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Regulatory Tug-Of-War

Article-Regulatory Tug-Of-War

Conrad and Pat Langenfelder understand how outside pressures can affect their crop and livestock operation, Grandview Farms. In 1987, urban sprawl pressured them to move the farm from Howard County, MD, between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay to the Delmarva Peninsula. Now the Langenfelders are analyzing how the state's Water Quality Improvement Act, passed in 1998, will

Conrad “Dutch” and Pat Langenfelder understand how outside pressures can affect their crop and livestock operation, Grandview Farms. In 1987, urban sprawl pressured them to move the farm from Howard County, MD, between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay to the Delmarva Peninsula.

Now the Langenfelders are analyzing how the state's Water Quality Improvement Act, passed in 1998, will affect their operation near Kennedyville, MD.

At the end of 2001, the farm was required to file a nutrient management plan, based on nitrogen (N) application rates. By the end of 2002, the farm must actively follow the N-based plan. And, by the end of 2004, the N-based plan will be replaced by a phosphorus-based plan, using a phosphorus-site index.

The Maryland plans may serve as a model for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Future EPA requirements will include comprehensive nutrient management plans for large swine operations.

All plans must be prepared by a certified planner and filed with the state. Plans are good for three years. But if crop rotations, animal numbers or feeding programs change, the reports — including nutrient values of manure, irrigation rates, soil test data and cropping expectations — will need to be refiled each year.

The Langenfelders, their three grown children and their families run the farm, which includes 2,200 crop acres in corn, soybeans and small grains. Center-pivot irrigation is used on 750 acres.

The hog operation includes gestation and farrowing facilities and a 2,400-head, wean-to-finish barn on one site. For manure management, center-pivot irrigation systems are used to apply lagoon water on the 240-acre “home farm” site, along with spring and fall manure applications from a single-cell lagoon.

The Langenfelders have been using nutrient management plans for 25 years. Since moving the farm, they have worked with Keen Consulting, Inc., Georgetown, DE, a nutrient management/crop consulting firm owned by Tony and Tak Keen.

Maximum Potential

The northern portion of the Delmarva Peninsula has rich, heavy soil. Grandview Farms makes the most of the good soil and the manure's nutrients. Crop yield averages are 140 bu./acre on dryland corn, 200 bu./acre on irrigated corn, 40 bu./acre on soybeans, 80 bu./acre on wheat and 100 bu./acre for barley. The fall-planted small grains are double-cropped with the soybeans.

The first impact of the strict environmental regulations will be felt by top-yielding crop producers like Grandview Farms, Tak Keen says. The regulations put a ceiling on productivity, and therefore, profitability.

“The difficulty in dealing with the regulations is that they are tailored toward the averages, so it limits the above average producer's ability to go beyond,” he says.

Under the required management plans, producers are required to show yield data for the past five years. The lowest two years are eliminated and the remaining three are averaged. That yield number indicates how much manure can be spread for the next crop. Maryland allows 1 lb. nitrogen/bu. of expected corn yield. By contrast, Iowa producers are allowed 1¼ lb./bu.

“You can't push the envelope on crop yield because you have to limit your potential,” Dutch Langenfelder explains. “Even if Mother Nature cooperates and it rains, if you don't have the nutrients out there, you will not get the results.”

The P-Index

The Phosphorus Site Index (P-Index), a state regulation developed by University of Maryland's Frank Coale, an associate professor specializing in soil fertility and nutrient management, sets the productivity ceiling.

“The idea of a P-Index has been around for a long time, before nutrient management planning was mandatory, to help producers decide the on-farm distribution of nutrients,” Coale says.

The P-Index is used to calculate the potential risk for phosphorus (P) movement from a piece of farmland to state waters, specifically the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has selected a soil fertility index value (FIV) of 150 as the threshold for required use of the P-Index. The FIV scale is a calculation set by the University of Maryland Extension Service.

The index uses a mathematical equation based on slope, soil type, drainage, distance to surface waters, and application rate and incorporation of manure or commercial fertilizer.

The equation yields a P loss rating number, which falls in one of four categories:

  • Low potential for P loss — recommendation is to stay with an N-based nutrient plan.

  • Medium potential for P movement — practices should be implemented to reduce P losses by runoff, subsurface flow or erosion. All P applications shall be limited to crop removal rates.

  • High Potential for P movement — any P applications are limited to soil testing recommendations under the state's nutrient management manual.

  • Very high potential for P movement — therefore, absolutely no application of P is allowed.

Some of the irrigated land farmed by the Langenfelders will fall into the higher P-Index categories, so they have purchased and installed a second center-pivot irrigator to spread the lagoon water over more acres. Dutch Langenfelder expects the spring and fall applications will need to be spread further from the farm, adding costs for commercial manure applicators.

Moving Targets

The paperwork involved with the management plans is another big challenge. Rules state that application rates need to be on file, meaning flexibility to rush a soil sample through the lab after harvest and before manure application is very limited, Tak Keen says.

“We look at nutrient management plans as an ongoing process,” he says. “The government wants documents on what will happen before it happens. When you are farming, that's difficult to do.”

Dutch figures the farm can comply with the rules. They have used nutrient plans for years and have in-depth records on a large number of acres. The long-term data will allow them to use more manure and fertilizer than the averages allow. Still, he's concerned about profitability.

“You don't make money on the first bushels from an acre,” he says. “Any farm operation's profit is in the last bushels off an acre.”

He worries that producers will be tempted to disobey their nutrient plans to make a profit on a few more bushels per acre.

More Pressure

Dutch and Pat see a good future on the Eastern Shore, just miles from the Chesapeake Bay and the nation's capital.

“My grandchildren may not see the same kind of agriculture here that we see, but there is still going to be some farming here,” he says.

The farm's connection to the bay is a line of trees, visible from the kitchen window, marking a stream that drains to the Chester River, which flows into the bay. Still, stewardship of the land has to be balanced with profitability, Pat says.

“What governs how we farm is taking care of what we have, the crops and the livestock; we are just stewards of the land,” she says. “But if we don't get the yields, we will not have the farm to pass on to the kids.”

Tony Keen sees a political tug-of-war that isn't over yet. The state department of agriculture wants to keep the farm sector strong, but the state can put pressure on the ag community with strict enforcement.

“A lot of the enforcement is going to depend on how much political pressure they get from the environmental side,” he says.

Keen Consulting operates in three states — Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. This has allowed Tony and Tak to compare how the rules are developed in each state. In Maryland, agriculture did not have good representation on the rule-making committee. In Delaware, the majority of the committee consisted of ag-related individuals.

Delaware's regulations, while environmentally sound, will be phased in over five years. Maryland's phase-in period is limited to the next two years.