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Harvesting CRP land for hay

Craig Sheaffer, Agronomy Professor, Jared Goplen, Extension educator-crops, and Nathan Drewitz, Extension educator

CRP hay baled in western MN. Photo: Jared Goplen
The persistent drought in the Upper Midwest has some farmers harvesting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for forage. The primary nesting season for Minnesota game birds has ended, meaning some counties are eligible for CRP emergency haying and grazing without penalty, while others may be eligible with some restrictions or rent reductions. Coordinating with your local FSA office is essential in navigating the nuances of emergency haying and grazing opportunities.

Key Points

  • The CRP program is administered by the USDA-FSA and any modification of the plan requires preapproval
  • CRP fields are variable. Most have a significant amount of grass coverage, small amounts of legumes and patches of weeds or other forbs.
  • Gopher mounds, rocks, trees, and old plant residue may interfere with harvest.
  • Forage yield and quality will be variable and is likely to be lower than conventionally managed grass and alfalfa hay fields. Forage quality testing of CRP hay is recommended.
  • Weigh the costs and risks associated with harvesting CRP hay with the potential forage value.
  • Be on the lookout for noxious weeds like Palmer amaranth and report any suspect plants.
  • Review any herbicides that may have been applied. Any longer-residual herbicides like picloram, clopyralid, and aminopyralid may cause issues when hay or manure is spread on fields seeded to sensitive crops.

Forage yield and forage quality

Unlike cultivated fields, those in the CRP program are likely to be lower in productivity than cultivated fields and certain to be unfertilized. Therefore, the yield potential is likely 1/2 to 1/3 of a productive and fertilized grass forage stand. When harvested in August, the forage quality will depend on the species present as well as the amount of old residue harvested from the lower canopy. Fields that have been burned or hayed in the past will have less decaying residue. Many fields will have grasses, forbs, and legumes that are flowering or post-flowering.

The advanced maturity and stemminess of forage means the quality of hay from CRP is likely to be lower than for typical grass or alfalfa hay (Table 1). CRP hay samples submitted to DAIRYLAND Laboratories in Sauk Rapids, MN shows that CRP forage had lower crude protein and RFV, and greater fiber content then grass and legume hay samples. The range of CRP hay nutritive values likely reflects relative abundance of legumes and weeds in the CRP along with how much decaying residue was present in the hay.

Table 1. Forage quality* variation for CRP, grass, and alfalfa hay samples submitted to DAIRYLAND Laboratories, Sauk Rapids, MN and predicted by NIRS.
Forage CP
CRP hay 7 3-16 43 33-56 64 49-82 80 54-119
Grass hay 10 1-25 41 27-54 58 43-78 91 56-120
Alfalfa hay 20 15-26 32 20-43 38 25-53 157 97-273

*CP = crude protein content
ADF (acid detergent fiber) and NDF (neutral detergent fiber) are negatively correlated with digestibility and intake.
RFV = relative feed value

Harvest considerations

  • If using a disk mower to cut CRP, consider using low-lift (lower pitch) blades and cut higher to minimize the amount of decaying residue that makes it in the windrow.
  • Increase cutting height to minimize old, decaying residue in the hay in addition to keeping the cutter bar above rocks, gopher mounds, ant hills, and other hazards in the field.
  • Consider whether the forage is worth the equipment maintenance and labor costs in some areas.
  • Do not cut and transport noxious weeds. For a list of noxious weeds in MN click here.
  • Trees may damage harvesting equipment if not avoided.

Grasses and legumes used in the CRP program.

Since the goal of the program is to sustain the soil, introduced and native grasses are often used with the program. Three of the larger enrollment categories are included in Table 2.

Previous research surveying CRP fields throughout Minnesota found that a diversity of desirable and undesirable plants can be found in CRP fields (Table 3). Overall, introduced and native grasses predominate CRP fields. All fields surveyed had a significant number of weeds and volunteer plants. Canada thistle, perennial sowthistle, bull thistle, quackgrass, dandelion, and goldenrod are several of the weeds frequently found. Some fields contained trees like boxelder, elm, and cottonwood.

CRP lands can provide much-needed forage this year. Every CRP field is different, and should be surveyed prior to harvest, and pervious herbicide labels should be reviewed. The hay harvested from CRP land is typically quite variable, and should be tested for forage quality so that livestock can be supplemented with other feedstuffs when needed.

Table 2. Typical species present in various CRP enrollment categories.
Category Typical species
CP 1 Introduced grasses (e.g., mixtures of timothy, orchardgrass, wheatgrasses)
and legumes (alfalfa and clovers).
CP 2 Native grasses (e.g., mixtures bluestems, switchgrass, wildrye) and forbs
(coneflowers, bergamot) and legumes (prairie clovers, partridge pea).
CP 10 Existing cool and warm season grass fields

Table 3. Average percent ground cover by plant type in introduced (CP1), native (CP2) and existing (CP10) CRP fields after 6-8 years of enrollment in the CRP program. Results are averaged for Minnesota.
Program Grasses Legumes Volunteer
CP1 47% 23% 21% 9%
CP2 50% 38% 12%
CP10 46% 2% 26% 26%

CP1 grass examples include smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass and timothy and legumes include alfalfa and clovers.
CP2 grass examples include switchgrass and bluestems while legumes and forbs included prairie clovers and coneflowers.
CP10 grass examples included smooth bromegrass, timothy while legume was alfalfa.
Volunteers consisted of weeds, grasses and legumes not present at the start of the program
Bare ground was no soil coverage.
-Source: J.Grimsbo Jewett et al. 1996. J. Production. Agric., (9:528-534; 535-542)

What is the CRP program?

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary program for agricultural producers administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). The program goals are to remove environmentally sensitive agriculture land from production to control soil erosion, improve water quality, increase soil health, and develop wildlife habitat. CRP participants enter into contracts to establish long-term, resource- conserving plant species, such as approved grasses and are responsible for managing the lands according to FSA guidelines. FSA provides participants with rental payments. Any modification of the agreement by producers such as haying or grazing needs FSA approval.

Additional information sources

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