North Dakota rancher Gabe Brown found that he can make more money converting his Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land into pasture than collecting the program payment.

Five years ago, Brown bought a 120-acre parcel of land adjacent to some of his ranch's native pastureland. The CRP contract on the newly obtained land was set to expire in two years. When it expired, Brown decided not to re-enroll the land, turning down a $26/acre CRP payment.

“It's not highly productive farmland,” says Brown, a Burleigh County Soil Conservation District supervisor. “It has rolling hills. I thought I could make more money off it by grazing it rather than farming it.”

When the CRP contract expired, the parcel was about 98% smooth bromegrass and 2% alfalfa. After its third year of sustainable, planned management, the pasture now is roughly 85% smooth brome and 15% alfalfa.

“I had taken cropland and converted it to tame grass systems before, but I had never converted CRP land to pasture prior to this 120 acres,” Brown says.

He divided the converted land into six 20-acre paddocks.

“We want to give the land as much recovery time as possible,” he notes. “So the converted CRP land was only grazed eight days per paddock in 2004.”

Brown's 250 purebred Gelbvieh cow-calf pairs are only allowed one bite off each plant, leaving a uniform clip across pastures.

“The cows do that selectively, because the lush part of the plant is on the top,” he adds. “We don't rotate according to calendar. It's all visual.”

A rotational grazing system like Brown's can prove very profitable, even on converted CRP land. Brown's numbers show that it cost $13,312 to convert the 120-acre parcel, with the well and pressure tank being the bulk of the expense at $5,370.

The pipe, tanks, posts, wires and clips cost a total of $4,498 and the wiring came to $420. Labor costs were just over $3,000. Adding a land charge, loan amortization and annual fees, including taxes, brings the annual cost to $54.31/acre.

In 2005, 70 cow-calf pairs grazed the converted land from June 16 to July 16. At an average daily gain of 2.98 lbs, the calves gained 208 lbs/day for a total gain of 6,448 lbs for the 31 days. Then 121 cow-calf pairs grazed it for 12 days from Aug. 16 to 27. Calf gain was 361 lbs/day and 4,332 lbs for the grazing period.

When the 10,780 lbs of gain for the year (4,332 + 6,448) is multiplied by the $1.25/lb value of the calves, the total income from the 120 acres is $13,475 or $112.29/acre. Subtract the $54.31/acre breakeven cost, and net income for the year is $57.98/acre or $6,957.60 for the entire parcel.

“At the end of the grazing season, there was plenty of forage left standing,” says Brown. “This is important because we rely on snow-catch for some of our moisture and we need residue to protect the soil.

“The further we get into this pasture system, the healthier the plants become and we can increase the stocking density,” he says. “I think we can double our profit down the road.”

Brown currently owns 1,400 acres and leases an additional 2,600 acres for a total of 4,000. He has 2,200 acres of pastureland, plus he raises 800 acres of alfalfa and smaller amounts of corn, forage peas, barley and oats.

His strategy of using a high stocking density for a short period has allowed him to increase production four-fold, while simultaneously improving plant health and diversity. But he cautions that it takes many years to build a healthy plant system.

Before Brown bought the ranch, it had three pastures that could support only 65 cow-calf pairs and 20 yearlings. The previous owner had let the cattle graze large areas over long periods. That was in 1991. Today it's divided into four pasture systems containing a total of 37 pastures, where the 250 cow-calf pairs and 50 yearlings graze.

Continuous grazing moved the wildlife out and hurt the pasture's root system, he says. Recently awarded the Environmental Stewardship Award for North Dakota by the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, Brown says deer, ducks, pheasants, grouse and other wildlife now flourish on his property.

Wildlife is more plentiful on the former CRP land, too.

“The numbers and diversity of wildlife have increased significantly over when the land was enrolled in CRP,” he says. “Idle CRP acres are not as beneficial to wildlife as land that is in a properly managed, planned grazing system.”