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

    Proposal abstract:

    The findings from this project will have broad application. What is going to happen to the 39 million acres currently enrolled in CRP in the United States, including the 1.5 million acres in the state of Washington when the contracts expire? Adams County, where much of the project land is located, has one of the largest CRP enrollments nationwide, at over 214,000 acres with some of these contracts expiring during the 2010-2016 period. From a sustainability standpoint, much of this land is steep and/or marginal and should not be returned to conventionally tilled wheat/fallow production, where soil erosion of 20 tons/acre/yr is common, and over 150 tons/acre/yr has been documented. There is considerable uncertainty as to what are sustainable alternatives to CRP. This project will conduct on-farm research and demonstrate collaborative efforts of producers/landowners to identify and implement sustainable alternatives to CRP. It is designed to demonstrate how diversification of enterprises and cooperation of multiple producers can increase farm profitability and resilience, build community, and enhance ecosystem processes (i.e., water cycle, mineral cycle, solar energy flow and community dynamics/succession) pasture production, planned cattle grazing, recreational hunting and equestrian activities. This project is a follow-up to a 2-year (2008-2009) Ag Pilots project, Beefing Up the Palouse-An Alternative to the CRP (BUP), funded by the Washington state Governor’s office. The objective of the Ag Pilots initiative was to identify innovative approaches to achieve sustainable agriculture operations that could be replicated by other producers on their farms. The primary objective of the BUP project was to use planned cattle grazing as a sustainable alternative to CRP that would produce revenue equal to, or greater, than the CRP payments. Due to CRP use restrictions during the BUP project we were not able to graze land in CRP, but used similar land planted to grass/legume pasture. This proposed Western SARE project seeks to expand on the BUP project to include grazing ground coming out of CRP; include more producers, more land and to diversify revenue-generating enterprises. The multi-dimensional vision built by the group of producers in this proposed Western SARE project changes not only the farm products and production system common in the project area, but also the production capacity of the land and its farmers. This project will demonstrate multiple enterprises that can be “stacked” or rotated, both on the same ground and among farms. Grain production, being the least environmentally sustainable of the options, can only be sustainably practiced in long-term rotation with resource-building rotation phases in perennial cover. The perennial cover stops the 20+ tons/acre/yr soil erosion, rebuilds soil fertility, increases soil organic matter levels and can be used for grazing, haying, or recreation. Contract grazing has been shown in our recent BUP project to approximately equal a CRP payment of $50/acre/yr to the landowner while providing approximately 1 FTE job per 2,000 acres. By demonstrating a farm plan that is economically and environmentally sustainable, diversified, and customizable to fit different farms, farmers, and lifestyles, this project can also reinvigorate the power of possibility for rural communities in this region.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    On-farm Research:
    Develop criteria to evaluate the suitability of expiring CRP tracts for grazing, cropping, biomass production for bio-energy, outdoor recreation and/or wildlife habitat. (Timeline: summer 2012)

    Each of the following field trials will be undertaken at 1-3 farms using Land EKG quantitative monitoring: (Timeline: trials begin fall 2010 and continue to summer 2013)

    Evaluate the following methods of rejuvenating or inter-seeding into existing CRP stands to improve pasture quality:
    (1) Mob grazing (i.e., high density, short duration with long recovery periods) with dry cows during the fall dormant season to rejuvenate/condition decadent CRP grass stands followed by grazing of yearling cattle during the spring growing season.
    (2) Mob grazing during the dormant season with broadcast of seed for grasses, forbs and legumes
    (3) Mob grazing followed by seeding with a rangeland drill.
    (4) Small plot trials of seed mixtures for pasture

    Determine yield potential of organic wheat, barley or oats after soil incorporation of legume containing grazed areas. (Timeline: incorporations fall 2010 and 2011 with spring seeding 2011 and 2012)

    Investigate the potential development of cooperative marketing strategies for enterprise diversification products/services such as organic pasture production, organic grain, equestrian activities and fee hunting. (Timeline: summer 2013)

    On-farm field days and 2 multi-farm tours: (Timeline: summers 2012 and 2013)
    (1) Complimentary agriculture and recreation enterprises
    (2) Farmer-friendly ecosystem monitoring system (Land EKG)
    (3) Effective use of temporary electric fence and portable animal watering systems
    (4) Organic weed control using planned grazing

    Demonstrate through traditional Extension in-person training and webinars: (Timeline: Spring 2012)
    (1) On-farm research design and analysis
    (2) A new land lease decision aid to determine whether to lease pasture, harvest hay, or raise livestock

    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.