How to increase farm income while protecting water

Pay for Performance conservation pilot-testing in selected Great Lakes watersheds.

Land and water stewardship are traditional farming values. To help farmers fulfill that idea, a new approach called Pay-for-Performance (PfP) Conservation, is being pilot-tested in Michigan and other states. PfP provides a cash payment per pound of phosphorus (P) prevented from getting into the water. Rather than cost-share pre-defined conservation practices, PfP allows farmers flexibility to find the most cost-effective ways to reduce P loss from their specific fields.

The advantages of PfP are that it focuses on the outcome of reducing P loss, it reduces red tape compared to current conservation contracts, and it helps farmers to increase profits by finding more cost-effective ways to reduce P loss. Because it is not practical to try to measure P loss at the edge of every field, PfP uses simple, science-based simulation models to estimate P loss, based on information from each specific field. The PfP approach is being pioneered by Winrock International, a not-for-profit agricultural organization, and its partners around the country.

There are many different ways that farmers can reduce P loss, including changing fertilizer rate, timing, method, or type; changing how manure is spread across the farm; reducing P content in the feed ration; changing crop rotations or tillage method or timing; establishing winter cover crops; contouring; installing sediment traps or many other practices. The resulting payment is based on the net reduction in P loss calculated for the entire farm. Farmers will choose the actions that make the most sense for their fields and their operation with the help of a PfP field technician. During the field visit, the technician reviews current practices, discusses alternatives that may be of interest to the farmer, and then calculates the P loss reduction from the different combination of practices. The landowner selects his or her preferred combination of practices and a simple sign-up form is created listing those actions and the resulting payment that will be distributed following verification at the end of the crop year.

In the past, calculating nutrient loss reductions per field would have been too labor-intensive to be practical. Now, with innovations in computer and web-based farm information management tools, field-specific estimates are becoming more accurate and easy to use. PfP has and is being pilot-tested in several states, using different modeling tools. The two PfP pilot programs in Michigan are using the Great Lakes Watershed Management System (GLWMS) and are both funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Previous work in Iowa and Vermont, funded by USDA, used each state’s P Index Tool. A current PfP pilot in Wisconsin is using the SNAP-Plus tool.

In the Saginaw Basin, The Nature Conservancy will work with the conservation district technician based out of Sanilac County to assist growers with using the GLWMS and receiving their performance payment for reduction of sediment runoff. In the River Raisin Watershed,the Grand Raisin Cluster of The Stewardship Network is working with MAEAP technicians in Lenawee County will provide that front line assistance. Michigan State University Extension is partnering with both Michigan PfP initiatives, which are just beginning with details being finalized this fall. For more information, contact Monica Day at

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