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Published June 29, 2010, 01:17 PM

Ohio crew’s custom CRP is guaranteed

FORMAN, N.D. — A custom planting company operating in the region offers a “results-based warranty” on its work in seeding native grasses on Conservation Reserve Program and is going gangbusters in southeast North Dakota counties.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FORMAN, N.D. — A custom planting company operating in the region offers a “results-based warranty” on its work in seeding native grasses on Conservation Reserve Program and is going gangbusters in southeast North Dakota counties.

The Wild Rice Soil and Water Conservation District in Forman, N.D., taking orders from January to early May, had lined up 100 contracts with producers to seed CRP contracts through FDCE. This year, FDCE hoped to plant all of them — some 8,400 acres through mid-June. The counties are Sargent and western Richland, as well as Marshall County in South Dakota.

“FDCE supplies a full-service deal,” says Trace Hanson, a district technician who coordinates Section 319 activities in the Clean Water Act for Sargent County.

She says the program has been popular with retired landowners as well as with active farmers who are concentrating on their crop acres.

“It’s exciting to go out and watch them do their job, how smooth it seems to run for them,” Hanson says.

FDCE specializes in the custom-seeding of finicky native grass seeds. The company machines are designed to be nimble, moving from contract to contract within a 100-mile region.

One big feature: The company promises that if not enough native grasses are established at the two-year mark, its crews will be back and reseed free of charge.

“We actually have a warranty that says if that 80 percent of a field doesn’t have at least two plants per square foot after the second growing season, we’ll come back and plant it free of charge to the landowner, even if it’s due to drought or flooding,” says Tom Schwartz, national marketing manager for the company.

CRP’s big shift

Tom Jones, district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is responsible for technical support in conservation programs in Sargent County. He can’t endorse FDCE, but he explains the factors that brought it here.

Sargent County is dense with prairie pothole wetlands, he says.

“We’ve seen a shift in the way CRP is working down here,” Jones says.

CRP contract rent rates from the government were relatively low.

Historically, the program has attracted large contracts — quarter- and half-sections — but many landowners let their earlier CRP contracts expire in 2007 and 2008 so that they could raise crops of high commodity prices. More are coming out every year.

Like everyone else, farmers who put CRP land back into crops have run into excessive moisture, often having difficulty getting corn, soybeans or wheat established.

“They’ve had issues with the insurance companies over prevent-plant insurance and have been looking for other options,” Jones says.

The county has 440,000 cropland acres, and in 2009, farmers were unable to plant 84,000 of them because of excess water. Comparatively, there were 23,000 acres of CRP in the county.

“We’ve seen a good amount of CRP come out of the program, and at the same time, we’ve been signing new acres back into these areas around wetlands using the continuous signup.” One reason for the increase was that 18 months ago, CRP rental rates went up. In addition, the compensation rates for some of the “incentive practices” went up, too.

Tall seed order

Sargent County is on the western edge of the so-called tall-grass prairie. That borders the mid-grass prairie, which historically went from east of the James River to the Missouri River, where the so-called short-grass prairie begins.

The tall-grass ecosystem to the east originally had shoulder-high grasses that thrived on the greater amount of moisture available there, Jones says. About 90 percent of that grass has been lost because the same kind of land also grew crops that the pioneering farmers sought.

“We’re trying to take these marginal lands that have been so wet out of production, trying to put them back into a tall-grass ecosystem,” Jones says.

One of the ongoing issues for CRP contract holders is how to get the native grass seeded adequately.

Some conservation districts own drills made for the purpose, but the CRP practices haven’t been popular enough for individual producers or all conservation districts to own one, Jones says. Typically, farmers have used their machines to seed CRP.

“The native grass seed is very fluffy, though, very chaffy and it doesn’t flow through the drill very well,” Jones says. “We’ve had trouble getting producers to be willing to go through the hassle of trying to seed some of these native grasses.”

Last November, Jones was sitting in his office in Forman when Schwartz walked through the door. Schwartz had heard about Sargent County having a significant signup for the Wetlands Reserve Program and was wondering about seeding some of those.

Jones had something else in mind.

CRP’s opportunity

The WRP, Jones says, offers a one-time payment on a 30-year easement — something like a CRP program with a lump sum paid upfront, as Jones describes it. In the WRP, landowners must seed a native mix to qualify.

The WRP program involves about 3,000 acres in Sargent County, Jones says, but the CRP is far bigger. CRP contract-holders aren’t required to be native mixes, but there are significant benefits to producers — if they make the native grasses stick.

“With the normal CRP plantings around here, they use one or two species of introduced grasses and one or two species of forbs,” Jones says. “For us, that’s often intermediate wheat grass, switchgrass, alfalfa and sweet clover mix. The nice thing about that mix is that it’ll flow through the seeder easily. These guys can use the same machines for planting CRP as they do for planting wheat.”

The downside of these limited seed mixes is that the plant community isn’t as diverse as when it’s seeded with native grasses.

“You end up with more weed pressure,” Jones says. “You don’t have enough species to grow on all soil types. One spot of soil may be a little saltier, for example, and another has a different chemistry. With an ordinary CRP mix, you don’t have the grasses that take advantage and do the very best on each spot. You’re not filling all of the ecological niches.”

Filling the niches

Schwartz says FDCE was started in 2003 by its owner, Fred D. Circle, who was in the agricultural spraying business. It became one of 43 companies worldwide to be Quality Vegetation Management certified through BASF Corp. and is the only one in the program that specializes in native grass establishment.

FDCE operates in 18 states and is mostly in conservation seeding work. It also is one of five entities awarded a grant from the Department of Energy to work in cellulosic energy research, including biomass for direct combustion and cellulosic ethanol, but 85 percent of its business is in the conservation seeding.

Schwartz, a former director for Pheasants Forever in Illinois, joined the company three years ago. His earlier work made him familiar with conservation programs and various government incentive programs that help pay for them.

“There’s all kinds of money for cost-share and annual payments, but the government can’t recommend anyone” for application, he says. Government vendor lists often include people with varying capabilities for getting native seed established, he says.

FDCE runs five crews, including two currently operating in North Dakota. Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois each have one crew in operation.

In this region, FDCE has concentrated on Sargent County, where they partner with the conservation district in the same way a district might partner with a wholesale tree vendor.

In South Dakota, they’ve done work in Brown, Day, Clark, Beadle, Edmunds and McPhereson counties, but not always with the district partnership.

The company uses highly modified Kinze corn planters; FDCE has retrofitted them with a proprietary technology in the metering system. Schwartz says they’ve been customized to handle native grass seed.

“This is the fourth generation of drills we’ve used,” Schwartz says. “With these Kinze drills, we’ve narrowed the rows. We’ve fabricated our own plates, put additional agitation in the boxes, changed the gearing and made other changes that are proprietary technology.”

Jones says these planters offer exceptional depth control compared with normal grain drills.

Critical seed depth

“These actually have depth wheels that are wide on either side of the furrow opener that allow the machine to hold its placement of the seed precisely at one-fourth inch, regardless of soil type,” Schwartz says. That can be difficult on lighter, sandier soil where seed placement can quickly go too deep.

FDCE adds a “micronutrient enhancement” directly to the seed, using statically electricity. These are trace nutrients only, as native grasses don’t’ need supplemental nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

FDCE’s tractors are equipped with GPS controllers, which produce a map that shows exactly where each tractor has seeded and at what rate. They have spray bars mounted on the planters and apply in a burn-down at the same time of planting, all in one pass.

In North Dakota, FDCE uses the herbicide “Plateau,” which often is used for leafy spurge control. In this case, it is hard on weeds that causes problems on CRP — things like pigeon grass, kochia, pigweed and lamb’s-quarters — but lets the native grasses come through.

“It’s kind of a pre-emergence herbicide, designed for native grass,” says Jones, who was helped create a grass mixture that is tolerant to Plateau.

Of visual interest to farmers is the JCB tractors, which are quite rare in the region.

Made in England, they are rated to travel down the road at least 40 mph and often go 45 mph.

All of this isn’t cheap, but the landowner pays only 10 percent of it for most applications, Jones says.

“The producer’s portion of the seeding is $10 to $14 an acre,” Jones says, so the entire cost is probably in the $140-an-acre range.

90 percent cost-share

USDA’s Farm Service Agency pays 90 percent of the cost of grass seeding for qualifying continuous signup CRP plantings. That’s done through a 50 percent straight cost-share on CRP and then a 40 percent additional cost-share for Practice Incentive Payment payments, aimed specifically at getting native grass seeded. For new CRP contracts, the producers also can get a $100-per-acre, one-time Signing Incentive Payment.

Jones says new contracts under the continuous CRP signup in Sargent County range from 1.8 acres to 320 acres, but the average is about 40 acres.

FDC Enterprises has done 109,000 acres in this way around the country up to 2009 and will be at 130,000 by the end of this year, Schwartz says. The company claims a 95-plus percent success rate.

Instead of four species, the FDCE people are able to design mixes that have 15 species, Jones says.

Put that on the soil and there’s plenty of diversity and ability to fill the ecological niches.

“In theory, you should have less weed competition,” Jones says. “Our hope is that if you look at these contracts over the long run, there will be less annual maintenance for the landowner as they go through the 10 or 15 years of the contract.”

Information: or 701-724-3247.