PULLMAN, Wash. — Farmers taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program have a unique opportunity to adopt direct seeding or other minimum tillage systems.
Roger Veseth, extension conservation tillage specialist for Washington State University and the University of Idaho, says about 80 percent of the contracts on 2.5 million acres of Northwest land in the Conservation Reserve Program will expire in 1997.
“Although growers have offered much of this acreage for enrollment in the 1998 CRP sign-up, a considerable amount may not be accepted for new contracts in the national selection process,” says Veseth.
Land in the low precipitation areas, where much of the Northwest’s CRP acreage is located, has a lower Environmental Benefits Index than other regions of the country that have more precipitation.
Consequently, some land now in CRP may not qualify to remain in the program.
“Growers who return CRP land to crop production should take advantage of this unique opportunity to make the transition to direct seeding or other minimum tillage systems.
“These systems can provide effective soil erosion control and water conservation, maintain more of the soil quality improvements gained over 10 years in grass, and improve profitability in a global market,” says Veseth.
The transition period from intensive tillage systems to no-till direct seeding systems often takes three to five years before soils begin to reach a new equilibrium in physical, biological and chemical processes and properties.
Early in this transition period, crop yields may be about the same as yields under intensive tillage, or even a little lower. However, Veseth says yields often are higher after the transition is over.
Growers and researchers around North America have noted improvements in soil organic matter, soil structure or “tilth,” biological activity, and water infiltration, a reduction in some weeds and diseases, and higher crop yields after the conversion to minimum tillage is complete.
Improvements in soil quality during CRP may help growers eliminate or shorten this typical transition period and achieve enhanced yield potentials with direct seeding of CRP fields sooner than if converting cropland from intensive tillage to direct seeding. “If growers have been considering direct seeding, CRP take-out is the time to start,” says Veseth.
The results of a three-year research project on CRP take-out for crop production in Washington State illustrate that direct seeding can provide similar or higher profitability compared to intensive tillage, along with significant greater soil quality improvements and environmental protection.
Important first steps include early kill of the CRP grass with a herbicide, possibly in combination with an undercutter or sweep to cut the grass roots, and harrowing or flailing grass residue when it is dry and brittle.
The research effort included 10 large-scale, on-farm tests with farm-scale equipment operated by the growers. The tests were on crested wheatgrass CRP land in the low rainfall, crop-fallow regions, where the vast majority of CRP is located in the Northwest.
Detailed results from the three-year CRP take-out research project are summarized in the November 1996 PNW Conservation Tillage Handbook Series No. 16 in Chapter 2, “Returning CRP to Crop Production — A Summary of 1994-96 Research Trials in Washington State.”
Copies are available from Marguerite Winterowd, Crop and Soil Sciences Department, P.O. Box 646420, Washington State University, Pullman, WA , 99164-6420, phone 509-335-2915.
This CRP take-out Handbook Series can also be accessed on the World Wide Web by setting your web browser to: http://pnwsteep.wsu.edu. Look for “PNW STEEP III Conservation Farming Systems Information Source.” For more information, contact Veseth, at 208-885-6386.
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