Working Alternatives to Re-cropping Marginal Lands

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Chris Nelson
Southern Iowa Forage & Livestock Committee
Melissa Maynes
Southern Iowa Forage & Livestock

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animals: bovine


  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems

    Proposal abstract:

    Full Proposal Abstract - Working Alternatives to Re-cropping Marginal Lands

    The Mission of this project is to reduce the conversion of existing private agricultural grassland to row crop production. The project will promote sustainable livestock grazing to a diverse group of owners and producers. Targeted is highly erodible land (HEL) soon expiring from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). 63.5% of Iowa's current CRP land will be out of contract by October 1, 2009. This project includes 11 different outcomes. All outcomes will promote grassland conservation. Outcomes will be accomplished through sponsoring on-site producer field days, constructing a conservation water site demonstration, promoting grassland wildlife, providing a demonstration facility, providing a grazing school and developing an Extension grazing bulletin on grazing profitability analysis plus an informational grazing brochure.

    In this project, grassland management methods will be demonstrated and taught using numerous techniques including pasture interseeding, late grazing of warm season grasses and high-intensity rotational grazing of cool season grass/legume.

    Results of the demonstrations and research will be published in the Iowa State University (ISU) research reports and the yearly Southern Iowa Forage and Livestock Committee (SIFLC) Annual Report. Results will also be shared with researchers in the academic community and specifically with cooperators at the University of Northern Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Results will be followed closely by policymakers at USDA-NRCS and by Iowa's US Senators and Congressman Steve King (Iowa 5th District) in planning the 2007 Farm Bill.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Short Term Outcomes: This project is sponsored by the Southern Iowa Forage and Livestock Committee (SIFLC), a farmer based non-profit 501c-3 educational organization. The majority of this project is to provide producer-directed education and demonstration that will feature livestock as a value-added product on marginal lands. Marginal lands are defined by USDA-NRCS as "highly erodible land" or HEL. Wildlife compatibility and secondary production with livestock grazing on grasslands is also a project goal.

    Our primary target audience is other livestock farmers and farm landowners seeking management alternatives to crop production or abusive overgrazing. Our secondary target audience is organizations, individuals and agencies wanting to improve wildlife production on private working lands. A third target audience includes those current, or soon expiring, CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) landowners (often absentee) who wish to see their HEL lands continued to be protected by grass. This can be accomplished through some agreement with local cattle producers, with or without a USDA program.

    This project will research and exhibit innovative and sustainable grazing practices on a working demonstration farm. The “CRP Research and Demonstration Farm” is currently in operation and has publicly demonstrated grazing methods and technology since 1990, often with SARE assistance.

    Here are the short term goals for this SIFLC project:

    1. Adult education field days - two each in 2008 and 2009. These will be designed for both grassland producers and conservation/Extension agency staff. On-the-farm field days may be at the CRP Farm, or may be held at a cooperative private farm. A variety of grazing topics and advancements will be presented, as well as, current results of CRP Farm research studies. Field days, typically, cover a variety of subjects concerning grassland management, including progressive management methods, combined with topical grazing livestock or conservation issues.

    2. Our original plans for development of three conservation-conscious pond water livestock access sites have been reduced to only one demonstration site, to be built in FY 2007. This will be a demonstration of construction techniques presented by NRCS technical engineering personnel. Importance of the need for excluding livestock from the pond bank will be stressed to the farmer audience. Water quality, animal health, grazing efficiency, pond lifespan, and benefits to wildlife are the major themes.

    3. Hiring of a grazing intern each season of 2007, 2008, and 2009 will provide a first-hand, live-animal, multi-herd learning experience for a grazing manager under our experienced herdsman. The Intern will work with the cattle herds and facilities at the farm and assist with the wildlife and forage research studies The Intern will also assist with most of the numerous education aspects of this project, including being a leader in some field day activities and educational functions.

    4. Continue the ongoing research and demonstrations of the CRP Farm to assist grazers. With many Iowa State University research and demonstration farms closing, SIFLC's extensive and long running CRP Demonstration Farm is providing a rare direct learning experience for producers within a reasonable driving distance. This farm serves southern Iowa and northern Missouri. It has been used as a training facility for national meetings of NRCS trainees and in conjunction with the national conference of Agricultural Agents. A brochure outlining the progressive aspects of the CRP Farm, and its current successful grazing endeavors, will be developed.

    5. SIFLC plans to create a mobile conference exhibit representing this project's goals and methods. This exhibit will be presented at established agricultural conferences. Likely conferences include the Iowa Cattlemen's Association and the Iowa Forage and Grassland Council conference. The work at the CRP Demonstration Farm and of this project will be a topic at the 2006 National SARE Conference in Oconomowoc, WI given by SIFLC Board Member, and NRCS Grassland Conservationist, Brian Peterson.

    6. One Grazing School will be provided for all levels of grazing producers and one Annie's Project training school for women in agriculture. SIFLC sees the need for more adult producer education, especially for holders of grazing EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) contracts with the USDA-NRCS. Many of these new EQIP contract holders get federal dollars to implement a rotational grazing system, but have little direct experience or personal contact with working systems already in production. In an effort to encourage women producers, landowners, as well as, non-traditional minority, new, and low income producers, SIFLC would like to sponsor one Annie's Project training session. Annie's Project consists of six sessions of a wide variety of farm management training. This school is provided by ISU Extension and Bob Wells, Field Specialist Farm Management and Agriculture Business. Annie's Project information is shown at . Grassland management methods will be stressed in the curriculum for our Annie's Project school.

    Intermediate Term Outcomes:

    The production of livestock grazing systems under various types of grazing management will be highlighted in this project. SIFLC can address the economic realities of highly erodible land (HEL) now in CRP and demonstrate livestock grazing systems and technologies (including secondary wildlife production) as row crop alternatives on HEL. A study of warm season grass establishment will be tied with the wildlife study. This is designed under an Iowa State University research project that began in 2005, and will continue summer field studies by ISU research teams through 2008. The study is multi-faceted. It is designed to show, over several years, how to accomplish the following management objectives

    7. Establish warm season grasses (WSG) using the commercial (non-"organic") herbicides. This method typically sacrifices forage production for one or more years. This is the largest single drawback of WSG grazing. It also uses chemical treatments which require spraying treatments. This establishment is conducted as a side-by-side control comparison to #9 below. Study of the grazing of both #7 and #8 will provide the best methods for demonstration. 11.6 acres of WSG pasture will be created using this method.

    8. Establish a usable warm season "mixed" grass paddocks allowing a mixture of WSG, cool season grass, and legumes. The objective is to develop grazing management techniques that will allow the WSG component to develop from within the stand with little loss of forage production growth and idle forage time. Managed grazing in a timely fashion may substitute for herbicide use to steadily inhibit cool season grass and promote the WSG. This is a multi-year effort with annual forage evaluations needed to measure the accomplishment. Because the results are grazed, no easily identifiable WSG seed heads should be shown. This will make the identifying process more difficult and time consuming.

    9. Forage Evaluation in cool season paddocks will be conducted to show (using current field measurements and the 15 years of grazing history on this Demonstration Farm) the success of legumes in our grazing paddocks. Legumes can (with time and management) greatly reduce or eliminate the need for application of outside nitrogen fertilizer in pastures. Extensive grazing records have been kept on these paddocks, and a continued legume seeding rotation plan has made this demonstration farm an excellent sample site for the study of legume success.

    10. Wildlife nesting, particularly for grassland birds (including economic gamebirds such as pheasants), may be compatible in a WSG component rotational grazing system that allows for mid and late summer grazing after the initial nesting period of May through mid-July. By using wildlife as a secondary crop to the delayed pasture, the wildlife population benefits and the warm season grasses provide livestock with ample hot-weather forage during the traditional summer slump of common cool season forages. Profitability of this wildlife advantage is the landowner's choice. They can lease the hunting rights for cash or not as he wishes. Even if the wildlife "crop" is not marketed commercially, it can be a great addition to the quality of life for rural agriculturalists. Iowa State University is subcontracted under this agreement to supply a four man research team on site for 10 weeks (during May through July) to conduct the research, and then work off site to analyze data and compile conclusions. The team will be under the overall supervision of Dr. Jim Pease.

    11. Revising and improving the current Iowa State University Extension Bulletin CRP-14. This bulletin deals directly with comparative analysis of grazing costs and row cropping costs. This revision will make the bulletin more useable, more pertinent to the issues of CRP today, and more of a decision making guide. A copy of the old 1994 CRP-14 bulletin is attached to show the early history of our research and demonstration project, and to show how income comparison is made. The new revision will have much less about the demonstration farm, and much more to assist a producer in calculating his/her own costs and costs of operations.

    Long Term:

    The long term goal is to have marginal erosive lands stay in permanent conservation cover of hay, pasture, wildlife habitat, or a combination of the three. The goal is multi-function use, providing environmental protection and improvement with sustainable agricultural production. Getting landowners interested in one or more aspects of immediate management is our short term goal. Getting them to understand the principles of sustainable conservation and multi-year production is our intermediate goal. Having them utilize the parts of the process for sustained grassland production and management is our long term objective.

    Landowner demographics are changing rapidly. The average age of landowners in our region is rising, with owners retaining ownership and renting the land instead of selling it to the working producers. Also the rise in demand for land (and therefore the price) is also being driven by non-rural investors, including recreational land purchasers. Wildlife is very important to these owners, as is land management for appearance. Utilization of livestock, and partnerships with the owners and neighboring livestock producers, can make this new demographic shift into a Win-Win situation for both entities if agreeable management methods can be developed. Developing those methods is a major part of the research work being done at the CRP Farm in the next five years, including work under this SARE contract.

    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.