By Stan Wise
With the current high commodity prices, agricultural producers and landowners may be tempted to remove acres from the Conservation Reserve Program, but there are important factors they should consider before making that decision.
The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, is a conservation program in which landowners remove enrolled land from production and plant species that will protect the soil, improve the environment and provide wildlife habitat. In return, they receive a rental payment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The program can be a way to guarantee income from marginally productive land while improving the soil and providing wildlife habitat.
“There’s a lot of good opportunity to help cut costs and manage general farm operations, cutting down on inputs on marginal acres, especially some of these wet areas,” South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Private Lands Habitat Biologist Ben Lardy said. He said that the program can help address saline soils and help producers “raise their actual production history, get rid of those areas that are dragging down yields.” With a higher actual production history, producers can receive higher crop insurance payments in the event of disasters.
Local wildlife and pollinators also benefit from the additional habitat. “A lot of these CRP areas historically have been phenomenal places to hunt, and they hold a lot of wildlife and great value to sportsmen,” Lardy said. “I mean, just about everybody likes to see wildlife, deer, pheasants and ducks in their backyard.”
Run the numbers
If, despite these benefits, landowners are tempted by high commodity prices to remove land from the CRP program, Frankfort, SD, producer and South Dakota Soil Health Coalition Board member Brian Johnson offered some advice for them.
“I would say they need to do their research and run the numbers,” Johnson said. “As far as leaving it in grass and leaving it in CRP contracts, whether you want to go to crop production, they need to look at the data and see if those areas can actually have a positive return on investment. Because typically a lot of these tougher, marginal acres, with the input costs, are difficult to return a positive ROI.”
“You’ve got to think long term, as well,” Johnson said. “Because these prices aren’t going to stay here forever. They’re going to go back to normal, and you have to factor those prices in when you’re running your numbers.”
Lardy agreed. “Those acres were put in by somebody – either yourself or maybe a previous landowner – for a reason. They might be highly erodible, they might be wet, they might be just generally kind of poor, crappy soils,” he said. “So, I would definitely be cognizant of that and make sure that you’re not getting yourself in over your head just by chasing those dollars for a year or two and then find out that you’re fighting just a mess down the road and might end up going right back to the original plan in the end.”
If producers decide to take land out of CRP, there are ways to manage it to maintain the soil health benefits that the program provides.
“Try to be mindful of the fact you had 10-plus years of soil building going on there, building organic matter and carbon in the soil,” Lardy said. “The last thing I’d say is not to go out and try to turn that whole thing over with a moldboard plow or kind of revert the progress that had been made over those years.”
Two years ago, Johnson renewed most of his CRP land, but he decided to remove a small portion of his land from the program. However, the soil had salinity issues, and Johnson determined it would be more productive in grass rather than crops.
“There were a few tracts we did not re-enroll and instead we are leaving them as grass on our farm,” Johnson said, “but it gives us the option then to graze them every few years when we’ve got cattle out on that cropland on the adjoining field. So, they can utilize the grass there and clip it down every few years instead of just depending on a clipping every five years or so, depending on your CRP terms.”
When Johnson has a cover crop or heavy crop residue on the cropland adjoining his former CRP land, he lets his cattle graze the cropland and the grass at the same time. With his diverse rotation, that means the grass gets grazed, at most, two out of every three years.
“It’s definitely improved the quality of the soil, not only where the grass is at but the cropland acres right next to it because it’s taking care of the salinity issues as well as improving the water infiltration, which has helped the crops that are in the adjoining field,” Johnson said, “So it’s something that we look to keep in grass for years to come.”
“There are many options for expiring CRP as far as if you’re looking for additional grass or pasture. Game, Fish and Parks, the Wildlife Service, and many other entities can help with infrastructure – fence and water development – on those acres,” Lardy said. “There’s also the Grassland CRP program, which is kind of made for expiring CRP to turn into a working lands grazing or haying situation that still will pay you an annual payment, and you can still also graze or hay and utilize that grass.”
If former CRP land is to be converted to cropland, Lardy said it should be managed with sustainable agriculture practices. “Ideally, you’d be doing as limited tillage as possible,” he said. “You’d be able to hay that off in the late summer of the last year of your contract. Remove that residue. Spray it out. That way you’re not losing that organic matter that’s been built and that carbon that’s been built over the years with those deep-rooted perennial grasses.”
To learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program, contact the Farm Service Agency South Dakota State Office at 605-352-1160. To learn more about sustainable land management practices and potential cost-share programs, visit www.sdsoilhealthcoalition.org or contact the SDSHC at firstname.lastname@example.org or 605-280-4190.