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A positive return?

With Higher commodity prices, producers are interested in bringing expiring Conservation Reserve Program acreage back into production. Indeed, with contracts for more than 13 million acres of CRP acreage due to expire between now and October 1, 2010, producers are pushing the pencil to see if it makes economic sense.

Experts are quick to point out that transforming former CRP ground — much of which has sat idle for 10 years or more — can be a challenge to both equipment and manpower. Advances in no-till planters and tillage equipment have helped, but it comes down to deciding if former CRP ground can provide a positive return on investment.

“There are areas where CRP ground can be worked up again and provide reasonable crop returns,” says Hans Kandel, agronomist for broadleaf crops at North Dakota State University. “However, we must remember that much of the CRP ground went into the program in the first place because it was not suitable cropland.”

It's unclear exactly how much CRP ground will go back into production. Contracts for only a little more than 330,000 CRP acres are expiring this year in the five largest corn- and soybean-producing states. In contrast, agreements are expiring for more than one million acres of CRP land located in North and South Dakota, Montana, Kansas and Texas.

“Certainly producers are talking about this option, pushing the pencil and looking at the challenges of bringing former CRP ground back into production,” says Bill Preller, senior director of marketing for crop production equipment at Case IH. “Some land will be out because of the normal conclusion of the 10-year agreement, while others might come out because of an early buyout of the contract.” Recent producer seminars have been ripe with talk of bringing ground back, he says.

No-till planting

Although corn is on the minds of most producers, experts say that corn might not be the best option to seed into recently worked CRP ground. Planting corn, particularly no-till corn, into CRP land is a challenge. It can be done, but growers must consider that CRP ground may not offer the best seedbed, and from an agronomic standpoint soybeans are much more forgiving. It's not an equipment issue; tillage and planting equipment is available to get the crop into the ground. But a good uniform seed stand, which is critical for good production, is a bit more challenging when planting into high residue.

Looking at CRP ground the first time is a lot like looking at 200-bu. corn: A new crop starts with good residue management in the fall. If CRP ground has been poorly mowed, or partial windrows remain, residue can create as much of a headache as when windrows of soybean residue are left by the combine. The first step is to ensure uniform residue throughout the field.

Next, is it better to kill the residue in the fall or spring? Much will depend on the environment. In drier areas of the country, producers will likely want to kill off the residue in the fall to ensure good moisture, whereas in wetter areas they may wait until spring to allow what essentially is now a cover crop to draw moisture out of the soil.

Once burndown occurs, there's the matter of the residue. And 10 years of grasses (and weeds) growing in a field can build up a lot of residue.

Grass residue tends to be high in carbon and low in nitrogen, so it will break down much more slowly (similar to heavy corn residue). Although earthworms and microbial action may be heavy, it's still not enough to change the carbon/nitrogen ratio overnight. So once the field has been burned down, topdressing nitrogen can speed residue breakdown. A local agronomist can help determine the exact amount and application timing.

Then the field is ready for planting. And it comes down to the basic agronomic principles: good seed-to-soil contact and good seed depth.

Here's where planters with row cleaners and/or coulters with enough down pressure will be necessary to cut through the residue. If not, the residue will be pushed down in the furrow with the seed, creating extremely difficult — if not impossible — seedbed conditions.

Considering that a good seedbed is prepared and the crop is planted, weed control is the next major consideration. And with 10 years of fallow ground, it's likely there will be a broad spectrum of weeds to control.

Not highly erodible

If the CRP ground coming out of production is not classified as highly erodible, there may be some tillage options to consider. Agronomically, a good seedbed is still important. But additional tillage may be necessary to get the ground into optimum production shape.

Residue management is still important, so even if mulch-tillage is being used, the residue must still be evenly distributed. Mulch-till allows the preparation of a good seedbed and corrects the rough spots in a field.

There are several good pieces of equipment that work in a high-residue environment. A disk ripper can size, cut residue and manage the seedbed. In the spring, a high-residue field cultivator that can handle large amounts of residue can be used to help prepare the seedbed.

One piece of equipment that may be necessary is an in-line ripper or disk ripper. If there was deep compaction (up to 15 in. deep) in the field when it went into the CRP, it's unlikely that 10 years have corrected that problem, even with good earthworm activity.

Reasons for hardpan can vary. For example, the field might have been plowed 25 years ago, or a chisel plow might have been used until the field was enrolled in CRP. A deep soil probe, down to 15 in., can be used to see if there's evidence of compaction. Compaction problems should be corrected early.

Equipment sales

As producers begin making decisions on how to handle CRP ground, it's likely that sales of specific equipment, including tillage equipment, will take a bounce. “At this point producers are still considering their options, but as they begin making decisions, we expect to see an uptick in sales,” Preller says. “The environment's been good for equipment.”

But a word of warning: Don't underestimate the time involved to bring land back into production. “It's a long process,” Kandel says. “And it can take much longer than initially expected.”

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