The Agriculture Department on Friday announced enrollment of 2.5 million acres of grasslands into the Conservation Reserve Program, twice as much acreage as last year's signup and a major step forward for the Biden administration's goal to sharply expand the program.

Grassland CRP helps protect pasture and rangeland, while allowing grazing. Traditional CRP acreage is targeted to taking cropland out of production. 

USDA said that landowners offered 3.9 million acres for enrollment in the grasslands CRP.  The new contracts will begin Oct. 1. The average payment rate will be $17 an acre. 

The grasslands enrollment brings total CRP signups for 2021 to 5.3 million acres, well over the department's goal for this year of four million acres. 

Within the CRP program, producers and landowners may apply for general, continuous, farmable wetland, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and grassland contracts. As of July, there were 20.6 million acres enrolled in CRP, including 1.8 million in grassland contracts.

Producers in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and South Dakota submitted the most offers for grassland contracts in this enrollment period.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said a few changes were made to the grasslands program to drive up enrollment.

“We did an elk migration corridor in the Rocky Mountain region, and we also did a Dust Bowl emphasis area through western Kansas, southeastern Colorado,” Ducheneaux told Agri-Pulse. The Dust Bowl region is still subject to wind erosion, he said.

Some 1.1 million acres are enrolled in the two new zones: the Dust Bowl region, which encompasses Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas and the Greater Yellowstone Elk Migratory Corridor in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

The National Grain and Feed Association welcomed the latest announcement. 

"The enrollment of 2.5 million acres through the most recent CRP Grasslands sign-up is a positive development for CRP since CRP Grassland enrollments contains a working lands element in that it helps ranchers to enhance the sustainability of their operations while keeping land in production," Max Fisher, NGFA chief economist, said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

The department also established a minimum rent of $15 per acre, which USDA noted would benefit nearly 1,347 counties currently under the minimum. The national average is $17 per acre.

Nearly 1.4 million acres has been enrolled to protect the habitats of the lesser prairie-chicken and sage grouse.

Ducheneaux said the agency is working on how to determine the carbon sequestration and climate mitigation benefits of CRP practices. 

Enrollment for CRP is capped at 25 million acres for fiscal year 2021, authorized in the 2018 farm bill. After adding 2.5 million acres this year to the current 20.6 million, the department will begin fiscal year 2022 with 22.9 million acres. This will allow for an additional 2.6 million acres to be enrolled until the 25.5-million-acre cap is reached next year.

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