Steve House could be called an opportunist — but in a good way.
House, who farms and ranches in Blaine County, Okla., near Watonga, is finalizing details to sell carbon credits to an electric company to augment income on his grain, soybean and cattle operation. He’s also looking at wind turbine leases, is converting much of his cropping system to no-till and works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve pastures and cropland.
He’s excited about the opportunity to sell carbon credits, based on improvements he’s made to riparian zones on his property.
“We put in two miles of fences to keep cattle off specified areas for three years,” House said as he guided his pickup across a pasture and between two fenced–off natural waterways from where a flock of ducks had just erupted.
“Keeping cattle away from the wetland areas keeps nutrients out of the water resource,” he said. “We typically run from 60 to 100 head of cattle in this area, but we’re down to 50.”
Lower stocking rate is a tradeoff, he said. “But we get benefits through the carbon credit program.”
He’s also used Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) funds to assist in adding conservation measures to the property. He got cost share for the fencing and also for concrete stock tanks to replace the fenced-off water sources for cattle.
“EQIP helped implement the changes,” he said.
This will be his first year to apply for carbon credits. “We’re still working out the details.”
The credits, which range from about $2.00 to $3.50 per metric ton per year, are tied to 319 project land. “These are EPA projects,” said Clay Pope, executive director, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. The 319 projects are part of the Clean Water Act and are implemented from a 303 D list, property with impaired watersheds. “That’s usually because of nutrient, bacteria or sediment problems,” Pope said. The EPA program provides cost share assistance with landowners to improve watersheds.
Other possibilities include taking highly erodible land out of production and putting them into grass. “Both have sequestration value,” Pope said. “Pasture management also has potential for sequestering carbon. And growers save input costs.”
“We tend to have light soils in this area,” House said. “So these programs offer a lot of benefit.”
He’s concentrating on the 319 project areas for carbon credits this year, but has other areas that might qualify later. He drove into one area, a low spot below a grassed meadow and hemmed in by stands of hardwoods and a few red cedars, left to provide wildlife habitat.
Before renovation, red cedars choked out more desirable vegetation. “We could not have driven through it,” House said. “We pushed up the cedars, and then got heavy rains from Tropical Storm Erin and grass came in. We’ll seed native grasses over the bermudagrass that came back.”
He also plans to plant food plots near the piles of cedar. “We will not burn them,” he said. Hardwoods, including cottonwood, oak, walnut and bois d’arc, offer habitat and food for all kinds of wildlife. “The cottonwoods are excellent roosting sites for turkeys,” House said.
He’s also converting cropland to more conservation-friendly practices. He said cattle, wheat and grasslands have been his primary focus, but he’ll plant some dryland and some irrigated soybeans this year. “I tried sesame once, but the summer was so hot it did not do well.”
He said row crops offer an alternative to cattle. Of his 1,300 total acres only 500 to 600 are cropland. He runs a cow/calf operation and grazes calves on wheat to finish at 700 pounds to 900 pounds. “I’m not sure how well that’s working,” he said. “I know it will not work with $1,000 a ton fertilizer.”
No-till cropland, on light soils, is beginning to make more sense for area farmers, he said. “I have not re-equipped to convert to no-till. I’d need 2,000 to 3,000 acres to justify a no-till planter. I’ll use a conventional drill for wheat or hire a custom operator.”
He said no-till acreage probably doubled in the county in the last five years. “It’s catching on. Oklahoma is probably about 15 years behind states to the north in no-till adoption, but people are getting tired of seeing their farms blow away.”
“No-till practices will equal a 3-inch rain,” Pope said. “And farmers save from $6 to $7 an acre with no-till, just on the cost of diesel.”
House will plant soybeans no-till and is still using a conventional drill on wheat acreage. He said the soybean rotation helps the wheat and adds nitrogen to the soil. “Wheat behind soybeans may not need fertilizer. That’s a benefit of rotation.”
He also grows 65 acres of alfalfa and has a pasture in switchgrass.
Pope said landowners interested in selling carbon credits should be aware that to qualify they need to make acceptable changes to farming or grazing practices. Acreage also must be verified.
House is working on a three-year contract for the riparian zones. He may try to qualify other acreage and other practices later. “After the three-year contract is up, we can re-negotiate.”
Pope said producers should be cautious about signing contracts and work with buyers (aggregators) who are certified by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.