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Persistence and quality of vegetation cover in expired Conservation Reserve Program fields

January 20, 2023

For nearly 40 years, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has implemented practices to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators on highly erodible cropland in the United States. However, an approximately 40,470 ha (10 million acres) decline in enrolled CRP land over the last decade has greatly reduced the program's environmental benefits. We sought to assess the program's enduring benefits in the central and western United States by (1) determining the proportion of fields that persist in CRP cover after contracts expired, (2) identifying the type of agricultural production that CRP fields shift to after contract expiration, (3) comparing the vegetation characteristics of expired CRP fields that are persisting in CRP-type cover with enrolled CRP fields, and (4) identifying differences in management activities (e.g., haying, grazing) between expired and enrolled CRP fields. We conducted edge-of-field vegetation cover surveys in 1092 CRP fields with contracts that expired ≥3 years prior and 1786 currently enrolled CRP fields in 14 states. We found that 41% of expired CRP fields retained at least half of their area in CRP-type cover, with significant variation in persistence among regions ranging from 19% to 84%. When expired fields retained CRP vegetation, bare ground was low in all regions and grass cover was somewhat greater than in fields with current CRP contracts, but at the expense of forb cover in some regions. Evidence of more frequent management in expired CRP fields may explain differences between active and expired CRP fields. Overall, there is clear evidence that CRP-type cover frequently persists and provides benefits for more than three years after contract expiration. Retaining CRP-type cover, post-contract, is an under-recognized program benefit that persists across the central and western United States long after the initial retirement from cropland.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2023
Title Persistence and quality of vegetation cover in expired Conservation Reserve Program fields
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4359
Authors Mark W. Vandever, Kenneth Elgersma, Sarah K. Carter, Ai Wen, Justin L. Welty, Robert Arkle, Timothy J. Assal, David Pilliod, David M. Mushet, Rich Iovanna
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70239834
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosys Science Center; Fort Collins Science Center; Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center