December 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA3

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Voluntary Environmental Improvement Programs: Teaching Them to Fish or Providing a Professional Guide

Many Extension programs are built upon the parable of teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish. The lesson is that the impact will be longer lasting and clients will be self sufficient if they are taught to fish. Two separate voluntary environmental improvement programs (the Livestock Environmental Management System Pilot Project and Iowa Livestock External Stewardship Pilot Project) with similar goals yet different educational approaches were evaluated. For our fish analogy, LEMS taught them to how to fish, and WILESPP provided them a professional guide. This article looks at the accomplishments and attitudes of the participants.

John D. Lawrence
Director, Iowa Beef Center

Suzanne Schuknecht
Program Assistant, Iowa Beef Center

Joe Lally
Program Coordinator, Heartland Water Quality Project

Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa


Many Extension programs are built upon the parable of teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish. The belief is that the impact will be longer lasting and the clients will be self sufficient if they are taught to fish. This is particularly important for changing the culture of how people care for the environment.

One such program was the Livestock Environmental Management System Pilot Project (LEMS) in western Iowa, in which producers were taught how to assess their operation, develop a plan, and implement a systematic approach to address environmental concerns and compliance. At approximately the same time, a separate voluntary environmental improvement program with similar goals was underway in western Iowa, the Iowa Livestock External Stewardship Pilot Project (WILESPP). Participants in WILESPP were assisted in developing and implementing a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) to the standards defined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

This article summarizes a follow-up study with the participants conducted approximately a year after the two programs concluded and allows us to evaluate the fishing analogy. Each project took approximately a year to develop and a year to implement. The survey of participants who completed the projects was taken a year after implementation. The programs differ fundamentally in that the CNMP developed in WILESPP is a prescriptive process completed for the producer by consultants, while the EMS is an educational process in which the producer develops his or her own plan. For our fish analogy, LEMS taught them to how to fish and WILESPP provided them a professional fishing guide.

This article describes what was learned about two voluntary environmental programs for livestock farmers. It compares the farmers' accomplishments and attitudes, and role they play in protecting the environment. It also identifies lessons for Extension and suggestions for future environmental programming.


Western Iowa Livestock External Stewardship Pilot Project

The WILESPP was undertaken to test whether the livestock industry, working together with state and federal agencies and producers, could design, implement, measure, and document voluntary environmental stewardship. This pilot project emphasized the need for consultation, cooperation, communication, and planning among meat processors, livestock producers, and government officials. The goal of this project was to develop and implement a CNMP, a "prescriptive" nutrient plan developed by USDA-NRCS staff and consultants for each participant to utilize manure nutrients in an environmentally sound and sustainable system.

WILESPP involved 19 volunteer producers (15 pork producers and four cattle producers from 23 operations) representing contract and independent producers. Twelve of the 15 hog producers were of regulated size and already had a nutrient management plan. The site-specific CNMP for each participant was supported by meat processors, field staff, and Iowa NRCS. Each producer and the support staff began a process that included analyzing soil and manure, mapping application fields with GPS/GIS, updating their NRCS Conservation Plan, competing an On-Farm Assessment and Environmental Report, developing the CNMP, and annually updating the plan with crop yields and manure and commercial fertilizer applications. The pilot project was wrapped up after the 2-year trial with a complete summary published in October of 2004.

Livestock Environmental Management System

Iowa was one of 10 states involved in LEMS where producers were led through the development of an Environmental Management System (EMS) for their operation. This Extension education program involved four 2-hour workshops, a producer guidebook, and an on-site visit by the project coordinator. Thirty-eight producers representing 35 operations with 200-8000 head of cattle feedlot capacity attended the first of four 2-hour workshops in March and April 2003. None of these operations was regulated at the time of the workshop.

Producers received an EMS Guidebook developed by the University of Nebraska. The first day of the program introduced producers to the essential components of EMS and to changes in environmental regulations impacting feedlots. The producers also used worksheets to identify significant environmental aspects of their operation and their own stewardship goals. Before the second day of the workshop, producers had completed an environmental policy statement and a third-party on-site feedlot assessment.

Producers used their policy statement and assessment to identify priorities issues on their farm, and they shared these at the second workshop. They then developed action plans to address their priorities with timelines, measurable objectives, and documentation requirements. Producers also established standard operating procedures and emergency action plans with responsibilities assigned according to priorities identified during the assessment.

The Project Coordinator and Extension Field Staff visited each farm once to discuss and observe progress on the EMS with the producer. The third workshop was held on one of the participant farms 6 months into the program to share ideas between farmers on how they were using their EMS to address priority issues in their operation. A final meeting was held 1 year into the program to discuss progress to date and plans for the future.


In March 2005, approximately a year after the completion of the two pilot projects, a letter and a questionnaire were mailed to participants. All 19 of the WILESPP participants and 19 of the original 35 operations that completed the LEMS were surveyed. The questionnaire asked them to evaluate their experience with the LEMS or WILESPP programs. There was a 48% return rate.


With few exceptions, there was little difference in the response between the two groups. Unless noted otherwise, the following results were comparable to the questions below.

Current Use of EMS/CNMP

All of the respondents were currently using their EMS or CNMP. Eighty-four percent had referred to the plan in the last 3 months, but only 28% had updated their original plan. All of the participants intended to continue using the plans they developed in these projects.

When asked how they recorded the amount of manure applied to each field, 100% of the LEMS participants counted loads, while 67% of WILESPP participants counted loads, 22% weighed the spreader/tank, and 11% used a flow meter. One hundred percent of WILESPP participants sampled manure annually for nutrient content, while only 18% of LEMS participants did.

Sixty-four percent of LEMS participants have implemented new or expanded manure management practices or structures because of this project, while only 29% of WILESPP participants did. However, all of the hog producers in the WILESPP project were using a manure management plan prior to the start of the pilot project. LEMS participants spent an average of $31,000 and WILESPP participants spent an average of $750 for new construction, mostly concrete settling basins. The LEMS participants were open beef feedlot that needed to upgrade manure-handling facilities, while the hog producers in the WILESPP project already had structures in place.


All the participants believed that because of the programs they had a better understanding of environmental regulations and were better complying with these rules and regulations. Ninety-five percent of the participants believed that they practice better stewardship because of the programs.

Forty-six percent had seen improved crop yield or performance since using their plans, while 45% had seen improvement in soil conservation through less erosion and runoff. Half of the LEMS participants saw an improvement in animal performance, while only 20% of WILESPP participants saw an improvement likely reflecting the hog versus cattle facilities.

When the participants were asked to define environmental stewardship, both groups gave similar definitions along the lines of "protecting the environment while running a profitable operation." The participants were also asked to give indications that a farmer is a good steward. They said that good practices indicate good stewardship. For example, good practices would be an active environmental plan, proper manure application, clean pens, neat farmstead, no-till, and improvement of their operation.

Fifty-five percent of the LEMS participants stated that there were additional changes they were planning to implement in regard to their plan, 29% of WILESPP participants planned on doing additional work. Overall, the WILESPP participants were more concerned about the operation in relation to the environment (Table 1). Both groups believed that the producer was the person most responsible for environmental protection, followed by the DNR, NRCS, and then commodity groups.

Table 1.
Level of Concern of Selected Environmental Issues

Please indicate how concerned you are on your operation about each of the following: LEMSWILESPP
Not ConcernedConcernedNot ConcernedConcerned
Water quality related to manure management 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 100.0%
Water quality related to pesticides, chemicals, fuels, or fertilizers 45.5% 54.5% 0.0% 100.0%
Water quantity and availability 18.2% 81.8% 16.7% 83.3%
Soil quality and/or soil conservation 18.2% 81.8% 0.0% 100.0%
Wildlife habitat 9.1% 90.9% 0.0% 100.0%
Odor and/or air quality 27.3% 72.7% 16.7% 83.3%
Energy costs and availability 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 100.0%


When asked where they get information or advice on different topics, the WILESPP participants stated that they obtained information from NRCS for every topic except environmental regulations. That information was acquired from producer organizations (Table 2). LEMS participants stayed updated on environmental changes most frequently with meetings, while WILESPP farmers got their information through print media. The least frequent way to get information was through word of mouth (LEMS) and the Internet (WILESPP). LEMS participants found the Extension service most helpful (73%), and the WILESPP participants found federal or state conservation agencies most helpful (50%).

Table 2.
Value of Environmental and Regulatory Information Source

Please indicate whether you have used the services of an outside adviser or consultant to help with your operation management or decision making in the last two years. LEMS WILESPP
Didn't Use Not Helpful Neutral Helpful Didn't Use Not Helpful Neutral Helpful
Producer organization/ commodity group 0% 11% 33% 56% 40% 0% 40.0% 20%
Extension service 18% 0% 9% 73% 17% 17% 50.0% 17%
Neighbor/another local producer 33% 0% 17% 50% 50% 17% 0.0% 33%
Hired consultant 58% 0% 8% 33% 67% 0% 0.0% 33%
University researcher 50% 8% 17% 25% 50% 33% 16.7% 0%
Federal or state conservation agencies 38% 15% 15% 31% 0.0% 33% 16.7% 50%
Input provider 50% 0% 17% 33% 50% 50% 0.0% 0%
Non-profit educational groups  89% 0% 0% 11% 83% 17% 0.0% 0%


When the participants were asked if they were satisfied with different aspects of the pilot programs that they participated in, a vast majority agreed with each of the comments. The one statement that participants of the WILESPP program did not agree with was that the information they were presented gave them a new awareness about the environmental impact of their operation. Sixty-seven percent disagreed with this statement (Table 3); again, many of these participants were hog producers that have had tougher environmental requirements for a number of years, and this program did little to improve their awareness.

Table 3.
Value of Pilot Project Activities

Please indicate your level of agreement or disagreement with each of the following statements. LEMS WILESPP
Disagree Agree Disagree Agree
I understand and appreciate the purpose of this project. 0% 100% 0% 100%
The amount of time spent in this project was reasonable 0% 100% 17% 83%
The on-site assessment was a valuable part of the project. 0% 100% 20% 80%
The information presented is easy to understand 9% 91% 17% 83%
The information presented is useful to my operation 0% 100% 0% 100%
The information presented gave me new awareness about the environmental impact of my operation 0% 100% 67% 33%
The assessment of the environmental impacts of my operation will fit into my other management activities 0% 100% 33% 67%
I was satisfied with the amount of time project staff spent with me. 9% 91% 0% 100%
Project staff answered my questions and provided the assistance I needed to complete the assessment. 0% 100% 0% 100%

The participants were asked what improvements could be made to the individual programs to improve participation understanding and results. A majority of the LEMS participants believed that the presentation of the information was helpful and presented well, but thought there was too much paperwork and the program should "get to the basics." The participants believed that in order to achieve better results, there needed to be more hands-on activity. Examples included tours of feedlots that had already been through the process, pictures of other operations, continued contact and support, and yearly updates of new rules/regulations and progress of other participants.

There was little response to this question from the WILESPP participants. The responses that were received stated that there was too much material and the program developers needed to work closely with the DNR to make sure there is one system that fulfills requirements for all organizations.

The majority of the participants from both groups participated in the projects because they wanted to learn more about the rules and regulations and be compliant with them. Other reasons were because they respected the presenter, interest in additional education, and importance of environmental stewardship. All the participants believed that the programs had value and that their individual goals were met by participating. The majority indicated they would participate again, and all the participants indicated they would recommend this program to another producer.

Each of the participants stated that they valued the 3rd-party assistance, and 56% of the LEMS participants and 25% of WILESPP participants said that they would pay over $1000 for this assistance. The LEMS 3rd party involved a site visit to help in the assessment and coaching the producer to complete the program. The WILESPP 3rd party was the professional guides that did the planning, soil sampling, and plan development. Clearly the 3rd-party time and detail provided was greater in the WILESPP than in the LEMS, yet it was not valued as highly. Around 50% of all participants stated that there was a similar service available in their area, and the majority of participants in both groups (57% of LEMS and 67% of WILESPP) would pay less than $500 for the assistance (Table 4).

Table 4.
The Value of 3rd-Party Assistance in the Program Delivery

  <$500 $500-$1000 >$1000 <$500 $500-$1000 >$1000
How much was the 3rd-party assistance worth to your operation? 33% 11% 56% 25% 50% 25%
How much would you be willing to pay for similar assistance today? 57% 29% 14% 67% 0% 33%

The participants of the WILESPP program plan to continue following their CNMP as it is or update it as needed. The majority of LEMS participants that responded plan to continue improving their EMS plans and their operations. Continuous improvement is a tenant of EMS and these producers appear to be following it.


The two pilot projects to assist livestock producers to voluntarily improve environmental performance produced similar responses to the survey questions. Participants in each program thought there was too much paperwork, but would participate again, recommend it to a neighbor, and would be willing to pay for the service. The differences in the two programs were influenced by the type of participants. The entire LEMS group had open beef feedlots that have not had as much regulatory pressure as the pork industry. These beef producers needed to make basic changes quickly. Fifteen of the 19 WILESPP group were pork producers and had manure management plans and manure storage structures in place before the project.

Although prescriptive and more consultant driven, at the end each WILESPP participant had a CNMP developed by a professional and was implementing it on land receiving manure. The LEMS participants working largely on their own after learning the process, identified their priorities, continued to make changes, and had plans for future improvements, but few had a nutrient management plan. For most of them it was not required.

The results of the survey indicate that both programs were successful in moving producers toward improved stewardship and practices that will better protect water quality. While there are no statistics to quantify the differences, the authors offer the following observations.

  • All of the participants responding to this survey were continuing to use the plans set up in their respective projects.

  • Requiring the target improves conformity. All of the WILESPP participants had a nutrient plan and did soil and manure analysis because that was the requirement and in the pilot it was done for them. While all the LEMS participants counted loads of manure, only a few weighed the spreader, and less than a fifth did manure analysis. Nutrient management was not required, nor is it a priority for many of the LEMS group.

  • The LEMS project represented a journey of continuous improvement towards environmental stewardship, while the WILESPP project represented a destination of completing a CNMP document and implementing the plan. WILESPP participants had few plans for future improvements other than to implement the current CNMP. LEMS participants were continuing to identify new objectives and changes to implement.

  • Activities that involve agencies and organizations with common goals and/or that allow producers to learn together and from each other are still effective methods of achieving behavior change.

Lessons for Extension

It is difficult to say who has the most fish in the end. Both programs elevated the stewardship and regulatory awareness and action of participants. The WILESPP farmers were further along the comprehensive nutrient management plan path with practices recognized to improve water quality. While WILESPP farmers utilized professional help, any farmer can use NRCS staff and the private industry to develop and implement environmental stewardship plans. CNMP development often comes with financial assistance and incentives from NRCS.

The LEMS farmers learned a valuable management model of plan-do-check-act and continuous improvement that will move them forward in a changing world. They could have hired a consultant, but valued the coaching provided by Extension in the LEMS program. It was still their plan rather than the consultant's.

A third alterative based on the strengths of each program may offer the best of both worlds. The CNMP program is technically sound, and resources are readily available to assist in implementation. The LEMS instills ownership by the farmer and strives for continuous improvement.

The logical hybrid is to have greater farmer ownership of the process and hire or outsource the technical expertise where needed. This process starts with the farmer developing his or her own environmental policy statement, being engaged in the assessment, and prioritizing the environmental aspects on the farm. The CNMP provides a method to implement the farmer's priorities. Then the farm identifies a set of key measures to monitor, reassess, and reprioritize each year.

In simple terms this is a farmer-led CNMP with a feedback loop. It incorporates the technical detail and resources of a CNMP and the ownership and plan-do-check-act continuous improvement process of LEMS into a dynamic plan for managing the farm and protecting the environment.

Perhaps the role for Extension is in teaching and coaching the farmers to use proven management models and to train the professionals in technical skills that they in turn provide to the farmer. Stewardship principles and pride of ownership cannot be outsourced. They are inherent and engrained in the farmer. However, they are expressed through effective planning and implementation of practices that protect natural resources.


Environmental Protection Agency. (2004). Western Iowa Livestock External Stewardship Pilot Project: Laying the groundwork for a future of effective nutrient management [On-line]. Available at:

Lawrence, J. D. (2004). Partnerships for Livestock Environmental Management Systems [On-line]. Available at: