I have often written about Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans, or CNMPs. I do so again in this article by providing three comments, which address how we might make them better. Why? I am assigned the task of reviewing CNMPs written under a USDA – NRCS contract; the review includes a thorough examination of the document coupled with a field site review.
From an NRCS perspective, the CNMP document itself is a planning document recording decisions made by landowners to mitigate resource concerns, e.g. soil, water, air. Mitigating resource concerns is a public good, and USDA will help pay for the installation of conservation practice standards that stop resource degradation and actually improve it.
One example is the installation of a waste storage facility, an engineering practice, and the use of crop nutrient budgets through the installation of nutrient management, an agronomic practice.
Once installed, the operation, management and maintenance (OMM) of the practice is accomplished by the landowner; the CNMP is implemented, therefore, when practices are installed, OMM is accomplished and records are kept documenting performance.
Clearly, the link between the CNMP as a planning document and as a performance document is required. Yet our focus in NRCS is conservation planning; we expect the landowner to perform with record-keeping documents.
I suggest that, too often, our CNMP development procedures are too heavily weighted to planning and not enough on performance. Our software is part of the problem.
Can we have software that documents farm historical records, provides baseline conditions now, lists the planning parameters for the future and then gives the landowner a system to document activities as they occur in the future? Tall order. We do not have that here in Michigan.
I have suggested the web soil survey platform is an ideal foundation to build such software. The survey begins with an area of interest that is a geo-rectified spatial map of a crop field or group of fields, along with the capacity to build a thorough attribute list for the soil features in that spatial map.
With additional programming, we add the time table, or temporal aspects of the crop field, e.g. history, baseline and future activities (records of crop production, nutrient applications including manures, and even climate conditions). The landowner has a CNMP built upon this survey foundation and continues using it in the future.
This is the important link that I submit to you is essential for landowners to actually have so they can implement the CNMP. Yet today, our software in use is planning only and does not offer the landowner a record-keeping option for the future, nor is it map-based or spatial-based. I am working to fix this.
We find most of our CNMP problems on the production area (PA) site. In other words, on the headquarters site, the planners are not doing a good job conducting a complete inventory and evaluation (I&E).
First of all, the inventory is three primary things: one, the land use itself; two, the buildings, structures, storages and conveyance systems; and three, the make-up of the animals on the site. The planner may take a map that is a Google photo, for instance, and during the initial walk-around write down the identifiable features and animal groups.
The evaluation is, first of all, finding the obvious and potential leaks, runoff pathways and discharges that degrade water and soil resources. This step is not that difficult (for experienced planners), although what makes it difficult is discussing this degradation with the landowner.
Remember, at this stage of CNMP development, the planner is identifying and evaluating the PA site through the lens of resource concerns.
Yes, there are likely management concerns too, but the focus for any landowner participating in a Farm Bill program like EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) is contracting conservation practice standards that mitigate a resource concern.
The planner, therefore, conducts an I&E on the PA site with the objective of finding and evaluating resource concerns.
Examples are non-containment of polluted substances (manure) leaving a concrete surface and following a flowpath to surface water, runoff of milk house effluent into a pothole depressional area that degrades groundwater and silage leachate entering a bar ditch that flows off the farm during a rainstorm event.
Every PA site is different, and every landowner interprets leaks or runoff or discharge differently. The planner and landowner have a thorough discussion of the I&E component and, in fact, usually do this step together as a walk-around.
Now then, on nearly all PA sites with identified and evaluated resource concerns, the mitigating conservation practice standard is usually an engineering practice.
We suggest that at the early stages of PA site I&E, the planner involve the NRCS district conservationist, and in fact, we (Michigan NRCS) now have this step as a requirement in terms of a “post-contracting meeting.”
This means that once the CNMP has been contracted by NRCS to the landowner, a meeting is held with the planner with clear and unambiguous roles and responsibilities for NRCS, the landowner and the planner. One important benefit is, of course, to coordinate efforts and manage expectations.
The term “manage expectations” simply refers to providing the landowner with a realistic assessment of EQIP cost-share funding. The district conservationist understands the cost- share funding eligibility; managing the expectations of the landowner is better done early rather than when the CNMP is completed.
And the engineering perspective here, during the PA site I&E, brings into the discussion the technical aspects of practices: Are they feasible, are they reasonable and do they make economic and management sense?
Obviously, a frank and honest discussion with the landowner and the planner is essential; the engineer can provide technical answers to these questions.
Certainly there are others with this expertise: Consider the county agent, the equipment manufacturer, a neighboring landowner and even other planners.
The point is that very early in the CNMP planning process, the PA site I&E component requires multiple sets of eyes on the ground to see and evaluate. Remember, the landowner seeks more than one option for mitigating a resource concern.
The landowner will choose one or more, and they are recorded as courses of action in the schedule of implementation (the most important component in the CNMP). So planners … get some help early on.
My perspective only here, but I get the sense that much of our CNMP training, to planners, is component-based and not systems-based. A three-day course, for instance, will include discipline specialists talking about their subjects, such as filling out a software program, developing a crop nutrient budget or how to handle dead animals.
But we do not have someone tying all these together into a process. This process is essential to bring some standardization to the work effort of writing a CNMP.
The systems approach looks at the big picture and realizes that all or nearly all of the components must fit together. We do not have a software package for this, although the web soil survey model does come closer than we are now.
For those of us who have been around for a while, we remember when planning was done using a pencil, a pad of paper and a calculator. I am not saying these were the good old days … we did not have the benefit of many of the tools we have today.
But what we did have was the big picture formed by understanding how the components of a CNMP all fit together – because we had to. There was no software other than some rudimentary software in the desktop … but we had no GIS platform for geo-rectified mapping; we had no web soil survey, only the printed versions, and we had very simple Excel spreadsheets helping us complete crop nutrient budgets.
We have so much more capability today … except that it is component-based. For instance, our erosion tools, RUSLE (water) and WEPS (wind), are independent of each other. Our transport models, such as the Phosphorus Index, are independent of other components. These three could all be built on the framework of the survey.
One challenge we have is the obvious: We do not have systems approach software, and planners like software for managing their time efficiency. One reason the PA site work, especially the I&E component, is a problem for many planners is based on the level of experience and the difficulty of complex sites.
This step requires experience and interpretation rather than just filling in the blanks of a worksheet or software program. We do have resource worksheets, but data, once there, require knowledge and that means interpretation through evaluation.
We know that these three comments are part of the total system. Think about the CNMP this way: The first word is “comprehensive.” We may liken this to the forest as a complete system rather than its individual units, the trees.
I suggest that planners ask for this type of training. Become proficient at understanding systems thinking, and trust me, you will be a better planner. We already know that a crop and livestock owner thinks in terms of integration, of systems of units that all are changed if one single unit or component changes.
Why do this? I was taught that whatever we do, we can do better. And if we, as planners, are delivering a more useful CNMP document to our clients, the landowners, and to the NRCS field office, then the landowners can easily integrate the implementation of that plan, the CNMP, into the kind of performance that will increase profit and efficiency.
If we cannot do this, then we must start over so that we do accomplish this important goal. PD