By Lynn Betts
When Reed Petersek learned he was accepted into the Conservation Stewardship Program earlier this year, he also found he would be signing a contract that marks a conservation milestone in South Dakota. His contract brings the 7 millionth acre into CSP and continues South Dakota’s national leadership in acres enrolled in the program.
CSP — not to be confused with CRP, the Conservation Reserve Program that rests land — helps farmers and ranchers who are already doing a good job of conservation on working lands to elevate their care of natural resources to another level.
“When I first learned about CSP, I was surprised we weren’t already in it, because we were already doing 90% of what’s required,” Petersek says. “If we can get some technical help and a payment for doing things right — get rewarded for our conservation work — that’s great.”
CSP has become the largest financial incentive program for working lands in South Dakota, says Jessica Michalski, CSP program coordinator for NRCS.
About one in 10 South Dakota farmers and ranchers are enrolled in CSP. Contracts cover more than 15% of the cropland and rangeland in the state. CSP has grown from a $9 million incentives program nationally when it began in 2009 to now offering financial and technical assistance each year of more than $1 billion on 70 million acres across the country.
Petersek and his wife, Erin, rotate pastures for their registered 300-head cow-calf herd and 400-head yearling operation, which is located south of Kennebec, S.D. Their operation is an extension of the Raven Angus family business near Colome that markets registered Angus bulls and replacement heifers. The young couple works with Petersek’s father, Rod, and brother, RJ.
Reed Petersek likes the take-half, leave-half grazing philosophy. “I can watch the cattle, and when they go onto a new pasture, they’re instantly onto that short grass,” he says. “The regrowth has so much more punch to it than something that’s been getting tall and a little rank.”
With CSP, Petersek gets an annual payment for his established grazing system, and will get extra payments for what are called enhancements. “We plan to do some fecal sampling to try to find out what the cows are getting from the grass they’re eating, and we’ll add more water tanks and cross-fencing to maximize production, but yet conserve what we have here on our rangeland,” Petersek says. “On our cropland, we’ll continue to do more no-till and cover crops, and do more soil sampling. And we’ll pay more close attention to fertilizer and weed and pest management across the ranch.”
“CSP isn’t meant for any one type of producer,” says Shane Reis, NRCS District Conservationist in Lyman County, who is working with Petersek. “Reed’s a rancher, and it works great for him, but it also works great for his farming neighbors to the north who are rotating five or six crops.”
Mitch Kezar for South Dakota NRCSBETTER USE: Working with NRCS conservationist Shane Reis (left), Reed Petersek likes the way CSP helps him better use the resources he has on his ranch.
CSP’s greatest strength is its flexibility. “Each producer can develop a flexible plan that fits his or her operation, to adopt conservation a little bit quicker than they might have otherwise,” Reis says.
There are more than 50 enhancement activities available for rangeland and pastureland in South Dakota. Among the choices are incorporating native grasses and legumes into existing stands, patch burning to enhance wildlife habitat, monitoring nutritional status of livestock using Nutrition Balance Analyzer (NUTBAL), retrofitting water facilities to benefit wildlife, monitoring key grazing areas, non-chemical pest management for livestock, wildlife-friendly fencing and establishing pollinator habitat.
Common enhancements for CSP on cropland include using nitrification inhibitors, planting cover crops, establishing pollinator habitat, using non-chemical methods to kill cover crops, using precision nutrient application, and extending filter strips or riparian cover for water quality and wildlife habitat benefits.
“CSP can work very well after a producer has started or completed an Environmental Quality Incentives Program plan, which focuses on establishing structural practices,” Michalski says. Then CSP follows up with management practices.
CSP is meant for the entire operation; EQIP might better fit producers who want to put conservation practices in place on only their cropland or only rangeland. Once the base conservation practices are established, producers might elect to enroll the entire operation into the CSP to get payments that reward them for their existing conservation practices and to add enhancements.”
“I think what producers like most about CSP is they have a little more financial freedom,” Michalski says. “The CSP payment covers the risk of trying something new like cover crops.”
CSP helps farmers and ranchers take their stewardship to a new level and implement conservation practices that will impact the next generation.
“The whole reason we’re doing this conservation work with CSP and otherwise is that in the end, we’ll have something for our two boys to work with,” says Erin Petersek.
Betts writes for South Dakota NRCS.
CSP dollars and cents
The Conservation Stewardship Program pays participants for conservation performance — the higher the performance, the higher the payment. Producers get credit both for “standard” conservation measures they have already implemented and for new measures they agree to add.
The program is competitive; only half of the applicants in South Dakota who applied this year were accepted.
Producers sign a contract for five years. In 2017, the payment for existing conservation management is $7.50 per acre for cropland, $3 per acre for pasture and $1 for rangeland. Producers also receive a base payment of $350 for each resource concern they are already meeting on each of their land uses. On cropland, for example, there are 10 resource concerns evaluated at the time of application.
Payments for enhancements and practices are made according to a payment schedule set by NRCS. For example, the annual payment for intensive cover cropping to improve soil health and soil organic matter is $12.27 per acre. Establishing pollinator habitat is $58.88 per acre; establishing wildlife corridors to enhance access to water is $28.59 per acre; converting to no-till to increase soil health and soil organic matter content is $3.48 per acre. A grazing management plan that includes rotation grazing is common on rangeland. Popular rangeland enhancements include using the Nutritional Balance Analyzer (a test to determine if the nutrient concentration in the animal’s diet is sufficient to meet performance goals) at $11.07 per acre, and monitoring selected sites for grassland health at $1.68 per acre.
The overall going rate for an acre of cropland or rangeland in CSP in South Dakota is $16 an acre. The minimum payment is $1,500 a year and the maximum is $40,000.
CSP payments are made in the fall. NRCS documents enhancements and practices that have been carried out and spot-checks 10% of the contracts each year.