Life After CRP: Conservation and Economic Benefits of Improved Grassland Cover Using Managment Intensive Grazing in Wisconsin

Final Report for FNC96-150

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1996: $4,100.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Dick and Kim Cates and their two children, Shannon 15 years and Eric 12 years, operate a 700 head beef steer and dairy heifer managed grazing business. Light weight steers are purchased in autumn or winter and are grazed or fed near area of purchase. Steers are then trucked to Wisconsin end of April to graze on the Cates pastures through September to be sold as heavy feeders. Dairy heifers are contract grazed April-November for several area farmers. The Cates have also developed a direct market “lean, natural beef” business in which steers are finished with grain on pasture and are marketed directly to consumers. Dick and Kim manage about 700 acres of grazing land dissected by spring fed streams, some of which are designated as trout habitat.

The Cates have been practicing managed intensive grazing for about 10 years. They are cooperators in a University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources study designed to assess the impacts of livestock in managed grazing systems on stream banks and trout habitat. The Cates farm goals include: family well being, profitability, work towards model environmental stewardship practices and to well represent production agriculture to the growing non farm public that so significantly impact our future.

In the past several years, up to 22 percent of the total land base in Iowa County, Wisconsin was in CRP. As these contracts expire, farmers will be looking for ideas on what to do with this land if it’s not reenrolled. Much of the research to date has been to look at how to grow corn on this land after release form the CRP. However, returning this highly erodible land to corn is not a viable alternative if we want to continue to protect our soil and water resources as the CRP was so successful in doing. The goals of this demonstration project were to determine the steps needed to convert an ex CRP land to quality pasture land if managed intensive grazing will provide the economic and conservational benefits to keep this land in a sod based enterprise.

The major factors to consider when converting a CRP field to a grazing system is: does it have adequate fencing, is water available for livestock use, and will forage production match livestock use. Unfortunately because CRP was once crop land this usually means that the land is not livestock ready – fencing is not adequate and water is not readily available. Additionally forage production is not as great as it looks. Ten years (or less, if released early from the program) of tall grass/weeds has reduced the actual sod cover at ground level, high energy legumes are much reduced or non existent and weeds may be very prevalent. Often times the field was seeded with one grass type and lacks variety. These factors affect the initial pasture quality and the type of livestock which should begin utilizing this land.

This project looked at the conversion of a 25 acres field which had been released from the CRP after 8 years in the program. We needed to release the land in order to accommodate our expanding grazing operation. Prior to the CRP sign up it had been alfalfa/brome grass hay field, and corn previously. Up to forty years ago cattle had been grazed on this field and in the woods so some fencing was in place but was not functional. An old wind will was on site from this previous use. Forage on this field was mostly brome grass with some timothy, bluegrass and weeds including Canadian and plumless thistle, velvet leaf and others. Stand density at ground level was about 65%.

The first step we considered when converting CRP land is how to get water to the cattle. This can be a very costly process that may destroy the economic feasibility of conversion or it can be as easy as opening up a gate to an adjacent water source. This particular field has an old windmill at the corner of the field which had not been used for 30+ years. We hired a well/pump man to assess the situation. When we determined we have a sound well and adequate water to meet the needs of the livestock operation we decided to go ahead with conversion of this field to our grazing system. We installed a submersible pump, laid 3,300 feet of 1” black piping 12”-18” below ground and bought a generator to pump water to 4 faucets with serviced 16 paddocks. Each paddock was about 1.5 acres. Two strands of high tensile wire were used around the perimeter and 1 strand between paddocks. Electric fence current was supplied by a 12-volt portable energizer.

CRP land is not considered high quality pasture because of the lack of legumes, low sod density (lots of bare space between grass) and in some cases the abundance of weeds. In time, with careful management, pasture quality will improve but with addition of legume/grass seed the conversion can happen faster. So the next step is to introduce legumes and/or additional grass seed to improve quantity and quality. However these fields have been unused for years so there is a mat of accumulated plant growth (biomass). The biomass retards new seedlings from establishing and also uses available nitrogen to breakdown the mass. Frost seeding in legumes was not a good option on this field. So we decided to no till drill in red clover as there would be better seed to soil contact. Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer was applied to aid grass growth and clover start up. On other pastures we have removed the accumulated biomass in the fall prior to use. We have done this by mowing and grazing so stand height is low. Than we can use ATV and frost seed red clover the following spring. This method has worked quite well for us but requires using the field the year before. Another method to remove the accumulated biomass is controlled burning in the spring. Many people in our area are not comfortable with controlled burns. We also wanted to try adding rye grass to this field to improve quality and quantity of forage production. This field was involved in a field trial using 7 different varieties of rye grass. However broadcast seeding on this field did not take well due to the cold and dry weather we had last spring. It was decided to remove this field form the study.

Livestock used on this field were Black Angus steers used in our “lean, natural beef” direct market beef operation. We would recommend using lower value animals such as cow/calf operations or dry dairy cows while the ex CRP field goes through its years of pasture improvement (often grazers talk of 5 years to improve a pasture). Although our direct market Angus steers are our highest value animal we made the decision to use them because 1) the number of animals in this group fit the pasture size (we started with 40 steers and downsized the herd during the grazing season), 2) pasture quality, although not the best, was reasonable and 3) corn supplementation on pasture made up for lack of legumes and pasture quality. By fall, with adequate rain during the summer and early fall, the pastures looked well and the steers gained well with corn supplementation.

A well driller was needed to determine if the well was in good condition and if the well could provide enough water to meet the needs of our livestock. Additionally we used the assistance of our local conservation technician to help us determine the needs of our water system (amount and size of pipe). No assistance was needed for fencing design or layout due to years of prior experience.

Converting a CRP field to a managed grazing system allowed us to use a sod based agricultural enterprise on this highly erodible land. There was no visual loss of soil from this land and no detrimental affects to water quality (surface or groundwater). Sod cover increased during the grazing season from about 65% to about 85% coverage as grasses and clover filled in bare spots (visual inspection). Cattle gained well (approximately 2 lbs/day) throughout the grazing season although supplemental feeding of corn was helpful in achieving this weight gain. Wildlife use of this land is plentiful as deer, turkeys, and numerous species of birds and small mammals are spotted on this land.

Total cost of renovating this field and getting it livestock ready was approximately $4,000 ($160/acre) not including payment of labor to owners. This cost was much higher than other fields that we’ve brought into our managed grazing system because 1) there was no fencing, and 2) no functioning well or water system in place prior to use. Although first year costs are high, costs in subsequent years should be similar for any pasture management: i.e. soil testing, frost seeding, fertilization as needed, and fence maintenance. Other CRP fields we’ve used in the past (annual release for emergency purposes) were adjacent to our grazing paddocks and with some fence addition or repair we were able to use these fields at very little set up cost as water was nearby.

No till seeding of red clover was successful, although broadcast seeding of rye grass was not. The no till seeding was successful because the seed to soil contact provided enough moisture for germination. The rye seed was seeded a little late in the season (end of May) and the cold, dry spring resulted in reduced germination (or drying after germination). The rye grass trial was terminated on our farm due to lack of growth. Like any cropping practice, timing, weather and application are important factors in determining germination and growth. What works one year may not work the next. There is no perfect recipe for pasture improvement.

Using our direct market steers on this pasture will net us over $300/acre. If we had sold all 40 steers as “lean, natural beef” our net return would have been higher (direct marketing beef is not as easy as it sounds). This enterprise paid for the cost of renovation. However the loss of the CRP payment ($1800) combined with the cost of renovation ($4000) and cost of labor just about makes this year a wash. Following years should be much better without renovation costs to consider. However if the enterprise on this pasture had been our commercial cattle operation, out net return would have been about $80-$100/acre. That income is a little higher than the CRP payment but doesn’t include cost to management. This means the cost to renovate this CRP to quality pasture is never returned to our pockets unless we do extremely well with our stocker operation.

Managed intensive grazing is a viable use of CRP land whereby the main goals of this conservation program can be achieved and can be achieved at a cost that is much lower then the cost of the 10 year CRP payment (for many fields in the Midwest). A MIG enterprise continues the tremendous soil and water conservation benefits gained during the years of CRP enrollment. Research on our farm and other MIG pastures/stream have shown that grassland birds and small mammals coexist with grazing cattle, and trout thrive in the streams of MIG pastures.

Although this sod based enterprise is a viable use of this land there are several reasons why this land use won’t happen much (at least in our area). The most important factor is the value of the CRP payments are determined by the highest valued commodity (in our area it’s corn). Many grass based enterprises are unable to complete with government payments for CRP based on the rental rate for corn. Although we used a high value enterprise, which was able to compete with corn rental prices, I wouldn’t recommend it in the first few years. This inability to economically compete for this land is analygous to a farmer wanted to buy or sell land at the fringe of the city. Although everyone seems to want green space and laments the loss of farm land the law of economics is the deciding factor. Although in this situation the farmer competes against the price a developer or urban folks will pay. In the same light a grass farmer can’t compete with the rates the government pays to keep the land out of corn. In our area, corn rental rates are at least twice the price of pasture rental which basically eliminate a grass based farmer from using any land that may be eligible for reenrollment in the CRP. Instead of the tremendous amount of money the government spends to keep land out of use, the government should be promoting enterprises that reduce government costs and yet maintain the integrity of the program.

Another reason why CRP land won’t be grazed is the cost of getting this land livestock ready. Each parcel is unique but all require fencing and water for livestock. Our 25 acre parcel was expensive to get livestock ready however other CRP fields we have used during emergency years have been low cost. The lower the cost the better chance to make a profit from the enterprise. Our 25 acre field was a stand alone field on a ridge top with no usable fence (perimeter or inner fencing) or water system in place. Other CRP fields we have used in the past during emergency grazing situations had some fencing in place and waster was available on the other side of the fence or water was pumped from a nearby stream to a stock tank. Although the quality of the pasture was low, because these pastures were inserted into a larger rotational system and were not stand alone fields, the quality of the pasture for a day or two of grazing per month was not as important as it would be for a whole season. However with years of use and proper management the pasture quality of these fields should increase so high value animals can graze them.

I feel very strongly that the government should be looking for ways to reduce the tremendous payment it makes to landowners (farmers and non farmers alike) not to use land that should never have been plowed to begin with. There are ways to do this and leave more money available for other conservation programs/practices. For example, on this 25 acre field the prior CRP payment was $1,800/year to the land owner (at $79/acre). Over the course of the contract the government would have paid $18,000 on this 25 acre parcel. Adjacent land owners have received $20,000, $64,000 and $480,000 per 10 year contract for their CRP land. However if the land could remain under CRP at a reduced rate (like under emergency situations), farmers could use this land for sod based enterprises (haying/grazing) with appropriate restrictions and the money saved could be used for other conservation practices/programs.

Instead of wondering whether corn can be grown on ex CRP land, our government programs should be actively promoting sod based grass enterprises. Money saved from a partial CRP payment can go towards more financial and technical assistance for these sod based enterprises. If this is not a possibility then money should be targeted to increase grass based intensive grazing operations. The new Environmental Quality Incentives Program doesn’t do enough to promote and assist managed intensive grazing. If a farmer has to prove an existing environmental problem then many current grazer will be ineligible for cost share money. The Grazing Land Initiative is a good idea to recognize and promote the advantages of grazing but unlike other conservation programs there is no money for producers. Carefully managed pastures have many, many advantages over row crops and/or continuous grazing. For example:
– Managed intensive grazing can greatly reduce, if not virtually eliminate, soil erosion. Tillage is unnecessary and water “take up” is better because of less compaction and more plant life.
– Pastures in MIG systems reduce (or eliminate) the need for erosive, chemical intensive row crops such as corn. Fewer row crops implies less chemical and fertilizer use.
– Good pasturing systems can reduce the time livestock spend in large feedlots with their high problematic manure control concerns.
– Rotationally grazed pastures increase biological activity in soils, which in turn rapidly decomposes manure.
– All of the benefits from the above examples affect water quality which in turn affects fish quality.
– Grazing provides improved wildlife habitat for some species. Rotational grazing increases plant diversity thus mammal and bird diversity.

The CRP has been a good conservation program but it’s costly and it unfairly competes with other enterprises that could provide many of the same advantages.

MIG on a ex CRP field is a viable alternative for conventional grazers who are considering a more sustainable system, row croppers who are interested in introducing livestock into their operations, and for management intensive grazers who want to expand their operation.

We hosted a field day on our farm in June. Our county extension agent helped us promote the event. Our state agriculture newspaper carried a short notice and the local newspaper/grazer group received a longer version. Total number of participants was about 30. We also hosted another field day on our farm on another topic related to managed grazing (approximately 50 participants) and briefly discussed our SARE project.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.