Development of Sustainable Crop and Livestock Production Systems for Land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
The overall goal of the project was to develop economically viable crop and livestock production systems to extend the wildlife and environmental benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) beyond the ten-year contract period while maintaining compatibility with existing production systems, established farmer goals and external production constraints.
1. Develop livestock grazing systems for the predominate grass species growing on CRP land.
2. Identify dryland cropping systems for converting CRP grassland to sustainable crop production.
3. Compare the potential environmental impacts of the production systems evaluated in Objectives 1 and 2 with traditional crop and livestock production systems and current use of CRP land.
4. Identify and demonstrate techniques for improving and maintaining wildlife habitat on CRP and post-CRP lands.
5. Conduct an economic evaluation of alternative production systems including: a) whole farm cost and return analysis, b) short- and long-term profitability analysis, and c) risk analysis.
6. Determine the compatibility of potential production systems with existing production systems, established farmer goals and external production constraints.
7. Develop an information delivery component to: a) demonstrate various crop and livestock production systems, and b) disseminate scientific, technological and economic information to agricultural producers.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a long-term cropland retirement program in which eligible landowners and operators voluntarily remove highly erodible cropland from agricultural production for ten to 15 years in return for cover establishment costs and annual payments from the USDA. The Southern Great Plains states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas have 32 percent of the nation’s 29.9 million CRP acres. Many counties in this region have more than 25 percent of the total farmland acreage enrolled in the program.
Perennial grasses cover as much as 99 percent of the CRP land in the Southern Great Plains. As such, there are basically two potential post-CRP uses for this land: 1) convert the land to crop production or 2) keep the existing grass cover and graze the land.
This project evaluated three systems of crop production (wheat-sorghum-fallow rotation, continuous wheat and continuous sorghum) and three tillage systems (conventional tillage, minimum tillage and no tillage) for converting CRP grassland to non-irrigated crop production. Crop yields for all evaluated systems were extremely low or non-existent. The low yields are attributed, in part, to insufficient lead time to initiate cropping practices, unsuccessful herbicide controls, insufficient soil moisture at planting and devastating climatological events.
Seasonal productivity of CRP grasslands was evaluated. Dry forage production ranged from less than 1,000 lb/ac for grama grass to more than 4,000 lb/ac for old world bluestem. Mixed species plantings, kleingrass and weeping lovegrass produced intermediate yields.
Five grazing management systems were evaluated for the production of stocker calves on weeping lovegrass. Regression analysis was used to estimate average daily gain functions for the grazing treatments. During the early part of the grazing season, average gains were near 3 lb/head for all grazing systems, but weight gains declined as the season progressed. The most gain per acre (185 lb) was obtained from a heavily stocked grazing system where the pastures were fertilized with 40 lb of N/ac and animals were sold in mid-summer. Continuous grazing for a 12-month period produced the least gain, 115 lb/acre.
A demonstration on overwintering bred cows on weeping lovegrass highlighted several potential problems. These include the loss of body condition, low weight calves at time of marketing and a delay in cow rebreeding.
The project successfully established woody plants for wildlife cover and annual wildlife food plots with minimal investments. A wildlife waterer (self-contained, walk-in drinker) provided a method of collecting and storing natural precipitation for wildlife use.
From an economic standpoint, results from this project indicate that neither reverting to crop production nor yearling stocker grazing will produce acceptable returns to land and risk. With typical levels of crop production, and no governmental price support programs, average returns to land and risk for dryland farm operations in Curry and Quay Counties would have been negative over the 1984-96 time period. Average returns to land and risk from grazing weeping lovegrass (with beef prices realized over the 1984-96 period) were estimated to be $2.54/ac under optimal production strategies. Actual net returns would have likely been less since after-the-fact knowledge about livestock prices (as used in the analysis) would not have been available to farmers at the time they were be making production decisions.
Without CRP and crop subsidies, this study shows dryland farmers in the Southern Great Plains face an increasingly uncertain future. Cropping alternatives look dismal without crop subsidies, and grazing weeping lovegrass pasture does not provide a viable economic alternative. Without government intervention, land values should fall and marginal farming areas should revert to rangeland and natural vegetation. Although this process may lead to a more sustainable use of the land, many producers may be displaced in the process.
Potential Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture
This project has provided local producers with a wealth of information on the productive capacity of grasses currently growing on CRP land. In addition, this project developed economic models for comparing the economic profitability of converting CRP land to cropping or grazing. Until this project was completed, these types of unbiased comparisons were not possible. Unfortunately, the project results show the grazing of weeping lovegrass (one of the predominate grass species planted on CRP land in the Southern Great Plains) is not economically viable, nor is crop production, in the absence of government support programs. This project should serve as a wake-up call for producers and communities in this region that dryland farming as we know it is apparently not sustainable in a free market situation. Without additional government intervention, major market changes can be expected within the next decade.
Farmer Adoption and Direct Impact
Early results may have contributed to revised NRCS guidelines for establishment of vegetative cover on newly contracted CRP acreage. Thousands of acres of land in New Mexico and West Texas have been removed from the CRP since this project began. The grazing and tillage trials have provided producers with important information on cultural practices to renovate existing stands for grazing use or for converting standing cover to cropland production.
Although the economic analysis component of this project was only recently completed, a reduction in the number of producers who are considering using post-CRP lands for grazing purposes is anticipated. As discussions escalate toward the next major farm bill, results of this study should prove useful to legislators, commodity groups and others involved in developing farm and conservation legislation and policies affecting the Southern Great Plains.
Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers
Overall farmer reaction has been positive. Many producers have expressed support for the project. A number of farmers and ranchers expressed their surprise in the high rates of gain and stocking density that can be obtained from weeping lovegrass. Economic evaluations of stocker grazing have only recently been released. But, many farmers have apparently reached a similar conclusion about the economics of grazing weeping lovegrass pastures. Non-renewed CRP contracts in Curry and Quay counties are quickly being plowed out and put back into crop production. The wildlife component of the project has been well received and generated increased interest in tree and shrub plantings for wildlife and conservation purposes.
This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 1999 reporting cycle.