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Best Management Practices for Environmental Safety

Landscape preserved with environmental safetyBest management practices, or BMPs, are designed to limit your farm's impact on the environment. But did you know they also help maximize your crop's yield?

In some cases, farmers may over apply or incorrectly apply nutrients to fields. Not only does this cause a poor harvest, but it also promotes an excess of nutrients that can wash away, causing environmental hazards. BMPs help to avoid this situation by creating a framework for a number of environmental safety practices.

Nutrient goals

As a farmer, when applying nutrients to the fields you should have two main goals:

  1. Balance all production inputs at optimum levels.
  2. Maintain ideal soil retention and low losses to groundwater by employing site-specific soil and water management methods.

These goals can be achieved through best management practices. BMPs have been researched and tested, and the results have proven to be favorable in research facilities and on working farms. BMPs are a combination of conservation and agronomic practices to be incorporated into a systematic crop plan.

Top BMPs

Standard best management practices are as follows:

  • Test your soil. Before you can adequately apply nutrients to your soil, first you have to know what your soil needs. Testing the soil is essential to finding out what nutrients your soil is low on and by how much.
  • Follow the test results. After going through the trouble of taking soil samples and getting them tested, some growers fail to heed the report's advice. A soil test report gives valuable information that can save you time and help your plants thrive. It tells you the amount of nutrients the soil can supply and advises on how many nutrients should be provided by other sources. Soil test results also provide a pH level, and if the pH is too low it recommends what kind of and how much lime to add. Following the test results keeps farmers from wasting money on unneeded nutrients.
  • Be reasonable. Farmers should keep realistic yield goals in mind. Sometimes, to obtain a larger harvest, a grower might over apply nutrients, thinking that the yield will be greater. But this only wastes money and increases water pollution from runoff. In contrast, proper fertilization increases crop residues, which improves soil organic matter levels and the soil's fertility. To figure out your ideal goal, the best place to look is your field's yield history. You can also consult with your local Extension office to help locate soil surveys that have crop yield estimates.
  • Choose the right N source. When nitrogen is added to a field, it is important that it remains in the root zone long enough to be absorbed by the plant. Depending on your nitrogen source, your nitrogen could be held in the soil for months, or whisked away by runoff water immediately. Slow-release N fertilizers can reduce N losses. In some instances where the soil is prone to leaching, inhibitors might need to be applied to slow down nitrification.
  • Add correctly. Nitrogen and phosphorus are prone to be lost to erosion or water runoff unless certain measures are taken during application. The nutrients should be banded directly into the soil or applied to the surface and then mixed in using disking, plowing or rotary tilling. Researchers have found that the poorest way to apply nitrogen and phosphorus is by spinner spreader because it administers the fertilizer unevenly.
  • Be on time. It is more important to be on time with your nitrogen application than with any other nutrient because many crops need large amounts of N and it is quite moveable in the soil. In contrast, phosphorus is very stable and has a wider application window.  Ideally, you should apply N in small doses that are tailored to the plant's need. Most of the time, N is applied in split applications that coincide with the growth pattern of the crop.
  • Use manure. Where practical, manure is a great source of nutrients for plants. But note that the wrong application or placement of manure can still cause pollution and hinder the growth of the plants.
  • Control erosion and water flow. By keeping erosion in check, valuable nutrients won't be washed away from your fields to potentially damage land elsewhere. If you need assistance, you can contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS/USDA), or your county Extension agent to help develop a conservation farm plan.
  • Keep animals away. If manure contaminates a water source, the consequences can be dire. For pasture animals especially, managing manure can be a challenge. Keep animals away from drainage waters so that manure and sediment won't be present. Also, areas where animals congregate should have runoff filtered through vegetative buffer strips.

For more tips

Following best management practices not only helps minimize your impact on the environment, but can help increase your yield and save money.

For more information on BMPs, look online at NRCS (www.nrcs.usda.gov), your local Extension agent or a Southern States Agronomy Expert.

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