Flocks Or Feedstocks

The Conservation Reserve Program encourages landowners to protect environmentally sensitive acreage. Increased demand for biofuels and a growing world population have driven crop prices to record highs. At the same time, many farmers are struggling to make a profit due to increased operating costs, and are considering letting CRP contracts expire so they can farm more land. That has prompted conservationists to wonder how the conversion will affect wildlife.
By Kris Bevill | April 08, 2008
The Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-lands management program in the United States. As of Jan. 31, 2008, there were 34.6 million acres enrolled in the CRP.

The program consists of landowners, mostly farmers and ranchers, who voluntarily enroll eligible acreage in 10- to 15-year contracts with the USDA Farm Service Agency. Participants receive annual rental payments from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. as compensation for planting appropriate vegetative cover to control soil erosion, improve water and air quality, and enhance wildlife habitat.

According to the USDA, in the 20 years since the program was created, soil erosion has been reduced by 450 million tons per year. CRP can be credited for a reduction in sediment and nutrient runoff into rivers and streams. The program has also been responsible for increased wildlife populations. Long-absent prairie chickens have reappeared in Texas and big game numbers are rising in Western United States. But if farmers allow CRP acreage to expire, previously protected wildlife habitat could be lost to the plow and some are concerned that that will have a negative effect on our nation's wild bird and game populations.

The ‘Duck Factory'
One area that has specifically been impacted by CRP, and some believe stands to lose the most from an acreage reduction, is the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Plains.

This 300,000-square-mile region encompasses a large portion of North Dakota, and parts of South Dakota and Montana. It is referred to by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the "duck factory" of North America. Approximately 7 million pairs of breeding ducks are supported annually by the Prairie Pothole Region. A 2007 study conducted by the FWS determined that CRP grassland in this area produces 2 million ducks each year. The study found this to be a 30 percent increase compared with expected duck production from the same area without CRP cover.

Of the 44 million acres of land in North Dakota, 3 million acres (mostly in the Prairie Pothole Region of the state) are currently enrolled in the CRP. According to Jim Jost, North Dakota's FSA conservation coordinator, contracts for 400,000 acres of CRP land in North Dakota were not renewed at the end of the 2007 fiscal year last September. North Dakota led the nation in loss of CRP land in 2007, and South Dakota came in second with 300,000 acres in expired contracts. Lack of interest in the program can be attributed to high crop prices driven by crop disasters in some parts of the world, a growing demand for food worldwide and increased production of ethanol and other alternative fuels. "We're having record-high commodity prices and it's an economic decision made by the participants," Jost says. "There are other economic options out there. Land values have gone up and rental rates have gone up. And our CRP rents … it's difficult for us to keep up with those things."

Cash rents for cropland have climbed steadily over the past few years and continue to rise as commodity prices increase across the board. Jost says CRP rental rates are reviewed annually but simply can't compete with the high cash rents. "Our current national policy is that new CRP rents are based on the prior three years of cash rents paid by farm operators," he says. "If we're looking at the prior three years and we're in a period of escalating rents—we can't catch up." CRP payments in North Dakota range from $18 per acre in Sioux County in the southwestern part of the state, to $93 per acre in Richland County in the southeastern Red River Valley region, Jost says. He's quite sure landowners in Richland County can make three times that amount per acre by renting that land to an operator. "Whenever anyone considers enrollment into CRP, they've got to look at why they are doing it," he says. "If they're doing it as an economic alternative to cropping, it's difficult for us to compete. But there are other reasons to enroll land in CRP. There are people who are interested in wildlife benefits. There are people who are interested in maybe taking some of their lesser-productive land out of production and putting it into CRP to reduce risk on that farm."

This fall, 160,000 acres of CRP in North Dakota are scheduled to expire. Even if none of it is renewed, that wouldn't be a significant drop in CRP acreage, Jost says. Total enrollment is down only 11 percent from the all-time high of 3.4 million acres registered in the state between 1997 and 2007, he adds.

The Lag Effect
Some wildlife enthusiasts may argue that there have been no real noticeable signs of CRP loss affecting habitat. Hunters have enjoyed record deer and pheasant harvests over the past few years, which may provide proof as to the abundance of wildlife. However, Scott McLeod, Great Plains regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, says that those who think loss of CRP land in the Prairie Pothole Region is insignificant are just plain wrong. According to McLeod, deer and pheasant populations have been high in recent years due to mild winters and large areas of habitat. CRP land has just started to be converted to crop land in large acres, so it will take some time to realize its full effect. "Before CRP acres started expiring in 2007 we had about 8.4 million acres (in that region)," McLeod says. "We lost about 820,000 acres in 2007 alone and we expect to lose 5.6 million acres, two-thirds of the total acreage, by 2012. Loss of CRP acres equals a loss of nesting grounds for waterfowl, and we will begin to see the effects of that habitat loss this fall. Those acres that have been tilled up last fall and this spring won't be available for nesting now. There will be a lag effect, but we'll start to see it over time. Once we lose a lot of these acres, if we get a nasty winter, it'll just start to take them out by the hundreds of thousands. There just won't be cover for them to stay protected. Then we'll start to see the same thing with the deer population."

Hunters and those who benefit economically from wildlife-related activities pay close attention to the CRP program. According to the most recent statistical data from the FWS, North Dakota has one of the highest percentages of hunters in the country and almost half of all North Dakotans participated in wildlife activities in 2006. Combined revenue from those activities totaled more than $150 million. For McLeod, the solution always boils down to money. "There are a lot of [farmers] who would still go for CRP if it was competitive," he says. "The bottom line is they need to run a business. It comes down to the government making a decision as to whether or not this is an important program. If the government believes it's important, they'll have to suck it up and increase those payments."



Other Options
Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups have been lobbying the USDA to increase CRP rental payments to land operators. McLeod says the White House Office of Management and Budget can raise rental rates without looking for offsets, as long as the USDA signs off on the increase. But until rates are raised, what are land operators to do?

The USDA has begun a new conservation practice as part of the CRP program titled State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement or SAFE. It was established to improve, connect or create higher quality habitat to promote healthier ecosystems in areas essential to "high-priority" species. The program is similar to CRP in that operators receive rental payments, incentives and cost-share assistance for land enrolled. Enrollment for SAFE has not yet begun in North Dakota, but the potential is there for 26,000 acres of native sagebrush,
tallgrass and wetlands to be restored, Jost says.

The FWS has a Grassland Easement Program for landowners interested in committing acres to permanent grassland. The program is ideal for owners of poor farmland or grazing land, according to Scott Ralston, assistant private lands and easement coordinator for the North Dakota FWS. "It's an alternative to CRP, but is best for those who want to graze land," he says. "The farming community is not so interested in it because most people getting out of CRP are doing it to crop." Compared with yearly rental payments for CRP land, the FWS offers a one-time payment as compensation for signing a perpetual agreement preventing all current and future owners of the land from planting it to crops.

Ducks Unlimited launched a pilot program in October 2007 to offer additional carbon credit payments to landowners who enroll native prairie or expired CRP into the FWS Grassland Easement Program. Landowners receive a one-time payment from Ducks Unlimited as an addition to the easement payment from FWS in exchange for reducing carbon loss from the soil and emissions from tractors and other machinery associated with growing crops. The Ducks Unlimited program is currently available for selected areas of North Dakota.

However, since launching the program, Ducks Unlimited has signed agreements for 4,600 acres and McLeod expects it will be expanded to include more of the Prairie Pothole Region by 2009. "I think people are starting to understand that there are some other values to these grasslands," McLeod says. "The landowners do the best job of educating their neighbors. Once they start talking at the coffee shop about what kinds of payments they're getting, word tends to spread fairly quickly."

McLeod estimates cost comparisons to be fairly significant, at least in the short term. Combined one-time payments from FWS and Ducks Unlimited for easement agreements can total $250 per acre. CRP payments on similar land average $35 per acre annually.

The National Farmers Union also offers a carbon credit program. The program was begun by the North Dakota Farmers Union in early 2006 and was expanded to include other states later that year. Liz Mathern, carbon credit program specialist at the NDFU, says the program recently experienced tremendous growth. Approximately 2,300 producers enrolled 2.5 million acres in the program in 2007, a more than 100 percent increase from the number of producers that participated in 2006. Mathern sees the Farmers Union carbon program as a viable alternative to cropping undesirable land. "From our standpoint, yes there is land that probably should not be farmed," she says. "It's just simply too erodible and would be best left to grass. However, there are a lot of young producers who would like to farm that land if it is questionable as to its erodibility. Maybe it should never have been enrolled as CRP. We look at how we can bring that land back into production in a nice, healthy, good for the environment and good for the soil kind of way."

The Farmers Union carbon credit program allows operators to work the land, so long as soil disturbance is 30 percent or less. Options include haying, prescribed grazing, strip tilling and no-tilling. Many people in North Dakota are convinced no-till is the way to go, Mathern says.

An alternative cropping option agreed upon by Ducks Unlimited and the Farmers Union that would benefit both land operator and wildlife is the planting of switchgrass. "Growing that for ethanol is perfect," Mathern says. "It's a no-till crop and because it's a perennial crop you can remove residue [and still qualify for carbon credits]." According to recent USDA projections, more than half of current CRP acres could be suitable for growing switchgrass. Harold Collins, a soil scientist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service who recently spoke at the National Alliance of Independent Crop Growers annual meeting in Seattle, believes most of the proposed switchgrass production would come from pastureland. "From my point of view, wheat, corn and soybean growers are not going to grow switchgrass," he says. "I believe it's going to be the hay growers and the alfalfa growers. They already have the equipment. They're already set up. They know how to collect it and transport it."

"We realize that if large blocks of grass, be it switchgrass or whatever, were used to replace some cropland there would be huge positives for waterfowl," McLeod says. "We're just working on a lot of different things to try and keep things in balance."

Kris Bevill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 373-0636.