Vegetation changes over 12 years in ungrazed and grazed Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands in the central and southern plains

By: , and 



The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) established under the 1985 Food Security Act has the fundamental objectives of jointly providing economic support to segments of the agricultural community and conservation of natural resources (Osborn, 1997; Heard and others, 2000). Although soil loss on highly erodable lands was the principal natural resource conservation issue addressed in the 1985 CRP, improving water quality and wildlife habitat both became important considerations as the program evolved (Farmer and others, 1988). For example, Best and others (1997) found that production of young birds on CRP fields in the Midwest was ≥15 times the production on row-crop fields because of improved habitat. The increasing importance of wildlife habitat is reflected in continuing refinement of the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to quantify the potential benefits of enrolling lands in CRP (Osborn, 1997; Ribaudo and others, 2001). The refinements reflect input furnished by federal, state, and non-government organizations seeking greater wildlife habitat quality on CRP lands (Roseberry and David, 1994; Hughes and others, 1995; Millenbah and others, 1996; Patterson and Best, 1996; Rodgers, 1999; Allen and others, 2001).

Refinement in the EBI has changed the types of grasses planted on newly enrolled land. In early CRP signups (1 through 11), 71% of new grassland acres were planted to introduced grasses and legumes [Conservation Practice (CP) 1] while 29% of the acres were planted to native grasses (CP2) (Osborn and others, 1992). By the 27th signup in July 2004, over 34.8 million acres (14 million ha) were enrolled in the CRP. More than 73% of these lands were planted to various mixtures of introduced (CP1) or native (CP2) grasses for a minimal contract period of 10 years (USDA, 2004). Continuation of grass plantings under the 2002 Farm Bill may result in CRP lands furnishing grass dominated cover for 20 or more consecutive years.

The species of grass established in seeded grasslands can have a major influence on the potential quality of wildlife habitat where vegetation is maintained over a multi-year period. Different species of grass may have comparable abilities to alleviate soil erosion but furnish dissimilar qualities of wildlife habitat (fig. 1). For example, smooth brome, an introduced cool-season grass (grass species and scientific names are presented in table 1), is highly valued for its erosion control and forage attributes (Casler and Carlson, 1995). Switchgrass, a native warm-season grass, also is valued for its soil and water conservation qualities (Moser and Vogel, 1995) but provides greater benefits for some species of wildlife (Clubine, 1995). The quality of nesting and winter cover for ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) furnished by smooth brome on northeastern Colorado CRP lands is inferior to that provided by the taller, more robust switchgrass (Allen, 1994). Characteristics of the agricultural landscape surrounding individual CRP fields also play a role in the wildlife habitat potential of CRP plantings (Weber and others, 2002; Nusser and others, 2004).

of native and seeded grasslands change in response to the presence (and absence) of physical disturbances such as fire, grazing, tillage, and haying (Hobbs and Huenneke, 1992; Millenbah and others, 1996; Allen and others, 2001; Renfrew and Ribic, 2001; Swengel and Swengel, 2001). The perpetuation of diversity in species composition and vegetation structure following disturbance sustains desirable habitat for a variety of grassland-dependent wildlife (Hall and Willig, 1994; Barnes and others, 1995; King and Savidge, 1995; Granfors and others, 1996; Herkert and others, 1996; Kurzejeski, 1996; Patterson and Best, 1996; Klute and others, 1997). Undisturbed grasslands have lower grass and forb species diversity, greater amounts of dead plant material, decreased as well as seasonally delayed productivity, and diminished structural diversity of vegetation (Peet and others, 1975; Rice and Parenti, 1978; Butler and Briske, 1988; Campa and Winterstein, 1992). Recommendations for the timing of disturbance to increase grass and forb species diversity range from 3 to 8 years following establishment of seeded grasslands in the northern Great Plains and Midwest (Duebbert and others, 1981; Higgens, 1987; Millenbah and others, 1996). The management interval, however, is affected by climatic conditions, soils, grass species, and management history of the individual stand.

We quantified changes in vegetation structure and species composition across the typical 10-year contract period in undisturbed southern and central Great Plains CRP fields (fig. 2) planted to introduced and native grasses. In addition, we compared changes in vegetation in fields grazed during the emergency release of 1996 by comparing conditions prior to grazing and two and four years post grazing relative to changes in similar fields that were not grazed. Documentation of long-term changes in vegetation structure and composition for fields planted to common grass seed mixtures across a wide range of environmental conditions provides information to improve long-term wildlife habitat potential, guide program administration, and define management practices that yield economic benefits to operators while still meeting wildlife and conservation objectives. Emergency grazing provisions of the CRP are controversial. Although grazing can alter vegetative characteristics and reduce habitat quality in the short-term (Temple and others, 1999), periodic disturbance may be necessary to maintain habitat quality, and more information is needed assessing long-term effects of emergency grazing on vegetative structure and species composition. 

Additional publication details

Publication type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Title Vegetation changes over 12 years in ungrazed and grazed Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands in the central and southern plains
Year Published 2005
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 14 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title The Conservation Reserve Program: Planting for the future. Proceedings of a National Conference, Fort Collins, Colorado, June 6-9, 2004 (Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5145)
First page 106
Last page 119