A new program that gives conservation-conscious forage growers an edge over row-crop farmers is one of several federal programs growers should investigate, says Paul Flynn, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) resource conservationist based in St. Paul, MN.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is “the most exciting program that we’ve had in quite a while,” Flynn told those attending the Midwest Forage Association Risk-Reduction Summit last month.

“This is a program where you as a livestock producer or forage producer generally should score and compete pretty well and have a fair opportunity in getting a contract from CSP,” he added.
The signup deadline is Jan. 7 for the 2011 contract period. But the program has been legislated through 2016, so interested growers can prepare for the 2012 signup deadline, Jan. 7, 2011.

CSP is voluntary, but an entire farm is enrolled. Each state is allowed a certain amount of funding, and growers compete based on how many points they earn for what they have done well – and what conservation practices they will introduce into their operations.

Past programs have paid people to fix what they were doing wrong, said Harlan Anderson, a Cokato, MN, farmer who utilized the CSP program last year.

“This program is designed to reward and support and encourage the people who are farming right and encourage them to do more of it right,” he added.

Growers answer questions on their cropping and pasturing practices.

“Based on what you’re already doing, you’re given a benchmark score with the measurement tool, and a score for your cropland and hay land and pasture, based on how much additional conservation you’re willing to do. Those folks who score the most points are the folks who are offered the conservation contracts for CSP,” Flynn explained.

Anderson agreed to recycle his motor oil and split-apply nitrogen fertilizer.

Minnesota crop payments are generally $20-25/acre, while pasture payments range from $8 to $15 and forestland, $3-8, Flynn said.

“CSP offers a supplemental payment on those acres that you apply a resource-conserving crop rotation to. A resource-conserving crop rotation, by definition in the stewardship program, is the production of forage. If you already have a forage rotation, you would have to agree to lengthen the amount of years that you keep the rotation in forage.”

Growers at the meeting were concerned about adding a year to a forage rotation when studies have shown that can bring lower yields. Flynn answered that the program is paying for the environmental benefits of longer rotations.

“What this program is trying to do, and it is still being built, is measure what’s the environmental benefit of having a fourth of your land in forage production for three years vs. the environmental benefit of having a fourth of your land in forage production for four years,” he said.

The program is an attempt by Congress to change the way farmers are paid for production, Flynn said. “Instead of paying based on the number of acres that they plant of the seven crops (approved for deficiency payments), or the number of bushels that they grow of those crops, Congress is investigating if we could pay farmers based on the conservation that they apply to the land.”

The U.S. would then be on par with other countries interested in world trade that have agreed not to subsidize production, he added.

Flynn discussed two other programs that can benefit forage producers:

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), is called a “help-the-farmer-fix-it-up program,” Flynn said. “If you have a gully or a resource problem, we have either financial incentives or basically some way to help you establish a solution to that problem.”

EQIP may be able to pay up to 75% of the cost of improvements. “It’s a flat rate but based roughly on what the landowner and we see is a 75% payment.”

Farmers who want to move toward contour strip cropping, improve pasture management or implement pasture systems have utilized this program.

NRCS accepts EQIP applications on a continuous basis, but establishes application deadline dates for evaluation and ranking of eligible applications.

The Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) takes existing pastureland and pays producers to keep grazing that land. “It’s a working-lands program, which makes it a lot different from CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), which is a retirement program,” Flynn said.

Landowners and operators may enroll land in the GRP under 10-, 15- or 20-year permanent easements or contracts. Submit applications to NRCS or the Farm Service Agency any time during the year. To locate an NRCS office, visit offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app.