Washington State study compares grazing and CRP

Jun 5, 2009

Washington State study compares grazing and CRP

In the arid farming country of eastern Washington, crop choices are often said to be limited to "wheat, more wheat, or CRP." But Washington State University (WSU) researchers and cooperators are seeking USDA funding to continue a study that may provide area farmers with more options. The study, known as the "Beefing up the Palouse" project, has spent the last two years examining the feasibility of using planned grazing to manage land released from the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The project is one of several "Ag Pilot Projects" funded by the state of Washington to increase agricultural profits while improving the environment. According to Dr. Don Nelson, WSU Extension specialist and the project’s coordinator, the goal is to provide viable alternatives to CRP that will produce revenue equal to, or greater than, the payments currently received from the government program. The study is taking place on a 6,000-acre farm near Benge, WA, 5,000 acres of which are currently enrolled in CRP. Under the study, the farmer contracts with a local rancher to bring in grazing animals. The study also addresses the benefit to the rancher, and has looked at the feasibility of using traditional yearling stockers, as well as two-year-old forage finished animals that could then be marketed into a grass fed program.

The need for viable alternatives has gained new urgency with the signing of the 2008 Farm Bill which reduces the number of acres in the CRP program nationwide by at least 7 million acres. "The timeliness of this is right on target," says Nelson. He cites a letter of support from the Adams County Farm Service Agency which points out that USDA’s plan to focus on smaller contracts in high priority areas will likely lead to a significant reduction in CRP throughout eastern Washington over the next few years as contracts close and are not renewed by the government.

"Looking for viable alternative uses that are environmentally friendly is pretty significant right now," says Nelson.

The environmental benefit of managed grazing on these lands is another focus of the study’s 12- person team. Because they must be left untouched, CRP acres can often become overrun with weeds. An overabundance of standing dead material can also prevent enough water from reaching the ground to support new plants. This is a problem that many feel can best be addressed through the use of managed grazing.

"We’ve seen evidence, in several places, of managed grazing systems increasing productivity and improving the (plant) species mix," says Chad Kruger. Kruger, who is the interim director for WSU’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources, also points out that properly managed grazing can have a beneficial effect on wildlife diversity, increase water infiltration to the soil, and reduce erosion.

"If you can manage to build an entire system," says Kruger, "in theory, you get all the types of benefits that we would see in a functioning natural system."

Nelson also points out that utilizing CRP acres in this way provides opportunities for collaboration between farmers and ranchers and allows them to utilize their lands in new ways by working together to achieve a common goal. The project is not without its challenges. Much of the land being released from CRP has no fencing or water development and the costs associated with providing the needed infrastructure must be spread over several years for the grazing operation to remain viable. Animal transport can also be an added expense, as CRP lands are often interspersed between farmed areas. There are also more variables to consider, such as potential revenue from the sale of carbon credits or hunting leases, so the results thus far are not entirely conclusive. However, the preliminary findings show that revenue to farmers from managed grazing can be competitive with the amount paid out by the government for CRP, and ranchers who market their cattle creatively can see an increased benefit from the use of these lands.

The next phase of the project, if funded, will carry a stronger focus on quantifying the environmental benefits of planned grazing. In particular, biodiversity, levels of carbon sequestration, water infiltration, and soil effects will be examined in greater detail. Five treatment groups will be used, ranging from no use to managed high intensity grazing plans, and cattle performance will be compared against animals grazed in other pasture systems. The project is seeking funding from USDA’s new Agriculture Food Research Initiative program and hopes to continue for another four years. Although funding is not yet secure, few can dispute that the study carries important implications for farmers and ranchers around the West. As Kruger points out, a sizable portion of the 1.5 million acres currently enrolled in CRP in Washington will be coming out over the next two years.

"We need better options to manage that land," he said. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent