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Converting expiring CRP acres to grazing could benefit all

BROOKINGS -- When the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was initially launched in the 1985 Farm Bill, its goals were primarily soil erosion control and improved water quality. Over time, the program has created an unprecedented positive impact on habitat for many game and non-game species here in South Dakota, explained Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist.

Statewide, there has been a significant drop in CRP acre renewals over the last two years, with many producers opting out of contract extensions in favor of converting marginal CRP lands back to row crops. In 2013, roughly 128,000 acres of CRP will expire in South Dakota -- 22,000 west river, 106,000 east river.

"It is projected that at least a portion of these acres will be re-enrolled in the program. On remaining acres, landowners will have to make a decision on retaining the CRP as grass cover or converting the land back to crops," Bauman said.

The 2012 drought negatively impacted rangeland production across South Dakota, and the most recent NRCS model predicted that a significant portion of central South Dakota may still only produce about 80 percent of normal production.

"These circumstances, coupled with grassland conversion, have impacted pasture rental and cash purchase rates as producers attempt to secure additional grazing acres," he said.

Utilizing expiring CRP for grazing may prove to be a beneficial option for grazing operators, landowners and absentee landowners, and wildlife if the correct approach and relationships are developed he said.

"If livestock producers can connect with CRP owners, conversion of these grasslands to grazing/hay use may be quite feasible depending on CRP landowner interests and values. Without understanding the grazing alternative, CRP landowners may gravitate back to crops simply out of convenience," Bauman said.

Currently, several agencies and organizations are willing to work with landowners to convert expiring CRP acres into haying and grazing management. SDSU Extension, NRCS, and Pheasants Forever all have grassland specialists on hand to assist landowners in the decision making process. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks offer excellent assistance options through their private lands programs.

These programs include assistance and/or cost share for:

fencing materials for rotational grazing (producer covers labor)

livestock and water development

wildlife habitat development

operational planning assistance

seeding enhancements

"A key component in developing a grazing plan for expiring CRP is building a relationship with the CRP owner," Bauman said.

Some things to consider when approaching an expiring CRP landowner for a grazing option include:

Share information. Offer to work with him/her to explore the best alternatives for fence, water, and other needs.

Educate. Help the CRP owner understand the importance of keeping the grazing industry strong in South Dakota.

Show sincerity. Offer your services and consider providing the labor for any improvement projects.

Bring in a third party advisor to help with quality assessment and to ensure balance between the livestock/haying goals and objectives and the CRP owner's goals and objectives. CRP landowners will likely retain wildlife or habitat interests and may want to limit grazing access to some portions of the project area.

Rental/purchase rates for grass are on the rise, acknowledge this and offer a fair deal.

Consider a long-term lease option that provides for fairness in rental rates, stocking rates, grazing timing, and labor inputs by all parties.

For more information, contact Bauman at the SDSU Extension Regional Center in Watertown at 605-882-5140 or contact any SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist or Beef Extension Specialist