Economic Perspectives on Best Management Practices and Sustainable Production Strategies

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Michael Deliberto

Best management practices are measures that producers can apply to crop rotations, tillage operations, effective input application and other aspects of the management process that minimize — or eliminate altogether — the flow of fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste and other byproducts of farm operations from entering water resources. These best management practices can include measures related to nutrient management, irrigation management and water resource protection. In nutrient management, producers that are best management practice-minded are actively engaged in determining the nutrient needs of their own respective farms and manage nutrient applications in such a way as to minimize their impact on water resources.

Best management practices can also encourage producers to examine the way they handle irrigation in their operations with the emphasis placed on addressing irrigation needs while simultaneously acting to reduce water loss and minimize nutrient losses to the environment. Water resource protection is another important component of the best management practices space and can be summarily defined as attempts by producers to prevent the introduction of sediment and nutrients into contiguous waterbodies by using buffers. Whether sugarcane, rice, sweet potatoes, poultry, beef cattle or forestry, researchers at the LSU AgCenter have compiled recommendations on the management of soil and water resources critical to the long-term success of each sector of the state’s agricultural economy.

There are economic and environmental benefits related to the adoption of best management practices in production agriculture. Economically, best management practices that are designed to conserve soil nutrients and water resources can assist in the efficient use of farm inputs throughout the production process. In most cases, best management practice implementation can enhance yields, enrich wildlife habitat, improve overall production, sustain soil productivity and maintain water quality. Oftentimes, best management practices occupy the central spot in the sustainability conversation. Best management practices are voluntary practices that can play a large role in measuring sustainability through quantifying the direct and indirect benefits of practice implementation. With increased industry efforts designed to enhance the sustainability of production agriculture, the production sector has long been keen to the benefits of conserving natural resources in the production process. The realistic and effective implementation of these mea­sures is critical to the success of conservation or sustainability at the farm lev­el.

Even though commodity prices have risen, profit margins remain thin from increases in fuel, fertilizer, chemical and machinery costs. Therefore, best management practice implementation — whether it is reducing the number of inputs applied, such as pounds of fertilizer per acre, or taking few­er machinery passes in a field to reduce soil degradation or minimizing nutrient loss via groundwater runoff — can col­lectively translate into a reduc­tion in production costs while simultaneously benefitting the environment.

One example of a positive secondary benefit of best management practice implementation is reduced soil erosion under conservation tillage. Conservation tillage is defined as any tillage or planting system where 30% or more of the area under cultivation is covered with plant crop residue after planting in order to reduce water-induced soil erosion. Conservation tillage acts to improve soil retention and improve land-use efficiency. Here, land-use efficiency is defined as an estimate of the land area needed for one unit of production. Another example is advances in irrigation methods. Multiple irrigation practices used to conserve water lead to improved water quality and may also provide wildlife habitat. Research has also demonstrated that new irrigation strategies can improve yields and reduce water usage, improving farm profitability across multiple crops.

Reducing energy use has been achieved through on-farm advancements in precision agriculture that target optimal input applications, requiring fewer passes of machinery throughout a field and reducing the per acre cost to the operation. A secondary aspect of reduced energy use is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Best management practices play a role in communicating the success that agriculture has imposed on itself to meet consumer demands. It should be noted that best management practices are site specific, economically feasible measures that producers implement voluntarily. They are not meant to be regulatory as each farming operation is unique, and different practices may be required. Best management practices and sustainability awareness measures are truly industry-driven efforts with the aim of maintaining an agricultural sector that is both vibrantly productive in an economic sense and environmentally sensitive with the overarching aim of enhancing agricultural sustainability over the long run.

Michael Deliberto is an assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the Baton Rouge campus of the LSU AgCenter.

This article appears in the winter 2023 edition of Louisiana Agriculture.

Seen from the air, a tractor harvests crops.

Crops are harvested in a field used for studying best management practices. AgCenter file photo

3/14/2023 8:32:25 PM
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