The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) offers several improvements over the old Conservation Security Program, including continuous signup with a first program cutoff deadline of Sept. 30.

That’s according to Steve Parkin, USDA-NRCS conservation stewardship program management specialist, who explained the program during a recent Webinar sponsored by the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance.

Signup began Aug. 10 and requires each potential applicant to fill out a three-page self-screening checklist available at NRCS field offices. The first round of applications will be verified and approved by Nov. 30.

Now available nationwide, the program also added non-industrial private forestland as an eligible land. “The old security program was only available in limited watersheds on very limited signup schedules, so we think with nationwide availability, we’ve got a greater opportunity to deliver conservation benefits,” Parkin said.

The new CSP shifts decision-making to the state level, he added. “We’re allocating acres and associated funds down to state conservationists to manage. Those state conservationists will be working with local work groups … to identify resource concerns that are of a priority for their state or geographic areas of their state.

“Those geographic areas then become the ranking pools and folks within those areas would compete against other producers in that geographic area who share the same resource concerns and challenges,” Parkin said.

The program is authorized for 12.8 million acres per year through 2017 and also allows participants to be involved in multiple contracts at a given time as long as they’re not exceeding the program payment limitation.

Another improvement is the conservation measurement tool, Parkin said. “The old security program had several different eligibility tools that we were required to work producers through – the soil and water eligibility tool, wildlife habitat eligibility tool and grazing-land eligibility tool. Well, this new conservation measurement tool is going to combine the function of those past tools … inventorying resources for existing systems to arrive at a performance level. We’re also going to look at the new activities that producers are willing to undertake and assign them a conservation performance score.”

The scores will be combined to come up with a conservation performance score to be used to determine eligibility and ranking scores. Funding decisions will be based on those ranking scores and the conservation performance scoring will determine payments.

Two types of payments for conservation performance-level improvements include 1) an annual payment for existing and new activities and 2) a supplemental payment available on cropland to participants receiving annual payments who also adopt a resource-conserving crop rotation.

Such rotations reduce wind and water erosion; improve soil organic matter, tilth and fertility; interrupt pest cycles; and protect habitat, says Norm Widman, NRCS national agronomist who also spoke during the NAFA Webinar.

“Each state has developed a list of resource-conserving crops,” Widman said. Resource-conserving crops are defined as: 1) a perennial grass, legume or grass-legume mixture grown for use as forage, seed for planting or green manure; 2) a high-residue-producing crop (such as corn, rice or wheat); or 3) a cover crop following an annual crop.

Resource-conserving crop rotations must be implemented by the third year of a CSP contract on at least a third of the rotation acres and grown at least three years of the contract. The resource-conserving crops must be planted on all rotation acres before the fifth year.

“You can simply add two crops in your rotation: an annual crop and then a perennial crop that lasts at least two years. So if you had corn one year and alfalfa two years, that would be a resource-conserving crop rotation,” Widman said.

A second option would be a two-year rotation of two different crops, such as corn and soybeans. “But when you only have two crops, (with no perennial crop) one of those crops needs to be followed by a cover crop. And the cover crop is not harvested or the residue removed from that cover crop. For instance, if you were growing a rye cover crop after soybeans, you would not graze it or harvest the forage the following spring. It would be either tilled into the soil or chemically killed and no-tilled into,” he said.

“The third rotation option is to have a minimum of three different crops. If you’re not able to grow a perennial, you have three different crops where at least one-half of that rotation would have these crops that we consider resource-conserving.” An example rotation could include one year of grain corn and one year of wheat grown for grain followed by double-crop soybeans.

The next program cutoff period will be in mid-January, Parkin added. “We’re going to hope to get these contracts obligated early enough in the year to where producers can make management decisions and get their activities applied.”

Go to NAFA to listen to the entire half-hour Webinar.