Maryland is finalizing a new farm management tool intended to address a longstanding problem – how to keep phosphorus, a key ingredient in chicken manure, from running off fields and polluting waterways.

The new regulations, which may prevent some farmers from putting any more manure on their fields, have been developed to help the state meet its commitment to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

They are a more detailed and precise version of the Phosphorus Index, a matrix that guides a farmer to take into account many different factors before deciding how much — if any — phosphorus he or she may apply to land.

Phosphorus is a main ingredient in manure, and scientists once believed that it wouldn’t migrate off a field, even if a farmer applied it in excess. But research over the last two decades has shown that phosphorus will migrate — either through erosion or dissolved in water that travels through surface and sub-surface pathways — and find its way into streams and rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake. There, it will contribute to algae blooms, suffocate living resources and cause other pollution problems.

The previous Phosphorus Index, which has been in use since 2005, barred application on very few farms. If a farm field scored above 100, the high threshold, the farmer could put in best-management practices to lower the score and then apply manure. The new index changes the way farmers calculate the amount of phosphorus in their fields as well as how to categorize the fields, and it will likely cover more farms and bar more farms from applying manure.

“It really is a substantial improvement,” said Russ Brinsfield, director of the Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology and a farmer himself. “These changes are important and needed.”

Brinsfield and several other scientists at the Hughes Center have been engaged in a years-long process of both studying the migration patterns of phosphorus and working to tighten the index.

The problem has been most acute on the Eastern Shore, home to many of the state’s animal operations. The flat fields of the Shore, combined with high water tables and sandy soils, encourage phosphorus to run off and enter both the groundwater and surface water.

Brinsfield, who became involved at the behest of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s staff, said the state is under “enormous pressure” to reduce its phosphorus levels — both from the environmental community and from regulators. The state promised reductions under its Watershed Implementation Plan.

The federal government, too, is paying attention to how states are handling their phosphorus. Three years ago, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, floated the idea of using a straight soil test instead of the index; if a farm scored above the threshold, it would not be able to apply more phosphorus, regardless of its topography. But the chicken, dairy and pork industries, as well as many scientists from land-grant universities, complained that a straight soil test limited farmers’ options and could lead to unintended consequences, such as farmers putting manure on low-scoring fields where it didn’t belong just to get rid of it. The department eventually relented and decided to let the states tweak their own indexes.

Joshua McGrath, a researcher at the University of Maryland, has been working on the state’s index since 2006. His work takes into account new research on phosphorus migration.

“If we’ve done our job,” he said, the index “will be much more restrictive where it needs to be.”

Phosphorus travels in three ways. Particulate phosphorus can erode. Dissolved phosphorus runs off the surface or enters groundwater. All three routes can lead to streams and rivers.

The old index looked at all three pathways and gave an average score. The new one grades each pathway individually. If a farm has a high subsurface rate of conveyance, that can put it in the high-risk category.

McGrath’s revisions also changed the categories. Before, there was low, medium, high and very high. Now, it’s just low, medium and high. That distinction, Brinsfield said, “gives farmers less wiggle room, and that’s a good thing.”

McGrath said he’s not sure how many farms will be limited from applying any more manure under the new index, and neither are officials at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But some of McGrath’s estimates suggest it could be as many as half of the farms in the state. It now limits about 4 percent, and some of those farms have the flexibility of using management practices to lower their scores.

For farmers, these changes come on the heels of new nutrient management regulations, introduced late last year, that govern when they can spread manure and how long they can store it. For a state that passed a nutrient management law in 1998, then took six years to phase it in, the changes are happening rather quickly.

Maryland officials began the process of putting out the new phosphorus tool in January 2013. They sought public comment and put together a technical manual that McGrath developed to help farmers determine their phosphorus scores. But McGrath inadvertently included four types of possible buffers as BMPs when there should have only been three, and MDA attorneys told the department they would have to endure the whole process again. They didn’t want to do that, said MDA Assistant Secretary Royden N. Powell III. They wanted to work quickly to train the nutrient management plan writers and educate farmers. The urgency comes in part because it takes several years to see reductions in phosphorus, and they wanted to see progress quickly.

Because they’d already gone through the comment period, the department decided to introduce the new phosphorus tool and its accompanying regulation as emergency regulations. The measure was scheduled for a hearing by the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee on Aug. 28. But on Aug. 26, the department announced it was scrapping the emergency procedures and would submit regulations in the traditional way next month. That means the rules will not be in place for fall planting, as officials had hoped.

Powell said the department of agriculture will move quickly to educate farmers and nutrient management plan writers on the new index.

“Farmers are concerned about the potential, and in some cases, the likelihood, that they will not be able to apply manure where they have in the past,” Powell said.

To help farmers grapple with their newfound surplus of manure, Powell said, the state is investing additional funds into its manure transfer program and also into manure-to-energy programs. He hopes more farmers will be able to take advantage of them, and in the process become energy independent and maybe even save money.

Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said it’s all happening a little too fast.

Connelly said the department has not made an attempt to assess the economic impact of these changes, which could be huge if half of the farms on the Shore can no longer apply manure.

She said that farmers are terrified of accepting manure and storing it for a year or so on their property, which they would be forced to do in certain seasons because new regulations do not allow spreading manure in winter. They do not want to become targets for an environmental lawsuit, Connelly said. The farmers’ worries are based on the experience of Alan Hudson, who was sued for polluting a nearby stream. The initial lawsuit stemmed from a pile on his property, which was thought to be manure but was later identified as sewage sludge. Though a judge found Hudson not liable under the Clean Water Act, the Berlin poultry farmer accrued more than $500,000 in legal fees.

Connelly said the problem came to a head two weeks ago, when a farm bureau member who cleans out poultry houses suddenly found no takers for the manure. While she is pleased the state is investing in next-generation technologies for re-using manure, none of them are online yet.

“The guys who are having their houses cleaned out, if they can’t clean them out, they lose a flock. They all have mortgages on these houses. In many cases, one flock is their profit margin,” she said.

Connelly said she begged the department to phase in the changes over several years, just as they did with the 1998 nutrient management law.

“No one is saying we should never do it. But there needs to be a phased-in time frame. There are so many things tied into it. There’s no emergency that requires us to implement it today. The research is still evolving,” she said.

If farmers have to start implementing these changes now, Connelly said, “There’s going to be a disaster on the Shore.”

Some environmentalists are not happy with the changes, either — because they think they don’t go far enough. Of particular concern is a provision in the regulation that allows farmers to use some best-management practices to put them in a lower phosphorus category. The usefulness of such flexibility is going to be limited, though. About the only possibility of reducing phosphorus is a buffer, and that will only work for the phosphorus that travels through erosion. It will not help the dissolved kind that travels through the surface or subsurface, according to McGrath.

And it’s not an attractive option, Brinsfield said. Buffers are difficult to manage, and commodity prices are high, so farmers are not going to want to take land out of production.

Plus, federal money for buffer planting is hard to come by because of budget cuts.

But several environmental groups are not convinced. A coalition, including several Riverkeepers and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, wrote a letter to the MDA expressing concerns about mitigating high levels of phosphorus with BMPs.

“Simply stated, a ‘high’ category, we believe, should prevent the application of any additional phosphorus,” the group wrote.

Environmental leaders are also concerned that nutrient management plans are not accessible to the public, so independent review is difficult, and that there is no process to verify that phosphorus levels are going down and that best management practices are working. Many prefer the up-or-down soil test the federal officials proposed years ago.

Nutrient management plans and their privacy in Maryland have been sticky issues since their inception in 1998. Over the last decade, several environmental groups have pushed for the plans, including soil tests, to be made public, so there would be a better accounting of how much phosphorus was reaching waterways.

“You can’t see what the nutrient management plans say, or what the applications are,” said Pat Stuntz, a program officer with the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, who has been following phosphorus developments for several years. “But what we do know is that, since Maryland began requiring phosphorus-based plans in 2005, we’re not seeing decreases. It’s not working.”

Powell defended the use of best management practices that may allow a farmer to apply phosphorus in a field that was rated “high risk” as a necessary tool for doing what everyone wants the index to do: reduce phosphorus.

“What we should be doing, in fact, is providing sound technical recommendations to farmers that reduce the risk of P loss,” Powell said. “If there is a practice that lowers the risk (of phosphorus loss) in the tool, then we should be providing for that…It’s not going to be in every case, but it recognizes that we have to be making these calculations on a farm-by-farm basis. One shoe does not fit all.”

As for the secrecy of the nutrient management plans, Powell said, “I’ll be able to track the performance of the new tool. I know there are people who are always interested in more verification. The fact of the matter is, MDA is simply following the law.”

Brinsfield, who is in an unusual position as a farmer with a Ph.D. and feet in both the agriculture and environmental fields, said he’s thrilled to see progress move so fast.

“I never thought we would get there,” he said. “It’s been a long time, but now Maryland is way ahead of anywhere else in the country. It’s substantial, I support it, and I think Maryland will continue to be the leader.”

How the Phosphorus Index Works

The Maryland phosphorus index is a tool that helps farmers determine how much phosphorus they can apply to fields. The index is especially important on the Eastern Shore, where many poultry operations are located and many fields have high phosphorus levels because of the heavy reliance on manure as a fertilizer.

It works like this: Farmers test their soil to to get a fertility index value, or FIV, which is basically the amount of plant-available phosphorus. If the FIV is below 150, they can apply phosphorus as needed. If the FIV is above 150, they are advised to discontinue applying phosphorus.

That plan looks at various factors — soil tests, best management practices, previous rates of phosphorus loss, ditch management and topography — to determine whether a farmer can continue to apply phosphorus to his fields. The tool that calculates all of those factors is the phosphorus index. If the resulting score is too high, a farmer is advised discontinue applying phosphorus.

The recent revisions to the index attempt to reduce phosphorus runoff. Here are several of the big changes:

  • The previous index, in use since 2005, had four fertility-index categories for fields: low, medium, high and very high. The new one only has three: low, medium and high. The change means more farms will be in the highest category, the do-not-apply category.
  • The previous index focused on particulate phosphorus running off the land in erosion and some dissolved phosphorus that also ran off the surface and subsurface pathways. The new index will more closely examine the subsurface pathways, based on new research. Subsurface phosphorus loss estimates will incorporate soil type, ditches and tile drains.
  • The previous index looked at each of the three pathways and gave an average score. The new one will give each its own score; one high score in one area can put the farm in the do-not-apply category.
  • The previous index put approximately 4 percent of farms in the do-not-apply category. The new one could put as many as 48 percent of farms in it, according to University of Maryland researchers — though neither the researchers nor department officials say they can give an exact number.
  • The previous index and its accompanying regulations let farmers put in best-management practices to lower phosphorus scores, allowing farmers to apply more phosphorus on fields that were already saturated in some cases. The new regulations retain some of that flexible language, but officials say there will be a lot less wiggle room. Only a buffer can reduce phosphorus, and buffers will only help with the particulate phosphorus, not the dissolved kind. MDA officials pledge to watch the scores closely and enforce do-not-apply rules for fields scored as “high.”