Incorporating Soil Ecological Knowledge into Management of CRP Lands

Project Overview

GNC13-165
Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2013: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Craig Allen
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: focus group, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, habitat enhancement, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, social capital

    Abstract:

    The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in the 1985 to prevent further soil degradation by subsidizing landowners to set aside marginal lands for decades at a time. However, because historical fire and grazing inundations that maintained native plant cover are largely gone from the system, land placed under CRP can rapidly succeed towards dense, low diversity stands of perennial grasses, non native species, and woody plants. To combat this, CRP enrollees are obligated to implement management to restore the ecosystem to early secondary succession once per decadal contract. This so called “mid-contract management” can take the form of disking, herbicide application, interseeding high diversity seed mixes, or low intensity burns. The goal of my proposed SARE research was to assess whether alternative mid-contract management strategies are associated with different soil health and biodiversity outcomes, two of many concurrent land management goals of the CRP, state agency personnel, and private landowners.

    Specifically, by assessing measures of soil health and plant biodiversity on replicated disked, herbicide, interseeded, and burned plots in a CRP field in the North Central Great Plains, this work provides information to support landowners as they work to meet both contractual requirements and their own current and post-CRP management goals, and to establish relevant, quantifiable methods to track soil health on CRP land once our investigation ends.

    We addressed this by comparing these mid-contract management approaches as replicated treatments on an 800-acre CRP field in the North Central Great Plains in Holt County, Nebraska and tracking the response of multiple soil and plant variables. We also assessed land owner perceptions of both CRP and mid-contract management to gain a better understanding of why farmers and ranchers enroll in the program, what ecosystem services they value, and how scientists can better communicate our results to support land owners as they balance multiple objectives in their decision making. Outputs included peer reviewed manuscripts, outreach to elementary schools, blogposts for popular non profit and academic outlets, mentoring former and current technicians and a pamphlet for agency personnel and landowners.

    Introduction:

    The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in the 1985 to prevent further soil degradation by subsidizing landowners to set aside marginal lands for decades at a time. However, because historical fire and grazing inundations that maintained native plant cover are largely gone from the system, land placed under CRP can rapidly succeed towards dense, low diversity stands of perennial grasses, non native species, and woody plants. To combat this, CRP enrollees are obligated to implement management to restore the ecosystem to early secondary succession once per decadal contract. This so called “mid-contract management” can take the form of disking, herbicide application, interseeding high diversity seed mixes, or low intensity burns. The goal of my proposed SARE research was to assess whether alternative mid-contract management strategies are associated with different soil health and biodiversity outcomes, two of many concurrent land management goals of the CRP, state agency personnel, and private landowners.

    Specifically, by assessing measures of soil health and plant biodiversity on replicated disked, herbicide, interseeded, and burned plots in a CRP field in the North Central Great Plains, this work provides information to support landowners as they work to meet both contractual requirements and their own current and post-CRP management goals, and to establish relevant, quantifiable methods to track soil health on CRP land once our investigation ends.

    Project objectives:

    In spring 2014, the mid-contract management treatments were applied to the field, meeting the first major milestone of the project. Across the 800 acre CRP/Focus on Pheasants study area, we had nine replicates each of interseeded, disked, burned, and herbicided treatments, along with controls.

    That summer, land owner surveys were written and submitted for IRB approval. These survey were aimed at understanding why landowners enroll in CRP, what mid contract management they choose and why, their perspective on soil health, and how they value various grassland ecosystem services. At the same time, I discovered that a colleague was using similar surveys across the entire state, so we combined forces and resubmitted a larger survey to IRB, which was approved the following winter. Surveys were sent out over the next year and a half, and continue to return.

    In summers 2014 and 2015, intensive soil and vegetation sampling was conducted. Following each field season, laboratory analyses were conducted either at University of Nebraska-Lincoln or through Ward Laboratory in Kearney, NE.

    An essential component of this study was to determine objective measures of soil health based on mixed methods approaches that combine surveys and informal interviews. Developing landowner driven, objective measures of soil health was not as straightforward as I initially speculated, but conversations with local landowners combined with early findings indicated that soil carbon quality was a next step. I am currently conducting these analyses.

    The primary output of this work is an in-progress report for private landowners and state agency personnel describing the economic and ecological tradeoffs associated with different mid-contract management activities. While the rural, diffuse geographical area our project precludes any landowner-attended workshops, outreach to elementary schools in Lynch and Spencer, NE, both of which are located within 30 miles of the field site, are planned for winter 2017.

    Another major objective included presentation at annual meetings. I shared results of this SARE funded research at the following conferences: American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in April 2015, Gordon Research Seminars: Unifying Across Ecological Scales in July 2016, The Conference on Complex Systems in Amsterdam, Netherlands in September 2016, and at the Nebraska Fish and Wildlife Cooperators’ Annual Meetings in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

    I also met the objective of submitting a manuscript to a peer reviewed journal; in this case The Journal of Environmental Management. The paper was entitled “Adaptive Management for Soil Ecosystem Services” and drew directly from experiential learning I gained while on this grant. Other manuscripts are pending directly based on this research, and I expect to publish at least two more based on drafts currently underway.

    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.