Expiring contracts on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land offer no-tillers an opportunity to get a jump on the benefits of long-term no-till. 

Speaking at the recent No-till on the Plains Winter Conference in Salina, Kan., Alan Schlegel says no-tilling crops directly into CRP land can be effective while delivering a golden opportunity.

“It really gives you the chance to be in long-term no-till immediately,” the Kansas State University agronomist says. “You get the advantage of maintaining the soil structure that’s been built up in CRP.

“You can’t expect a huge change in soil organic matter from the 10 years or so the ground has been in CRP, but you have a big jump on long-term no-till — and the real benefits we see from no-till are in the long term.”

Weed Challenges

Controlling existing vegetation is the 800-pound gorilla in the room for transitioning CRP acres to crops, Schlegel says. Established perennial grasses and fodder in CRP are formidable foes, and Schlegel cautions that no-tillers should be prepared to make multiple herbicide applications.

The agronomist says he looked at first burning CRP residue to see if it provided a benefit as the first step in the transition to no-tilling crops.

“We found no benefit to burning,” he says. “You have to remember that the High Plains, for example, is short grass country, so the amount of residue is less than it would be in a higher rainfall area where taller grass could inhibit herbicide coverage.

“Here, though, burning was probably detrimental because we lose moisture when we burn and that’s something we can’t afford to do.”

Because most of the target weeds are warm-season species, no-tillers will find mid- to late-summer applications of glyphosate with a tankmix of 2,4-D and dicamba to be the most effective, Schlegel says. Glyphosate will be most efficiently translocated when grasses are actively growing and replenishing root reserves.

But even with the best practices, ground coming out of CRP will not clean up quickly, Schlegel says. “Expect at least a 2-year process to get rid of those grasses. You’ll suppress them the first year, but you probably can’t eliminate them until the second year,” he says.

No-tillers also need to remember that whatever perennial weeds were present when the ground went into CRP will likely be there when it comes out, he adds.

Tillage can be used to control weeds, but that won’t be a quick fix.

“We learned that once you started tillage, you were committed to tillage,” Schlegel says. “One pass is not going to be anywhere near enough to control weeds.”

Cropping Strategies

Schlegel notes that it helps for the first crop coming out of CRP to be one in which in-crop grass herbicides can be utilized.

He says Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, or other varieties or hybrids offering in-crop grass control, give producers the ability to “keep after” the grasses.

A crop like grain sorghum, on the other hand, limits the grower’s weed control options, particularly in no-till situations.

No-tillers planting soybeans should use an inoculant, Schlegel says.

A field where soybeans haven’t been grown in recent years won’t have the rhizobium bacteria needed for the root nodulation that fixes atmospheric nitrogen.

Another good cropping option for no-tillers who opt for an “early out” of their CRP contract would be planting wheat next fall after making multiple herbicide applications during the summer.

“Because the plants we want to control are mainly warm-season species, wheat can be very competitive in the cool season,” Schlegel says. “You’re still going to have some of those grasses out there, but the wheat will suppress them and it has the potential to do fairly well.”

Need Nitrogen

Fertility is another major issue when transitioning CRP ground to crop production, especially if corn is the first crop. Expect this land to be very low in nitrogen, the agronomist cautions.

Grasses will have used up most of the available nitrogen, and the decomposing residue will keep the nitrogen it contains tied up for a period of time.

“The reason a lot of this land went into CRP in the first place was because the soils were eroded,” Schlegel notes. “They may have been nitrogen deficient going in and they’re going to be nitrogen deficient coming out. “We definitely need to increase that nitrogen rate the first year and it would be a good idea to avoid broadcast applications because of an increased risk of immobilization of nitrogen.”

No-tillers transitioning CRP ground to crop production are going to face additional costs and reduced yield prospects in the first year out of the program.

As a result, Schlegel advises that no-tillers negotiate adjustments in their rental agreements with landlords.

He also urges no-tillers to check with their local Farm Services Agency for regulations regarding early out practices.