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Expiring CRP acreage may provide adequate forage production

Acreage coming out of CRP often gets an undeserved bad rap as potential grazing land. But managed properly, CRP grasslands can provide forage equal to other rangeland, says Texas AgriLife Extension beef specialist Ted McCollum.

The issue likely will become significant for Texas land owners over the next few years as more than 2.5 million acres are scheduled to come out of the CRP program by 2014. A large percentage of those acres are scheduled to come out in the Texas High Plains. Some of that land may go back into the conservation program, but new acreage restrictions will mean many farmers and ranchers will be looking for other uses for what may be highly erodible acreage.

Nationally, more than 20.5 million acres will expire from 2010 through 2014.

Mickey Black, assistant state conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), recommends keeping as much of the most vulnerable land as possible in some kind of grass cover. Renovating for grazing may be the best option for a lot of this acreage.

McCollum discussed potential for renovating and grazing those retired CRP acres at a Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) field day at Muncy, Texas.

“CRP is viewed by many as inferior, less desirable forage,” McCollum said. “That reputation is undeserved. All these grasses may be productive forages if managed appropriately.”

He said some of the grasses in typical CRP acreage provide grazing flexibility that may not be available in some rangeland. And he said under proper management nutritional values are significant. He cited a study from Oklahoma that ran from 1992 through 1994 that tested nutritional value of old world bluestem taken out of a conservation program. Nutritional value analysis the first year showed crude protein at only 1.8 percent and digestibility at 48 percent. In the second year, those figures had improved to 2 percent and 53 percent. And after three years of managed forage production crude protein was up to 6 percent and digestibility to 61 percent.

“By 1994, we had regrowth and had cleaned out all the dead material that had accumulated for six years,” McCollum said. “The picture changes when that acreage is managed properly.”

Renovating CRP land will be the key. Land may require fencing and water development. “Water availability may determine where fencing goes and fencing may determine where water resources are placed,” McCollum said. “Producers will need exterior and cross fencing to provide grazing flexibility and potential to cut some areas for hay. Cross fencing also helps producers manage cattle.”

Step one in renovating CRP acreage is to remove old material. “Open the canopy up to get sunlight and water into the soil and the crowns. Stimulate the roots to get a better stand.”

He said ranchers may remove old growth through several methods, including: prescribed burning, cutting and baling, shredding, light disking, and mob grazing. He likes a prescribed burn or baling. “Shredding is not the best option since it leaves vegetative matter on the soil. A light disking opens up the soil and stimulates growth.”

He said mob grazing, turning in a lot of cattle, may remove much of the old material, but producers should be aware that the forage may not provide adequate nutrition the first year. “They may have to provide extra feed for the cattle, so this may not be as cheap an option as they would hope.”

McCollum said fertilizing grazing land is not usually recommended, but adding nutrients the first year in renovation may give the grass a “jump start. The soil may need some amendments to get back to a typical nutrient cycle.”

He said a soil fertility study of retired CRP acreage showed nitrogen levels at the 0- to 6-inch level at only 8 pounds per acre, compared to adjacent, managed acreage at 22 pounds. At the 6- to 12-inch depth, nitrogen level was 4 pounds per acre compared to 22 pounds. Phosphorus levels were 25 and 18 pounds per acre in the CRP, and 41 and 24 in managed acreage. Potassium levels were 427 and 358 compared to 408 and 369.

McCollum said nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the CRP acreage were below threshold.

He said producers have several options on managing CRP land for grazing when it comes out of the program. Those options range from little management to intense systems that include initial fertilization, fencing, prescribed fire, systematic grazing, and forage production that includes grazing and hay production.

Grass mixtures in CRP land likely will be different from other rangeland and specific management techniques may select for particular species. “We may need to use a more conservative approach with introduced species,” McCollum said. “Also, the carrying capacity of renovated CRP acreage may be higher than adjacent rangeland.”

He recommended that producers defer grazing just before dormancy in the fall for seasonal or year-round grazing.

He said management after renovation could include periodic prescribed burns, about once every five to seven years, to improve the stand and suppress brush.

McCollum said much of the CRP acreage may include old world bluestem and management techniques may select for survival of this forage. That may not be a bad option since the grass offers significant flexibility. “If cattlemen graze too intensely they may select for old world bluestem,” he said. “Managing to keep a mixture means letting the old world bluestem take care of itself.”

But the old world grass may produce more forage than rangeland grasses. McCollum said best opportunity is to graze old world bluestem from May into August. “Producers may also graze the old world bluestem aftermath in winter. It is a perennial, so they can graze it when annuals are not available and they can use it as a fall back if annuals, such as wheat, fail.”

He said old world bluestem can be managed under typical rangeland systems, but performs best with rotational grazing. “Nutritional value is good.”

McCollum said renovating old world bluestem acreage starts with removing old growth “prior to spring green-up.”

He said an application of 30 to 50 pounds of nitrogen helps establish new growth. “Accumulate from 6 to 8 inches of growth before turning cattle in,” he said. He suggests a 30- to 40-day rotational grazing system.

“Control spot grazing and rest the forage from mid-September to mid-November.” He recommended using old world bluestem in combination with other forages in season.

“Producers can get good weight gains,” he said.

McCollum said conventional wisdom says fertilizing forages after renovation is not recommended, but he advises: “Don’t dismiss fertilization. Look at the system and evaluate cost and returns.”

Black said landowners may tap into several NRCS programs to assist with renovation. The Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), the Wildlife Enhancement Program (WHIP) and the Grazing Resource Program (GRP) may include projects that will assist in renovating CRP acreage.

Keeping the highly erodible soils in grasses, Black said, benefits landowners as well as the general population. “Grass cover prevents wind erosion and air quality problems."

He also recommended that farmers interested in cultivating expired CRP acres should use some form of reduced tillage system to control erosion. Other options include grass strips and terracing."

Black said contracts on more than 678,000 CRP acres expired in the Texas High Plains in 2009. Another 507,000 expire this year with 567,000 scheduled to expire in 2011. In 2012, contracts end on 502,000 acres and another 273,000 come out in 2013.

“We hope some of this land will go back into CRP. Landowners should at least look at the options before they put the land to the plow.”

With proper renovation, McCollum said, grazing may be a profitable option.

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