Finding Innovative Conservation Solutions
DU and Bayer CropScience work with prairie farmers to plant winter wheat, which provides more secure upland nesting cover for ducks than spring-seeded crops. (Photo Credit: Ron Spomer, DU)
Market forces are also working against conservation
efforts on the prairies and in other high-priority waterfowl areas. High commodity prices are encouraging many farmers to put their expiring CRP land back into row crop production. Clearly, innovative conservation solutions are needed to sustain landowner interest in CRP and other agricultural conservation programs, especially when payments offered by these programs could be frozen or reduced in the future.
In North Dakota
, for example, approximately 132,000 acres were accepted this past year for CRP enrollment, but this fall contracts will expire on some 400,000 acres of CRP land. Research conducted by DU in the Dakotas has revealed that waterfowl nesting success is more closely correlated with the amount of grass cover on the landscape than the height of the grass in the immediate nesting area. As a result, DU supports changing CRP rules to allow cattle grazing on land enrolled in the program. This would provide an additional economic incentive for producers to keep these working lands in CRP, while also helping to ensure that large blocks of grass cover remain intact on the prairies.
Similar changes can be made to WRP that would make this program more cost effective and attractive to landowners. For example, the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Reserved Grazing Rights Pilot was launched in the 2008 Farm Bill. Under this agreement, landowners receive a smaller payment for their WRP easement
in return for grazing rights. Additional changes could accommodate haying as another reserved right, saving even more money while also generating more support for the program in the ranching community, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West.
Another innovative approach would be to include a "Sodsaver" provision in the new Farm Bill. Simply put, this provision would eliminate federal subsidy support, in particular crop insurance and disaster payments, on any new acreage brought into crop production by converting grassland. While remaining prairie grasslands typically have light, rocky soils that produce poor crop yields, substantial federal price supports and disaster assistance continue to offer economic incentives for landowners to convert native prairie and other grasslands into cropland. The USDA's Farm Services Agency reports that more than 360,000 acres of prairie grasslands were converted to cropland from 2002 to 2007, and these losses have likely increased significantly over the past five years.
Under Sodsaver, landowners would still have the freedom to convert grassland on their property to row crop production, but the profitability of growing crops on the land would depend entirely on free-market economics. Why is this innovative? Sodsaver would require no funding from the federal treasury. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Sodsaver would actually save taxpayers at least $125 million each year, and depending on how the provision is implemented, could save the treasury even more. Most important, Sodsaver would significantly reduce the loss of native prairie, saving taxpayers money as well as protecting some of the most productive landscapes for breeding waterfowl on this continent.