Nutrient management plans

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

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 needed1, 2. 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 waterways3.

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 losses through run-off at the field scale4, 5, 6, 7, 8; plan effectiveness varies with site specifics and the different combination of methods and practices used91011. Available evidence has shown that collaborative efforts to implement nutrient management plans across an entire watershed can reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality at the watershed scale12, 13.

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 hypoxia1, 5, 14. Multi-component nutrient management plans and best management practices reduce potential nutrient run-off by reducing nutrient input and maximizing crop take up and can lead to consistently higher yields9, 15. Farmers with nutrient management plans have been shown to 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 P16, 17.

Successful nutrient management plans require setting an overall strategy with on-going monitoring and 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 implementation18. Experts suggest outlining complete nutrient budgets to improve the effectiveness of nutrient management plans, even though it is challenging to produce accurate nutrient budgets19. Multi-component nutrient management plans also require long-term commitments to successfully restore watersheds13, 15.

Nutrient management plans can reduce farming costs by reducing fertilizer costs and increasing the efficiency of nutrient use20. Environmental benefits can be achieved without profit loss; in some cases, nutrient management plans can even increase economic returns4, 21, 22, 23.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Many regions of the country coordinate multi-component nutrient management plans for watershed areas. For example, the City of Tampa Bay has coordinated nutrient management plans that combine community involvement, quantifiable goals, regulatory and voluntary reductions in nutrient loading, long-term monitoring, and commitments from public and private sectors to work together to restore the watershed. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program outlines the  long history of this effort, including policy milestones and when water quality goals were achieved and surpassed. As of 2014, the Tampa Bay watershed has been successfully restored to levels of appearance and function not seen since the 1950’s24.

Some states have passed regulations supporting nutrient management plans, for example, Massachusetts25 and Pennsylvania26. Others administer nutrient management programs, as in Maryland27 and Wisconsin28, or offer resources, incentives, and information to encourage adoption of plans and other best management practices, for example, Minnesota20 and Virginia29. Similar information and resources are also available at the federal level through the US Department of Agriculture30.

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a national organization and a key partner in the operation of the nation’s first interstate water quality credit trading program, which pays farmers to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from their land. AFT also helps farmers adopt farming practices that sequester carbon in the soil to combat climate change, improve conservation efforts, and protect and enhance pollinator habitats on their land31.

Implementation Resources

Cornell Cropware 2.0 - Ketterings QM, Albrecht GL, Rasmussen CN, Czymmek KJ. Cornell Cropware: Decision support tool for fertilizer and manure nutrient management planning. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education. 2006;35:140-151.

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

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

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


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

2 USDA-NAL definitions - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Library (NAL). Alternative farming systems information center publications: Sustainable agriculture definitions and terms.

3 USDA-NRCS AFOs - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Animal feeding operations (AFOs).

4 Smith 2020 - Smith DR, Harmel RD, Haney RL. Long-term agro-economic and environmental assessment of adaptive nutrient management on cropland fields with established structural conservation practices. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2020;75(3):416-425.

5 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.

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.

7 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.

8 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.

9 Tei 2020* - Tei F, De Neve S, de Haan J, Kristensen HL. Nitrogen management of vegetable crops. Agricultural Water Management. 2020;240(106316).

10 Olson 2011 - Olson BM, Kalischuk AR, Casson JP, Phelan CA. Evaluation of cattle bedding and grazing BMPs in an agricultural watershed in Alberta. Water Science Technology. 2011;64(2):326-333.

11 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.

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

13 Greening 2014* - Greening H, Janicki A, Sherwood ET, Pribble R, Johansson JOR. Ecosystem responses to long-term nutrient management in an urban estuary: Tampa Bay, Florida, USA. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. 2014;151:A1-A16.

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

15 Nouri 2020* - Nouri A, Lee J, Yoder DC, et al. Management duration controls the synergistic effect of tillage, cover crop, and nitrogen rate on cotton yield and yield stability. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 2020;301(107007).

16 Sneeringer 2018* - Sneeringer S, Key N, Pon S. Do nutrient management plans actually manage nutrients? Evidence from a nationally-representative survey of hog producers. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. 2018;40(4):632-652.

17 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.

18 Perez 2015 - Perez MR. Regulating farmer nutrient management: A three-state case study on the Delmarva Peninsula. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2015;44(2):402-414.

19 Zhang 2020* - Zhang X, Davidson EA, Zou T, et al. Quantifying nutrient budgets for sustainable nutrient management. Global Biogeochemical Cycles. 2020;34(3):1-25.

20 MN DA-FANMAP - Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MN DA). Farm nutrient management assessment program (FANMAP).

21 Mezbahuddin 2020 - Mezbahuddin S, Spiess D, Hildebrand D, et al. Assessing effects of agronomic nitrogen management on crop nitrogen use and nitrogen losses in the western Canadian prairies. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 2020;4(September):1-21.

22 Getahun 2016* - Getahun E, Keefer L. Integrated modeling system for evaluating water quality benefits of agricultural watershed management practices: Case study in the Midwest. Sustainability of Water Quality and Ecology. 2016;8:14-29.

23 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.

24 TBEP - Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP). Education.

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

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

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

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

29 VA DCR-VACS 2020 - Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation (VA DCR). Program Year 2020: Virginia agricultural cost share (VACS) BMP manual. 2020.

30 USDA-NRCS CNMP - US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS). Comprehensive nutrient management planning: Technical resources.

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

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