Do you have environmentally-sensitive land that is already enrolled in USDA's Conservation Reserve Program but the contract is expiring in 2011? Have you decided whether or not to re-enroll? Or, do you have eligible land that has never been enrolled but is marginal for crop production and you are thinking about enrolling it in CRP?
USDA is holding a general signup for the CRP in 2011 and the deadline to enroll is April 15. You go to your local USDA Farm Service Agency office to sign up. Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Pheasants Forever organization are answering questions from farmers and landowners about enrolling marginal land in the CRP.
DNR and Pheasants Forever are hosting meetings throughout the state to answer questions about this program. The CRP offers annual rental payments to landowners to get them to seed this land to grass or other approved covers instead of raising row crops on it. The goals of this conservation program are to save soil, protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat.
Get answers to questions, get help with planning
Biologists from DNR and Pheasants Forever can provide information on the CRP bidding process, updated rental rates, and the environmental and financial benefits of CRP. They can provide information on mid-contract management. And, they can help with strategic planning to increase overall yields of your farming operation while getting the trouble spots out of the field. They can assist in selecting the seeding mixture for the CRP land that will help reach the landowner's goals.
Check the DNR website at http://www.iowadnr.gov/crp.html for meeting times, locations and general CRP information. Or call DNR at 515-281-5918 in Des Moines for the meeting closest to you, or to talk to a DNR or Pheasants Forever specialist to answer your questions. Also, for more information on CRP contact your county FSA office or the website at http://www.fsa.usda.gov.
Two of these upcoming meetings are geared especially to meet the needs of women landowners. The two meetings focus more on grassland management with CRP, which is one option for CRP land. These meetings will be held April 1 at Chariton in south central Iowa and April 5 at Cherokee in northwest Iowa.
High grain prices trying to pull acres from CRP
A number of CRP contracts that were signed 10 or 15 years ago will be expiring this fall and in 2012, too. Should you re-enroll that land in the CRP? With tight grain supplies and high corn and soybean prices in the U.S. this year, many landowners and farmers are thinking about taking their ground out of the CRP and planting it to corn.
First question to ask yourself is how many of those acres are viable for corn? Or perhaps hay production, if the acres are too fragile and would create erosion if row crops such as corn and beans were planted? Those are important questions, says Todd Bogenschutz, a DNR wildlife biologist.
People ask why are we holding acres in reserve, when the market is saying it needs more acres planted to row crops this year? With the price of corn at $6 to $7 per bushel and soybeans at $13 a bushel, what should you do if you have land currently in CRP and your contract is expiring this year? Do you want to re-enroll it for 10 year period?
Many acres are marginal, should stay seeded down
Many CRP acres are marginal and should stay in CRP, seeded to grass and not put into row crops. People who are signing up and participating in CRP are enrolling riparian areas, filter strips and buffers next to streams. For such practices the annual per acre payments for CRP are higher. So the incentive is there to target the CRP program to where it will do the most good.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the CRP program. CRP started out as an environmental program, to conserve soil and protect water quality by keeping marginal land in grass for 10 to 15 years. But the CRP has also served as a setaside program to help control acreage of corn and soybeans produced during years when huge crops resulted in big surpluses of grain.
Some CRP acres could be safely no-tilled to corn
Putting more land into CRP affected agriculture in other ways, and it wasn't all positive for some areas of Iowa and local economies in those counties. Land taken out of pasture and hay and converted to CRP resulted in reduced cattle numbers in southern Iowa, for example. Cattle aren't allowed to graze CRP.
Another downside to CRP and its effect on the local economy is that fewer crop inputs are sold for row crop production. There's less seed corn, fertilizer and other inputs bought by farmers in a county where a significant amount of land is removed from crop production, put into CRP and then seeded down to grass for 10 to 15 years.
However today, farming methods have improved and farmers have learned how to make no-till work on highly erodible land. Some CRP land could be brought back into row crop production without having to use tillage to produce corn and soybeans. Keeping cornstalks and crop residue on the land and increasing the soil organic matter with no-till has negated some of the issues that were problems when the CRP program was first introduced by USDA 25 years ago.
Wildlife habitat is a benefit provided by CRP land
Another consideration for keeping land in CRP is the wildlife benefit. The CRP program when it came into being 25 years ago brought pheasants and other wildlife back to Iowa, which is an advantage for CRP. Removing some of the land from CRP in recent years has resulted in a decline in pheasant populations.
"There is a signup period now to try to re-enroll land into CRP and to enroll new acres, too," says Bogenschutz. "The signup period started March 14 and goes through April 15. There are a few changes to the latest version of the program being offered this year. The land rental rates that the CRP pays to landowners have been updated across most of the state. Many landowners are seeing CRP rental rates that are more competitive with cash rental rates for corn and soybeans. That's good because CRP needs some help to try to stay competitive with crop use of the land, as grain prices have climbed to high levels."
The other big change is the pollinator initiative. There's a lot of concern in the country about pollinators such as bees suffering decreased populations. To counter act that, the CRP program is offering extra points now for people who are willing to use wildflowers and legumes in the grass seeding on CRP acres to help benefit pollinators.
How does USDA decide which land is accepted into CRP?
USDA uses a point system to determine which land gets accepted into the CRP and which land doesn't. It's the Environmental Benefits Index or EBI. "Landowners in all 50 states are vying to get their land into the CRP and there's a cap on how many total acres are allowed into the program nationwide," says Bogenschutz. "The EBI evaluates the kind of cover crop that would be planted on CRP land. It also looks at the erodibility of the soil, as well as rental rates. That's how landowners who apply to enroll land into the CRP are ranked nationwide."
When the signup period is over, USDA looks at all the land being offered for the CRP and figures EBI points for each tract seeking to enter the program. USDA uses that ranking to decide which land is awarded a CRP contract.
"This is very important for landowners in Iowa because we have high rental rates paid by CRP," he says. "It's important to put marginal land in the program, highly erodible land. Also, you should try to seed a good wildlife cover on your CRP land because that helps maximize the number of EBI points you get as well."