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Thune, Klobuchar introduce bill to bolster USDA conservation program

Matthew Grunig, SD GF&P

Republican Sen. John Thune and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar have introduced legislation to bolster the Conservation Reserve Program.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Improvement Act would increase the annual CRP payment cap from $50,000, established in 1985, to $125,000 to account for inflation and rising land value.

That's something South Dakota's state coordinator with Pheasants Forever, Matt Morlock, said is overdue.

"What this bill does is it proposes raising that cap to $125,000, which would catch up to inflation. So the same amount of acres you can enroll in 1985, you can enroll again," Morlock said. "You can't ask a producer to donate their land, you know, they're trying to find livelihoods for themselves.”

South Dakota ranchers said the bill offers more flexibility — with most contracts allowing about one-third of the acres enrolled to be grazed each year.

Eric Jennings, president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, said the bill provides funds for the rotational grazing infrastructure needed to do that — like fencing.

"Last year was a dry year, and we had a lot of livestock, including cattle, leave the state in search of forage. We'd like to get more acres opened up and ideally, keep cattle in the state," Jennings said. "There are also benefits for grasses and wildlife when grazing."

The CRP Improvement Act is different than the USDA’s popular Grassland CRP program because that CRP option allows farmers to mow hay or graze all their enrolled acres each year.

But not everyone is convinced the shift toward grazing traditional CRP land is the right move. Retired Game, Fish and Parks chief biologist, George Vandel, said upland bird habitat takes three years to develop.

"It's good from about three years to seven years. After seven years, the quality starts to decline. So that's the bread and butter for pheasant nesting, is year three through year seven," Vandel said.

While net CRP enrollments have recently reached levels not seen since the late 1990s, much of the land is enrolled in that Grassland CRP program. The result is a decrease in the quality of habitat on overall CRP acres.

Grasslands enrolled in any type of conservation program help sequester carbon while increasing resilience to drought and flooding.

The World Wildlife Fund released a report showing the Great Plains lost over 2.5 million acres of grassland from 2018 to 2019.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.