The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is America’s largest private lands conservation program. The program pays farmers to take marginal and highly erodible crop land out of production, and plant grassland mixtures, shrubs or trees that provide a host of public benefits.
CRP lands provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife, improve water quality by reducing the runoff of soil and agrichemicals into nearby streams, re-build soil quality, and reduce the loss of topsoil. Program lands address climate change by storing large amounts of carbon in plants and roots.
CRP contracts provide steady income for participants, keep crop prices from falling too low, and boost local efforts to attract hunters to an area.
Extensive research has documented the many benefits that the program produces each year:
Sadly, Congress chose to cut the Conservation Reserve Program in the 2008 Farm bill, from 39.2 million acres to just 32 million acres. Many of the conservation benefits could be lost if acres that leave the program are simply placed back into row crop commodity production.
As conservationists work to preserve some of the many public benefits these lands provide, they are turning to other US Department of Agriculture conservation programs to help farmers with millions of acres expiring CRP contracts keep their land in grass.
Rotational grazing, often called management-intensive grazing, is a way of better managing grasslands. By moving cattle, sheep, or other livestock frequently from area to area, the grassland plants can more quickly recover.
The strategy produces more forage than traditional whole-pasture grazing, reduces erosion, and helps reduce pest problems. The strategy also boosts wildlife habitat because it results in grasslands with a mosaic of different plant heights which can provide cover and nesting.
The tradeoff for landowners is the added investment needed in fences and water facilities to make the system work. For landowners with an option to rent their land that has been in the CRP or put it back into crop production, the financial obstacles to switching to grass-based livestock production can be daunting.
Big Indian Reservoir in southeast Nebraska was built in 1972, and is owned by the Lower Big Blue Natural Resource District. The 76-acre reservoir has been polluted by excess phosphorus and sediment, primarily from farming operations.
In 2009, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) estimated that to bring the reservoir back into compliance with state water quality standards, the phosphorus load would need to be reduced by about 88%, and sediment runoff into the reservoir would need to be reduced by about one-third.
At its peak in September, 2007, Gage County had over 48,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, roughly 12% of the cropland acres in the county. The NDEQ has been concerned that the loss of CRP contracts in the Big Indian Reservoir watershed would result in increased soil erosion and a decline in water quality in area streams, making it even more difficult to address the pollution problems in the reservoir.
To encourage landowners with expiring CRP contracts to keep their land in grass, the agency began developing ways to help them transition their land to grass-based agriculture rather than row-crop production.
Seeing the same need throughout the state, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Nebraska provided additional incentives through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help landowners install fencing and water systems, and address invasive plant species, on land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program.
As more agencies and organizations realized the importance of keeping expiring CRP acres in grass, they joined together to develop plans to focus their efforts in areas of Nebraska where the loss of CRP acres could have the biggest impact on wildlife and water quality.
The group includes Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and others. They crafted a plan to hire outreach biologists in key parts of the state to work with interested landowners to help them to transition their CRP fields to well-managed grazing, or to other farming and ranching systems that maintain as many of the CRP benefits as possible.
The strategy includes (1) providing incentives to help landowners pay for the fencing, water, and other infrastructure needed to engage in grassland-based agriculture on these tracts; and (2) providing the technical assistance needed by private landowners to implement the conservation plan.
The group also built in support for ongoing management practices, like prescribed burning and interseeding, that will be needed to maintain the systems for the long term. The project will leverage state and federal funding, combine the use of multiple conservation programs, and supply added incentives where needed to complete the entire plan.
The effort is in its early stages, but already agencies and organizations in other states with substantial CRP acres are looking at the innovative efforts in Nebraska as they deal with the impacts of so many acres of Conservation Reserve Program contracts expiring.
This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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