Sustainable Alternatives to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2010: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Donald D. Nelson
Washington State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: barley, oats, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing management, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational, stocking rate, watering systems, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: crop rotation
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, agritourism
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, social networks, sustainability measures


    In order to accomplish the project’s purpose of studying sustainable alternatives to the Conservation Reserve Program, we discovered that the ability to adapt to unanticipated changes is a key component of sustainability, along with the three legs of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. In moving this project forward, we had to adapt in order to find landowners with expired or expiring CRP-contracted land who were willing to forego the economic benefit of re-enrolling in the CRP program and allow grazing as a restorative practice of the degraded CRP lands. Ultimately, we had to rely on public CRP-like lands.


    Background of Problem:

    This country has over 29 million acres of idle land that by contractual restraints under the Conservation Reserve Program is non-productive, often unmanaged, and is part of the cycle of government spending that results in questionable benefits, as pertaining to the ecosystem or local economies. Our project purpose was to research and educate others about sustainable alternatives for idle lands.

    Literature Review:

    The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) began in 1985. Since then, this government program has been identified as a key subsidy program for the conservation of highly erodible lands and to benefit wildlife. Washington state currently has over 1.46 million acres of land enrolled in the program, with over $83 million paid out to landowners each year. In the next three years, over 497,000 acres of CRP land will be expiring (Conservation Reserve Program statistics, 2013). Over the past 15 years or more, the CRP has tightened limits on options to manage enrolled lands; the result is old, decadent stands of oxidizing, dying bunchgrasses. Grazing, in particular, has been restricted as a management tool, even though many of our grassland ecosystems co-evolved with herbivores (Stebbins, 1981). Livestock grazing is not only a valuable conservation method but is oftentimes the best method.


    Conservation Reserve Program Statistics. United States Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency. Available online at Accessed 3/25/2013.

    Herrick, J. E., Van Zee, J.W., Havstad, K.M., Burkett, L.M., Whitford, W.G., 2005. Monitoring manual for grassland, shrubland and savanna ecosystems. Volume II : Design, Supplementary Methods and Interpretation. USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range. Las Cruces, NM. 200p.

    Land EKG, (1994). Rangeland monitoring tool. Online at

    Stebbins, G.L. (1981). Coevolution of Grasses and Herbivores. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 68(1), 75-86.

    Project objectives:

    On-Farm Research:

    1. Develop criteria to evaluate the suitability of expiring CRP tracts for grazing, cropping, outdoor recreation and/or wildlife habitat (Timeline: summer 2012)

    2. Evaluate methods of rejuvenating or inter-seeding into existing CRP stands to improve pasture quality (Timeline: fall 2010-2013)

    3. Mob grazing with dry cows during the fall dormant season, followed by grazing of yearling cattle during the spring growing season

    4. Mob grazing during the dormant season with broadcast of seed for grasses, forbs and legumes

    5. Mob grazing, followed by seeding with a rangeland drill

    6. Small plot trials of seed mixtures for pasture


    7. Demonstrate through on-farm field days and two multi-farm tours (Timeline: summers 2012 and 2013)

    8. Complimentary agriculture and recreation enterprises

    9. Farmer-friendly ecosystem monitoring system

    10. Effective use of temporary electric fence and portable animal watering systems

    11. Demonstrate through traditional Extension in-person training and webinars (Timeline: Spring 2012)

    12. On-farm research design and analysis

    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.