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Life after CRP: Returning land to crops

GRAND FORKS. N.D. — David Burkland walks through a field of knee-high corn on a late-June morning and studies it with experienced eyes. Its condition isn't ideal, but he's mostly satisfied — especially since the field was covered with grass and in the Conservation Reserve Program a year ago.

"This isn't going to be any kind of bumper crop," the veteran Grand Forks, N.D., farmer says. "But putting it back (into crop production) just made sense."

Burkland, who farms with son-in-law Evan Montgomery, isn't alone. Thousands of Upper Midwest farmers have returned CRP into crop production, or soon will. Though restoring land to crops can be an opportunity, it creates challenges, too, especially early on.

"I'd really push a pencil and realize that the first year or two that land just isn't going to be up to the standards of neighboring fields that have been in crops for a long time," says David Franzen, North Dakota State University extension soil specialist. "It's going to take some time and money and energy to get it into shape."

CRP is a federal program that pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, with the land planted to grass and other vegetation. CRP contracts are for either 10 to 15 years — and the land potentially can be re-enrolled — so the vegetation typically is in place for many years.

That complicates returning the land to crop production. The no-longer-desired vegetative cover needs to be destroyed or removed, which requires both time and money. Weeds or insects or both can pose special problems. Often, over time, the land has become rough or bumpy, increasing the difficulty of planting and harvesting it. And soil nutrients, especially nitrogen, which is crucial to plant growth, usually are low and need to be replenished.

Doing all that "is hard to accomplish in the first year," Franzen says.

Burkland's advice to landowners considering putting CRP land back into crops:

"Every situation is different. But talk with people who have done it. Get a basic feel for what you want to plant, what chemicals you'll use to get that ground into shape," he says.

"And start early. Consider buying out the (expiring CRP) contract early, giving up a few months payments to start early on working the ground," Burkland says. "It takes time."

Why it goes back to crops

Not all CRP land is the same. Nor are farmers' reasons for returning it to crops.

Some relatively productive farmland was put into CRP because collecting CRP payments was simpler and more predictable than farming the land, especially appealing for landowners in or near retirement, Franzen says.

Now, economic conditions may encourage cropping those fields, he says.

But most of the land enrolled in CRP was marginal. It held little potential for big yields or was so environmentally sensitive that continuing to farm it carried extra risk, he says.

Returning marginal land to crop production is particularly challenging, Franzen says, stressing that farmers who plan to do should work with the Natural Resources Conservation Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"They're folks who can help," he says of NRCS.

Working in advance with USDA's Farm Service Agency, which is involved with CRP, is highly recommended, too, Franzen says.

He also suggests that ag producers strongly consider no-till farming, especially on marginal ground, when returning CRP land to crops.

Better technology

Some CRP land is returned to production because farmers have no real choice. Congress has cut the number of allowable acres in the program, so producers aren't always able to re-enroll land in CRP in the program even though they want to.

But some CRP land goes back to crops because of new technology that allows once-marginal land to be farmed productively, Burkland says.

Decades ago, he put some saline-stressed fields into the CRP. In recent years, however, he's returned most of that land to crop production.

"CRP was a short-term answer to climatic problems that we just were having a tough time overcoming with the technology and machinery we had then. Now, it's 30 years later and we have the technology and machinery and capability to farm that ground," Burkland says

Once, Burkand had about 500 acres in CRP. Today, he has about 100 acres. Most of the remaining land is in CRP contracts that will expire in the next two years.

Some of those acres, land next to coulees or especially difficult to farm, will be kept in CRP. "But I think most can be successfully cropped with the technology we have in this day and age," he said.

Burkland, a supervisor for the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District (the county and its largest city have the same name), takes conservation and soil health seriously.

"This is my 46th crop. And if I knew 46 years ago what I know today, we'd be a lot better off on (dealing with) salinity," he says. "We've learned so much."

CRP to corn

Last year, Burkland bought the quarter-section on which he planted corn this spring. It had been in CRP for 20 years but then was tiled in preparation for returning it to crop production. As part of that preparation, the former owner applied Roundup to kill weeds and disked it once to break up sod.

"It looked pretty tough," Burkland says.

This spring, Burkland did vertical tillage three times to break up the soil further and also applied Roundup (the widely used herbicide) and then another herbicide to control weeds.

Three separate passes of vertical tillage are uncommon for corn, but they were needed to get the ground suitable for planting, Burkland says.

Many crops can be planted successfully on former CRP fields in the first year after they're returned to crops. But soybeans and corn are common in much of the Upper Midwest; the former supply their own nitrogen, in which former CRP land typically is deficient, while corn can outcompete shorter weeds.

"We were looking for a crop that would grow the best and be the easiest to market. Corn kind of fit the bill," Burkland says.

As is usually the case with CRP land returned to crop production, the corn field was "way short" of nitrogen, he says. So far, though, there's been no problem with insects, which sometimes are troublesome on CRP.

Corn emerged well overall across the field, though better in some areas than others. The crop has received adequate rain so far, but much more will be needed.

Burkland hopes the field will average 120 bushels per acre, with some parts likely to do much better and others much worse.

"We'd like to break even at least" this first year, he says. But regardless of what happens with first-year profitability, returning it to crop production "is the best use of the land."

The basics of CRP

The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, is a federal program that gives landowners an annual per-acre payment to take environmentally sensitive farmland out of production. The land receives a specially designed vegetative cover that reduces soil erosion, improves soil and air quality and develops wildlife habitat.

CRP contracts typically are for 10 or 15 years.

CRP, established in 1985, reached peak enrollment in 2007 when 36.7 million acres were in the program nationwide. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana were among the leaders in CRP enrollment, and the program was popular in northwest Minnesota, too.

Now, U.S. CRP acreage stands at 23.4 million, with 1.5 million acres in North Dakota, 1.3 million in Montana, 1.1 million in Minnesota and 976,000 in South Dakota. All four states have seen major reductions in CRP; for instance, South Dakota enrollment peaked at 1.6 million acres in 2007.

Land has been taken out of CRP for several reasons. They include:

• Sometimes federal funding isn't available to keep it in the program, even though the landowner wants it to remain in CRP.

• Farming practices, especially on environmentally sensitive land, have improved since the land was originally put into CRP.

• Some farmers elected not to renew expiring CRP contracts in 2007 to 2013 when crop prices and farm profitability were strong.


Returning CRP land to production

Helpful expert suggestions:

• Visit your local Farm Service Agency office before doing anything else. Learn your options and what's needed to pursue them. The FSA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is involved in disaster, commodity, conservation and farm loan programs, among many other things.

• Also visit the Natural Resources Conservation Service, another arm of USDA, especially if the land being returned to crops is particularly environmentally sensitive.

• With an approved request to do so, the vegetative cover can be destroyed with equipment or chemicals in the fall to prepare for seeding a crop the following year. Haying or grazing the vegetative cover is allowed, too.

• Study the costs of returning land to production. Do you have the farm equipment to do it yourself? Will you need to rent? Hire someone else to do the work?

• Evaluate the pros and cons, both agronomic and economic ones, of various crops when deciding what crop to plant.

• Heavy surface residue can complicate planting crops. So can volunteer trees.

• Weeds, especially perennial grasses and perennial broadleaf weeds as Canada thistle, can cause problems. Some insects can, too.

• Gopher piles often are a major headache both in planting and harvesting crops on former CRP land.

• Soil fertility management can be especially important. For example, nitrogen — a key nutrient — is almost always low in CRP land being returned to production.

For more information about returning CRP land into crop production or grazing, click here.