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Conservation Corner

USDA Announces Conservation Initiatives

Tue, December 13, 2011

USDA Announces Ranking Dates for Four Major Conservation Initiatives

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the ranking dates for the On-Farm Energy, Organic, Seasonal High Tunnel and Air Quality conservation initiatives.

All four initiatives offer technical and financial assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“Producers tell us they want to apply for these initiatives, but many want more time to make sure they choose the one that’s right for their operation,” Vilsack said. “Moving to multiple ranking dates for each initiative is going to make it easier for more producers to apply and help them get started with implementing the practices they need to benefit the natural resources on their operations.”

NRCS accepts applications for financial assistance on a continuous basis throughout the year. There will be three ranking periods for the Organic, On-Farm Energy and Seasonal High Tunnel initiatives, all ending on February 3, March 30 and June 1, 2012. Ranking periods for the Air Quality Initiative end February 3 and March 30, 2012. At the end of a ranking period, NRCS ranks all submitted proposals for funding consideration. NRCS will notify all applicants of the results of the rankings and begin developing contracts with selected applicants. 

The On-Farm Energy, Organic and Seasonal High Tunnel initiatives are available in all 50 states, the Caribbean Area and the Pacific Basin. The Air Quality Initiative is available in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Air Quality funding is limited to counties within these nine States that have serious air quality resource concerns related to non-attainment for Ozone and Particulate Matter.

Initiative Overviews

On-Farm Energy Initiative:  NRCS and producers develop Agricultural Energy Management Plans (AgEMP) or farm energy audits that assess energy consumption on an operation. NRCS then uses audit data to develop energy conservation recommendations. Each AgEMP has a landscape component that assesses equipment and farming processes and a farm headquarters component that assesses power usage and efficiencies in livestock buildings, grain handling operations, and similar facilities to support the farm operation.

Organic Initiative:  NRCS helps certified organic growers and producers working to achieve organic certification install conservation practices for organic production. New for fiscal year 2012, applicants will be evaluated continuously during the ranking periods. Applications meeting or exceeding a threshold score may be approved for an EQIP contract before the end of the ranking period. Applications rating below the threshold score will be deferred to the next period. A new threshold score will be established at the beginning of each ranking period. This new scoring process allows organic producers to implement conservation practices in a timelier manner.

Seasonal High Tunnel Pilot Initiative:  NRCS helps producers plan and implement high tunnels, steel-framed, polyethylene-covered structures that extend growing seasons in an environmentally safe manner. High tunnel benefits include better plant and soil quality, fewer nutrients and pesticides in the environment, and better air quality due to fewer vehicles being needed to transport crops. More than 4,000 high tunnels have been planned and implemented nationwide through this initiative over the past two years.

Air Quality Initiative:  NRCS helps producers address air quality concerns on their operations.  Assistance includes establishing cover crops, planting windbreaks, implementing nutrient management practices and applying other conservation measures that mitigate and prevent air quality problems.

Conservation practices installed through this initiative reduce airborne particulate matter and greenhouse gases and conserve energy. Visit the NRCS National Web site for more information on how to apply for these initiatives and connect with an NRCS office near you.


USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender. To file a complaint of discrimination, write: USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD).


Drainage Water Management

Tue, December 13, 2011

The NEW Kind of Drainage Tile in Illinois

Drainage Water Management conservation practice working well in Christian County, Illinois Gloria Ozbirn has lived on the family farm since 1927. As the only living heir, Gloria oversees work on the land with help from neighbor Dennis Braeuninger.  Dennis owns 45 acres of her family farm and manages day-to-day farm management operations on all Gloria’s 180 acres and his Father’s ground.

Here in Christian County, land is flat and soils are productive. Most producers don’t have many natural resource problems because without sloping ground, soil erosion is much less. With so few marginal or wooded areas, there are limited opportunities for wildlife habitat or wetlands. The primary resource concern here is water—water quality, water quantity, and runoff.

“It was so wet we took steps to make our ground more manageable and productive,” says Ozbirn.  In 2003, she installed a tile system to drain off excess water. It wasn’t long before tenant and neighbor Braeuninger noticed improvements—fields dried out earlier, planting operations were smooth and yields increased.

Having lived on the land and helped her family farm it, Gloria always took special interest in protecting the land. Over the years, she worked with the Christian County SWCD and served as an Associate Director on the Board. Resource protection and conservation were important to her; they still hold a special place on her priority list.

Not Just Another Meeting

In 2007 Gloria attended a Lady Landowner meeting where she listened to NRCS District Conservationist Tony Hammond talk about a new conservation program option in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Gloria always heard NRCS continually push the need to plan for issues on the farm. Conservation plans. Forest Management Plans. Nutrient Management Plans. But when she heard about the Ground and Surface Water Conservation program and a special incentive for a Drainage Water Management Plan, she contacted Tony and signed up.

Gloria realized that water, rainfall, and wet and dry soil conditions had always decided every single thing on the farm for long enough. “I liked the idea of creating a plan that let us manage all the water rather than the water always managing us,” she says.

In addition to giving more management options, water held in tiles and in the soil profile holds on to nitrates—making them available for use by crop roots or for allowing water to naturally denitrify while held captive in the field. Either way, fewer excess nitrates and damaging nutrients from subsurface drains are transferred to surface waters like drainage ways, ditches, creeks and tributaries where they are carried off to other locations in the watershed. Both these ideas appealed to Gloria. She was eager to make it happen.

NRCS teams were equally eager to launch the project, but cautious about possible impacts the practice can have on neighboring land. “When you tinker with water levels on a drainage system, you have to be aware of how it will affect nearby landowners,” Hammond explains. Not a problem on this project. Gloria and Dennis decided to do it together!

Turn a Plan Into a Practice

In 2008, Gloria’s Drainage Water Management (DWM) Plan was created with help from NRCS technical staff, including a Water Quality Specialist and an Engineer.  Cost-share funds and enticing management payments from the Ground and Surface Water Conservation (GSWC) program made the decision an easy one described by Dennis as a ‘win-win’ situation.

Using regular EQIP funds, the DWM system was installed and connected to the existing drainage system in May 2010. As part of Gloria’s GSWC and EQIP contract, she would receive payments to install and operate the system for three years. After that, system management is up to the owner/operator

Because Ozbirn’s landscape in Christian County is so flat, conditions for effective, nearly ideal results were possible. For her 135 acres and his 45, only two water control structures were required to successfully manage, or control all the drainage water. Both units were conveniently located along the road for easy access—the operator can easily open and check water levels and field work is not complicated by in-field structure placement—yet another ideal feature of their system.

How DWM Works

This is what sometimes confuses neighboring producers in Christian County and across the country. Simply put, this system allows landowners to adjust the level to which the water table is allowed to rise.

Hammond knows the concepts behind DWM go against logic—both he and Dennis agree it requires ‘kind of backwards thinking’ to understand the true power and possibilities behind DWM theories. “Most folks here use tile for one purpose: to get water out of the field. But that’s only PART of the equation,” says Dennis.

With adjustable riser boards, Dennis raises or lowers the outlet level for his drainage system to fit crop needs or field work. “With this practice, I’m in the driver’s seat with water and water levels on these fields. I control it; it doesn’t control me. That’s a good feeling,” he adds. With 2011 only his second growing season with the new system, Dennis still works with and experiments when to change board heights and make adjustments. “It’s a guessing game sometimes, but I’m still learning,” he laughs.

His goal? To keep moisture near the ground surface during the winter, then let the tile drains dry out the field in time for planting activities. After germination and root establishment, adjustments to raise the water table to just below the crop’s root zone create the perfect soil and moisture growing environment for this year’s corn crop. “As a farmer, I want to be in control of my equipment, my product, my farm, and my soil environment. With this system, I’m more in control than ever. What’s not to love about that?”

Many Benefits
While it’s too early to confirm crop or yield improvements through DWM, research and data from NRCS, the University of Illinois, Purdue, University of Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State Universities, and others indicate nutrient loads can be reduced by as much as 45% or even more. Other benefits:

Protect & improve water quality
Enhance crop production from more available soil-water & nutrients
Reduce organic matter oxidation to retain soil productivity & minimize atmospheric carbon release
Reduce wind erosion losses and air quality problems due to dust
Provide more seasonal soil saturation or shallow flooding habitat for wildlife

To learn more about Drainage Water Management or other NRCS conservation solutions, visit your local NRCS county office or find us online at To vi.ew additional drainage guidance, visit

NRCS - Helping People Help the Land
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Next CSP ranking deadline announced

Tue, December 13, 2011

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Announces Sign-Up Period for Conservation Stewardship Program

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today announced that the ranking period cut-off date for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is January 13, 2012. Producers interested in CSP should submit applications to their local NRCS office by the deadline so that their applications can be considered during the first ranking period of 2012.

“CSP is one of our most popular conservation programs, and we expect to receive many applications,” NRCS Chief Dave White said. “I encourage all farmers and ranchers who are interested in applying to contact their local NRCS office as soon as possible so they can meet the deadline.”

CSP is offered in all 50 states, and the Pacific and Caribbean areas through continuous sign-ups. The program provides many conservation benefits including improvement of water and soil quality, wildlife habit enhancements and adoption of conservation activities that address the effects of climate change. Eligible lands include cropland, pastureland, rangeland, nonindustrial private forest land and agricultural land under the jurisdiction of an Indian tribe.

A CSP self-screening checklist is available to help potential applicants determine if CSP is suitable for their operation. The checklist highlights basic information about CSP eligibility requirements, contract obligations and potential payments. It is available from local NRCS offices and on the CSP Web page.

As part of the CSP application process, applicants will work with NRCS field personnel to complete the resource inventory using a Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT). The CMT determines the conservation performance for existing and new conservation activities.  The applicant’s conservation performance will be used to determine eligibility, ranking and payments.

In 2010 alone, nearly 21,000 applicants enrolled in CSP, putting additional conservation on 25.2 million acres, about the size of the state of Kentucky, to improve water and soil quality, enhance wildlife habitat and address the effects of climate change.

Visit the NRCS National Web site, and connect with an NRCS office near you.