Officials with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are urging farmers to consider USDA compliance and program eligibility before converting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres to cropland production.

“More than 1 million acres in Texas covered under CRP contracts will expire in the next year and a half, and we could see a lot of land use changes, especially in the Panhandle region,” said Don Gohmert, NRCS state conservationist for Texas. “We want landowners to understand options available to them and what they need to do to remain in compliance for USDA programs.”

Conservation compliance, which began with the 1985 Farm Bill, is still in effect. Compliance means that farmers need to control erosion on highly erodible land, which includes CRP acres, in order to stay eligible for USDA program benefits, including farm loan programs, disaster assistance, commodity price supports, and conservation programs.

According to NRCS, the most common ways farmers get out of compliance with USDA is by eliminating soil-conserving crops, such as forage species, and adding a tilled crop, such as corn or cotton. When the farmer changes his soil cover from permanent grass to annually-tilled crops, he/she should always consider conservation compliance when planning their rotations, in addition to commodity prices.

“The lure of high crop prices may have landowners considering plowing up grassland and planting it to a commodity crop,” Gohmert said. “Not only are there compliance issues to consider, but landowners should also look at what is best for the land.”

According to Lori Ziehr, NRCS state agronomist, much of the land enrolled in CRP was classified as highly erodible, meaning it is susceptible to wind and/or water erosion. “That soil has not changed over the years the land was in CRP,” she said. “If those acres are returned to cropland, landowners will need to take certain measures to ensure those acres will not erode beyond a level that the soil can tolerate.”

For example, Ziehr said that a certain percentage of the field may need to be planted to high residue crops each year or that contour windstrips be left at certain intervals to prevent erosion. In some cases, she said, fields may already have terraces that need to be maintained to remain in compliance and help lower the potential for erosion.

Before a landowner takes any action at all, Ziehr encourages them to visit their local NRCS field office to find out what a compliance plan would entail and if there are any financial cost-share programs to help off-set some of the conservation costs. “A landowner has more options when his land is still in grass,” she said. “Grazing former CRP acres is another option to consider.”

CRP is a voluntary program through which farmers and ranchers to plant grasses and trees on marginal cropland acres in exchange for rental payments. The USDA Farm Service Agency administers CRP; NRCS provides technical assistance for the program.