to represent 5% of tracts across the nation participating in programs." This spring, she and other conservation agents will complete random compliance checks on those tracts.
This year there will be an effort to bring ephemeral gullies into compliance. What is an ephemeral gulley?
"It is larger than a rill but smaller than a classic gully," Baragary explains. "It is a wide channel that can be crossed and filled will normal tillage but cannot be totally erased like rills."
Farmers cannot just fill in these gullies, as the loose soil will once again run off. Nor can they disk the area and plant. They must work with their NRCS agent to determine a best course of action, which may include no-till, cover crops, grassed waterways or terraces.
If conservation agents find these gullies to be planted or plowed, a farmer may be found out of compliance.
In the 1990s, Monroe County planted roughly 30,000 acres of wheat each year. "Wheat is big in reducing soil loss," Francis says. Today, however, fewer than 14,000 acres of wheat are planted.
Simply based on economics, farmers are taking wheat out of their crop rotations. The problem, Francis says, is they have not adjusted their conservation plans. "Many of these plans were made 20 years ago and never looked at again," he says. "If you change crop rotations, it is good to let your NRCS soil conservation agent know."
If these types of crop changes are not added, he notes, farmers could be found out of compliance.
Instead of using dry fertilizer, did you knife in anhydrous in the fall? Francis says making any pass across a field does affect soil loss and, subsequently, the calculations that go into figuring a field's tolerable loss level based on the revised universal soil loss equation, known as RUSLE.
Farmers should alert the NRCS office to these types of production changes, and then an agent can decide any needed plan adjustments.
Other farm management decisions like removing trees and bringing those acres into production should also be reported.
Type of machinery used on the farm can also impact soil loss and ultimately compliance.
Visit with a conservation agent after purchasing equipment like vertical-tillage tools. Farmers need to discuss how the new tool fits into their tillage management plan.
These are just a few topics that could affect the soil and a farmer's compliance.
Before heading out to plant this spring, both Francis and Baragary recommend sitting down with NRCS staff and reviewing conservation plans. It is good for maintaining not only healthy soils, but also regulatory compliance.