Converting CRP to crops? Start in the fall

When Gerald Curry of Ponca purchased a quarter section of Conservation Reserve Program land, he had two options. With only one year remaining in the CRP contract, he could have tried to bid the ground back into the program during the next sign-up, if rental rates were agreeable.

Or he could break up the land, consisting mostly of bromegrass, and farm it. For Curry, profitable grain prices helped determine his choice, but preparing the land for row crops required having a plan.

“We started in the fall with a Roundup treatment in early September,” Curry says. “A couple of weeks after the treatment, we burned it.” Curry hired the Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department to conduct the burn, which removed much of the dried grass residue.

The land was rough with gopher holes and mounds of dirt, so Curry disked twice after burning. “The biggest challenge to getting CRP land farmable was getting it tilled, mostly because of the roughness and brome sod,” Curry says. It was difficult to keep from bouncing out of the tractor seat during disking.

Curry also removed several buildings and large cottonwood trees from an abandoned farmstead on the property. In lower sloughs, he cut small cottonwood saplings and popped out stumps with a skid loader.

Lost fertility

Fertility on the land had been depleted because no fertilizer had been applied throughout the CRP contract period. “We had to double the rate,” preparing the land for planting corn in the spring, Curry says.

Unless there are legumes in the plant mixture, farmers would expect nitrogen to be depleted on CRP land, says Charles Shapiro, University of Nebraska Extension soil scientist.

“Grass does a good job of scavenging for nitrogen,” he says. “It seems that you don’t get a release of very many nutrients from the soil in the first year after CRP.”

He recommends testing the soil for phosphorus and potassium, as well. “In some situations, it really makes sense to plant soybeans in the first year, because you don’t have to worry about nitrogen,” he says. Soybean stands are more forgiving, says Shapiro, because they will compensate for short gaps.

For Curry, it took more disking to prepare his seedbed for planting corn. “We had a decent stand and a decent crop,” he says.

Curry is working toward no-till production on his rolling, clay loam hills. Because he plants corn at higher populations, residue created by outstanding corn crops provides extra mulch on top of the soil, holding soil in place on highly erodible hills.

This season, with plans to plant soybeans in the field, too much residue becomes a problem in low, fertile areas, Curry says. For Curry, the conversion of heavy brome CRP to row crops went smoothly, except for disking rough terrain. “Be sure to start in the fall,” he says.

Killing grasses, removing residue and building an optimal seedbed for a crop the following year requires extra time, planning and fertility management.

If you have questions about converting CRP to crops, contact Charles Shapiro, UNL Extension soil scientist, at 402-584-3803, or email cshapiro1@unl.edu.

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Planning ahead: Gerald Curry of Ponca started preparing his former CRP land in the fall for planting corn the next spring. This season, he will follow with soybeans.

This article published in the May, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.