Nutrient management plans

Nutrient management plans for crop production match nutrient applications to crop needs, reducing commercial fertilizer use while maintaining and in some cases enhancing soil productivity and crop yields. Plans focus primarily on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Nutrient management plans are site specific and typically include agricultural best management practices (BMPs) such as testing soil and manure, using conservation tillage or other soil erosion control measures, and applying fertilizer when nutrients are most needed (US EPA-Nutrient management, USDA-NAL definitions). Comprehensive nutrient management plans for animal production focus primarily on manure management for nutrients and pathogens, and are federally required for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and animal feeding operations (AFOs) that discharge manure or wastewater into ditches, streams, or other waterways (USDA-NRCS AFOs).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced run-off

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved water quality

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that nutrient management plans that use agricultural best management practices (BMPs) reduce nutrient run-off at the field scale (, , , ); plan effectiveness can vary with site specifics and the methods or combinations of practices used (, Olson 2011). Collaborative efforts to implement nutrient management plans across an entire watershed are a suggested strategy to reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality at the watershed scale (US EPA-NP solutions). 

Nutrient management plans used to focus on nitrogen (N) run-off because of the severe problems caused by nitrate contamination in ground water, and now also target phosphorus (P). N and P both contribute to poor surface water quality conditions including algae blooms, eutrophication, and potential hypoxia (US EPA-Nutrient management, US EPA-NP, ). Surveys suggest that farmers with nutrient management plans apply less total N and P than farmers without plans; however, due to variation among plans, some farmers still appear to over-apply N or P (Shepard 2005).

Successful nutrient management plans require setting an overall strategy with on-going adjustments to implementation tactics and day-to-day operations as needed. Successful government policies to support nutrient management plans involve many stakeholders, target environmentally sensitive areas, develop clear and achievable objectives, and may use regulation, education, or financial incentives to encourage implementation ().

Nutrient management plans can reduce farming costs by reducing fertilizer costs and increasing the efficiency of nutrient use (MN DA-Nutrient management). In some cases, nutrient management plans have been associated with increases in net farm income (, Velandia 2008).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Some states have passed regulations supporting nutrient management plans (e.g., Massachusetts (CAFE-NBMPs) and Pennsylvania (PennFUTURE 2011)). Others administer nutrient management programs (e.g., Maryland (MD DA-Nutrient management) and Wisconsin (WI DATCP-Nutrient management)), or offer resources, incentives, and information to encourage adoption of plans and other best management practices, for example, Minnesota (MN DA-Nutrient management) and Virginia (VA DCR-VACS 2013).

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a national organization that helps farmers improve conservation efforts. AFT also runs the BMP challenge guaranteeing against any potential income loss for farmers who reduce fertilizer use or use conservation tillage practices (AFT).

Implementation Resources

Rutgers-Murphy 2010 - Murphy JA, Murphy SL. Best management practices for nutrient management of turf in New Jersey. Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Bulletin E327; 2010.

MSU Ext-Nutrient management - Mississippi State University Extension Service (MSU Ext). Nutrient management.

NC State-Nutrient management - Crouse D. Nutrient management in North Carolina. North Carolina State University (NC State).

Cornell Cropware 2.0 - Ketterings Q, Rasmussen C, Albrecht G, et al. Nutrient management spear program (NMSP): Cornell cropware 2.0 help. 2003.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Shepard 2005 - Shepard R. Nutrient management planning: Is it the answer to better management? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2005;60(4):171-6.

US EPA-Nutrient management - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Agriculture: Nutrient management and fertilizer.

US EPA-NP - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Nutrient pollution (NP): the problem.

US EPA-NP solutions - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Nutrient pollution (NP) the sources and solutions: Agriculture.

Maguire 2008* - Maguire RO, Mullins GL, Brosius M. Evaluating long-term nitrogen-versus phosphorus-based nutrient management of poultry litter. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2008;37(5):1810-6.

Delgado 2005* - Delgado JA, Khosla R, Bausch WC, Westfall DG, Inman DJ. Nitrogen fertilizer management based on site-specific management zones reduces potential for nitrate leaching. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2005;60(6):402-410.

Bishop 2005* - Bishop PL, Hively WD, Stedinger JR, et al. Multivariate analysis of paired watershed data to evaluate agricultural best management practice effects on stream water phosphorus. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2005;34(3):1087-101.

Sharpley 2009* - Sharpley AN, Kleinman PJA, Jordan P, Bergström L, Allen AL. Evaluating the success of phosphorus management from field to watershed. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2009;38(5):1981-8.

Gitau 2005* - Gitau MW, Gburek WJ, Jarrett AR. A tool for estimating best management practice effectiveness for phosphorus. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2005;60(1):1-10.

Olson 2011 - Olson BM, Kalischuk AR (eds.). Nutrient beneficial management practices evaluation project 2007 to 2012: 2010 progress report. Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. 2011.

VanDyke 1999* - VanDyke LS, Pease JW, Bosch DJ, Baker JC. Nutrient management planning on four Virginia livestock farms: Impacts on net income and nutrient losses. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 1999;54(2):499-505.

Beegle 2000* - Beegle DB, Carton OT, Bailey JS. Nutrient management planning: Justification, theory, practice. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2000;29(1):72-79.

MN DA-Nutrient management - Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MN DA). Conservation practices: Nutrient management.

Bronson 2006* - Bronson KF, Booker JD, Bordovsky J, et al. Site-specific irrigation and nitrogen management for cotton production in the southern high plains. Agronomy Journal. 2006;98(1): 212-219.

Velandia 2008 - Velandia M, Rejesus RM, Bronson K, Segarra E. Economics of management zone delineation in cotton precision agriculture. Journal of Cotton Science. 2008;12(1):210-227.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

AFT - American Farmland Trust (AFT). Agricultural conservation innovation center.

WI DATCP-Nutrient management - Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Nutrient management.

MN DA-Nutrient management - Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MN DA). Conservation practices: Nutrient management.

CAFE-NBMPs - Center for Agriculture Food and the Environment (CAFE), University of Massachusetts Amherst. Nutrient best management practices.

PennFUTURE 2011 - PennFUTURE. Agriculture and the law: a guide to Pennsylvania’s agricultural laws and regulations for farmers and their neighbors. 2011.

VA DCR-VACS 2013 - Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation (VA DCR). Program Year 2014: Virginia agricultural cost share (VACS) BMP manual. 2013.

MD DA-Nutrient management - Maryland Department of Agriculture (MD DA). About Maryland’s nutrient management program.

Date Last Updated

Jun 3, 2015