Possible solutions for habitat crisis include farming grasslands, growing more winter wheat

The hand driving the plow that converts grassland to cropland is the unseen hand of the market in classical economics: At the end of the day it’s more profitable to plow up Conservation Reserve Program lands and even native sod to plant corn or soybeans.

But critics say that’s the short-term view that looks only at immediate financial rewards without taking into consideration the long-term consequences of bartering away resources such as fragile soil and wildlife habitat that also have value. And they say federal farm policies on issues such as crop insurance – and even the Renewable Fuels Standard that helps increase the demand for corn to make ethanol – are skewing the factors that enter into farmers’ decisions to convert grassland into crops.

Over the past few years several suggestions have been tossed around to combat the market conditions driving the conversion. Some look at reforming the system incentivizing the disappearance of grassland. Others say farmers can plant a profitable crop that will help wildlife displaced by vanishing habitat. And there is even an emerging discussion about what it means to farm, and whether managing the prairie ecosystem as homesteaders first found it – as a grassland – might provide new profit centers to help some producers stay on the land.

Legislative solutions

Conservation organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, have taken the legislative route, supporting elements for the next Farm Bill including tying crop insurance to conservation compliance and a national “sodsaver” program.

As written into the Senate drafts of the Farm Bill this year, farmers would have to meet certain conservation qualifications in order to collect crop insurance. Such conditions would include refraining from draining farmed wetlands or cultivating highly erodible soil that was not already cropland in 1985 without a basic soil conservation plan.

Eric Lindstrom, a government affairs representative with Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, N.D., said the group is in favor of strong crop insurance, but doesn’t want it to incentivize poor land use decisions that encourage wetland drainage and habitat destruction.

“What we don’t want to do is create these perverse incentives where you provide this risk management tool,” he said.

Lindstrom said tying in conservation requirements to crop insurance would be a fair deal between taxpayers and farmers, since conservation provides some public benefits for the taxpayers’ ongoing support of agriculture. Currently, the public pays for slightly less than two-thirds of the crop insurance premium costs nationwide and 67 percent of those premiums in the Dakotas.

The sodsaver program, one of the group’s preferred solutions, would reduce crop insurance support by 50 percent yield for the first four years on newly converted land. They would also only be able to use 65 percent of the transition yield, or the yield that they have to prove on their crop ground, for that same period of time. The program was part of the “Protect Our Prairies Act” sponsored by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and Tim Walz, D-Minn. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has put forward a similar provision in the Senate.

Noem said she introduced the legislation to find an equitable way to discourage the conversion of cropland in order to harvest more money from crop insurance. If farmers knew they would only receive part of the normal subsidies, they would think twice about breaking up native grassland, she said.

“I wanted to make sure that when that was being done, it was being done for the right reasons, not because of potentially making some money off of crop insurance the first few years that it would be farmed,” she said.

Lindstrom said under the program anyone is free to convert native sod if they want to, but there wouldn’t be a tax incentive to do so or hedge their risk.

Ducks Unlimited is also looking to expand a voluntary grassland and wetland easement program, which pays farmers to keep their grasslands sod-side up and wetlands intact, he said. The program is paid through a variety of sources, including money spent on duck stamps. While Ducks Unlimited supports the program, the easements are held and monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The initiative has proven popular. Thousands of people in the Dakotas are already utilizing the program. About 900 additional landowners – holding potential easements worth about $150 million – are on a waiting list, Lindstrom said.

Prairie surrogate

Ducks Unlimited is also encouraging the production of winter wheat as economically and ecologically sound alternative for farmers. In areas where farmers are turning Conservation Reserve Program lands back into crops, for example, winter wheat would provide some of the same type of habitat for displaced wildlife.

As there is no spring cultivation, there is no disturbance of the cover while birds are nesting, leading to a high population of birds in winter wheat. For example, research has shown duck nesting in winter wheat is 24 times greater than in spring-seeded crops, Lindstrom said.

Chuck Dieter, a professor of zoology at South Dakota State University, spent two summers studying pheasant populations in the Presho and Kennebec areas. Like Lindstrom, Dieter said wheat was a good surrogate, if not exactly an equivalent replacement.

The SDSU study showed it was not the birds’ first choice, but was preferred over other habitat options.

“If they didn’t nest in grass, they always nested in winter wheat,” he said.

Nesting success in winter wheat was about equal to that of natural grassland, Dieter said.

Ducks Unlimited has agronomists on staff to talk with producers about working winter wheat into their rotation. Their cause was helped this year because a wet spring and high number of prevent-plant land in North Dakota. The state is likely to see between 700,000 and 750,000 acres of winter wheat planted for 2014, one of the highest levels in the past six years.

Randy Englund, the executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission, said that while South Dakota has not seen the same amount of prevent plant acres, seed sales for winter wheat are up and total acres planted could rival or beat last year’s 1.25 million acres.

Farming grassland

While some are backing incentives and legislative solutions to protect grasslands or encourage conservation, others say one way to help address the habitat crisis is by radically changing the nature of farming itself. Their idea is that what the prairie wants to do is grow grass, and so there may be opportunities for producers to use carefully managed grassland as the money-maker on some farm operations instead of viewing it merely as vegetation to be replaced by cash crops.

W. Carter Johnson is the chair of EcoSun Prairie Farms, a 600-acre experimental agricultural operation near Brookings. He and others started the farm six years ago to see if money could be made from natural grasslands. Grasslands already provide benefits for producers by holding soil, purifying water and providing food and cover for wildlife; but EcoSun wants to find out if managing grass would be financially viable for farmers as well.

Johnson, who is also a professor of ecology at SDSU, said the farm turns a profit through three main channels. The first is turning various grasses into hay; EcoSun sold 564 large round bales to individual customers last year. There is also a thriving market for native plant seed, of which the farm sold 13,000 pounds in 2012.

Another way Johnson and his team are using it is for grass-fed beef. A ranch near Eagle Butte brings yearling to the farm, which are then raised entirely on their grass. EcoSun sells between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of beef to individuals and local restaurants, Johnson said.

Future revenue streams could be from agricultural tourism, or from hunting parties. They’ve also made some promising inroads into harvesting biofuels from their non-traditional crop. Such cellulosic ethanol is viewed as the biofuel of the future.

“Almost everything you can get from coal you can get from grass,” Johnson said.

For 2012 the farm netted a respectable $60,000 a year. While admitting that is below what a farmer could currently bring in harvesting corn on a similarly sized farm, Johnson said if corn prices drop to $4.50 a bushel the profits would be roughly the same.

It’s definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme, he said, but it’s a way to earn a profit without having to rely on government subsidies. The input costs are also much lower than a traditional setup and a farmer doesn’t need to be too concerned about rain or cold temperatures.

Johnson said what a farm like EcoSun offers is a different lifestyle. Young farmers can start an operation for relatively cheap and smaller farms can make a decent living growing something other than corn or soybeans. Native grasses could also be planted in strips around other crops on larger farms where erosion and water retention is a concern, he said.


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