Reduced tillage, precision ag, better recordkeeping are keys for revised nutrient-management standard.

The USDA's NRCS plans to put more technical staff in the field to help farmers implement voluntary conservation practices that reduce nutrient runoff and protect the environment.

The agency also plans to be more flexible with states in providing site-specific nutrient-management planning and using local information when working with farmers.

The changes came after the NRCS revised its national conservation practice standard on nutrient management for the first time since 2006. The process took about 18 months as the NRCS gathered input from federal agencies, land-grand universities, consultants, stakeholders in agriculture and other interest groups.

"Out of the 160 or more practice standards we have, this one, by far, engenders the most controversy and interest," said NRCS chief Dave White during a recent conference call with the media. "I suppose other folks will make value judgments, but we believe this achieves a more scientific approach for real protection of the environment while still maintaining the flexibility producers need to stay in business."

White says farming technology has continued to evolve in the last several years, and the NRCS will be increasing its focus on encouraging farmers to adopt the "four Rs" concept pushed by The Fertilizer Institute emphasizing proper timing, location, rate and source for fertilizer applications.

For farmers looking to improve their nutrient-application efficiency, the NRCS will be suggesting changes in production systems to no-till, strip-till or some other reduced-tillage system, as well as variable-rate application of fertilizer, soil and tissue sampling, urease inhibitors and drainage-management techniques like bio-reactors and stop gates.

The NRCS will also be emphasizing a "systems approach," grouping conservation practices in suites and coordinating them on site. The revisions will not require farmers to rewrite their current nutrient-management programs if they're enrolled in NRCS programs such as EQIP.

"Many farmers are doing three of these practices right, but if we could get them to pick up the last two, it could be a game changer for us."

The NRCS will also be expanding the use of technical service providers on the local level. Certified crop advisors "could be extremely engaged" in those efforts, White says, with webinars and training planned next year for outside consultants wanting to participate.

"We will be directing planners to work with producers to control water and wind erosion, apply nutrients when crops are likely to take them up, avoid application when there's a higher risk of nutrient loss to air or water, and improve record keeping," White says.

Through its 2,800 field offices, the NRCS offers voluntary technical and financial assistance to farmers for planning and implementing on-farm nutrient management plans. Farmers can use this assistance to help meet federal, state, tribal and local environmental regulations.

The agency provided $2.3 billion in financial assistance in the most recent fiscal year for farmers to adopt new technologies, including an extra $80 million in the Upper Mississippi River basin for programs to reduce nutrient losses from farm runoff.

NRCS staff offices will have until Jan. 1, 2013 to comply with erosion, nitrogen and phosphorus criteria for their state's nutrient management standard.

The revised national standard is released as the NRCS works with "various partners" to address nutrient-management issues in the Upper Mississippi Basin, Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Great Lakes basin.

Losses of nitrogen and phosphorus are the chief problem, the agency says. Nitrogen losses have been attributed to nitrate leaching through the soil to groundwater, and most phosphorus is lost due to erosion because phosphorus attaches itself to displaced soil particles that are transported by runoff to nearby waterways.

White says conservation methods are being adopted more eagerly in regions where regulation, or the fear of it, is strongest, such as states bordering the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Increased attention is also being paid to nutrient losses in the Mississippi River watershed that have led to large "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico.

White says the NRCS has been working with outside groups, such as the Iowa Soybean Association and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to address the problems in those watersheds.

When asked if the changes would go far enough to prevent environmental damage in sensitive areas, White replied that the NRCS' scope is limited because it's not a regulatory agency.

"If you're looking for somebody who wants to regulate agriculture, you're looking at the wrong guy," he says. "I feel the incentive approach works best."

The Fertilizer Institute, which provided input to the NRCS for the past year on the standard revisions, supports the changes.

"Agriculture is being asked to maintain profitable farm economics, while meeting the increased product demands of a growing population and also responding to increased scrutiny of land and resource management, and the 4Rs are key to addressing challenge," TFI President Ford West said in a written statement.