Landowners face decisions on conservation lands
Many Conservation Reserve Program contracts are due to expire this September, and landowners need to give careful consideration as to what comes next for once highly erodible land, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.
The land put into the federal program commonly called CRP in the mid-1980s provided permanent grassy cover on this relatively poor cropland, which was a tremendous benefit to wildlife, said Ken Cearley, AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist.
Approximately 36 million acres are currently in the program in the U.S., about 4 million acres of that in Texas, much of it in the High Plains.
"Landowners today find themselves at a crossroads because their contracts may be expiring fairly soon, and they know they can either re-enroll or break that land back out," Cearley said. "If you choose to return the land to farmland, you can expect a significant decrease in its value for wildlife."
There are a few things a landowner can do, however, to ameliorate some of the loss of wildlife habitat, he said. For example, grain farmers can leave stubble as high and as long as possible in the field for cover, as well as leave waste grain on the surface.
Cearley advised landowners to also think about leaving waterways and drainage areas in grass, as well as leaving a wide band of grass around playas and around field perimeters.
"If you keep the field in grass, you need to go through the mental exercise of deciding what your priorities are. Are you mainly interested in wildlife, livestock or a combination of the two?" he said.
If the land is grazed without any kind of modification, landowners can expect to see brush encroachment in many parts of the state, he said. Denser brush favors white-tailed deer, lesser brush favors mule deer, and very little to no brush might favor pronghorns, for example.
"You can enhance the field by modifying that brush," Cearley said. "You might want to encourage some brush if your goal is to have white-tailed deer. Or you might need to control some of that brush if you're thinking about quail production, because quail can get by on 10 to 15 percent brush cover in many areas."
DeDe Jones, AgriLife Extension risk management specialist, said landowners choosing to develop the land for wildlife enhancement could see some increased land values and additional income potential in the form of hunting and fishing leases.
AgriLife Extension recommends six practices to benefit wildlife on former CRP land: controlled grazing, interseeding of forbs and additional grass species, prescribed burning, woody plantings, invasive brush management and fall/winter strip-disking.
"It may seem a little cost prohibitive at first when you think about developing former CRP land for wildlife; however, there are several government cost-share programs available," she said.
Those include the Grassland Reserve Program, Wetland Reserve Program (if there is a playa lake on the CRP land) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. Any of these programs can help offset the wildlife-development expenses, Jones said.
"There is a lot of income available out there if you develop your land for wildlife," she said.
The Texas A&M Real Estate Center estimates an additional increase of about $75 per acre in land value if it is developed for wildlife, Jones said.
She said a Tulia hunting operation told her they would see a profit of about $150 per gun during dove and pheasant seasons. Additionally, a Canadian ranching operation, offering a whole hunting experience to six to eight hunters a year, indicated it would net about $10,000 a year off that hunting enterprise.
"The potential definitely exists to increase your overall land value as well as get a little bit of income off these former CRP lands that you develop for wildlife," Jones said. "Choosing to develop former CRP land for wildlife can be very beneficial to the land, the water, the wildlife and maybe even a landowner's pocketbook."
She did advise landowners to do a careful economic analysis in the form of partial budgeting to look at the benefits of developing the land versus the expenses before making any decisions.
Patrick Warminski, AgriLife Extension risk management specialist, said one of the most important things to consider when making decisions about what to do with the land involves the economic costs associated with conversion.
If the choice has been made to put it back into a crop production, the landowner typically will be looking at a dryland wheat or grain sorghum crop in the Panhandle. "The first thing you have to do is remove the grasses, which will require the use of several different tillage trips," Warminski said.
For a dryland wheat crop, the landowner can expect to spend between $130 and $160 per acre; and for a dryland grain sorghum crop, the cost will be between $190 to $210 per acre, he said. "And that's just going to be to get the land back suitable enough to plant those two crops."
If the decision has been made to use the land for a livestock grazing operation, it may be necessary to remove the old grass and forage with a prescribed burn and apply fertilizer to encourage new growth. The expected cost of that process is about $40 to $60 per acre, Warminski said.
Two other aspects to consider are fence repair and possible water well repair or water well drilling, he said. If the fence is in bad shape, to upgrade to a five-strand barbed wire fence will cost about $6,400 per mile, including gates and corner posts.
For a windmill, the expected cost will range from $20,000 to $44,000, and a submersible pump with electricity will run in the neighborhood of $16,000 to $30,000, Warminski said.
"We know overall through the years CRP has been a valuable contributor to wildlife habitat in country that was formerly cropland," Cearley said. "We can see that benefit continue if we decide to keep our country in grass and manage it with good land stewardship in mind."
Landowners wanting more information on decisions concerning CRP land, as well as recommended budgets and frequency of management practices, can go to http://agrilifebookstore.org to find three publications in the "After the Conservation Reserve Program" series.
The publications are "Land Management with Wildlife in Mind," "Economic Decisions with Wildlife in Mind" and "Economic Decisions with Farming and Grazing in Mind."