One of the largest voluntary private-lands conservation programs in the U.S. celebrated its 35th anniversary this past December. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) helps landowners and operators conserve grassland. When landowners enroll ground in the CRP, they voluntarily agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. The ground is then maintained as grassland for the length of the contract, generally 10 or 15 years.
The CRP benefits landowners, wildlife, and surrounding communities. Producers receive annual payments that help offset the cost of maintaining the land as a set-aside, rather than actively grazing or cultivating the ground. Beyond the operation, keeping these lands in grass also contributes positively to the economy, provides biodiversity of plant and animal populations, and improves environmental quality by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and locking carbon in the soil.
A study released in 2021 demonstrated that ranches in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas that had ground enrolled in CRP, or in prescribed grazing practices, helped conserve habitat for 4.5 million grassland-dependent songbirds. Importantly, CRP-enrolled lands comprised the majority of the lands in the study. This benefit extended to some of the most imperiled grassland species, including lesser prairie-chickens, grasshopper sparrow, Cassin’s sparrow, and lark bunting. Further, these lands helped boost songbird populations by 1.8 million birds.
The CRP is helping address one of the most significant challenges to America’s grasslands – land use conversion. The majority of the most productive soils in the Great Plains have already been cultivated, but more than one million acres of grasslands are lost annually across the U.S – largely due to continued conversion to cropland. This conversion includes less-productive soils, which has a high cost to wildlife, water quality, soil health, and carbon capture. Furthermore, 70 percent of these new croplands have a yield deficit of -6.5 percent compared to the national average.
The CRP helps restore and maintain grasslands, but the program is highly competitive. While demand is high, more than half of willing participants were unable to re-enroll expiring CRP lands in recent years due to acreage limitations nationally. Despite this disappointment, a study released in 2021 demonstrated 58 percent of CRP contracts – on average across six states – that expired in 2007 remained in grass for the next 10 years. The highest retention rates were in less productive landscapes where grazing cultures persist. In contrast, the most productive soils often returned to cropland when contracts expired.
While the CRP is managed by the FSA, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps landowners with expiring contracts turn CRP acres into productive grazing lands through technical and financial assistance after CRP contracts expire.
Watch this video featuring Kansas rancher, Dwight Abel, who worked with the NRCS to turn expired CRP ground into productive and profitable grazing lands.
The NRCS is uniquely positioned to help producers retain grassland exiting the CRP by replacing lost annual set-aside payments with revenues from livestock grazing. Helping the ranching community piece back together lower-productivity landscapes that are better suited for grazing than farming has the potential to restore whole watersheds at unprecedented scales. Maintaining expired CRP lands as working rangelands can stitch together intact grasslands that support grassland-dependent wildlife while helping producers remain profitable and productive.
We sat down with Andy Burr, the state biologist with the NRCS in Kansas, to talk about the CRP and how the NRCS helps producers retain expired CRP lands as working rangelands.
How popular is the CRP among landowners in the Great Plains?
It is a very popular program in Kansas. More popular when commodity prices are low or growing conditions are tough like during a drought.
How are applications for the CRP evaluated?
FSA ranks the applications based on the estimated environmental benefits and cost to implement the vegetative cover on the offered acreage.
How does the FSA determine which applications would be most beneficial to wildlife or ecosystem services like soil erosion and water quality?
FSA determines which applications would be most beneficial through use their Environmental Benefits Index. It considers the wildlife habitat cover benefits, water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching, enduring benefits, and air quality benefits.
A recent study showed that nearly 60% of expired CRP contracts were maintained as grasslands for 10 years after the CRP contract expired. How have you seen this trend play out over your career?
Many of these lower-productivity landscapes present an opportunity to restore large and intact grazing lands. I think this comes down the dominant land use in the area. If the expiring CRP is in an area dominated by rangeland there is a good chance the field will remain in grass.
What are some of the benefits of turning expired CRP lands into working rangelands?
The benefits include; adding more forage to the ranching operation, grazing will create a patchwork of different cover types to meet important habitat components like nesting and brood rearing cover, and grazing can provide disturbance to help maintain a diversity of grasses and forbs. Maintaining the grass will continue to protect the soil from wind and water erosion and will store carbon below the soil surface within the root systems of the prairie plants.
Are there specific places or types of land where transitioning expired CRP lands to grazing lands makes more sense?
It makes more sense where the cropland productivity is low and/or there are a lot of livestock producers.
How does the NRCS help focus resources on those areas?
NRCS focuses resources with the help of our great partners, especially like the soil and water conservation districts. Kansas NRCS prioritizes expiring CRP through Environmental Quality Incentives Program for producers interested in converting the CRP to working rangelands that then become a valuable part of their grazing operation.
If a landowner wants to maintain expired CRP ground as grazing land, what assistance can the NRCS provide?
NRCS can provide technical and financial assistance to those that qualify for developing watering facilities, building fence, and establishing stocking rates. All a producer has to do is call or visit with conservation staff at their local USDA Service Center.
What else would you like our readers to know about the CRP and the NRCS’s capacity to help landowners keep these important habitats as grasslands through grazing?
Management is critical to maintain grasslands whether they are CRP or native rangeland. Prescribed grazing with appropriate stocking rates is needed to maintain healthy forage plants. Grazing can be a great tool to develop wildlife habitat.
Meet the Expert
What is your favorite grassland bird?
Bobolinks. They are a very showy bird with an unmistakable trill for a call.
Describe your perfect weekend day.
My best days are spent hunting or fishing with the kids.
>> Learn more about how WLFW is addressing land use conversion across the Great Plains in our Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome. <<