New grassland CRP offers grazing options

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Farm Forum

On Sept. 1, USDA started taking offers for a new and highly anticipated Conservation Reserve Program called ‘CRP grasslands’. While not perfect, this new program takes a major step toward improved management and utilization of expiring CRP and GRP acres under a ‘working lands’ philosophy while retaining the inherent value of the grass cover for wildlife, water, and recreation. This new program was brought about largely by feedback provided by CRP landowners and conservation groups alike.

As stated, this new program is not perfect and will not fit everyone, but it is a solid first attempt by USDA to offer a program squarely focused on improved management and utilization of CRP acres for those interested in grazing…possibly enticing landowners to keep grass on the land. While this new program does allow for the integration of existing pasture into a CRP program, the primary focus is to offer an option to those with expiring CRP acres to keep the grass intact while offering reasonable grazing and profit options under a new 15 year CRP contract.

One of the differences in this new program is that it allows more freedom to manage for the overall health of the grassland with proven tools such as grazing activities and prescribed fire management within the primary nesting season (May 1 – August 15). Haying, mowing, and seed harvest are still restricted during the primary nesting season but are allowed after the August 1st date.

We cannot cover all the details in one article, but the main points of what a landowner needs to consider are outlined below. Landowners must visit their local USDA service centers for all the details.

• Signup is year round with announced application batching dates. The first batching deadline will be November 20, 2015.

• Any grassland acres are eligible, but diverse stands of expiring CRP will rank the highest. Landowners may also offer ‘new’ acres that they will establish into grass at their own expense.

• Annual rental payments range from $15/acre in western South Dakota to $40/acre in the southeast part of the state. The landowner has the freedom to utilize the acres or lease them to another operator for grazing, hay, seed, hunting, etc.

• FSA will cost share up to 50% of water and fence improvements for the enrolled acres, including improvements to existing pasture acres if those acres are accepted into the program (based on the overall project ranking).

• In addition to the basic ranking, additional points will be awarded if:

– The acres fall within certain established priority areas.

– The landowner agrees to establish pollinator plots.

– The landowner agrees to a ‘wildlife focused’ conservation plan.

– The current stand was planted to a diverse seed mix at the time of initial establishment.

Who might want to consider this program?

Landowners who are considering breaking their CRP upon expiration should at least consider the suite of options that are available under the updated CRP programs. With low crop prices and a reasonably strong cattle market, breaking any grass out for additional crop acres may not make economic sense. Many CRP options have updated rental rates that are extremely competitive and in some counties offer greater than $150/acre annually on 10 and 15 year contracts. For those interested in retaining grazing, haying, or seed harvest options, the new grassland CRP program offers a lower payment but allows the landowner a good degree of flexibility related to utilizing the land themselves or for renting to a livestock operator.

For the livestock operator, this is an opportune time to approach absentee landlord neighbors to discuss these options. With a 50% cost share option on fence and water systems along with options for wildlife habitat improvements, there has never been a better time to negotiate a deal that limits risk for both you and the landowner in establishing a grazing and wildlife plan. Work with your neighbor/landlord on a plan and visit the USDA service center together. It is anticipated that if this program proves valuable, additional offers will be accepted for expiring CRP in coming years.