NSAC's Blog

USDA Grasslands Initiative Expanding in States with Highest Losses

December 6, 2016


Cattle grazing in pasture. Photo credit: Ryan Thompson.


At the end of just its second sign up period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Grasslands Initiative has enrolled over 600,000 acres of vulnerable grazing land across the country. Strong support for the Grasslands Initiative so early on is a positive sign, but high variability in participation amongst the states with the highest grasslands losses indicates that more outreach may be needed.

Farmers and ranchers enrolled roughly 101,000 acres during the first sign up period and nearly 505,000 acres during the second sign up. The third sign up period is ongoing until December 16.

According to USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA), which administers the program, over 70 percent of the acres enrolled through the second sign up period were enrolled by beginning farmers, veterans, and underserved producers. While this number is significantly lower than the 97 percent of enrollments under the first ranking period, the result is impressive for the first years of a program, and we commend FSA for focusing on these underserved groups.

The majority of acres enrolled in the second sign up period came from states and counties where grasslands are at very high risk of being converted to cropland or for development purposes. By far, the greatest conversion in 2015 occurred in Texas, which ranked sixth in the country for the number of acres enrolled (27,857) in the Grasslands Initiative during the second ranking period. Among the other states with the highest grassland losses in 2015, Montana and North Dakota ranked among the top ten states in terms of acres enrolled (fifth and ninth, respectively), while Kansas ranked ninth in terms of the number of contracts signed (78 contracts covering nearly 11,000 acres).

The top ten states in terms of acres enrolled are:

State Number of Acres Number of Contracts
Nebraska 122,218 606
South Dakota 96,009 364
Colorado 52,726 146
New Mexico 50,644 105
Montana 41,914 233
Texas 27,857 93
Oregon 20,116 28
Idaho 16,949 3
North Dakota 16,693 78
Wyoming 11,990 15

The top two states for both enrolled acres and number of contracts, Nebraska and South Dakota, were also the two highest performing states in the first Grasslands Initiative enrollment period. A number of factors no doubt contributed to the significant disparity in enrollment numbers amongst the top states –one factor is likely the level of outreach conducted by each state’s FSA office. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) encourages all state FSA offices to reach out to farmers and ranchers about this important conservation opportunity, and will continue to work with FSA and with our member groups across the country to promote the Initiative.

As we reported previously, America has been losing its grasslands at an alarming rate, with devastating consequences for the environment and for native species. According to a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund, as much as 53 million acres of grassland were converted to cropland between 2009 and 2015 in the Great Plains alone. The loss of grasslands is not only devastating for the environment, however. It also has long-term, negative impacts on ranchers and hunters, and for rural communities that depend on grasslands for flood prevention and water filtration.

The CRP Grasslands Initiative, while small relative to the need, is an important tool in USDA’s conservation toolbox. Through the Initiative, FSA offers 15-year contracts to help livestock producers protect their grazing lands. The program considers a variety of factors when ranking applications, including whether the land is at high risk of conversion and whether or not the cover consists of diverse mixes of native grasses.

Open Enrollment Period

The third ranking period for the Grasslands Initiative is ongoing and ends on December 16. For this ranking period, FSA is reserving up to 200,000 acres for the enrollment of small, grass-based dairy operations that have 100 or fewer head of dairy cows. Operations that meet this and the general eligibility criteria for CRP Grasslands can apply to enroll up to 200 acres of grass. See our Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs for full eligibility information and other program details.

The deadline for smaller-scale dairy operations to sign up for this new opportunity is December 16, 2016. However, successful applicants will not actually be enrolled in the program until October 1, 2017, which is the start of the 2018 fiscal year.

Small livestock operations or other farming and ranching operations interested in participating in CRP’s Grasslands Initiative should contact their local FSA office. To find your local FSA office, visit http://offices.usda.gov.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs

Comments are closed.