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Wisconsin has come a long way in recent years when it comes to implementing nutrient management plans on its farms, but it still has a long way to go.

Statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) show that in 2018, Wisconsin farmers reported 8,220 nutrient-management plans on 3.3 million acres, which covers about 36.6 percent of the state’s 9 million cropland acres. That percentage is up by more than three times from 2007, when only about 12 percent of the state’s cropland was covered by a nutrient management plan.

Nutrient management refers to the use of manure and other fertilizer to meet crop nutrient needs, while reducing the potential for them to run off fields to lakes, streams and groundwater, according to the DATCP. A plan helps ensure that crops get the right amount of nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, often referred to as N, P and K — at the right time, source, rate and place. This benefits the farmers by improving crop yields and reducing costs, and the environment by keeping nutrients on fields and preventing them from running off to streams or down to groundwater.

“A nutrient management plan is basically a budget of nutrients on the farm,” said Chuck Bolte, NMP manager for AgSource Laboratories in Bonduel. “It’s making sure a farmer allocates (the nutrients) to the best needs of the farm, environmentally and economically.”

Nutrient management planning requires testing both soil and manure to determine the nutrient content. Technically, state law requires all farmers to have a nutrient management plan with the caveat that cost-sharing has to be offered to develop a plan.

Some farms voluntarily plan, while others are required to have a plan if they have manure storage, or are offered cost-share funds for nutrient management; if they participate in the Farmland Preservation Program; if they are regulated under a county ordinance for manure storage or livestock siting; if they are regulated under a Department of Natural Resources Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; or if they are found causing a significant discharge.

About 2,000 of the 8,220 Wisconsin farmers who reported nutrient management plans on their acres wrote their own plans in 2018. That is up from 600 farmers in 2009.

AgSource is one source for nutrient management planning services in Wisconsin, along with independent crop consultants, and ag suppliers that sell seed and chemicals.

The difference from AgSource’s perspective is that AgSource doesn’t sell farm supplies so its staff members can be more frank and unbiased about what a farm needs, without trying to sell the farmer anything.

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“We’re not selling a product other than our knowledge,” Bolte said. “we can share ideas to help farmers improve their operations.”

Chris Clark, a territory sales representative for AgSource’s Bonduel laboratory, said AgSource is especially equipped to offer nutrient management services because it has crop specialists who live throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

“We’re able to help farmers stay within the regulations they have in their counties and statewide,” Clark said. “Sometimes the regulations can get really complex, and we can help farmers deal with that.”

Sue Porter, a DATCP nutrient management specialist, said the number of acres covered by nutrient management plans has increased for a variety of reasons, but mostly because plans help farmers save money.

“With fertilizer costing you 40 cents a pound, if you have manure or legume credits, you really want to soil test so you can use your manure or legumes first and then buy fertilizer,” Porter said. “If you don’t soil test it’s really hard to measure and manage.”

Most nutrient management plans in Wisconsin are built using the computer software known as SnapPlus. By calculating potential soil and phosphorus runoff on a field-by-field basis, SnapPlus assists in the economic planning of manure and fertilizer applications and provides farmers with a tool for protecting soil and water quality.

“SnapPlus helps farmers use their soil tests, plan their crops, plan their tillage and do their soil conservation all at once,” Porter said. “It gives them a place to put all those records where before they’ve always put them in their head. Now they can keep something else in their heads.

“It’s software we always imagined we could have 20 years ago but now we have the technology to do it. Farmers are liking it and so are the agronomists.”

Bolte wrote his first nutrient-management plan for AgSource more than 15 years ago when they made a decision to begin offering agronomic services. The agronomy staff has grown over the years to now include 11 consultants who take soil samples, write nutrient management plans, and provide agronomic consulting.

Costs for nutrient management plans can vary depending on the complexity of the plan and the amount of work the consultant puts into the plan. If growers do not meet with the person writing their nutrient management plan, they may run the risk of compromising quality and customization for their operation. Cost-share funds are generally available for farmers writing plans for the first time.

Bolte said the tough economic times have resulted in AgSource losing about 5 percent of its NMP customers from a year ago, but yet the 2019 nutrient management plans developed by AgSource’s staff will cover more acres.

“The bigger have gotten bigger, without a doubt,” he said of Wisconsin farms. “In a lot of cases if a farmer sells out for whatever reason, that land ends up with the neighboring farmer. Whether the land is going to a dairy farmer or a cash-crop farmer, that farmer is still required to have a plan.”

Bolte said the number of nutrient management plans in Wisconsin should continue to increase, especially if Gov. Tony Evers’ budget with $1.4 million for nutrient management planning grants is approved.

“Those would all be new people,” he said of the potential grant recipients.

Porter said once farmers start using a nutrient management plan, they are often “amazed” at how valuable it is to them.

“It helps them maintain good conservation and water quality and not spend money they don’t need to,” she said. “All farmers are trying to find ways to be more efficient in every aspect of what they do, and this is one more way to do it.”

This article is the first of a three-part series.

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