What to Do with an Expiring CRP Contract

Published on: Oct. 26, 2009

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Many landowners, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts don't realize the looming deadline. More than 21 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts will expire over the next five years.

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The Conservation Reserve Program has resulted in millions of acres of habitat for upland and wetland wildlife. When managed properly, CRP is the greatest conservation program for wildlife in the United States. Well managed CRP grasslands and buffers provide critical nesting, brooding and sometimes shrubby cover for quail and other wildlife. In fact, some of my best quail and pheasant hunts were on well managed CRP grasslands. Probably some of my most memorable duck hunts were a result of CRP producing ducks.

 

The foundation of our nation’s farmland and outdoor experience is built on diverse, high-quality and abundant natural resources such as productive waters, healthy forests, abundant fish, forests and wildlife and rich soils. Over the last 20 years, CRP has improved soil, water and air quality, wildlife habitat and environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and bottomland forests. Over the next five years almost half of the nation's CRP will expire, most on marginally productive land (why it was put in CRP in the first place).

Here are the totals by year:

2009: 3,743,685 acres

2010: 4,761,130 acres

2011: 4,421,438 acres

2012: 6,251,814 acres

2013: 3,335,608 acres

The Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa will likely see the biggest decline in CRP grasslands over the next five years. In Missouri almost 1 million acres of 1.4 million acres will expire by October 2013.

It will be interesting to see what happens to pheasant and duck numbers in the Dakotas when this happens. Less habitat will likely mean fewer ducklings, which will mean fewer ducks flying through Missouri in November and December for dedicated hunters.

In Missouri, hunting is big business. Hunting alone, in Missouri, generates more than $147 million in state and local sales tax. Hunting is big business in other states too. Hunters help support the local economy by purchasing hunting leases from farmers, spending the night in local motels, eating at the neighborhood diner and filling their gas tanks at the local gas station. Where will the hunters go when the CRP grasslands disappear?

Significant changes in federal policy and a drop in CRP acres will have a dramatic impact on our nation’s farmland--not only for wildlife, but also for soil, air and water quality. Without a strong Conservation Reserve Program, we would not have the extraordinary waterfowl and upland bird populations in the Midwest. While we may not have another general CRP signup for another year or two, landowners do have a few options.

Option One: Re-enroll… If You Get the Chance

The next time there's a general CRP signup consider re-enrolling your CRP contract. Don't worry if your current CRP soil rental rate payment is too low. There's a good chance the rental rate has improved since the last time you signed the CRP contract. Over the last five years the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has adjusted CRP soil rental rates. If there's another general CRP sign-up at least stop by the USDA Service Center to see what the new soil rental rate is. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

If there is a general CRP sign up, consider converting your CRP field to a quail-friendly mix or at least native grasses. Back in the 1990s, some CRP fields were planted to a mix of “giant” native grasses and a pinch of wildflowers. Back then, more was better so many grass seeding rates were around 8 to 12 pounds per acre. We’ve learned a lot in the last 15 years. Research has shown we can have good habitat and reduce soil erosion with much lower seeding rates (around 3 to 5 pounds per acre with 2 to 3 pounds of native wildflowers). Lighter seeding mixes are good for the landowner and good for wildlife.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s a lot of CRP fields in Missouri were planted to fescue or brome. Some were planted to a mix of orchard grass and annual lespedeza, which provided great habitat until the fescue and brome invaded. Now these fields are a pure stand of fescue or brome. These fields are difficult to manage for quail and grassland birds because of the thick sod and lack of plant diversity.

Instead of re-enrolling the current grass cover, whether it is warm-season or cool-season, consider replanting the field to a very quail-friendly mix of little bluestem, wildflowers and legumes. Most CRP fields will need two to three herbicide applications to effectively eradicate the existing cover. Don’t skimp on herbicide either. You’ll pay for it in the long run with re-invading fescue or brome.

During the next general CRP sign up consult with your local wildlife biologist or private land conservationist for recommended seeding mixes and conversion techniques. Converting to a quail-friendly mix may also improve your overall CRP score.

Option Two: Take Advantage of Continuous CRP

Landowners converting their expiring CRP fields into crop fields or pasture should consider leaving field borders along the field edges and wide buffers next to streams and ponds. Landowners can enroll these sensitive areas into popular Continuous CRP practices such as CP21 Filter Strip, CP22 Riparian Forest Buffer and CP33 Habitat Buffer for Upland Birds. Some areas might even qualify for popular wetland practices such as CP23 Wetland Restoration. Landowners will still receive an annual soil rental payment and incentives for enrolling the margins of their fields into CRP. In some cases the payment is higher because of sign-up incentives. If necessary, they can even receive up to 90 percent cost-share for establishing the proper vegetation.

A recent study from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) from the University of Missouri showed that farmers come out ahead when they enroll their crop field edges into Continuous CRP practices such as CP33. For the complete report visit http://www.fapri.missouri.edu/. Planting CP33 buffers around the edges of crop fields not only provides great habitat for quail, but also takes marginally productive ground out of production. With high input costs and low yields it makes sense to keep field edges and buffers in CRP.

Option Three: Production with Wildlife in Mind

In some cases expired CRP fields will remain in grass for hay and grazing pasture. Landowners can still take advantage of Continuous CRP practices if they plan on haying or grazing the field; however, the CRP buffer will need to be fenced from livestock (if you plan on grazing the field).

Landowners should also consider other conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) to help them develop better grazing systems or wildlife habitat or to protect sensitive habitats. In Missouri, these programs provide cost-share for installing a variety of practices. CRP fields might also qualify for the Grassland Reserve Program or Conservation Stewardship Program. Contact your local USDA Service Center for more information on these programs.

The clock is ticking. What will you do with your expiring CRP contract?

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Where will the ducks, pheasant, turkey, quail and grassland birds go without it?

Habitat is the Key!

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