Conservation Planning

It all Starts With a Plan

A Conservation Plan is a tool designed to help you better manage the natural resources on your farm. With your help, a soil conservationist will inventory the resource conditions existing on your farm. They will help you interpret the information about your land, its soil, and production capability. You can discuss resource concerns and solutions, field by field.  The Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation estimates the amount of soil erosion caused by water. Five factors are used to figure soil loss: rainfall, soil erodability, slope length and steepness, crop type and management, and erosion control practices.  Different conservation options will be presented to reduce the amount of erosion.  A conservation plan includes aerial photos of your fields, soil maps and descriptions, a list of locations and information sheets explaining specific management decisions, and a plan for operation and maintenance of practices, if needed.  Some examples of conservation strategies are further explained below.

Conservation Planning fact card with text on services provided
Soil Organic Matter
The Role of SOM in the Nitrogen Cycle

The role of organic matter in the Nitrogen Cycle

Soil organic matter  (SOM) is the key to building and maintaining healthy soils because it has such great positive influences on all soil properties. Soil organic matter is a storehouse of several plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Every 1 percentage point of organic matter in the top 6 inches of soil contains about 1,000 pounds of nitrogen, 230 pounds of phosphorus, and 165 pounds of sulfur per acre. However, most nutrients in organic matter are not directly available to plants. To be used by plants, nutrients in organic matter must be converted to inorganic forms through decomposition and mineralization by soil organisms.  SOM acts like a sponge to hold 90% of its weight in water. Soil with 2% organic matter can hold 32,000 gallons of water.  (For context: about 27,000 gallons of water fall on one acre during a 1″ rainstorm.) When soil can not absorb water, that water, along with excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, leave the farm as run-off.

Cover Crops
Timing in Diversified Systems

Time graphs for three different cover cop planting schedules.

Cover crop row arrangement

Rows of vegetable crops with straw in between the rows of green crops.

Cover crops provide multiple potential benefits to soil health, while also helping maintain cleaner surface and groundwater. They prevent erosion, improve soil physical and biological properties, supply nutrients to the following crop, suppress weeds, improve soil water availability, and break pest cycles. Difference types of cover crops are able to break into compacted soil layers, increase nutrient retention, and or reduce soil erosion by covering the ground with living vegetation and living roots that hold on to the soil.

strip cropping

Strip Tillage

Reduced tillage systems are based on the idea that tillage can be limited to the area around the plant and does not have to disturb the entire field. Several tillage systems, no-till, zone or strip-till, and ridge-till fit this concept. Tillage systems are often classified by the amount of surface residue left on the soil surface. Conservation tillage systems leave more than 30% of the soil surface covered with crop residue. This amount of surface residue cover is considered to be at a level where erosion is significantly reduced. Reduced tillage systems also see more benefits of soil organic matter and conserve moisture.

Nutrient Management*

Nitrogen and phosphorus behave very differently in soils, but many of the management strategies are actually the same or very similar. Both are needed by plants in large amounts, and both can cause environmental water quality harm when present in excess.  Good nutrient management practices take into account the large amount of plant-available nutrients that come from the soil, especially soil organic matter and any additional organic sources like manure, compost, or a rotation or cover crop. When implemented, nutrient management strategies enhance uptake, reduce environmental losses, and lower farm inputs.

Prescribed Grazing
Cows grazing in a pasture

Cows grazing in a pasture.

Prescribed Grazing is an approach that is especially effective at improving water quality. A diversity of plants and animals reduce nutrient export from cropland and hay land fields, recycling the majority of nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and carbon providing a higher livestock nutritional diet.  Removal of herbage by the grazing animals is in accordance with production limitations, plant sensitivities and management goals. Frequency of defoliation and season of grazing is based on the rate of growth and physiological condition of the plants. Duration and intensity of grazing is based on desired plant health and expected productivity of the forage species to meet management objectives. When implemented prescribed grazing improves water infiltration, vegetative growth, protects stream banks from erosion, manages for deposition of fecal material way from water bodies, and promotes ecological and economically stable plant communities.

Conservation Buffers
Aerial view of grassy buffers in an agricultural field.

Aerial view of buffers (strips of grass) in an agricultural field.

Conservation buffers are small areas or strips of land in permanent vegetation, designed to intercept pollutants and manage other environmental concerns.  Conservation buffers slow water runoff, trap sediment, and enhance infiltration within the buffer. Buffers include: riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, cross-wind trap strips, shallow water areas for wildlife, field borders, alley cropping, herbaceous wind barriers, and vegetative barriers. Buffers also trap fertilizers, pesticides, pathogens, and heavy metals, and they help trap snow and cut down on blowing soil in areas with strong winds. In addition, they protect livestock and wildlife from harsh weather and buildings from wind damage.

Diversified Rotations*

Rotating crops usually means fewer problems with insects, parasitic nematodes, weeds, and diseases caused by plant pathogens. Rotations are an important part of any sustainable agricultural system, particularly for improving SOM. Yields of crops grown in rotations are typically 10% higher than those of crops grown in monoculture in normal growing seasons, and as much as 25% higher in drier growing seasons. Another important benefit of rotations is that growing a variety of crops in a given year spreads out labor needs and reduces risk caused by unexpected climate or market conditions. Other benefits may occur when perennial forages are included in the rotation, including decreased soil erosion and nutrient loss.

Integrated Pest Management*

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a sustainable approach that emphasizes ecosystem-based strategies that result in economical and long-term solutions to pest problems. The objective for IPM practitioners is to minimize risks to human health and the environment from the pest management actions implemented. IPM promotes the use and integration of multiple tactics such as biological control, use of resistant varieties, behavioral modification, and mechanical and cultural controls for pest management. A special emphasis is placed on prevention of the pest problem and on control by natural enemies of the pest organism. Chemical pesticides play a role only when this and other preventive steps failed.