This 30-acre field will soon be back in agricultural production as Matt Graham prepares the former CRP parcel for grazing cattle on his family farm in Eagleville, Mo. He plans to build a barn for winter feeding and spread the manure across the pasture as part of a nutrient management plan for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Matt Graham said he feels fortunate to have acquired this pasture from a neighbor, who had enrolled the acreage in CRP in the late 1980s. The land adjoins Graham’s Century Farm and will allow him to expand his beef operation. With an emergency provision issued this summer by USDA, he was even able to cut and bale hay from the acreage before the CRP contract expired Oct. 1.
Graham has recently added Wagyu cattle to his beef operation and is planning to ramp up production on that side of the business. Finding acreage to run cattle is difficult, he said, with landowners often choosing to rent or sell to row-crop farmers who can pay more per acre.
Graham and his family have a preference for raising and showing blue roan shorthorn cattle such as this one.
Returning CRP ground to agricultural production takes careful consideration
Coming out of retirement is never easy. There are financial implications. Concerns about health and well-being. Questions about productivity and capabilities.
Those same considerations apply when Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land is returned to agricultural production. The purpose of the program, which was established by Congress in 1985, is to address erosion, water quality and wildlife habitat loss on environmentally sensitive ground. Landowners take eligible acreage out of production for 10 to 15 years at a time and receive annual rental payments in return.
However, high commodity prices, lower supplies and strong demand in recent years are incentivizing producers to put these retired acres back to work. And that trend is causing concern among conservationists who don’t want to see decades of land improvement go down the drain.
“There are a lot of expiring CRP acres going into row crops because we’ve got $7 corn and $15 soybeans. From a conservation standpoint, it’s kind of tough to swallow,” said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist. “We know there’s a reason that land was put in CRP in the ’80s and ’90s, usually because it was highly erodible or not productive. All farmers are in this business to be profitable, but they’re also in it to leave a legacy for the next generation. That’s why producers really need to make informed decisions when it comes to farming those CRP acres.”
Missouri had 233,000 acres of CRP with contracts that expired Sept. 30 at the fiscal year-end for the USDA Farm Service Agency, which administers the program. The state was among the top five with the most expiring acres in 2022, leaving a total of 712,000. Over the next three years, another 170,000 acres are set to roll out of the program.
“That doesn’t mean all those acres will come out of CRP, but their contracts will expire, and they will likely either be re-enrolled or go into some form of production agriculture,” said Nate Goodrich, assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Missouri. “The bottom dollar is what’s really going to count. If commodity prices continue to stay high, we’ll probably see more of these acres farmed. If CRP pencils out as the best way to go, we’ll see producers going that direction. But if I had a crystal ball to know for sure, I’d be a rich man.”
The program’s long-term contracts mean that many CRP parcels have been on hiatus for a decade or more, and preparing them for production is no simple matter. There is no cookie-cutter approach, Jones points out. Management decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, considering the land’s past history and current condition. And renovations won’t happen overnight, he warned.
“To go from a CRP field to a highly productive row-crop field or pasture is a tough row to hoe without taking some proper steps,” Jones said. “It will take time. It’s important to have a good plan in place long before you plan on putting a seed in the ground.”
Goodrich encourages producers who are bringing land out of CRP to work with their local NRCS office to put together a conservation plan. There are couple of reasons for this advice, he added. First if they’re participating in other USDA programs, they have to stay in compliance with those requirements. Second, a conservation plan can open up opportunities with other Farm Bill programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) or Conservation Stewardship Program. These can provide financial assistance to install conservation practices or activities to further control soil erosion, provide wildlife habitat and increase soil health.
That’s exactly the approach Matt Graham took when he acquired expiring CRP ground adjacent to his family farm in Eagleville, Mo., just south of the Iowa border. Four years ago, he purchased 30 acres from a neighbor who had enrolled the parcel in CRP in the late 1980s. The current contract expired Oct. 1. Graham plans to keep the land in grass to expand his beef operation.
“I feel pretty lucky that we were able to get this,” Graham said. “My neighbor had already been approached by other farmers who were going to pay him more than $100 an acre to rent it for row crops. That’s what I’m competing with. If you’re just running cows, it’s pretty tough to make that work.”
Graham, an agricultural engineer by trade, moved back home six years ago to this Century Farm, which was established by his maternal grandmother’s family. He and his wife, Amanda, and their sons, Kolton, 16, and Lane, 14, raise Angus-shorthorn cattle and recently added Wagyu to the operation. Graham’s father, Vince, also has his own beef operation up the road.
“My family’s been farming here since 1886,” Graham said. “That’s why I have a different view than some landowners. This ground is highly erodible and shouldn’t be farmed for crops. Running cattle on it is the best thing you could do. I want it to be here for my boys to continue to do it.”
Overall, the former CRP acreage wasn’t in bad shape when he took over, Graham said. To prepare it for grazing, he’s been controlling weeds, installing cross-fencing and putting in watering stations. He’s also been collaborating with Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist, to grid sample the land and put together a nutrient management plan for NRCS, which is providing financial assistance through the EQIP program to build a winter-feeding facility.
“Right now, I’m just feeding in hay rings, and the ground gets pretty torn up,” Graham said. “NRCS is going to help cost-share the barn, so I’ll be able to feed in there during the winter and push all my manure into a pit and then eventually spread it across the pasture.”
While keeping expired CRP land in grass is preferred in most cases, Goodrich said, there are ways to return the acres to row-crop production in an environmentally responsible manner.
“A good system we like to see is incorporating no-till or reduced tillage prior to planting the crops as well as cover crops in between to control erosion and increase soil health,” he said. “NRCS also encourages structural practices, when and where needed, that could include terraces throughout the field or grass waterways in the concentrated flow areas. Growers might need to do a combination of both management and structural practices to really keep the erosion where we’d like to see it and to make them eligible for USDA programs.”
When it comes to such programs, Goodrich said NRCS will work with landowners and farmers to find the best fit. With the influx of federal climate-smart funding, there are even more opportunities than ever before, he added.
“That’s part of the job of our soil conservationists, to work with those producers to find the best program for what they want to do,” he said. “There are a lot of different options out there. We can help them find the best route to get them where they want to go.”
A brand-new opportunity, just announced in mid-November, is the EQIP Native Forages Initiative. This program is targeted to producers who want to convert non-native forages or cropland to native forages for haying or grazing. Expiring CRP ground could be eligible for this initiative, Goodrich said.
“This program was prompted by the drought, which caused folks to lose a lot of grass or pastureland,” he explained. “We’re trying to incentivize them to establish some warm-season grasses into their grazing operations so they will have something that’s going to respond during the hot, dry months. It’s a little bit different than our traditional EQIP program in that we are able to turn these around very quickly without having to go through a ranking and batching period like we do with our traditional programs.”
As for CRP, shifting conservation and environmental priorities and commodity price cycles will likely shape its future in the next farm bill debate, but Jones said he believes it will continue to play an important role in government-funded conservation programs.
“I think CRP is always going to have its place because it comes with that annual rental payment,” he said. “Just having that 10- or 15-year guaranteed annual income is meaningful for some of these marginal lands. It goes back to stewardship, which is one of MFA’s core values. Making decisions with stewardship in mind isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”