Recently, the US Department of Agriculture through the Natural Resources Conservation Service has launched three programs that offer assistance to landowners interested in improving grassland habitats on their properties under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Application deadlines for these programs is approaching fast, and producers considering grassland establishment are encouraged to explore these options before enacting grassland seeding plans. The application deadline for the new Honey Bee Project, the new Prairie Pothole Wetland and Grassland Retention Project (PPWGRP), and the Water Bank Program is April 18th, 2014. Producers are encouraged to visit their local NRCS office for program details.
Honey Bee Project
In recent years, honey bees and honey bee hives have declined dramatically in the US. South Dakota is home to the second largest honey bee industry in the country, and most SD counties host bee hives during the summer months. South Dakota bees are transported throughout various regions of the South during the late summer and winter, assisting in the pollination of food crops at a scale that few of us consider.
In a recent fact sheet USDA outlined several reasons for the decline in honey bee populations (SD-FS-94. January 2014), including:
- Loss of foraging habitat (bee pastures) to cultivated agriculture (non-foraging crops).
- Loss of foraging plants within bee pastures – indiscriminate use of broadleaf herbicides.
- Loss of foraging plants within bee pastures due to lack of (or inappropriate) management (grasses take over and wildflowers cannot compete).
- Honey bee mortality due to indiscriminate use of insecticides or lack of bee-safe Integrated Pest Management.
With the overall decline in honey bees, USDA has acknowledged the need to assist beekeepers and landowners in efforts to retain the honey bee and its vital services. For producers considering converting cropland back to grass or grazing lands, taking advantage of this program could dramatically offset the out-of-pocket expense for grass and forb seed planting with minimal long-term contract commitments. Additionally, the program offers options for up to three years of participation and qualifying landowners may receive payments up to $11,200 annually for ensuring adequate honey bee forage through monitoring. After the expiration of the program, and even during the program years to some degree, the restored grasslands could be utilized for haying and grazing production without any long-term program contracts.
Along with establishing flowering plants to produce nectar for the bees, one objective of the Program is to maintain and improve healthy grazing lands. NRCS recognizes that grazing has a role in maintaining grassland habitats; however, to benefit honey bees, grazing needs to be managed in a manner that encourages honey bee-friendly forage plants. Consequently, use of these acres is necessarily focused on nectar production during the program contract, and any haying or grazing must be avoided during primary flowing period during the contract time period.
For producers looking for an opportunity to expand their grazing lands, this project could be very beneficial. The interesting twist to the Honey Bee Project is that a producer can enroll fields over the course of three years, qualifying annually for seeding cost-share while allowing for the establishment of long-term livestock forages over several fields and ensuring an annual payment on those fields during the establishment year, up to $11,200 annually. This program is open to landowners statewide.
Prairie Pothole Wetland and Grassland Retention Project (PPWGRP): East River ONLY
A second and possibly more appealing program for eastern South Dakota producers interested in establishing grassland for grazing and haying may be the new PPWGRP. Under this program, NRCS will cost share seeding of crop ground to native grasses and forbs. There is no acreage limit on this program. Cost share allowances are generous enough to allow for high-diversity seed mixes that will not only benefit livestock, but will also benefit wildlife in general, including grassland birds and insects. Producers can also opt to participate in additional programs for up to 5 years post planting. These program options include annual grazing management payments (with an approved grazing plan) or higher-rate wildlife habitat payment if grass is managed for wildlife production.
Under this program, producers can utilize NRCS funding to plant grassland buffers around wetlands in crop ground. Water Bank requires that these acres be idled for 10 years.
Under these programs, NRCS will cost share typical EQIP type expenditures such as fencing, water development, etc. While they may not offer enough to convert an entire farm back to grasslands, they do offer an encouraging start for the producer looking to explore options for grassland restoration while not shouldering the full expense of purchasing seed and managing the new stand.