Kansas Rancher Puts Expired CRP Grasslands to Work for Cattle and Wildlife

“My great grandparents settled out here back in the 1880s. So we’ve been at it quite a while,” says Dwight Abell with a wry smile. He and his wife Rhonda own and operate the Abell Ranch in western Kansas with their four children, Hannah, Laura, Wyatt, and Ethan.

Rancher Dwight Abell (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

Rancher Dwight Abell (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

Ten years ago, Abell enrolled his cropland acreage into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). “I’m not a lazy guy,” Dwight Abell laughs, “but I don’t like farming for 12 hours a day or the expense of doing it. Raising cattle has made us more money every year than farming has—we’re able to keep more.”

The mix of native grass and forb species in Abell’s CRP grasslands—including big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, buffalograss, western wheatgrass, and plenty of insect-rich flowering forbs—provides prime habitat for lesser prairie-chickens.

When the 10-year CRP contract expired this year, Abell looked to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) for assistance in shifting the expired CRP grasslands to cattle grazing. It’s a win-win proposition. CRP grasslands provide critical habitat for lesser prairie-chickens, according to Christian Hagen, LPCI science advisor. But, says Hagen, producers often need assistance to make the transition to grazing, which can have significant up-front costs.

“Installing a perimeter fence for livestock grazing can be cost-prohibitive. LPCI offers financial assistance to help with that,” Hagen explains. “The result has been a very successful program that takes these idled croplands that were converted to CRP many years ago and turns them into a working landscape.”

That’s good news for prairie chickens and other grassland wildlife. “We have a really diverse wildlife population out here,” says Abell. He begins listing some of the wildlife he sees on the ranch, including whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn, prairie chickens, and many native songbirds.

That grassland bird diversity is the focus of a study underway through the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (formerly the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory). Abell’s ranch is one of the study sites for research assessing the extent to which LPCI conservation practices for the lesser prairie-chicken increase populations of other grassland bird species.

With LPCI assistance, Abell’s expired CRP lands will continue to offer high-quality grassland habitat to prairie wildlife. “I’m 100% committed—I’m not going to tear this out. It just works better for our operation to have cattle and grass.”

Learn more about LPCI’s role in conserving CRP grasslands for lesser prairie-chickens in our 3-minute video.