South Dakotans embrace Conservation Stewardship Program

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Farm Forum

Two years ago David Geditz heard from a friend in another county about the benefits of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). After checking out the list of enhancements financed through the program, Geditz decided that he’d sign up and try some new ways to do things in his operation south of Ipswich.

“It was easy to sign up,” Geditz said. “There were a ton of things that can be done through the program. I chose the ones that fit my operation.” Geditz was surprised how large the program has become, especially that there are 1 million acres in the program just in South Dakota.

CSP provides two types of payments through five-year contracts: annual payments for installing new conservation activities and maintaining existing practices; and supplemental payments for adopting a resource-conserving crop rotation. NRCS provides financial and technical assistance to eligible producers. There is a continuous signup basis, meaning NRCS accepts applications year-round with periodic ranking cutoff dates announced during the year.

Gedditz said, “It gave me some money to spend on some projects I thought I’d like to try.” He chose eight enhancements that would complement his operation. The incentive payments provided a way to afford the changes.

CSP was originally part of the 2008 Farm Bill and found its way back into the 2014 Bill at a slightly reduced level. It’s a working lands program, according to Jessica Michalski, South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) CSP Coordinator. Producers operating cropland, pastureland, rangeland, and forestland are eligible to apply.

“The first step in applying is to outline the agricultural operation with the local NRCS office, including land offered and existing conservation activities,” Michalski, said. “Applicants then choose new conservation enhancements that they want to try in their operations. The applications are then submitted, and those individuals who apply compete for funding.”

For 2014, there were over 600 eligible applicants in South Dakota but approximately 450 were funded. If producers are interested, Michalski said, they can work with the local NRCS office to complete the application process. An application can be signed at any time. A cut-off date for ranking the 2015 applications will be announced at a later date, and the results for 2015 will be announced sometime after the first of the year. Payment limitations for individuals are $40,000 a year, with a cap of $200,000 for the 5-year contract period.

Interest in the CSP has grown each year, with a large allocation coming to South Dakota, Michalski said. The total acres in the CSP program are limited to 10 million per year nationwide. For 2014, one in ten of those acres is in South Dakota.

“In the past, we have seen more interest in the northeastern and western parts of the state,” Michalski said. “However, in 2014, interest has increased in the southeast as well.”

The national office details all the enhancement opportunities. Producers need to choose ones that will fit their operation. “It might already be an activity the producer was considering implementing on their operation,” Michalski said. “Continuous dedication to conservation efforts can result in a CSP contract that is financially beneficial for producers while improving the soil, water, air, plants and animals on South Dakota’s ag lands.”

Bees and rotational grazing

Geditz said he’s been concerned about wildlife getting killed when he’s swathed hay. Through the program, he built and mounted a “Flush Bar” on his swather that extends out 8 feet. It’s meant to scare ducks, pheasants and deer out of the way before the sickle bar cuts the crop.

It works. “I do see ducks and pheasants fly away,” he said. “We don’t have as many birds as we used to. Some farmers say they kill 100 birds in a day when cutting hay. And that’s not counting the young. This was my first year of using the bar and I’m really pleased.” He adapted a design to fit the 18-ft. machine. Chains are draped from the frame, and they alerts the wildlife.

Geditz said it’s most important when the birds are nesting, as they sit pretty tight then. A friend with the Game, Fish and Parks Department helped him with the design.

This year, he planted pollinator crops to encourage bees and other pollinators. Geditz believes that’s something that everyone can do. The lack of pollinators has become a huge concern to those in agriculture.

Checking for nutrients

Geditz has 14 paddocks that he uses in rotational grazing. After the herd has been in the pasture for 3 days, he takes a sample of the manure from the animals in the pasture to determine if the animals are getting the right kind of nutrients.

“It’s a fairly expensive test and something I probably wouldn’t do if it wasn’t for the program,” he said. “The results can tell me if the animals are staying too long on the pasture ground and if they are getting what they need.”

The knowledge is helpful to Geditz in his operation. He raises all his own feed and does custom silage bagging.

Non-chemical pest management is important. “Flies can take a lot of money out of the operation when they suck blood and bother the cows,” Geditz said. “This year I put up a solar fly trap that seems to be working pretty good. Anything you can do to keep the flies off the cattle’s back will make you money.”

Use of chemical pesticides can kill dung beetles that naturally fight flies by disrupting their life cycle. Personnel from the NRCS office showed Geditz how to find dung beetles in his pasture. By using the solar device for fly control, he hopes to keep from using the chemicals that may wipe out the dung beetles that are in his pastures. Geditz is concerned that sometimes chemicals are used more as a crutch than as a tool. Sometimes he’s used certain chemicals to clear a problem up, but doesn’t like doing that on a long-term basis.

Geditz said, “I don’t think that I’ll be stopping these things after the 5 years are up. Encouraging insects, protecting wildlife and using natural pest control affects the bottom line.”

Technology savings

Chad Schooley of Castlewood said it didn’t take him long to sign up for CSP five years ago.

“What it does for the land, we were already doing,” Schooley said. “It didn’t take much talking for us to sign up. Some of the enhancements we were doing on our own, others we’d been thinking about.”

Schooley has a diverse operation with both crop and livestock components.

For the crops, Schooley is now using a variable rate fertilizer set up which allows the nutrients to be placed where they can best be used. Coupled with the seeding component, he’s seen the changes pay for themselves by better yields.

“We were putting on more and more fertilizer to get those big yields,” Schooley said. “We were wasting that fertilizer on the poor ground. This is really the place where we could see the biggest enhancement.”

On the cattle side, Schooley said they use rotational grazing along with planting cover crops.

The cattle used to be turned out to gaze on a quarter of ground; now that has six sections on it. Once a week, the cattle are moved to the next pasture. It takes a little more time, but the benefits to the grass are very evident, according to Schooley.

Those who signed contracts in 2010, 1.2 million acres in South Dakota, are eligible to reenroll for another 5 years, Michalski said. Re-enrollment offers must be made by Sept. 12.

Popular cropland enhancements in South Dakota include: adopting spray technologies to improve air quality, improving fertilizer application methods to improve water quality, planting cover crops for improved soil health, and planting perennial species for improved wildlife cover.

For grazing land, highly-selected enhancements include: monitoring residual heights of grasses for improved plant health, monitoring nutritional needs of livestock for improved animal health, and rotating supplement and feeding areas for improved water quality.

Renewing commitment

Schooley just signed up to re-enroll in the program for another 5 years. Through the renewal process, he’ll look at the changes he’s made and consider new enhancements.

Schooley said, “It’s a good deal, and by making these positive changes, it supports those who are getting better at being stewards of the land.”

Farmers and ranchers want to be known for that quality.

“I’m a fourth generation farmer and have two sons coming up who are purebred farmers,” he said. “We have to think about the next generation and what’s best for them and the career that will be there for them. It’s important that the public knows the value we place on conservation, and in reality, I also want to have our farm be better for my kids and generations to come.”