Landowners and agricultural producers enrolled more than 2.5 million acres of grassland in the 2021 Grassland Conservation Reserve Program, double the amount of acres they enrolled last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Friday, Sept. 10.

The decision by USDA to increase the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program per acre payment to $15, encouraged more landowners and producers to sign up for the program, said Zach Ducheneaux, USDA Farm Service Agency program administrator. Grassland CRP payments previously varied, and, overall, were significantly less, Ducheneaux said.

Zach Ducheneaux, left, of South Dakota has been appointed to lead Farm Service Agency after many years working with the Intertribal Agriculture Council. He runs the DX Ranch along with members of his family, including daughter Kelsey Ducheneaux, right. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)
Zach Ducheneaux, left, of South Dakota has been appointed to lead Farm Service Agency after many years working with the Intertribal Agriculture Council. He runs the DX Ranch along with members of his family, including daughter Kelsey Ducheneaux, right. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)
“It was set at a level that was prohibitive to producers looking at it as a viable option,” he said.

The greatest Grassland CRP acreage increases were in South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.

"We’re pretty excited about the enrollment numbers,” Ducheneaux said.

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An increased interest in the conservation of working lands closes the gap between enrollment and available acres, he said. It also allows the Biden Administration to be innovative with other conservation tools, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, as the agency strives to encourage non-traditional partners in its conservation efforts.

Environmental benefits of grassland include its sequester of a large amount of carbon in its roots and its resilience during drought and wildlife, Ducheneaux said. Meanwhile, grassland offers good wildlife habitat and grazing opportunities for producers and landowners.

The 2021 Grassland Conservation Reserve Program includes improvements such as setting priority zones for elk migration and vulnerable soils, and the agency was pleased to see that a large number of producers from across the United States were interested in the revised program, Ducheneaux said.

Producers enrolled 1.1 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone Elk Migratory Corridor, which focuses on wildlife, and includes counties in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and in the historical Dust Bowl region, which remains at high risk for winds. That region includes counties in Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

The two national priority areas adjoin or include habitat ranges of the lesser prairie chicken and sage grouse, which are part of larger USDA wildlife habitat initiatives. Nearly 1.5 million acres of the new Grassland CRP enrollment acres are within the range of the prairie chicken and sage grouse, USDA said.

Between now and the end of the year, landowners and agricultural producers who are enrolled in the Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program will work with their county offices to establish individual grazing plans.

The Grassland CRP enrollment, combined with enrollment of 1.9 million in the general CRP signup and 902,000 in the continuous CRP signup, brings total program enrollment in 2021 to more than 5.3 million, eclipsing USDA’s goal by 1.3 million.

The 2018 Farm Bill established a total CRP acreage limit of 25 million for fiscal year 2021 and 25.5 million in fiscal year 2022. Conservation enrollment in January 2022 will be 22.9 million acres, which means that there will be room for sign up of 2.6 million additional acres before the end of the year, according to USDA. The CRP acreage enrollment cap increases to 27 million in fiscal year 2023.

Landowners and agricultural producers who enrolled in the 2021 Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program will work with their county offices to establish individual grazing plans, Ducheneaux said.

"We're engaging with the all of the thousands of producers who enrolled," he said.