Can former CRP be successfully transitioned into good cropland without breaking up the ground?

Rocky Bateman, who farms south of New Salem, N.D., believes that it can be, as long as the soils were not “marginal” to begin with.

“Some former CRP land should just be left in grassland,” said Bateman, who spoke to producers at the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts meeting in Bismarck, N.D., last month.

He pointed out in the first 10 years of the CRP program, most of the land put into CRP was marginal land, but in the later program, it became a “wildlife” program, and the contract paid more for more productive land.

“Pay attention to which kind of land you have in CRP first before trying to renovate it,” he said.

Bateman and others from the Morton County SCD, spoke to Farm Credit Services in 2007 about the upcoming loss of CRP land.

“As loan officers and as an institution, they were concerned about what would happen to CRP, especially with crop prices so high,” Bateman said.

Morton SCD started demonstration plots on a few farms, using the ARS-Mandan crop sequencing model, which helps producers find the best crop to plant following another crop. They also learned how to duplicate the plots to have control plots.

“We have a lot of CRP coming out within the next few years,” Bateman said. “We wanted to show that you could go straight into CRP with no-till and plant a crop.”

The goal of using no-till methods was to disturb the soil as little as possible to preserve the top soil (which is called the armor plate), to protect the root systems important for mineralization which provides free fertilizer, and to have good seed to soil contact.

“Everything we do is to enhance the natural prairie soil profile, keeping all the good things in place that were built up in the soil over 25 years of healing in CRP,” he said.

The natural prairie soil has more than 100 different species growing in it, a combination of both warm and cool season grasses and warm and cool season broad-leaves, according to Bateman.

“One thing the ideal soil profile does not have is tillage,” he said, pointing out land in CRP has built up root systems, increased soil organic matter, restored nutrients and returned natural water cycles. “One tillage can wipe all that out.”

Bateman said no-till has revolutionized farming and restored a lot of land to its best quality.

When no-till began, a lot of companies developed machinery such as disc openers that would make exact seed placement possible and use seed more efficiently, while disturbing the soil as little as possible and keeping more carbon in the soil.

“The competition for one-pass seeding operation equipment put us on the road to restoring soil health,” Bateman said, adding the one-pass system restores water cycles which is important to many farmers in drier areas.

“My limiting factor on my farm was moisture retention. That is not my limiting factor anymore since no-tilling.”

Bateman said he has turned around his own farm with no-till, and suggests the first things farmers need to do is soil test.

“I gather stuff all the time for skills for my production tool box,” he said.

Mentorship is also a huge factor in success, he said.

“I don’t have time to make mistakes and lose crops so I’m trying to mentor under guys who know how to produce, because the cost of inputs is so high,” he said. Bateman takes research information from universities and research farms and uses it on his own farm.

“One of the guys I’m mentoring with said, ‘fix your eyes on the unseen.’ What is unseen, such as what is under the ground, not the crops on top of the ground, is eternal,” he said.

ARS reported black summer fallow soil has 4 inches of water in the top 2 feet available for the next crop while no-till leaving stubble provides up to 7 inches of water in the top 2 feet of soil, Bateman said.

“One inch of moisture will give you 5 bushels of wheat, saves seed and increases production and organic matter,” he said.

In the first year of the demonstration plots, hail basically wiped out crops. The second year, they planted cover crops in one of the plots.

“It came up nicely. Most farms raise monoculture crops, but we wanted to have more diversity in the soil. We can get that with cover crops and speed up the process of making the soil more productive again,” he said.

In the next year, they put in spring wheat “and it took off gangbusters.” However, later on in the season, it did not do so well. What they discovered is it is best to follow a cool-season grass CRP with something besides a cool season crop, and to remember to apply good grassy weed control with chemicals that penetrate the soil.

“You want to put in a warm-season crop or a broadleaf after cool season grasses,” Bateman said. “We found we needed to follow the crop sequential model.”

After putting in a broadleaf crop, the wheat did well the next year.

They also planted other crops which did well on former CRP, including soybeans, field peas and canola.

Residue is also important to keep on the soil because a lot of moisture is lost on bare ground due to evaporation, he added.

However, ARS has found crop sanitation can be an issue. They had cattle graze on a cover crop plot, and planted soybeans the following year. Some of the seed from the cover crops ended up on the soybean ground.

“It is a concern in Australia where the radishes (in the cover crop) have gone wild and are resistant to many chemicals,” Bateman said.

In addition, some decaying residues can be toxic to plants the following year.

After all the demonstration plots and his own work, Bateman said the one thing that remains to be addressed is compaction. While tap roots in cover crops such as sunflowers and radishes do break through some tillage layers, many times the roots will hit compaction and go horizontal, instead of vertical.

“If the soil is in drought, no depth of the root system can break that hard pan,” he added.