It has been announced that 54 Nebraska counties are authorized for emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for 2013 due to drought conditions. Eligible producers who are interested in grazing CRP under the emergency authorization and current CRP participants, who choose to provide land for grazing to an eligible livestock producer, must first request approval to graze eligible acreage through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and obtain a modified conservation plan from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that includes grazing requirements.
Utilizing CRP for grazing provides both some challenges and opportunities. The following are some things to think through when deciding whether or not to use CRP for grazing.
Availability of water on CRP acres is going to be the first concern. The water requirements for a cow-calf pair in July can be close to 25 gallons per day. Hauling water to cattle can be very expensive, but may be a viable option when compared to the cost of feeding harvested feed. Early weaning calves and grazing dry cows on CRP acres may be a better option for producers where water availability is limited or will need to be hauled.
Forage quality is going to be the second possible concern. Depending upon when the CRP acres were last grazed or hayed and the species of grasses and legumes that are present, there may be a lot of old grass growth present that will be low in quality. If most of the feed that is present is old growth, it is likely that some supplemental protein and energy may be needed. This is especially true for replacement heifers and young cows with calves at side that have high nutrient requirements. It is important that cows going into and through the breeding season not be on a decreasing plan of nutrition. Cows that are rapidly losing weight prior to and through the breeding season will likely have decreased conception rates. Supplementing cows on low quality forage with adequate protein and energy to maintain cow body condition score through the breeding season is an important consideration when grazing CRP.
Efficient utilization of available forage in CRP will be the third concern. Depending upon the species of grass present, there can be a lot of old, brittle standing forage present in a CRP stand. This old growth forage can easily be knocked down and trampled by cattle and thus be lost to grazing. Examining ways to strip graze or partition out forage to reduce loss due to trampling may be beneficial to efficiently utilizing the grass that is present.
Being able to utilize these CRP acres for grazing under current drought conditions provides rangelands with a critical rest and provides cattle producers with much needed forage. Cow-calf producers should consider ways to take advantage of this opportunity.