CRP now offers multiple options to potential enrollees

Pete Bauman
SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist

New CRP programs now offer improved options for grazing, haying and wildlife. The general signup period is from Jan.4 to Feb. 12.

Over the years, USDA conservation programs like CRP have been very popular but have been plagued with criticisms related to certain practice rules that didn’t allow for practical “use.” For example, one of the most common complaints from landowners was that they had to perform mid-term management like haying and then destroy the hay instead of using it. As USDA continues to work cooperatively with conservation groups and landowners the programs continue to improve and are becoming more practical for working ranches, land health and wildlife.

Most people believe that CRP is primarily a wildlife and habitat program, which it actually is not. CRP was primarily intended to combat overproduction of crops and soil erosion on marginal cropland. The upside was that when taken out of production, the grasses that were planted in place of crops had a very positive impact on wildlife populations. Soon CRP became a very important component of wildlife habitat on the landscape, and the return of grassy cover was celebrated across the conservation and hunting public, but concerns with deteriorating habitat quality over time as CRP stands aged was a persistent problem.

The latest iteration of CRP programs are far more advanced than the original programs, and today’s CRP plantings focus on the use of high-value native grasses and flowering plants instead of the low-value exotic species that were historically used. Today, almost all CRP program selections offer very practical options for use under a “working lands” model that includes a return to frequent physical management of the grassland stands via grazing, haying, and fire alternated with appropriate rest periods. Management actions are not unregulated, rather they are “allowed” within the context of an overall management plan that recognizes that healthy grassland plantings require frequent disturbance to the system. As an example, an old CRP field that was planted to smooth bromegrass in the 1980s ultimately became a stagnant environment that offered little wildlife value over time. Contrast that to today’s CRP options, which incorporate native plants that provide wildlife food and cover while allowing grazing to occur at certain intervals. That grazing will recycle nutrients, stimulate plant growth, improve soil health, and open the stand so that young animals, such as pheasant chicks, can move around and forage on the insects that are attracted to the site because of the diversity created by grazing while still having adequate escape cover and safety in close proximity. In essence, old CRP could “hold” wildlife. New CRP programs are designed to both help “hold” and “grow” wildlife.

Because of the array of options within the CRP programs, there is now something for nearly every situation. As stated, within the new CRP rules are options for grazing and haying under management plans that are cooperatively designed by the landowner and NRCS. These plans are initially designed by either NRCS staff or Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists, which are stationed at NRCS offices. Today’s options also include some great opportunities for non-operating landowners, socially underrepresented landowners, and beginning operators for whom which even more liberalized grazing access is often available.

The nuts and bolts of CRP can be confusing, so here are the basics of what you need to understand to start the process. First off, CRP is essentially a rental contract between the landowner and FSA, where FSA pays the landowner for “use” of the field under certain guidelines. Second, CRP has many programs. Some are managed as “general CRP,” which have a set amount of acres allocated by USDA and are not continuously open for enrollment application. These programs require a landowner to make an “offer” or “bid” to FSA in the form of a CRP contract application. Those applications are then reviewed, scored, and ranked. Applicants can often receive more points to increase their chance of being accepted if they offer their most erodible cropland, include diverse native species, or agree to a reduced annual rental rate.

Third, continuous CRP programs are similar to general but allow for non-competitive “continuous” signup, meaning the landowner can apply at any time, but program acres are not always available. Continuous programs tend to have more specific focus (such as duck habitat or waterway protection), and often have a few more considerations in the management plan. However, continuous programs also have higher rental rates and additional incentives (i.e. payment to landowner) than do the general programs.

Fourth, most (but not all) CRP programs require that the land have a proven cropping history and will offer contract options to the landowner for 10 or 15 years. There are some exceptions. One such exception is a fairly new CRP

program called “Grassland CRP.” With Grassland CRP, existing native or planted grass that does not have a cropping history may be eligible. This program offers a very manageable option for grazing. Under grassland CRP, the landowner receives a rental rate and can still graze or lease the pasture or grassland if they choose, but an NRCS-approved grazing plan is required. Many producers have taken advantage of this opportunity recently. The next signup period for Grassland CRP runs from March 15 to April 23.

For more information on all CRP programs, call your local USDA service center and ask to speak with the Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist for your area. This is an important first step, as these individuals will help you assess your situation and will work to identify which CRP programs might be right for you, what rental rates might be, and how you can improve your chances for acceptance. The next step is to contact FSA (often in the same building as NRCS) and request to make an application to one or more CRP programs. Ultimately, if your bid is accepted, you will then shift back to working with NRCS or Pheasants Forever staff to develop a management plan.

The ultimate goal of establishing healthy grasslands is to create an opportunity to keep those acres in grass for the long term. Establishing infrastructure such as fence and water during the CRP enrollment can help transition poor or moderate cropland or poorly management pasture back to functional, profitable, and regenerative grassland for long term use and overall benefit to soils, water, and wildlife. There are many options for assistance in long-term planning for grasslands, including SDSU Extension range management field specialists, South Dakota Game Fish & Parks private lands staff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program staff, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists, and NRCS range management and soils staff. Reach out to any of these organizations for guidance on establishing and maintaining healthy grasslands. Finally, the South Dakota Grassland and Soil Health Coalitions coordinate education and training for grassland management in cooperation with the agencies listed above. Consider attending future grassland workshops, grazing and soils schools, and pasture walks as part of your grassland transition plan.