September 16, 2014
On Monday, September 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced 47 new Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) awards, totaling $15.7 million. Recipients include universities, soil and water conservation districts, tribal organizations, resource conservation and development councils, and non-profit organizations. Roughly half of this year’s CIG awards focus on soil health.
The CIG program is administered through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and provides funding to projects encouraging adoption of new technologies and conservation approaches. Recipients must provide at least a one-to-one match to receive funds. Out of 400 applicants, 47 projects in 36 states and the District of Columbia received CIG awards in fiscal year 2014.
In addition to soil health, projects focus on expanding market mechanisms for ecosystem services, supporting the adoption of conservation practices by socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, improving nutrient management, supporting conservation planning, and protecting air quality, among other purposes. You can see the full list of CIG recipients and project descriptions here.
NSAC is proud to announce that two of our member organizations received CIG awards this year. GrassWorks, Inc., a Wisconsin-based organization, will receive $140,000 to promote managed grazing practices among beginning dairy farmers. NRCS describes the GrassWorks project as follows:
The retirement of small and mid-sized dairy farmers and barriers to entry for aspiring farmers is resulting in an increase in large confinement dairy operations. These large dairies can alter local rural economies and rely on a less sustainable corn-based feeding system. Managed dairy grazing is an environmentally positive solution that can provide families with a solid income and lead to stronger rural economies. In managed grazing systems, livestock are rotated through paddocks of high quality grasses and legumes that are allowed to rest and regrow. This cost-effective method works with natural biological systems, relying on perennial forages and the productive capacity of soils. It is not only one of the best predictors of success for start-up farms but it also provides mid-career and retiring farmers with more options for investment and farm transition. This project will use an apprenticeship model to train next-generation farmers in managed grazing.
Additionally, the Wallace Center – Winrock International Institute of Agricultural Development will receive $395,930 to demonstrate the economic and soil health benefits of livestock grazing on cover crops:
Individual farmers have experimented with rotational livestock grazing on cover crops across the country, primarily as a means of improving their financial bottom line. The economic gain associated with this innovative enterprise stacking is estimated at $66 per acre, a figure that does not account for productivity gain or reduced nutrient inputs. Combining rotational grazing and multi-species cover crops also significantly build soil health, increases water infiltration, reduces erosion and increases the productive capacity of the land. This project will establish and monitor approximately 50-acre, side-by-side control and treatment plots within corn fields on eight farms. Demonstrations will span two full years of cropping/cover cropping. Current management practices will be maintained on control plots. On treatment plots, the project team will work with farmers, first to introduce multi-species cover crops and then to strategically release and rotate cattle across the plot, which will graze down and trample the cover. Detailed profit and loss data and soil health and fertility measures on each pair of plots will be collected. All existing analyses indicate this practice will generate more direct revenue than it costs to establish. Over time it will re-build soil health, reducing the need for nutrient inputs, decreasing flooding and erosion, increasing drought tolerance, and ultimately, increasing crop and livestock yields and revenue from a single land base.
The 2014 CIG awards also include several grants that will facilitate on-farm demonstration projects. Oklahoma State University, for example, was awarded $872,000 to work with producers, extension specialists, county educators, conservation district personnel, and NRCS district conservationists in the Southern Plains to develop an on-farm demonstration program. The program will test mechanisms to improve the economic viability of soil health promoting practices, provide protocols for scientifically sound data collection on yield and economic impacts, and develop guidelines for Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) enhancements for producers willing to participate in on-farm demonstration projects.
Under the 2008 Farm Bill, on-farm research and demonstration was a purpose within the CSP; however, when the 2014 Farm Bill removed the purpose from CSP, NSAC successfully proposed that it be included as part of the CIG program. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the FY 2014 projects include producer-led, on-farm research.
In conjunction with the announcement of the FY 2014 awards, NRCS also announced a new project search tool “to enhance the value and adoption of previous CIG results.” During the 2014 Farm Bill debate, NSAC championed a provision to require better reporting of CIG project results, including reporting on how the Agency intends to integrate project findings into its operations. The new tool allows users to search for final reports, fact sheets, and curricula, as well as NRCS integration summaries.
Other projects highlighted in the USDA’s announcement include:
For more information on the CIG program, see the CIG page on the NRCS website.