Turning former cropland into green grass — and green cash

A lesser prairie-chicken on intact grasslands in Kansas with cattle grazing in the background. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media


By Brianna Randall

Rex Schmidt grew up on his family farm near Greensburg, Kansas. He and his wife have run their agricultural operation for 35 years, grazing cattle where the hills break into prairie. Lesser prairie-chicken and pheasants are abundant in their green pastures.

Here in Kansas, as in much of the western United States, producers like Schmidt continuously have to make a choice – keep these wide-open grazing lands intact or plow up the prairie to plant crops. When native grassland or sagebrush-steppe is converted to cropland, however, it diminishes the soil health, water quality, and carbon storage potential of these productive rangelands. Wildlife also suffer as their habitat disappears.

Across the Plains, nearly all of the most productive soil has already been converted to crops. Further conversion of less productive soil fragments important wildlife habitat. Graphic from the Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Biome / WLFW. Click image to see the Framework.

 

One tool that encourages producers to choose grass instead of row crops is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In return for yearly rental payments, farmers take cropland out of production and plant specific species that are better for wildlife, water, and soil.

Schmidt signed CRP contracts for a few pastures on his farm over the years, replanting 1,280 acres of wheat, milo, and cattle feed back into grass.

After his CRP contracts expired, Schmidt wanted to keep the land in grass. Because CRP contracts only last 10 to 15 years and often can’t be renewed due to national caps on the program, millions of acres of restored prairie — like Schmidt’s — are once again at risk of being tilled up for crops once the contracts end.

“A lot of this land never should’ve been farmed anyway due to the poor soil and erosion,” Schmidt said.

Transitioning CRP payments to profitable livestock grazing

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can help producers bridge the gap when CRP payments run out. Working Lands for Wildlife and other programs at NRCS offer landowners free technical support and financial assistance to transition replanted grasslands into profitable grazing lands. With reliable income from livestock grazing, landowners don’t have to turn back to row-crop agriculture.

Cattle grazing grass in KS

Grazing offers an alternative to replanting expired CRP lands as crops while also maintaining important grassland habitat. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

 

Schmidt took advantage of conservation programs from NRCS and Kansas Wildlife and Parks to build pasture fences and solar-powered watering facilities to expand his cattle operation. He and his wife now spend less time and money on these pastures, and also need less equipment to make a profit.

“It’s been a good deal, and it’s a lot less work than farming,” Schmidt said. “We can run more cattle now. And we have more control of how we use the land.”

According to Schmidt, keeping the land working as grazing pastures also circulates more money in the community than when it simply sits idle during a CRP contract.

“When I’m running cattle, I buy feed, fuel, salt, and other supplies, which supports more people in my community who can make money off the land, too.”

To build off the example set by Schmidt and other producers, the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife recently released two frameworks for conservation action in the Great Plains Grasslands and Sagebrush biomes that prioritize incentives for landowners to maintain or restore America’s productive rangelands. This includes resources to help more landowners transition expiring CRP acres into profitable grazing land.

The USDA also updated its CRP Grasslands program this year, with the goal of enrolling more acres to mitigate climate change. Landowners receive a minimum rental rate of $15 per acre to plant and maintain healthy grasses. Participants retain the right to graze livestock, produce hay, or harvest to produce seeds (depending on bird species’ nesting seasons), conduct prescribed burns, and build firebreaks and fences.

Grazing herds can be good for birds

Maintaining healthy, diverse perennial plants not only benefits producers and local communities, but also provides much-needed habitat for wildlife — especially grassland songbirds, which have shown the steepest decline of any birds over the past 50 years.

Birds like the threatened lesser prairie-chickens require healthy grasslands for nesting and brood-rearing. Livestock grazing that maintains diverse grasses and shrubs provides greater resilience to drought, which helps wildlife and producers weather dry years. And a recent study in the southern Great Plains found that private lands enrolled in either CRP or NRCS grazing conservation programs increased the abundance of prairie-chickens and dozens of other grassland songbirds.

Estimated overall (a) population size for land enrolled in conservation practices and (b) population change from treatment effects relative to reference strata for grassland birds by grassland specialization and Partners in Flight breeding-season vulnerability in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, 2016 (error bars, SE). Image courtesy of David Pavlacky. Click image to see full study.

 

“We’ve lost about 70 percent of grasslands throughout the Great Plains over the last 100 years, which is problematic for wildlife,” said Daniel Sullins, an assistant professor of wildlife management at Kansas State University.

According to Sullins, CRP is one of the best tools for restoring grassland. But it’s a “short-term solution”, he says, since there’s a risk that the land is converted back to cropland once the contracts expire and landowners’ set-aside payments end.

To investigate how much of the land expiring from CRP contracts stayed in grass, Sullins and colleagues with Kansas State University, Oregon State University, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and Working Lands for Wildlife analyzed more than 10,000 expiring fields in the central and southern Great Plains with remote sensing. The study, published in May 2021 in Biological Conservation, found that 58 percent of the CRP fields remained in grasslands 10 years after the contracts expired (varying from 36-76 percent by state).

This research shows that the CRP can have durable impacts on the landscape even after the contracts expire. Plus, areas with lower-quality conditions for growing crops — like Schmidt’s land in Kansas — were four times more likely to remain in grass.

“Often times grazing can be a better alternative for producers, especially on land that’s less profitable for farming,” Sullins said. “Turning expiring fields into grazing lands is a big opportunity for conservation. It shows a lot of promise in terms of providing habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.”

Lesser prairie-chickens have established a lek (courtship and breeding ground) on this CRP field in Oklahoma, which is being grazed as a part of mid-contract management. Photo: Dwayne Elmore.

 

This echoes what Schmidt has found on his own fields near Greensburg, Kansas.

“As far as the wildlife is concerned, the CRP fields seemed good for wildlife for the first few years. But then the grass got too thick for the birds without grazing or other management,” Schmidt explained. “Cows help keep the land healthy, if they’re managed well.”


>> Learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program  <<

>> See where the cultivation risk is highest for grasslands <<

>> Read the new conservation frameworks for the Sagebrush or Great Plains Grassland biomes <<