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How to Convert CRP to Cropland

If no-till builds soil health, then converting CRP land that hasn’t been tilled for a decade should be ideal. Right? Well, yes and no. There are advantages, and there are challenges.

As no-till farmers since 2001, Mitch and Andy Hoenhause of Lisbon, North Dakota, never considered traditional cultivation when they began taking acres out of the CRP six years ago. 

“We have 10 years of goods in the soil; we don’t want to backtrack. We leave the root structure and profile alone,” Mitch says. Still, with weeds and gopher mounds, converting CRP to productive farmland has its challenges. 

The Process

Burn. Disk lightly. Spray. That’s been the Hoenhause way. Burning removes the tall grass and dry matter, and it exposes the ways the terrain has changed. 

“The biggest thing is to level the gopher mounds,” Andy says. “If it’s been in CRP for 10 years, the oldest mounds are sodded over, so a field cultivator won’t touch them.” 

The Hoenhauses first run over the soil lightly with a disk to cut into the sod. They follow up with a John Deere 960 field cultivator, going over the field another three or four times to level it as much as possible. They set the tines to barely touch the surface on level ground to level the gopher mounds while leaving the rest of the field undisturbed.

“It sounds like a lot of money involved, but we pull a 40-foot cultivator with a 120-hp. tractor. It takes little power because we’re just skipping across the ground,” Andy says. “After we level it off, we spray it with Roundup and a broadleaf (herbicide) because usually we have a lot of Canada thistle problems and we want to get on top of that,” Andy says. 

Planting corn the first year – and sometimes again the second year – has produced the best results for the brothers. They experimented with soybeans into CRP ground, but options are limited for broadleaf control in soybeans. Yields were low, and gopher mound remnants were hard on the combine. 

The Hoenhauses have had good success planting corn with a John Deere 1770 conservation planter. 

“No-till needs good disks on the planter,” Mitch emphasizes. “We change them every 1,200 to 1,500 acres.”

They also put all their fertilizer down when they planted. The plan for 2016 is to put some fertilizer down with the seed and to sidedress later with a Hagie sidedresser they purchased last year. Though the land hasn’t been farmed in years, it needs nutrients – especially nitrogen, Mitch says. The large amount of fertilizer along with the seed in a 340-bushel air cart created a lot of weight, which could have been an issue on ground with water near the surface.

“Tillage would have broken the sod mat, and we would have never gotten in there. With the live and dead roots (from CRP), our theory is that it’s basically like driving over a sponge. A sponge will come back up. If we have tillage, it doesn’t spring back up. It compacts,” Andy explains. 

Two quarters were so low that water was standing, and their Cat 765 track tractor would spin pulling the planter and air cart. After getting stuck a few times, the brothers remedied the problem by adding a four-wheel-drive John Deere 9220 tractor with a 40-foot tow chain to pull everything. 

“We seeded through the water, and it worked,” Mitch says. “It was unreal how we had corn in the fall.”

No-till is also useful when soils are dry. That’s because it doesn’t dry out the soil as much as tillage. 

“We waste very little moisture, and we almost get as good a yield on land coming out of CRP as our other fields,” Andy notes.

After the first-year crop is harvested from converted CRP land, the Hoenhauses put it in crop rotation if herbicide control has been effective on thistles and broadleaf weeds. If not, they plant corn a second year. The Hoenhauses remain flexible in their cropping plans. Even if they planned a certain crop for a field, they may change it in the spring based on the weather and other factors.  

Instead of following a textbook, they “egg each other on” to try new ideas. Those ideas sometimes fail, but when they work out, others take notice. 

“Mitch and Andy have found a practical approach to converting CRP acres by knocking the tops off of mounds while not digging into the soil,” says Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University, Extension soil health specialist (pictured above). “This allows them to preserve the aggregation they’ve built when the land was in CRP and also to keep many of the roots intact for a slower utilization by soil microbes. I recommend their approach to farmers across the state.”

Look for Crumbly Soil 

Ever wonder how wet is too wet when it comes to working fields? There’s a simple way to find out.
  
Pick up a handful of soil. If it breaks apart in your hands, it’s prime fieldwork condition. “It doesn’t smear, and you don’t have to wash your hands after you hold it,” says Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist (pictured left). 

This indicates excellent soil structure. “It’s critical to get air movement in the soil,” says Wick. “Of all the soil-health parameters, structure and aggregation are the most important.

“If you want to build soil health, diversify your rotation and reduce tillage,” she says. “These steps help create nice rounded aggregates that create air space.” 

This is conducive to microbes, which make soil health hum. 

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